MU, WVU history professors collaborate on open access reader of WV history

Whether we bleed green and white or blue and gold, it is no mystery Marshall University students and West Virginia University students are unspoken rivals. The said rivalry seems to only rear its ugly head during football season and winter break, when students must return home and face their neighbors’ opposing garden flags and “House Divided” license plates.

But two history professors, one from Marshall and the other from WVU, have forged a bridge through academia that each university can relate to: a connection through West Virginia history.

Marshall associate professor of American history Kevin Barksdale and WVU professor of history Ken Fones-Wolf, collaborated on a project to create an online reader of West Virginia history, called “West Virginia History: An Open Access Reader.”

Fones-Wolf and Barksdale have known each other since Barksdale was a student at WVU, where Fones-Wolf was his teaching mentor. Now, both professors teach a West Virginia history course at their respective universities.

Both Fones-Wolf and Barksdale said they have been discussing writing a textbook for years, but the idea of the open access reader project developed within the last year.

Fones-Wolf and Barksdale both edit “West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies,” which is a journal that comes out twice a year, composed of articles that provide scholarly historical information about the state. The journal is where Fones-Wolf and Barksdale said they obtained most of the information for the reader.

Barksdale said the open access reader is basically a collection of the best articles the journal has gotten over the past eight to 10 years, which they made available for free through collaboration with the West Virginia University Press and West Virginia University Libraries.

Both professors said they are currently using the reader in their classes this semester. Fones-Wolf said the open access reader is a way to keep down the cost of textbooks for college history courses.

“The goal of this is to really make new scholarship accessible to people, as opposed to making a profit off of it,” Fones-Wolf said. “And so that people in the academy, but also people just that are interested in the subjects, can have some of the latest research available to them without having to join a professional association or purchase an expensive book from a press.”

Barksdale said the West Virginia history class is taught at just about every university and college in the state. Barksdale said he and Fones-Wolf wanted to alleviate some of the financial pressure on college students.

“Dr. Fones-Wolf and I are pretty cognizant of how expensive textbooks are and how university library budgets have suffered, and it’s very difficult,” Barksdale said. “You know, so much of what we do as historians, so many of the secondary sources, the articles and stuff in journals, require a subscription. The amount of money put into those subscriptions has decreased every year. So we wanted to make some of these resources available to our students.”

Fones-Wolf said eventually the reader could be used not only at the college level, but also at the high school level.

“It certainly could be used more broadly,” Fones-Wolf said. “I mean, obviously, because we’re both professors, we think in terms of doing it for classroom use and such, but also there’s a lot of interest among the general public in the state, about the state’s past and what lessons we might learn for the present and the future.”

Barksdale said another use for the reader could be in the eighth grade West Virginia history course, along with being of use to teachers in public schools who are teaching West Virginia history and citizens who want to know about the history and culture of their state.

Fones-Wolf said the value of doing the project as a digital publication is that it can be easily updated and there can be embedded links to films and other interactive elements.

Fones-Wolf and Barksdale each said their long-term goal is to create a textbook that could be offered online and in print. Both agreed WVU and Marshall should collaborate more often.

“It’s nice because it’s also a great example of Marshall and WVU working together to do something for the people of the state,” Fones-Wolf said. “We should be working together on lots of stuff. I mean, obviously there’s a friendly rivalry that sometimes is more focused on the rivalry than it is on the friendliness, but ideally the two major institutions of higher ed in the state should be working together.”

Barksdale said he thinks the two universities working together is a positive thing.

“I think WVU and Marshall need to partner more, for a number of different reasons,” Barksdale said.  “Not only to benefit students, but also to help promote higher education, to show the state how important the two universities are. This kind of project is a great example,”

Aside from the benefits of the universities working together, Barksdale said the open access reader also shows how important liberal arts are in the state of West Virginia and why the state should support liberal arts.

Barksdale said there has been an emphasis on science, engineering, technology and math fields and a de-emphasis on the liberal arts. Barksdale said it has come into question what the liberal arts can give back to the state and why the state should fund liberal arts education.

“I think this open access reader, and then potentially the open access textbook, are a great example of how the liberal arts in general and history in particular, how they’re giving back to the state of West Virginia,” Barksdale said. “And how they’re a resource, an essential resource, for the cultural and historical development of our state and to preserve our state’s past.”

Fones-Wolf said he hopes this is the beginning of a change in the thinking about how scholarship becomes accessible to people for use in the classroom.

“There’s lots of stereotypes about the state, there are lots of myths about the state and its people,” Fones-Wolf said. “And you don’t have to dig very deeply to realize that it’s a very rich and complex history that deserves to be told with a good deal of respect for the things that West Virginians have achieved and the problems that they’ve faced.”

Amanda Gibson can be contacted at [email protected].