by Joy Brown
In many respects, Megan Adams, Ph.D., never really left McDowell County, West Virginia, even though she’s not from that area. The stories she helped tell six years ago in a Peabody Award-winning documentary called “Hollow” are still being told via an e-book she is writing, and in more subtle ways through digital humanities projects she is pursuing as a University of Findlay communication professor. Her experiences conveying people’s lives, which are as rich and ever-changing as Appalachian forest loam, are now benefiting students who are just as interested in effectively and compassionately sharing narratives.
Adams’ communicative philosophy has a social activist flavor. “As they tell their stories, I think it’s a way for people… to hopefully become empathetic within that telling, and to develop enough rhetorical agency that they become engaged with their story and with those around them,” said Adams. In other words, simply relaying perspectives does not suffice. Ideally, greater levels of understanding will result from the sharing – for both the teller and the listener – and will motivate changes for the better.
Such alterations in thought and behavior happened firsthand to Adams. Conversations with her grandfather about family history sparked her interest in Appalachia and rural literacy, to the point where she decided to focus her doctoral dissertation on them. A 2012 Twitter post about the making of “Hollow,” however, compelled Adams to redirect her project. Economically depressed, geographically isolated and aesthetically beautiful McDowell County immediately attracted her, as did the documentary project and its cause.
Megan Adams, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor of Communication
Bowling Green State University – Doctor of Philosophy in English with Specialization in Rhetoric and Writing; University of Findlay – Master of Arts in Education; The Ohio State University – Bachelor of Arts in Journalism
Filming Fascinating People
“It’s interesting to see how things have shaken out” in McDowell County, Adams recently noted. “I would’ve never thought we would end up where we are, in good and bad ways.”
Rather than reflecting a full-circle accounting of particular individuals and families, Adams’ e-book will be more like a winding path through the forest, with delights and hazards along the way. One of its accomplishments will undoubtedly be to dismiss the notion that the county’s populace can be essentialized, or reduced to a stereotype.
Aside from “Hollow,” which can also be experienced as an interactive webpage at www.hollowdocumentary.com, McDowell County has gained widespread attention for being the setting of the nonfiction book, “Rocket Boys,” and the subsequent movie, “October Sky.” Also, its residents were the first in the country to receive food stamps. It’s population, which peaked at nearly 100,000 in the 1940s, has mirrored the coal mining industry’s rapid decline.
For “Hollow,” directed by Elaine Sheldon, Adams did everything from fetch groceries for the film crew to record footage. Along the way, she took copious notes, and connected “ethically and morally” with the film’s subjects, she said. Some of them have become lifelong friends. Her academic accomplishment was her completed multimedia dissertation titled “Through Their Lenses: Examining Community-Sponsored Digital Literacy Practices in Appalachia.”
Adams e-book, which will include written narratives and videos, and is expected to be available and open sourced later this year, or in 2020, follows up with some of those featured in “Hollow.” It’s an attempt to complete what she had begun with her dissertation, which was ironically abbreviated due to submission limitations inherent within the online repository that collects masters and doctoral projects. The material deletions she was forced to make cut her to her core, she said.
The book will “add layer and depth” to the original stories, and will “look distinctly different because of the way I frame them, and the way the data will be presented,” Adams said.
One of the most recent and largest McDowell County influencers was the 2015 presidential election.
“The mines have closed or have intermittently closed and opened back up,” which has caused havoc with livelihoods and the local economy, Adams explained. The election has also divided the county, as it has the rest of the country, into those who support President Trump and those who do not.
The book will feature Renee Bolden, a local historical preservation activist whose family has been affected by school consolidation; her daughter is now being bused to a school more than 40 minutes away.
“As many challenges as she has had, she still feels a strong sense to tell these stories and keep doing this work,” Adams said of Renee.
Also included will be J.D. Belcher.
“When we met him (for “Hollow”), J.D. was working at a strip mine and was making zombie videos in his spare time,” Adams said. He was also following the film crew around and picking up technical skills. “Now, he’s killing it” with his own production company, a staff of five, and projects that are taking him geographically and professionally far and wide; he recently commissioned a video for a candidate running for West Virginia governor, she said. Belcher’s work can be viewed on his website at www.jjnmultimedia.com.
Other McDowell County residents’ stories will be included.
One of Adams’ dissertation topics addressed, “What do we do after we leave? We don’t always think about the relationships that we build with the people we research, and what happens to them afterward,” she noted. “I’m excited to get it (book) out there and to see the perspectives it will bring,” she said.
Finding Flood Stories
Adams brought her “Hollow” storytelling sensibilities with her to UF, which are influencing her teaching. One of her current projects is an extension of a senior multimedia capstone project created by Sarah Stubbs ’17; Stubbs remains involved. Flood-related stories from people in the region are being collected. The goal is to establish a central repository of flood information, complete with digitized documents such as photos, news coverage, and government flood zone maps; and physical artifacts. Although most residents and workers in this region can most easily recall the 2007 flood, which was the second worst flood recorded in Findlay’s history, all flood experiences, no matter the time period, are being sought.
“Nowhere is it (flood information) siphoned down so people can understand the impact and the context. Only then can we be poised to have conversations” that will be the most informed and meaningful, Adams pointed out.
With the help of UF grants administrator Tricia Valasek, Adams applied for and recently received a Council of Independent Colleges grant for $10,000 from its Humanities Research for the Public Good Program. The funds will pay for three undergraduate communication students to record and produce video interviews and gather flood information from citizens, organizations and other entities within the region.
Partnering on this project is the Hancock Historical Museum, which has been instrumental in teaming with UF professors on digital storytelling efforts.
Those involved are following up on leads provided by those who were initially interviewed.
Adams said the flood stories project will offer opportunities to learn multiple perspectives about these natural events, which will therefore strengthen context. She also hopes the information will “clear up historical discrepancies and rumors” regarding specific floods.
Additionally, the project is providing valuable experiential learning for students interested in communication-related careers, ranging from journalism to academics. The social dynamics involved in a project like this require sensitivity and ingenuity at times. Adams said one roadblock encountered is that some individuals, when asked, have not wanted to tell their stories. Aside from the psychological toll such recollections can have, Adams conjectured that many have yet to grasp the concept of digital storytelling itself, which is different from newspaper reporting, academic research, and other narrative projects that involve interviews.
“I think there’s a misconception around the methods and methodology for digital storytelling,” said Adams. “The concept of editing a story with someone is still foreign.”
The time commitment is also substantial, but “people have been overwhelmingly gracious in telling their (flood) stories,” Adams said.
The next phase of the flood stories project will include designing a web page that will function like “Hollow’s” – it will be a touch point, a “curated website” that will do a “deep dive” into subtopics ranging from flooding’s effect on businesses to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s involvement with developing mitigation options that would lessen the destruction caused by the overflowing Blanchard River and its tributaries, Adams said.
This digital storytelling project about the regions flooding will instill a sense of learning, understanding and community.