Maggie McFadden

Professor Emerita, Interdisciplinary Studies and Women’s Studies

Appalachian State University

In May 1975 I had just been hired as the first full-time female faculty member at Watauga College, the experimental interdisciplinary residential college at Appalachian State University. I arrived with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from Emory University’s Institute of the Liberal Arts.

Watauga College was begun in 1972 at the tail end of the era of experimental interdisciplinary educational ventures (such as Alexander Meikeljohn’s Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin, Evergreen College and Fairhaven College in Washington state, Raymond College of the University of the Pacific, A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, and many others), when forward-thinking faculty and administrators at Appalachian set up a college remarkably like John Andrew Rice’s Black Mountain College.

I read Martin Duberman’s account (Black Mountain: An Experiment in Community, published in 1972, the same year that Watauga College was founded) that summer before arriving in Boone in August 1975 and was much influenced by the narrative, the philosophy, the ideas and ideals. I agreed with Duberman’s sentiment in his preface, as he quoted Josef Albers’s advice: “this work on Black Mountain must directly or indirectly state some growth in your mind and in your looking at education” which would be a book about “the impact of Black Mountain on me.”1 I assumed that Watauga College would be much like Black Mountain College—and it was (except for a more contemporary view of women, the possibility of beginning Women’s Studies at ASU, and a [slightly] more liberal view of homosexuality). So my account, after more than thirty years, is both a comparison and a memoir. However, when I arrived in Boone that fall (not able to understand the mountain accent in which the word “narrow” is pronounced “nar”) and alluded to Black Mountain College, none of my new colleagues seemed to know about BMC, although I kept mentioning it in conversation and faculty meetings. Why wasn’t BMC known in Boone?

Still, Watauga College was begun in that fertile, passionate milieu—and many of the principles we treasured were those begun at Black Mountain College so long before, characteristics such as:

–Narrative grades on each student

–Everyone—students and faculty—together in one building, although most faculty did not actually live there (a few did). Student rooms, faculty offices, and classrooms were all in East Hall.

–Team-taught interdisciplinary courses

–Arts included in everything

–Writing assignments fulfilled also by the instructors who gave them—we all participated to provide models for the students.

–Core faculty designed and taught their own courses, in fact, were required to organize four new courses per term

–Mini-course week, in which both students and faculty taught courses on something they loved and wanted to share—travel, cooking, music, rock poetry. This corresponds to BMC’s “interlude” week, never announced in advance, so that everyone could study or try out something they had had to defer because of lack of time.2

My presentation today will review the striking similarities in conception and philosophy between Watauga College and Black Mountain College, and will be, as was Duberman’s book, a first person account, drawing on my memories, experience, and interviews with other early WC faculty. In the process, it will try to answer two kinds of questions:

1) Why wasn’t BMC known and specifically discussed as an influence on WC?

2) Why has Watauga College managed to continue to exist for nearly 40 years (founded in 1972), whereas many other experimental residential colleges have closed?


I. Liberal education, democracy, and residential colleges

Virginia Foxx, our infamous 5th District Congressperson, used to teach Women’s Studies and work in the admissions office at Appalachian State University. In 1984 she wrote her dissertation for the Ed.D. degree at UNC-Greensboro on Watauga College and the history of residential colleges.3 Her beginning chapters describe Alexander Meiklejohn’s 1927 Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin. His program in many ways has been a model for other residential colleges (even though Meiklejohn’s experiment lasted only five years until 1932). Its most radical aspects were the totality of the interdisciplinary Great Books curriculum (the “Athens-America” course in the first year, and the great physical scientists in the second) and the combining of the social and academic parts of student life.4 It is this living-learning component that has always set residential colleges apart. However, neither Meiklejohn’s 1932 book The Experimental College (in its 197l reprint) nor Foxx’s dissertation mentions Black Mountain College at all. But Meiklejohn’s book, reprinted by Arno Press in 1971, was greatly influential on the founders of Watauga College. The book lays out in detail the parameters of the curriculum, including book lists and writing assignments.5

Black Mountain College was founded on a tripartite principle: “complete democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts, and interdisciplinary academic study,” to quote William C. Rice, grandson of founder John Andrew Rice.6 The democracy was never “pure”, and Rice had no illusions about giving students equal voice, but they did have a voice. As Duberman explains: “All that Rice ever claimed was that in at least one sense Black Mountain came as near to a democracy as possible: individual economic status had nothing to do with one’s standing in the community.”7

Even though Watauga College was a part of ASU, there were always differences. The faculty functioned as a Committee of the Whole and made decisions by consensus, going against university policy of an elected Departmental Personnel Committee with secret ballots. There were conflicts with the administration over non-compliance with university policy in many areas: grading scales, co-ed dorms, dealing with beer in student rooms, faculty.

We had student representation on all search and hiring decisions for faculty and staff, and other students were welcome to sit in on faculty meetings. Suggestions for guest faculty came from both students and core faculty. In a sense we were always recruiting, talking up the program, persuading others that they might like to join us. The students had their own “Watauga Assembly” with elected representatives. The Watauga Assembly planned social events, dealt with residence hall issues, and decided how to spend the $10-20 per student that all Watauga College students paid at the beginning of the year. All of this decision-making was in many ways similar to BMC’s “Board of Fellows” (elected from the faculty) and student assembly, both of which operated by consensus and “sense of the meeting”, with “agreements” only, not rules.8 Administrators at Swarthmore College, a Quaker school, were advisors to John Andrew Rice (his wife’s brother Frank Aydelotte was president) as Black Mountain College took shape. Watauga College was always a part of the state university system, a stricture that BMC did not have.

Although the best history of Black Mountain College is that found in Duberman’s book, his interpretation is always transparently his own. This kind of history was not at all usual at the time, and Duberman was much criticized in the reviews. Lincoln Memorial University queer historian Jason Ezell explains Duberman’s method this way:

Duberman’s Black Mountain was not a conventional history. In its pages . . . the author came out of the closet. This confession emerged directly from Duberman’s chosen historiographic method, one which emphasized the ubiquity of the subjective perspective and necessitated showing his scholarly cards, his vested interests and opinions. . . The very form reflects the methodology when, say, Duberman writes his own voice into board minutes from the 1950s or ironically provides varying and contradictory eyewitness accounts of the supposed first Happening.9

Those three principles of Black Mountain College—democracy, arts, and interdisciplinarity–are also to be found at Watauga College, a residential program for first and second year students at Appalachian State University to satisfy general education credit in the social sciences and humanities. It was begun in 1972 by three professors, one from art, one from English, one from religion. In 1971 they had a grant from the Teachers of Teacher Trainers fund (TTT) of the U.S. Office of Education and, more importantly, the blessing and financial help of both the dean and the chancellor of Appalachian. The first class had 120 students, self-selected, who all lived together in the smallest residence hall, Watauga Hall (thus the name Watauga College, also the name of Boone’s county), in the center of campus. The next year, Dr. Jay Wentworth, an interdisciplinarian par excellence, a man with degrees in drama, religion, and psychology who is also a poet, joined the faculty and is still the guru of the program, although he has already celebrated his seventieth birthday. In 1974, Watauga Hall was razed and WC moved to East Hall, a much larger building that also could accommodate faculty offices and classrooms, but housed other students not a part of WC as well (to the detriment of the intimate communal aspects of the program).

In comparing to Black Mountain College, I want to quote from a letter that Fielding Dawson wrote home in 1949 when he had been a student at BMC for about a week. He was eighteen years old. It tells us a lot about BMC and suggests some of the similar criticisms leveled against Watauga College:

“The girls around this place, not all, but a good many, use terrible landguage [sic]. Now, for a male to say son of a bitch and for a male to call another a bastard is o.k., I can see that, ‘cause I do it myself, but, for a female to drink gin and to call the guys she’s with dirty names, why I just can’t see it. For that, one of the guys called me grandma and pious and whatnot, so, you see the kind of people that are here. Even the teachers use bad lingo. I don’t mind some of the words, but when you get into the vulgar in teaching a course, why that’s bad for one thing, and it’s unecessary [sic]. I’m sure you agree. What would you think of a man, a very brilliant one, who uses the obscene to teach a course, well, not to teach it, but, well, you know what I mean . . .” 10

The criticisms against Watauga College by those outside were often of this nature, and included not only worries about offensive language, but political complaints of “pinkos,” “lefties”, co-ed dorms and bathrooms, lesbian ball-busters, on and on. In those days, faculty all had to sign a state-mandated form saying we were not Communist. And gay-bashing was rampant, even after a student group, Appalachian Gay Awareness Association, was formed in 1977. I was their first faculty advisor, and in the classroom tried to remind students that “we” and “they” language was inappropriate; in those closeted days, one never knew whether the person sitting next to you was gay. As Duberman said at the end of his description of the way that drama faculty member Bob Wunsch was treated by BMC after his arrest for “crimes against nature” in 1945, the suspended sentence, and his subsequent resignation and late night departure from BMC: “It’s hard to think well of a place that could cooperate as fully as Black Mountain did in an individual’s self-destruction—indeed to have assumed it as foreclosed. But perhaps I exaggerate—a function of my own indignation as a homosexual, a potential victim.”11 Still, in both Watauga College and Black Mountain College, the sense of community was often helped by these kinds of attacks. We felt a kindred spirit among us and “circled the wagons,” so to speak.

A second part of Fielding Dawson’s same letter is a wonderful description of poet Charles Olson:

“I want to tell you about Mr. Olson. He is . . .gosh, words fail me . . . about ten steps higher than stupendous. He is about six feet eight or nine and has shoulders like an ox. He must weigh about two hundred and sixty or seventy. He eats, well, let me tell you about last night’s meal when I went in and sat by him after everybody else was through and he was talking to one of the students.

On the table was a plate that had about five hot dogs on it. Another plate had about ten buns, another had heaping piles of tomatoes and lettuce, and then there was another that was stacked high with potatoe chips and oh so many more food.

When I left, everything was gone except a few pieces of casual leftover lettuce bits. He thrust his face within about six inches of the girl who he was talking to. . . Anyhow, Olson picks up a hot dog, breaks it in half, smears one end in a mess of mustard on his plate takes a bun rips it in two and then into quarters and then into very small bits. He takes a gargantuan bite of the hot dog, crams a bit of bun in, reaches across the table, grabs a slice of nice red tomatoe, pushes this in his mouth, still clutching the outer edge of the tomatoe, bites down on it and his paw returns with a little pale red dripping off what was once a tomatoe. Then he scrapes up a few fingers full of potatoe chips and he squeezes these in his mouth. Then another bite of the hot dog, etc. . . . All this time telling about Howard Fast, Saroyan, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe . . . etc. and smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of milk!”12

We should be so lucky at Watauga College to have this kind of seeing, observation, and writing from our students—sometimes we did. What we do have is a series of great caricatures of the faculty, done around 1987.

We were protected many times by the sympathetic higher administration, some of whom had begun the program and wanted it to remain. I remember the time and motion studies demanded by the NC state legislature, certain that university faculty were slackards, working only 12 hours a week. Watauga College faculty came out with an average of 80 hours weekly, and the university as a whole at 60. We heard no more from Raleigh on that one. We prepared new courses each semester, for most of our careers taught 12 hr. per semester, advised students, held office hours, and, additionally, attended student events in evenings and on weekends, besides serving on university committees and working on beginning other university-wide programs, such as Women’s Studies or Sustainable Development.

II. Curriculum

In the early years of Watauga College, the ten-hour block of credit for all beginning first year students, was divided into core courses and area courses. Core courses counted six hours and were on broad, interdisciplinary topics, team-taught. They were developed yearly in this way: A call would go out to the whole ASU faculty for an evening’s meeting of those who might be interested in teaching in Watauga College. Over libations and snacks, people from different disciplines would congregate and propose various topics of interest in art, music, history, literature, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religion. Three or four faculty, usually with one WC core faculty member, would get together, talk and kibbitz, and the course would start developing. Each year there would be three or four of these core courses, and students would choose one. So we had “Higher Laws” a kind of Great Books course, with the theme of conflicts in morality; “Dangerous Ideas,” and “Human Values and Ideal Communities.” What happened in these team-taught core courses, at least in theory, was that “the student, with faculty guidance, learns about the relationships between diverse disciplines and how each approaches the problems posed by the theme chosen for that Core course.”13

All the guest faculty would get released from their home department for one course of their usual load. However, the core course would meet for six hours a week; all faculty would attend and participate in all sessions, although different parts of the course would be led or headed by one of the three or four faculty. All students (15 per faculty x 3 or 4, e.g., a total of 45 or 60) attended all sessions (although no one took roll). (Later the number per faculty gradually grew to 20 or 25 per faculty member, and later still the faculty refused to attend more than three hours per week, as demands for research and publication grew.) Some sessions (at least once every two weeks) were in small groups, led by the individual faculty.

The resulting curriculum was always incredibly interdisciplinary and thus a sore point for much of the rest of the university, some of whom repeatedly called us “dabblers.” It always combined humanities, social sciences, and even the hard sciences, after we hired a chemist who believed in interdisciplinarity. Dr. J. Linn Mackey, who had taught in an interdisciplinary program at Austin College, TX, offered a course on HIV-AIDS in the very early days, and was a co-founder of the Earth Studies program (ecology, sustainable development, and appropriate technology). This program included organic gardening at a farm in Valle Crucis and was the impetus for the present flourishing Sustainable Development Program at ASU. We also put together a Futures Studies course which included biology faculty, taking students to Oak Ridge, TN to tour the nuclear facilities. (On the second trip, I did not go into the labs, since I was pregnant. That was over 30 years ago; my daughter has now finished med school and has a new job at the Asheville VA in internal medicine.]

During the years from 1977-80, we began the United Nations curriculum, in which history was divided into six historical epochs, and each of seven faculty and a group of students studied one culture from that period in depth—ancient China, Egypt, Crete or India At the end of each “epoch” we gathered for a UN General Assembly, complete with resolutions, costumes, and food. In the spring, we took all one hundred students to New York to visit the UN and different delegations (and of course the students partied every night—somehow we didn’t count on the group dynamics of 100 students and seven faculty and getting those students up by 9 a.m. to visit a UN delegation from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, or the Soviet Union.).

Later we pioneered a different curriculum, in which students chose India or China; historical epochs of these two civilizations were led by different faculty, and included history, religion, sociology, geography, creative writing, art, connections to the West, etc.

At first there were no grades at all; later narrative self-evaluations and letter grades were given, but then discussed by the faculty as a whole. The marathon grade discussion meeting each semester gave one grade for the whole ten-hour WC block. Gradually over the years the block was broken down into six hr core/three hr area/one hour Chautauqua or mentor group and numerically averaged. But the most humane thing we did each semester was to discuss each student’s strengths and weaknesses as a whole person, and whether to bump him or her up to a B or an A, down to a B or a C, or ask the student to leave. At first there were no pluses or minuses allowed in the university system, so a ten hr. block could make a big difference in a student’s GPA.

The many courses that I taught include several intriguing titles. As you’ll see, we were doing Women’s Studies, Multicultural Studies, and Ecology courses in the 1970s. My position gave me great freedom to begin Women’s Studies, and I taught at least one Women’s Studies course per semester, soon making sure that content and issues about women were “mainstreamed” into every course, a pathway that the whole faculty signed onto for their own courses (although that did not always happen). I remember the course evaluations for “Higher Laws”, a year-long core course team-taught by two historians, Dr. Helena Lewis and Dr. Don Saunders, and me. We did a kind of “Great Books and Western Civilization” course, focusing on human vs divine morality. We read Plato, Antigone, Eloise and Abelard, Galileo, as well as Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., and pieces from the women’s suffrage movement. The course evaluations excoriated Helena and me for “pushing” feminism, when in fact it was Don Saunders who spoke most about women’s rights. Students heard what they wanted to hear. So here is a partial list of courses that I taught:

–“Free and Not Free: Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans”:(my co-teacher and I took students on a field trip to Cherokee, NC as a part of the course, talking with residents and touring the museum).

–“Southern Women Writers”: one of my first students went on to earn graduate degrees, a position at ASU in administration, and has now been named President of Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.

–“Language and Logic”: an attempt to teach both writing and elementary philosophical logic together

–“Woman as Image and Image Maker”: team-taught with an art professor, a sculptor who took students to her studio to show them how she used power tools.

–“The “I” in Nature”: included mountain hikes and nature trails and the reading of literary ecology, such as Walden and The Man Who Walked Through Time

–“Sex Roles and Sexuality in Media”: taught by two profs in the College of Education, an area that was hard to include in our interdisciplinary curriculum, since the demands of teacher certification are so stringent that students have little time for electives.

–“Futures”: a look at alternative futures from the perspective of ecology, technology, ideal communities, science fiction, etc. We took students to Oak Ridge or to Washington, D.C. where we met Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute, Zero Population Growth leaders, Friends Committee on National Legislation leaders, early Green Party leaders, as well as visiting a mosque and the Ethiopian and Cuban restaurants in Adams Morgan. Most of the students had never been out of the state of North Carolina before.

–“Women and Film”. These four different film courses show my own interest in and work in film studies. The “Women and Film” course I taught in the university as a whole for several years with very high enrollment, the first one to focus on women directors and the changing image of women over the history of film.

–“Novel into Film”

–“From Fiction to Film”: This was my first film course; I chose short fiction that had been made into film, and students both read the fiction and watched the film. We did “The Swimmer,” “A Member of the Wedding,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “The Stranger,” and others—whatever I could get on 16 mm. and could afford. We showed the films to the whole WC community.

–“Food Films”: from Big Night to Like Water for Chocolate and many others

–“Great Relationships”: Stein and Toklas; Henry, William, and Alice James; Stanton and Anthony; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill; ML and Coretta Scott King.

–“Rock Poetry”: we met in students’ rooms with sound systems; each student in charge of picking the music, providing copies of lyrics, and leading the discussion.

–“African American Women’s Autobiographies”

–“Great (Big) Books”:1 hr. courses (Das Kapital. Middlemarch, War and Peace, J.S. Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women) Various faculty volunteered to teach a 5 week course on a favorite classic; students could sign up for 1, 2, or 3 books per semester. This class lasted only a few years, since faculty were not paid for this overload.

The Watauga I (Eye): Stories of Some of Our Lives was a student project for my writing course on autobiography.

Watauga College students (not only from that class) submitted both poetry and prose; we made booklets with all of the submissions. With a special day at Chautauqua for presentations, some of the submissions were read aloud, and the booklets were given out to everyone. It was all done by students, but the cajoling and pleading and asking for submissions was done by me.

We all believed in the importance of writing and we pioneered what is now called “Writing Across the Curriculum.” In the core course “American Stories” each faculty member wrote a 2-3 page bio that we presented during the first week as models for the students. In that course, students learned about twentieth-century U.S. social history, interviewed family members at length, and then researched and wrote a 25 page paper, relating their family to events in American history. Whenever we had a writing assignment, each of us on the faculty team wrote one ourselves. My “The Making of a Feminist” led me to think carefully about the influences in my early life and has become the “seed” for the shadow narrative I’m now working on for my next book on transatlantic women activists.

III. Community and the camaraderie of faculty and students

This topic is perhaps the most important of all, as the communal events kept the community together, even more than the common classes and curriculum (which gave students something to grouse about). The communal events were memorable. They included the gathering of the community, called Watauga Chautauqua, Wednesday afternoons, 1-3 p.m., everyone together, students and faculty.

Dr. Bud Gerber introduced the community gathering each week with this wonderful tag:

“Welcome to Watauga Chautauqua:

A gospel hour for agnostic academics

A cultural massage for the student body


An embarrassment to professional educators everywhere.”14

Under Gerber’s leadership, who was purposely modeling himself on Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion,” Watauga Chautauqua had student-led music, stunts, drama, art, etc. plus announcements for the whole community, and events such as the making of valentines, finger painting, cooking, poetry slams, etc.

Every year we had a newly designed t-shirt. The best was 93-94:


On back:

“All I Need To Know I Learned in Watauga

How to bald gracefully by Bernie Baker

How to say f**k instead of “make love” by Jay Wentworth

How to get away with using your dog as a business partner by David Huntley

How to be a feminist and still be married to a man like Bud by Maggie McFadden

How to get paid to be crude by Brian Anderson

How to integrate fractals, chaos, and Truman into one big happy class by Jay Mackey

How to be a writer with an attitude by Orson Scott Card

How to understand the finer points of New York and still keep your southern style by Leighton Scott

How to have an office job and still enjoy the cool stuff in life by Nancy Wells

How to disguise a shoe fetish as a research project by Pete Reichle

How to organize 120 (+,-) non-conformist kids and still keep your sanity by Kay Smith

And finally, from the head guru of them all,

How to give a cultural massage to the Watauga student body and still avoid misconduct charges from the University by Bud Gerber”15

There were also evening events sponsored by particular classes, both in the building and on the “beach,” the grassy area surrounded by the u-shape of the wings of East Hall. So we had the India Festival, Chinese New Year, the UN General Assembly which included taking all 100 students to NY to visit delegations and the UN, a Seder service, Shakespeare scenes, even the blowing up of the island of Santorini and the tidal waves that wiped out the civilization on Crete (done by model of course, but staged at the State Farm fields, now a parking lot, with the Boone Fire Department in attendance) and many others—everything in costume and with props and food. These are the events that people—students and faculty alike—remember. Likewise, it is, of course, the building of Bucky Fuller’s first geodesic dome or the Merce Cunningham dance recitals, the famous artists and poets, or the dramatic performances that are the most remembered and reiterated from Black Mountain College.

The co-ed living arrangements were another aspect of similarity between BMC and WC. East Hall was the first co-ed residence hall on the ASU campus. At first there was sexual segregation by floor, later by room only. Still, there was no policing at all and visitation could happen at any time. (In my own day at the University of Denver in the 1960s there were strict rules for visitation by the opposite sex–one Sunday afternoon a month for four hours, roommates had to be present, and all doors had to remain open!). As at BMC there were also liaisons between students and faculty (resulting in divorces and marriages). This aspect was very similar to BMC and perhaps was inevitable, given the living arrangements and the incredible amount of time everyone spent together, students and faculty alike.

As Martin Duberman so eloquently analyzed it, “No community that encourages intimacy can hope to be free of the misunderstanding and hurt that seem its inescapable by-products. In dispensing with the insulation that comes from the usual separation of living and learning, and in rejecting the traditional paraphernalia of departments, trustees and the like, Black Mountain had dispensed as well with some of the institutional mediation that helps to formalize relationships and to create distance between people.”16 Interestingly, however, Watauga College was also often without that “institutional mediation,” and both students and faculty were shocked and hurt by the rifts that followed in the wake of faculty-student liaisons.

IV. The two big questions: Why BMC was not known and Why WC has lasted for nearly forty years

1) Why wasn’t BMC known and specifically discussed as an influence on WC?

There was a striking regional insularity of BMC, such that _even at the time_ people in the surrounding area did not know much or anything about it. There was no interest at BMC in studying Appalachia or its people. Most of the students were from the Northeast—either the metropolitan New York or Boston areas. Southerners were few and far between, and most of the faculty also came from the Northeast. Thus, although BMC was known in the Northeast corridor, it was not known well in the South. Very few students or faculty actually came from the South. And after its demise, there was a huge hiatus in knowledge about the place, now thankfully being filled.

It was known in the art world because of the famous artists on the faculty.

It was known in creative writing circles for the “Black Mountain Poets” in the last decade of its existence.

But it was not remembered for its importance in terms of building community, its interdisciplinarity, its educational experiments, its living-learning components, and its putting together so many ideas. These ideas percolated below the surface and then bubbled up with the open university, residential colleges, and building community movements of the 60s and 70s, and, of course, in places like Warren Wilson College as well.

When BMC ultimately failed in 1957, it was the end of a slow slide downhill and very sad: there were no students, no staff, no money, no food. The few students who were left stole from the local grocery store. There was no fuel for the dreadful winter of 1956. There were rumors in the surrounding community of rampant homosexuality and illegitimate children being born. Maybe that was why BMC was not known in that gap of nearly two decades: people in the surrounding area were just too shocked and really wanted the college to fail and the interlopers to clear out. There was certainly creativity, especially the Black Mountain Review in the last two years, edited by Robert Creeley. But he edited from Majorca, not Black Mountain, was not even physically here. Many now famous writers published in the BMR and a “school” called the Black Mountain Poets was born, but those writers included several who had never even been at Black Mountain.

2) Why has Watauga College managed to continue to exist for nearly 40 years (founded in 1972), whereas many other experimental residential colleges have closed?

The answer to this question has to do with the support and care that WC got, from the very beginning, from high-placed administrators at Appalachian, first and foremost Dr. Kenneth Webb, Dean of the General College, and Chancellor Dr. Herb Wey. And, in contrast to BMC, WC was always a part of the larger institution of Appalachian State University.

Thus, even in lean budget years and lowered enrollment (and there have been many), WC was not destroyed. Watauga College was a more expensive educational option, and it was possible for it to operate at a budget deficit in the university, as long as the higher administration supported the project and found the money elsewhere. There have been many administrative changes—first, being made a part of a Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences (roundly disagreed with by several long-time WC faculty who believed that this was caving in to the system and diluting Watauga’s influence across the whole university). Then, after nearly twenty years, there was demise of that department, and the re-making of WC as the Watauga Global Community, as a separate entity within a new University College. But the key here was the faculty, and the long-time assignment of faculty lines to Watauga College and Interdisciplinary Studies. Thus, even with various changes, there were eight faculty lines (and occasional part-time or adjunct positions as well) that could not easily be eliminated. In fact, when Interdisciplinary Studies was demolished as a department (because, according to the Provost, “interdisciplinarity is not a discipline”!), the faculty were not terminated (all had tenure), but assigned to other departments (with great difficulty since half the faculty had interdisciplinary Ph.D’s). Arguments showing that many other universities across the U.S. had assigned faculty lines to interdisciplinary programs which were not designated as departments fell on deaf ears. But the programs have weathered the crises, hired new directors (Sustainable Development, Women’s Studies, and Interdisciplinary Studies), and grown exponentially—including the newly-named Watauga Global Community program, which retains much of the communal and curricular sense of the original Watauga College. A recent campus-wide program featured three faculty from the program–an historian, an arts person, and a political scientist–discussing interdisciplinary discourse and teaching.17 And today (Oct. 9, 2010) at Homecoming at ASU, there will be a buffet lunch event for Watauga College and Interdisciplinary Studies with all former students and faculty invited back.

Asheville and its surroundings have continued to hold these ideas, and this university and city have a long history of appeal and influence for Watauga College graduates. Many of our former students now live and work in the Asheville area—in education, sustainable development, local foods, feminist alternative communities and living arrangements, health care, AIDS=HIV awareness and treatment centers, LGBTQ groups and centers. I must brag about one of my early women’s studies and women’s history students who pioneered the first women’s history course in a North Carolina high school—April Spencer taught women’s history at Asheville High School for many years and is now the Secondary Education Coordinator for the Western Region Education Service Alliance (WRESA) located in Enka—from where she travels all over the region, doing workshops for secondary teachers. It’s possible also that part of the reason for Watauga College’s continued existence has to do with its being a “well-kept secret,” so that even the UNC-A faculty in attendance at the recent Black Mountain College conference had not heard about it.

One could say that the “center” from BMC actually migrated from the Lake Eden site, underground and below Fort Mountain so to speak (or else along a mountain pathway on the Blue Ridge Parkway) to Boone and Appalachian State University, where it surfaced in 1972 in Watauga College and has been bubbling up ever since.


1 Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972), 16.

2 Duberman, 51-52.

3 Virginia Foxx, “Watauga College: The Residential College at Appalachian State University”. Dissertation, UNC-Greensboro, 1985.

4 Alexander Meiklejohn, The Experimental College (New York and London: Harper & Bros., 1932), reprinted New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1971.

5 See the appendices to The Experimental College, 329-421.

6 Quoted in William C. Rice, “Black Mountain College Memoirs,” in Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds, ed. Mervin Lane (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 10.

7 Duberman, 37.

8 Duberman, 90-94.

9 Jason Ezell, “(Lake) Eden and All its Serpents: Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain and Queer Historiography and Pedagogy” this issue 1.4 (2010).

10 Fielding Dawson, “A Letter from Black Mountain”, (Storrs, Connecticut: University of Connecticut Library, 1974), p. 1.

11 Duberman, 227.

12 Dawson, “A Letter from Black Mountain,” printed 1974, p. 3

13 Quoted from Watauga College information, 1977, in Virginia Foxx, “Watauga College: The Residential College at Appalachian State University”. Dissertation, UNC-Greensboro, 1985, p. 46.

14 Leslie E. Gerber, Watauga Chautauqua Creator and Director, Watauga College, Appalachian State University, 1984-95.

15 Watauga College T-shirt, 1993-94. In possession of author.

16 Martin Duberman, Black Mountain, 142.

17 Flyer, “The Three Stooges Teach Interdisciplinary Studies, or, I Am Interdisciplinarity and So Can You,” Sept. 20, 2010, Appalachian State University.