Kansas Studies Institute
January 2011, Volume 6, Number 1
Promoting Research and Teaching on the Cultures, History, Economics, and Natural Environment of Kansas
Area studies programs have been a staple of higher education at the university level for several decades. Community colleges have been slower, historically speaking, to embrace the concept. A few pioneers like the Appalachian Studies Program at Ohio’s Sinclair Community College have set the bar high. But for the most part, two-year institutions—often limited in curriculum by what their four-year counterparts will accept for transfer—prefer to invest in more traditional courses and departments with firm disciplinary boundaries. In 2009, Johnson County Community College made a bold move by establishing the Kansas Studies Institute, which in the words of its director, James Leiker, “promotes research and teaching on the cultures, history, economics, and natural environment of Kansas.”
For those whose knowledge of the sunflower state begins and ends with tornadoes, “flyover country,” and endless references from The Wizard of Oz, the notion that Kansas even has a culture, history, and environment worth examining might seem peculiar. Unfortunately, that perception is often held even by those who have lived in the state their entire lives. Located in suburban Kansas City, JCCC lies on the state’s northeastern edge, a few miles from the Missouri border. Two hundred miles wide and 400 miles, long, Kansas itself can be a mystery to residents of metropolitan Kansas City or Wichita, where despite their agrarian image, the majority of Kansans reside. Communities like Garden City and Liberal, on the state’s southwestern corner, lay almost as far from JCCC as does Memphis or Chicago.
About ten years ago, faculty in the physical and social sciences, with support from the office of staff and organizational development, began to make it less mysterious. Open to all employees, college-sponsored outings to the Flint Hills, a scenic ranching area two hours southwest, were organized. Professors from biology, history, and ecology accompanied groups of staff and faculty to explore the tall grass prairie and witness the spring burning of native grasses. The popularity of the Flint Hills trips inspired other sojourns: to central Kansas, where towns like Abilene host the Eisenhower museum and presidential library; to southeast Kansas where the legacy of mining and Civil War battlefields continue to mark the landscape; and in May 2008, a week-long statewide tour extending to the German-Russian churches of Ellis County, the wind turbines of Spearville, and the burgeoning cattle feedlots of Dodge City, all in the state’s western reaches. Besides their educational value, these tours have been instrumental in fostering camaraderie and friendships between college personnel who might otherwise never know one another or even meet—not in an institution with more than 1,000 full-time employees.
When smart people go to interesting places, you never know what ideas can emerge. Frequently on these trips, after visiting a museum or historical site or a struggling downtown area, folks would ask, “Does the college provide internships for such places”? Or “Could we have a wind technology program that prepares people for employment in such an industry”? Participants return from these outings full of creativity about how to integrate the state and its issues into their work, and yet no central office existed that might coordinate and facilitate such endeavors. It was from such conversations that the Kansas Studies Institute (KSI) was born. President Terry Calaway, convinced of the need for such a program, authorized a tentative budget under the supervision of his office. Jim Leiker, associate professor of history, formed an advisory council of faculty and administrators. With some additional input from foundation members, a former director of the state historical society, and a former governor, Leiker officially opened the institute in fall 2009.
An early priority for the institute was to make its presence known, resulting in the launch of the Kansas Lecture Series. Held annually, the series brings to campus prominent individuals whose life work addresses issues of concern to all Kansans. Foremost among those issues is the future of agriculture; although a minority of Kansans now originate from rural areas, the idyllic family farm seems permanently intertwined with culture and image. In recent decades many family-owned farms and ranches have been displaced by corporate agriculture, calling into question long-term sustainability efforts. Appropriately, the lecture series was inaugurated by Wes Jackson, head of Salina’s Land Institute, in his address “What We Need to Know to Meet the Sustainability Challenges of the Next Half-Century.” Jackson’s lecture in October 2009 drew a crowd of more than 300—students, organic farmers, environmental activists—that overflowed into separate rooms where his address was telecast. Jackson also met over dinner with students and faculty from Science and the Sustainable Agriculture programs.
In November 2010, the series sponsored a second lecture by artist Stan Herd on “The Prairie Renaissance.” Though he is widely known as a crop artist, producing designs on landscape canvases visible from 30,000 feet and drawing the eye of those passing through flyover country in airplanes, Herd is also acclaimed for his murals and sculptures focusing on Kansas-related themes. Important to the Institute is the building of bridges across disciplines and across different parts of the college community. Herd’s lecture anticipated a larger, still pending project: creation of an original sculpture that incorporates native stone with prairie grasses, to be maintained in the future by Lekha Sreehdar’s horticulture students. Conversations about design and funding are still under way, involving faculty from history, horticulture, art, art history, and even indigenous studies in a collaboration that is redefining the meaning of “interdisciplinary.”
JCCC’s art community has been drawn to the Institute in another way. Partnering with the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas Studies in 2010 sponsored the production of a documentary titled “Moon Tosser of the Prairie,” a 36-minute film about the life and work of folk artist M. T. Liggett. Liggett’s polemic metal sculptures, which line the road near his home town of Mullinville, have for nearly 20 years screamed visually at passers-by with their bizarre caricatures of political and mythological figures. Liggett has been the subject of numerous stories in publications like The Wall Street Journal, Roadside America, and Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? But it was not until a JCCC-sponsored tour in 2008 that intrigued faculty and staff decided a more serious study of Frank was merited. More than a year in the making, “Moon Tosser” brought together videographers, art historians, English instructors, and art collectors. The film’s premiere at the Nerman Museum in October 2010 drew both a large crowd and a flurry of requests for DVD copies. But enthusiasts may have to wait; negotiations continue with local arts councils and public television stations to air “Moon Tosser” to a larger audience before making it available for private and educational use.
M.T. Liggett, folk artist and subject of the documentary Moontosser of the Prairie, poses beside his metal sculptures near Mullinville, Kansas.
Through its community services program, JCCC has long provided learning opportunities to nontraditional students. Beginning in fall 2009, the Kansas Studies Series offered adult learners a collection of two-hour class sessions centered on specific themes. Participating faculty teach within their disciplines, but focus on research specializations. Thus, the college has offered continuing education courses on Kansas’ history and image, 20th century ethnic groups, literature of the Dust Bowl, stories of Kansas women, weather, water, the power of place for the Midwestern artist, and ecology. The series has been enormously successful, with classes filling past room capacity and local residents—taxpayers!—requesting more numerous and varied topics about the state. Indeed, if one area of the institute’s work to date has revealed a case of demand outpacing supply, it is here; JCCC will have to promote a greater focus among its faculty on Kansas topics if it is to meet this demand.
Other projects are in the works or have recently reached fruition. In spring 2010, the KSI partnered with JCCC’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion (ODEI) to sponsor a series of programs on Nicodemus, an all-black settlement established after Reconstruction in western Kansas. With JCCC’s Performing Arts Center, KSI and ODEI brought to campus the cast and crew of Jeric Productions of Kansas City, Missouri, who performed the play “Flyin’ West,” a fictional tale about African-American women in Nicodemus, before a crowd of more than 200. Development of a Kansas Studies documentary, based on the community services series, awaits completion and airing in Spring 2011. Martha Varzaly, adjunct instructor of English, has finalized work on a new transfer credit course on Kansas literature. And with a little luck and lots of work, in April 2011 JCCC will host the first Kansas Writers’ Symposium, in which talented authors, all known for their writings on the state, will be invited to submit short pieces for reading and discussion. The day will be capped by a public lecture by the Kansas poet laureate.
Through these many accomplishments, there have been challenges. The original goal of offering an area studies associate’s degree or certificate requires a wider array of courses than presently exist. Despite some preliminary efforts, the establishment of a student internship with a state or local museum, as well as an exchange program for faculty and administrators with another Kansas community college, has not materialized. Little more than a year old, the Kansas Studies Institute can claim great success in terms of public programming, community outreach, and the building of internal working relationships, but so far its impact on the traditional base of students and their daily curriculum has been minimal. But then again, Rome was not built in a day.
Pundits often claim that we live in an age of globalization in which people and communities share connections around the world. Certainly when educators ignore that international symbiosis, they do so at the peril of themselves and their students. However, in widening our attention to the global, we sometimes lose our focus on the local. Education today requires a firm grounding in the particulars of place. JCCC’s Kansas Studies Institute defines that sense of place broadly, both through the political boundaries that define the state as a legal entity and through the geographic ones that define it as a unique region where the Midwest and Central Great Plains converge. After all, if apathy and ignorance about one’s immediate surroundings are the enemies of community, then it seems that education about those surroundings—indeed, about one’s home—should be a fundamental part of the community college mission.
For more information about the Kansas Studies Institute, please visit the website at www.jccc.edu/academics/kansas-studies/ or contact Jim Leiker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.