Building a Virtual Network: American Ginseng Brings Learners Together
The following was written by Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Education Specialist Betty Belanus:
When Arlene Reiniger and I posted an opportunity for virtual interns to work on the project, “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots,” about this time last fall, we had no idea who might answer that call. The goal was to attract a group, which we figured would consist mostly of college and university students, throughout the ginseng growing and harvesting areas of the Appalachian mountains and central Wisconsin.
Within the deadline of December 15, 2018, 26 people applied for the internship. They hailed from communities stretching from Madison, Wisconsin to Upstate New York and down through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The idea of creating a network actively learning about the history, culture, ecology and economy of American ginseng obviously struck a chord throughout the region.
Some, like Anna Plattner who is the manager of the American Ginseng Pharm in Treadwell, New York, already knew ginseng intimately. Others, like Katelyn Damron, who attends West Virginia State University located not far from her home town of Tornado, live in communities rich with ginseng lore but had never been aware of its significance to their region. Several were graduate students at folklore programs eager to hone their archival and fieldwork skills on a project close to their institutions. Several more were current or former Americorps workers at the organization Rural Action in Southeast Ohio, which teaches school students and community members about ginseng. In short, all had different reasons to participate, and brought different skills and experiences to the internship. And, all jumped at the chance to be connected to the Smithsonian without the often financially and logistically difficulty of moving to Washington, DC temporarily.
We chose 24 participants, nearly twice the number we were shooting to include. They embarked on a twelve-week learning journey starting on March 1, 2019. The curriculum was divided into six units, including introductory reading, two exercises pairing participants who did not know each other previously, archival and fieldwork practice units, and a final project. We repurposed some training videos used in an earlier virtual internship, created several opportunities for members of the group to connect via video chat, and held “virtual office hours” on Thursday afternoons. The information sharing site Slack was used as a platform for communication and posting assignments, and other information including an ever-expanding bibliography and webography were posted on a dedicated WordPress site.
We lost several interns along the way due to other commitments or changes in circumstances, and about half of them completed all of the requirements. Those who did turn in final projects surprised us (and perhaps themselves) with the depth and variety of the products. Some interns who had arranged for credit for the experience wrote research papers, but we allowed others to get creative. George Mason University Folklore Program student Luke Mitchum, who is also a musician, wrote a hauntingly lovely song. Sisters Rosalie and Clara Haizlett from West Virginia, collaborated on an animated video illustrated by Rosalie, who is an artist.
Although the intention was for interns to explore their own communities, Davis Moore, a journalism major at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, became interested in learning more about the important role that Hmong refugees had had in the ginseng growing industry of Marathon County, Wisconsin. We connected him with Sarah Yang, another of our virtual interns whose family just happened to be of Hmong descent, and he interviewed her father as well as another long-time ginseng farm worker. Davis’ research led to a blog for the CFCH site. Iryna Voloshyna, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina who grew up in the Ukraine, created a WordPress site with highlights from an interview with husband and wife ginseng hunting team, Bobby and Wanda Eldreth. Danielle Burke, who was working on a fellowship program in Asheville, North Carolina, analyzed historic advertisements of ginseng sellers circa. 1860s-1920s, and has submitted her project for publication to the Journal of Appalachian Studies. It is our intention to add as many of the public facing intern products as possible to a web site for the overall project.
One of the joys of the project was meeting several of the interns in person, getting to know them over lunch or a beverage break while we were doing fieldwork research throughout the spring, summer and fall. We shared Indian cuisine with Katelyn Damron and our colleague Emily Hilliard, state folklorist of West Virginia, in Charlestown, West Virginia. We met Clara and Rosalie Haizlett for lunch in Morgantown, West Virginia, and Rosalie presented us with her beautiful watercolor of a ginseng plant. Appalachian State University archivist Trevor McKenzie, another of our virtual interns, pulled ginseng related materials from the stacks for us to view, and then introduced us to a local pub in Boone, North Carolina to continue the conversation. And, perhaps best of all, we were able to explore the woods of Sam Lindemann’s family farm in Tennessee, while he showed us the ginseng he is helping to conserve.
Evaluations of the interns who completed the experience were overwhelmingly positive, although they weren’t shy about also expressing ideas for improvement. One intern commented: “The assignments challenged me to employ research methods I had not previously used. They also encouraged me to explore topics and subject areas I likely would not have otherwise explored. This considered, I think it was the freedom and license to study whatever seemed interesting and researchable that in the end proved most valuable.”
Another stated: “I know that it is difficult to facilitate relationship-building among a large group of interns who are all working virtually, but I would have liked to have had more long-lasting communication and collaboration with the larger group of interns.”
The general feeling about this and other virtual opportunities at the Smithsonian could be summed up by this comment:
“Have more of them! An online internship offers a great opportunity for those who are not able geographically/financially to be in the Washington, D.C. area to participate and learn.”
Betty Belanus is curator of the multi-faceted project, “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots.” She would like to acknowledge the hard work of her co-curator, Arlene Reiniger, and of interns Andrea Mayorga, Kate Hudson, Julia Eanes, and Shirly Chang who worked worked in the CFCH offices to help keep the virtual internship running smoothly.