Back home with Eric Waggoner

Humanities and community service in the Mountain State

Department of English alumnus Eric Waggoner (PhD 2001) and I go way back.

In 1995, we entered the department as greenhorn teaching assistants, sharing the same crowded group office (“bullpens,” they called them in the day) for some six years. We supplemented our studies in American literature with frequent dinners, parties, low-stakes poker games, and satirical collaborations with others in our crew. Academia was our target; we were merciless, and more than a little brilliant.

Shortly after finishing his graduate work at ASU, Waggoner accepted a tenure-track position on the faculty of his undergraduate alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College at Buckhannon. He ended his time at Wesleyan as English Department chair, moving on to accept the Executive Directorship of the West Virginia Humanities Council in 2019. He was glad to be "home."

ASU alum Eric Waggoner / Credit Mike Keller

This past January I met with Waggoner via Zoom to talk about his work with the humanities council, headquartered in the 1836 McFarland-Hubbard House in the city of Charleston. Previous executive director Ken Sullivan had been in that position for 22 years and his predecessor for 20. People stick around. Waggoner intends to do so as well, telling the Charleston Gazette-Mail, "changing careers at 48 is complicated. Not many people have an opportunity to do this. It was whether I was going to keep teaching or take this opportunity. We didn’t always want to look back and say 'what if.' I feel very grateful."

Waggoner and I began our evening reminiscing on old times over drinks, later enjoying an impromptu visit from his three-year-old son, Arlo, whose discovery of a new performance medium in the Zoom screen was a joy to behold. When asked to discuss the history and mission of the West Virginia Humanities Council, Waggoner outlined its role in the larger context of the state and territorial humanities councils that arose under the aegis of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the 1970s (the West Virginia Council was founded in 1974). He explained that local councils “were created on the basis of the belief that an investment in the humanities and an investment in the arts are good for the life of the nation.” It was decided that individual councils should be administered through state/territorial agencies rather than the NEH, on an independent, non-partisan, non-profit basis. “We’re a partner with the NEH,” he continued, “but as long as we follow the guidelines of their grant requirements, we really don’t receive any direction about what programming we should be doing or how we should be fulfilling our mission.” In the case of West Virginia,

the mission is to promote a vigorous program of the humanities throughout [the state]. Now what does that mean? The idea of state councils is that people on the ground in the state are going to know much better about the conditions in that area…, and they’re going to know all the communities and the historical realities and contexts and challenges that come along with promoting that sort of work throughout the state; so, the NEH kind of keeps hands off.

In this spirit, the West Virginia Council assumes that local affiliates and grantees know best what cultural activities will serve their individual communities when distributing NEH grants.

“We’re primarily a regranting institution,” explains Waggoner. “We take NEH funding and we do some awards to institutions around the state…instead of developing a lot of programming that takes a lot of money and delivering it throughout the state.” West Virginia, he observes, is a state with “a thin cultural infrastructure,” whose institutions rely on outside support for cultural programs that will serve their communities.

Waggoner is personally invested in his community and that buy-in is evident in how he runs things. “The West Virginia I know is defined not by stereotypes or negativity," he told the Gazette-Mail in 2019, "but by a willingness to help out wherever needed, selflessness, a love of music, food and community and pride in the sense of an awareness of where you come from and knowing who you are and knowing on a deep level that you don’t have to prove your worth to anybody. It comes from the community and the things we all share."

The solid line we like to use around here is, ‘Y’all means All.’

—Eric Waggoner

Programming that reflects community heritage and pride is crucial to the mission of the Council: “Our informal goal is to promote or support or deliver one event, one program, one speaking series, one something somewhere in the state on every day of the calendar year—We’ve met that goal more often than not.” For example, The Mysterious Mountains Podcast offers a series of radio play mysteries based on local lore and genre fiction written by local writers; the History Alive! program “features scholars from around the state who portray historical figures at venues including museums, schools, libraries, community centers, and fairs and festivals”; West Virginia Standing Together partnered with West Virginia veterans to produce a six-part web series that explores the role of the humanities in understanding the experience of war.

The Council’s policy of deferring to the state’s individual communities in determining the content of sponsored projects accommodates its various cultural and ethnic groups. Waggoner acknowledges that West Virginia is “one of the least culturally diverse states in the nation” (non-Hispanic whites make up approximately 96% of the state’s residents). It is even more important in that context for minority populations to stay in control of their individual narratives. “One of the things you see now,” Waggoner observes, “is an insistence from non-white communities that their own stories be told in their own words.” The council extends its recognition of this community-responsive demand to the regional identities that contribute to the state’s diversity. Folks in one part of West Virginia may identify as Southern, whereas other regions may find themselves having more in common with Southwestern Pennsylvania or the Midwest. Waggoner sums up the Council’s commitment to inclusion simply: “The solid line we like to use around here is, ‘Y’all means All.’”

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated significant changes in the way the Council fulfills its mission. “We really emphasize the in-person,” says Waggoner, “and with COVID, the entire structure got kicked out from under us—not only the Council, but smaller organizations [such as local historical societies].” The Council approached this dilemma in four steps: 1.) Remote capacity was established for all members of the staff; 2.) Grants were delivered in the most efficient and timely way possible; 3.) Speaker and legacy programs were filmed and digitized on site, and then put online; and 4.) All programming was pivoted to virtual delivery. Aid was extended to grantees and sister organizations to do the same. Priorities of staff safety, continuity of mission, and support of affiliates lay at the core of these adjustments, and other than some delays in delivery, the Council has so far been successful in weathering the storm of the pandemic.

Waggoner and I ended our discussion by reflecting on how our experience as TAs and graduate students at ASU contributed to our respective worldviews and lives, both in and outside of academia. “When you’re in grad school,” he said, “You’re so focused on one area of study, but around you are all these people who are doing all these really fantastic things that you have no background in. You’re a constant student, and when you’re a teacher you’re a constant student…. There will always be people around that I can learn from.”  And to be open to this experience, he continues, “humility is essential”:

…and so that time at ASU, and not only the people that I knew but the way in which the department really created spaces for the exchange of ideas….I didn‘t really appreciate it at the time, how important it was in terms of maintaining that professional humility. Learning new things every day from people you respect—that’s what makes life an adventure every single day, that’s what makes life a classroom every single day, is that humility and respect.

Clearly, these are dynamics and attitudes that are core to the West Virginia Humanities Council’s fostering of dialogues between the state’s tradition bearers and scholars and the communities they reflect and serve.

Larry Ellis

Image: Photo of Eric Waggoner by Mike Keller

Video: Waggoner gives an introduction to West Virginia Humanities Council "Mysterious Mondays."