Jason Cohen, Berea College Associate Professor, Awarded Whiting Foundation Grant

Jason E. Cohen

The Whiting Foundation awarded a $50,000 grant to Jason E. Cohen, associate professor of English at Berea College. Cohen is one of seven humanities scholars named as a Fellow and grant recipient in the Whiting Public Engagement Program, which empowers early-career scholars and their collaborators to amplify unheard stories and circulate insights gleaned from immersion in the humanities. Cohen’s project, titled Histories of Overburden, is a partnership with the Pine Mountain Settlement School and public schools in Harlan County, Kentucky. The project will bring high school students into Pine Mountain’s vast archive of environmental and cultural history to study firsthand how the past—especially resource extraction and industrialization—has affected the local environmental and cultural heritage.

“The Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship will allow me to dedicate my attention to extending an established connection between the College, Pine Mountain Settlement School, and our communities and schools across the region,” Cohen said. “I’m particularly delighted that this program brings resources directly to teachers. These schools would not otherwise be able to undertake a project like this that involves students working with historical materials and then traveling to present their work to one another.”

“I am honored the Whiting Foundation has recognized a member of the Berea faculty, one who was trained in early modern literature and has reached out to an important educational institution in Appalachian Kentucky to use its archival materials to empower and enrich local teachers,” said Chad Berry, Berea College’s academic vice president/provost and dean of faculty. “Dr. Jason Cohen’s project is rich, insightful and innovative.”

Drawing from Pine Mountain Settlement School’s archive of photos, maps, letters and newspapers about local food cultivation, homesteading and environmental change that date back nearly a century, Cohen will partner with high school teachers in the Harlan County area to develop curricula attracting students to the Pine Mountain archives and create opportunities to engage with primary documents and to research how the past directly informs the present. Students from each school will share results of their findings with one another and the local community at an end-of-year symposium.

“The fellowship is exciting because it supports student work and curriculum development across the full year and across many subject areas,” Cohen added. “Working at Pine Mountain with its deeply knowledgeable staff alongside teachers excited about these archives has already been incredibly rewarding. I can only hope the classroom toolkits this fellowship helps us to develop and implement will contribute to revealing the richness of Pine Mountain’s history and its relationship to the people whose lives its legacy continues to touch.”

The Pine Mountain Settlement School, a national historic landmark in Harlan County, Kentucky, is recognized as a valuable steward of local environmental and cultural heritage in a region long impacted by the destabilizing forces of resource extraction and industrialization. Founded in 1913 as a boarding school for children in the Kentucky mountains, it operates today as an educational community center focused on place-based learning and Appalachian tradition.

Cohen notes that for decades Appalachia’s heritage has been viewed by some as a kind of “overburden,” the mining term for land on top of coal deposits that must be removed before extraction can begin. With this Fellowship, he and his collaborators will focus renewed attention and care for Appalachia’s neglected natural environment and its traditional ways of life. The project also will re-energize teachers’ pedagogical practice and offer rural schools a model for using local archives to develop historical understanding.

The Whiting Foundation provides resources to faculty who devote their careers to the advanced study and teaching of the humanities and who are poised to make meaningful contributions beyond their classrooms. The 2019 grantees represent a vibrant cross-section of disciplines including history, English, philosophy, African-American studies, anthropology, American studies, art history, classics and comparative literature.

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