In GradLife 601, we’ll share the achievements and insights of WVU graduate students and faculty. We’ll discuss their experiences and how they came to be passionate about their research. We’ll also talk about life beyond the lab and academy.

In this episode of GradLife 601, host Dr. Nancy Caronia speaks to Benjamin Sussman, a PhD student with WVU's Department of History. Benjamin most recently received a WVU Provost Fellow ad discusses his work in Appalachian health.


Welcome to GradLife 601: Research & Beyond, a podcast supported by West Virginia University's Provost Office of Graduate Education and Life. I'm your host, Dr. Nancy Caronia, a teaching associate professor with the Department of English at WVU.

Today I'll be speaking with Benjamin Sussman, a PhD student with WVU'S Department of History. Benjamin most recently received a WVU Provost Fellow. His research focuses on Appalachian Health. Welcome, Benjamin. How are you today? It's great to be with you all. Thank you for having me. I yeah, I'm, I'm doing well.

It's, it's kind of gloomy. It's been gloomy around here, but yeah. I'm, I'm happy to be with you all. So let's dive right into our questions. I know you earned an MA at Miami University in Ohio. How did you decide upon WVU U for your PhD? Yeah, so I was looking for a strong program in 20th century American history.

Through my master's getting my master's, I, I knew, I, I, my interests were in environmental history, but they also kind of spanned social history as well. And I reached out to Dr. Jessica Wilkerson who's research , know, in the history department focuses on kind of race, gender, labor, and social change, kind of all of those topics in Appalachia in the 20th century.

And so I, I got an, in a very enthusiastic response from Dr. Wilkerson even though my master's was, was kind of much more broadly about kind of the late 19th and early 20th century history, not necessarily Appalachia. But then my interview with the graduate admissions committee went great. I got the sense that they would be very supportive with you know, my eventual, you know, research topic and my research interests.

And my choice was kind of narrowed down to two programs. In the end I, I went with WVU after they offered me this provost fellowship. And, and I thought that that was, A great kind of acknowledgement that kind of where, where my work was heading and, and the work of Humanity Scholars generally at WVU to kind of, you know, single my workout as kind of, you know, deserving of, of this fellowship.

So, I knew that kind of. Not only my work, but the, the kind of the larger goals that my work was trying to accomplish was, was very valued at, at WVU and in the graduate school. So what draws you to working on Appalachian history? Yeah, so it, this is kind of like a, a personal and kind of professional journey that has led me to Appalachian history.

. grandmother grew up in Appalachia, in McDonald, Pennsylvania in the 1930s. She is now turning 93 this year. Wow. And, and yeah, I mean, so from stories that I heard growing up, you know, this kind of regional identity of Appalachia started to form in my mind. And then, I mean so.

For those of you who don't know, I, I'm from the DC area and Miami University where I did my master's is out in Oxford, Ohio, about an hour north of Cincinnati. So going out to my master's program, I crossed these mountains for two years. I crossed West Virginia, you know, on route 68, 79, 70 into Ohio.

And so I. Came to see not only kind of the, this kind of region that I knew about Appalachia, but the physical space of Appalachia. And in the back of my mind, I was thinking about how human interactions with the environment in Appalachia contributed to US history. Going back to even the, the Cumberland Road and, and you know, frontiersmen passing through the you know, the Cumberland Pass.

From Maryland into, into what was then Virginia. And so in, in thinking about what I wanted to pursue in terms of environmental history for a possible dissertation project Appalachia is unique. I mean, few other places in the country kind of have this this very close relationship between people on the land that, that has been part of Appalachia's long and complex.

Since, you know, since Europeans first arrived to the East Coast and started migrating inland. And so the history of Appalachia is really central to my thinking about how to tell stories about Americans interacting with their environment and with each other over the course of the 20th century.

And, and that is kind of the basis that I'm coming into this PhD program and, and my larger thinking. You know, graduate work in history. Could you talk a little bit more about how you see the history of health in Appalachia connected both to human health and environmental health? Yeah, it's it, it's, it's been a journey to kind of arrive at, at that that intersection of ideas.

And I'm sure to some people, it, it might seem kind of like a, a contrived or even like hokey. Mishmash of you know, current scholarship and, and current thinking. But I arrived at this topic through my master's research. So my master's research focused on a kind of a, a forward thinking minister in Columbus, Ohio in the late 19th and early 20th century.

And so this reform-minded minister purposely tied Christian social reform to the health of the environment and then back to people and society. Oh, wow. And so I, I approached this minister's kind of archive specifically this minister's sermons thinking about urbanization, industrialization and the local environment in Columbus, Ohio in the gilded agent, progressive era.

and the minister specifically, you know, connected you know, the environment and the health of the area. And so. You know, kind of trying to form, you know, a master's thesis out of this. You know, I found the through line connecting this minister's thinking from the 1870s, which was the early period of industrialization in Columbus to the conservation movement of the 19 hundreds.

Hmm. And you know, the conservation movement was a national movement to kind of you. Conserve natural resources and establish state for, or national forests, state forests, national parks. But it was also very kind of active at the local level. And so when this minister was involved in local government and preaching to his congregation he was considering kind of the connection between an improved sanitation system and the larger concerns about natural resource use in the United States at the time.

And so from that background, I, I kind of really started to think about public health and environmental health. And so in thinking about Appalachia Appalachia's history, you know, I think it's important to keep in mind whenever we talk about environmental. Or, or human health. We are also talking about how humans interact with their environment.

Absolutely. So there's really no easy way to separate the two. And it's not just at the, the level of bacteria, you know, some environmental historians focus on you know, health in a very kind of specific way. But I think when we also talk about health, we're talking about, you know, and maybe it's more recent that we're talking.

You know, society, we're talking about the impact of epidemics and pollution. And so moving from the level of social institutions to the personal level and seeing how personal views of the environment shape wider social movements in society. That's how I want to teach and tell stories. As a historian.

That makes a lot of sense. I think a lot as you were talking, I was thinking about Denise Gino's historical fiction, storming Heaven and the Unquiet Earth, which focuses on the coal mining, you know, the labor movement around the coal mining industry from the early 20th century to about. Sixties and she very much, it's very subtle, but she intertwines with how the degradation of the land then mirrors the degradation of the people in the community for various physical, mental, and cultural reasons.

So I think that what you're talking about makes a lot of sense to me here in Appalachia. Yeah, I would, I would definitely recommend, you know GD. I'm just kind of starting to get, get into it and I kind of learned of it because one of her books is set in McDowell County. Mm-hmm. , which has an interesting history, you know, of race and kind of, you know, capitalism and you know, kind of, you know social relations in, in the 20th century.

And so, yeah, I mean, I'm looking, looking forward to, to reading more of, of G r D and his work. and yeah, I mean, I think anytime you know, a scholar and author approaches Appalachia, they're really, they're, you know, I would say they're really talking about how are people living in an environment and how is that environment affecting social relations and, you know, power relations and kind of the ability for, for people to.

and she's a master at looking at those power relations. She really is. I, I don't know if you know this I act her work, her handwritten drafts are at the West Virginia and Regional History Center here. Oh wow. So if you wanna look at the early the early drafts of what she was doing, she maps out the whole entire fictional town of Davidson sets it up for you to see in pictures.

It's. The work is beautiful. I'm actually working on her books for a book that I'm working on around Italian American women writers, so . Oh, well that's, that's so cool. Yeah. Yeah, I definitely, I definitely have become more familiar with the, the Regional History Center, so I need to check that out. . So now you're, you're still at the beginning end of your PhD program, but what plans do you think you already have for continuing your research?

In other words, has the PhD program already influenced where you might expand or change your research interests? Yeah. I took a, a really you know influential seminar last semester, my first semester with Dr. Sheena Harris in the history depart. Where I, I looked at kind of environmental justice in the context of you know, the history of you know, black Americans and African American history.

And so I think I'm more committed now than I ever have been, you know? Yeah. Com you know, to kind of un, you know, understanding how historical methods can approach demands for environmental. And you know, I mean, contextualized demands for environmental justice. And so I think this is, this is kind of expanding my scope to think about race and class in environmental history.

And I mean, it's, you know, it, it is definitely intimidating. Think of thinking about how I want my dissertation project to unfold. . But you know, I mean, we are, we've already touched on the topic of, of power and how you know, those in power have used the environment to shape their, their political power, their social power.

And I think that's reality that I is very important to, to address in Appalachia. And so I, I wanna help kind of define the parameters of environmental justice as much as I can. and, and to do that, I, I, I want to kind of ground my, my thinking and, and my narratives in Appalachian history. That makes a lot of sense.

Now, you talked about this seminar, which has been very influential in your thinking already, but what else has been a really great part of graduate education here so far? Yeah, so I would say that. You know, getting this fellowship is a, is a big part of why I'm at West Virginia. You know, every day I'm glad I decided to go to WVU and I think a big part of that is this fellowship support that I have.

And again, I mean, this speaks to the importance of, you know, humanities scholarship to those running the show in the graduate. . You know, before I came to WVU u I was really, you know, I mean, I, I was not ignorant of the, you know, the conversations that are happening especially since the pandemic about the Future of Humanity Scholarship.

So I wanted to make sure that whatever program I ended up with was part of a college and graduate school and university that took humanities scholarship seriously. Mm. and, and you know, as far as I could tell, you know, I mean it was, you know, the answer was that West Virginia is extremely supportive.

And I think my, my, I see my provost fellowship as part of that. And so my provost Fellowship has allowed me valuable time to think broadly about how I want to use my time in the PhD to get to the next level in my. . And so, I mean, I do wanna kind of touch on the, the you know, how I see kind of professional goals mixing with, you know, personal needs and mental health and all that.

But you know, I've found that the fellowship has allowed me much more time to kind of devote to professional development. . know, I guess I can give you a couple examples of how the kind of, the fellowship has helped me. That would be great. In, in September I was able to attend a conference where I kind of went in knowing I wanted to network, but I didn't realize the networking would actually result in a kind of collaboration with colleagues that I met at the conference.

And we're now building a proposal for a national. And that's something that I never would've dreamed of, you know, a year ago as I was making the commitment to W V U I also have been able to volunteer for two organizations, one on campus and one off campus. Mm-hmm. In the, in the past, you know, five months that I've, I've been in Morgantown and I think.

Thinking about the fellowship, I also have to mention, you know, this summer position that I'm gonna have with an academic summer camp near my home in DC or my parents' home in dc. And, you know, I, I applied for this kind of teaching assistant position thinking it would be a really good professional development opportunity.

and they were really excited to, to interview me. And they, you know, told me how, how, you know, cool that they thought their program was, and, and I thought their program was really cool too. And so these are the things that really, I don't think well, maybe they would've happened eventually, but I think they would've taken much more time to come to fruition had I not had the support of the fellowship.

And, you know, the, the, the Provost fellowship. . And so when I first heard that I was gonna get that fellowship, this is kind of how I envisioned things at, at WVU unfolding. And so I'm, I'm very happy . Well, thank you. And this, that, and your support and thanks to the Provost Fellowship is a good time for us to take a break.

So let's break for a moment to hear from WVU's Provost Office of Graduate Education in.

Welcome back to GradLife 601: Research & Beyond. I'm your host, Dr. Nancy Caronia, and I'm speaking with Benjamin Sussman, a PhD student with WVU's Department of History. , what would you tell potential graduate students about research in graduate school? I feel like you've already given them some tips talking about your own experience, but what else is out there that you think it would be useful for graduate students, potential graduate students to know?

Yeah. Well, I, I also wanna say just thank you, Nancy. I mean, it's great to be with you all today. And yeah, I mean, I. in, in thinking about this topic. You know, one of the goals of graduate school in my, in my opinion, should be to help develop experts. Mm-hmm. , you know, whatever jobs people end up getting.

I think the idea of expertise is, is essential to graduate school. That being said, I mean, you have to have fun. I mean, fun is a, is a, is an essential element of, of education in my. . And so in thinking about graduate school, you have to have an in-depth understanding of the risks that you're undertaking by pursuing this degree, whatever degree you're pursuing and also the rewarding aspects of continuing your education, networking, meeting new people, working with already established experts in the field.

And yeah, I mean, my goal is to continue to work as a teacher. But I'm, I'm, you know, every day, I mean, I see part of my journey as building expertise that will hopefully serve me for the rest of my career. So I don't see it as, I don't see my PhD as a credential that I need to teach. I see it as part of this, this journey of, of becoming a better teacher.

And so I, I think you have to approach graduate school as part of the process of building your career the everyday in and outs of, of graduate school. And if you're not having fun, then that may speak to a different direction you want to take. So, yeah, I think fun. People might not associate school with fun and, and I think if that's how they're thinking.

you know you know, maybe graduate school is not right for them at this time because yeah, I mean, it's gonna be really hard if you're, if you're not having. I think that's a really good point that we forget sometimes that yes, you're students, but you're also professionalizing yourself in that all of your mentors are looking at you as potential colleagues, and that speaks to what do you bring to the work environment as well.

And, and fun is a good way. You know, relaxed, fun, engaged, are all really good words to think about. What's the, what's the one thing you wish you'd known when you started graduate school that might be helpful for incoming graduate students to. . Yeah. So this is you know, a, a tough question. And it's probably tough because I think I still struggle with the isolation mm-hmm.

that is sometimes required to do this amount of work. And it's really again about being committed to a career path. Not seeing it as a credential, but seeing it as something that you're working towards. And so. This has taken intense hours and semesters. I mean, I mean, that goes back to my undergraduate days, but I feel like the stakes are getting, getting, you know, higher.

And so if I was giving advice to my past self, I would say, you know, work more on trusting yourself before kind of this, this process starts because it's an intense process and you need to understand. , you know, sometimes it's okay to imperfectly balance working and non-working. You know, sometimes if you're not having a good day, you have to just, you know, for lack of a better word, put up your feet and, and take time to maybe have fun outside of your studies.

But, you know, trust yourself enough to know that you need to, to not work at that. . And then also trust yourself to know that at some point you're gonna get energy back and you're, you, you're gonna be able to go right back to work when you need to. But yeah, I mean I think that that kind of work life balance you know, it is being talked more and more in, in in the education, in, you know, in the setting of higher education.

But I think that's so important. And so I think my take on it would. , you know, trust yourself trust yourself more and work on, on trusting your, your, your instincts. More in terms of when you need to take a break. Maybe you can stay up all night one night, but then you need to take the rest of the day off.

Kind of trade offs like that. And the other thing I, I wanna say is you, . Isolation is also, I think, part of the process of, of learning and, and education. I mean, you need to reflect on your experience. And so isolation can also be a, a great benefit in graduate school. Thinking about where you want to be headed, you know, not, not developing those ideas about your career in conversation with other people, but really thinking.

where you want to go, you know, how you want to use this program to, to get where you want to go. And yeah, I mean, I think like all education, you know, from kindergarten, preschool, whatever, through you know, a PhD program, you know, it's really about getting to know yourself so you can get to the next.

I think you brought up some really good points here, especially about isolation, that sometimes I feel as though graduate students are surprised by how much time alone, especially those in the humanities, because a lot of our research happens, you know, in the archives, reading books. And if we're out in the field and we're lucky enough to talk with people, that can be a really energizing moment to be in the field and actually interviewing.

But I think that that idea of isolation along with when it's time to take a break, that you may actually need to go out with your friends and do karaoke, you know, , you may, you may need that kind of break just to be, just to be goofy. And I, and I, and all of that is valid, so thank you. I know you like to watch movies.

What have you seen recently that you would recommend? Yes. Well, I'm really excited and it's, it's rare for me to get excited. You know, movies and shows because I, I think, you know, streaming service has have, have kind of lowered the quality of shows, to be honest. But that being said, you know, I think the, this new H B O show, the last of us is, is, has, has really good potential.

I think the acting is just tremendous and it's obvious that the writers kind of know how. Develop characters and a story. So I'm really looking forward to that. It's only kind of three EP or four episodes in at this point. But I'm really looking forward to kind of seeing how that show progresses.

And in the movie space, I mean, I think Banes of, in Shean his you know, a, a great movie. I mean, I like kind of that independent feel for a movie. But then to have, you know, a, an Academy Award-winning director plus, you know, Colin Ferrell. Yeah, I mean, it, it's, it's a, it's a, it's a perfect blend of kind of a, a small scale story. And just kind of a, a massive kind of you know, work, work of art on the scale of. , you know, a an epic movie. And I think you really can, can approach that movie with, you know, any emotions that you are feeling.

That movie will help you to work through them , so, I just saw the ban shoes of Sharon this weekend, and I got stopped in my tracks. I don't know what I expected, but I wasn't expecting to be sobbing at the end of the film. It was such a, it had such a melancholy overtone to it. That was so appropriate.

And then it was also mythic in terms of this idea of how do you have community, what does community mean? And against the backdrop of what's happening in the larger world of their world, and Colin Faron and Brendan Gleason were just, just so moving to me in it. So yeah, I highly recommend it as well.

And I, and I also have watched the first three episodes of the Last of Us, and I've been, I love Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey from Game of Thrones, both of them, I knew them. And I, I knew Bella Ramsey was gonna be a force to be reckoned with when she was all of what, 12 or 13 in Game of Thrones and stole every scene she was in.

So . So thanks for those reminders for. Now, what do you do for fun beyond, you know, movies and making sure you take time? Yeah. How do you take time? Yeah, I well I, you know, I, I think you know, I'm, I'm a really big fan of baseball. And so baseball's gonna be starting up again in a few months and yeah, I mean, last year I wasn't in a PhD program, so I.

you know, , I would watch, I'm a Washington Nationals fan, so I would watch Nationals games every night. And I would even follow their minor league teams. And so now I'm kind of looking at it as, as more of, yeah, a way to kind of decompress, you know hopefully I'll be able to watch some Nationals games.

when the season starts, although they're not gonna be good this season or for a while. But it, you know, it, it is a sense of definitely a sense of relaxation and, you know, being able to chill out to, to watch or, or listen to a baseball game. And then I'm, I'm also, I, I didn't have much time to do it in the fall, but I really want to get out and, and camp You know, a state park or a national park in the area of, of Morgantown.

So I'm really looking forward to kind of the spring and, you know, the, the color coming back to, to the mountains and, and my surroundings here. Yeah, it's really beautiful here and I, you know, I haven't gone down to Audra State Park, but I've heard great things about Audra State Park and I've been down to Dolly Sods, which is quite stunning to Black Waterfall.

And it's just beautiful hiking and beautiful country down there. It, it's when I, the first time I went, I went, what is this? Where am I? You know, it's really just gorgeous. So well, thank you for talking with me today, Benjamin. This has been a lovely conversation. I appreciate you taking the time. Yeah, thank you Nancy.

Yeah, you're welcome.

So thank you to Benjamin Sussman and thank you to GradLife 601’s podcast. Audience, I hope you enjoyed this episode. Please join us next time when I'll be speaking with Joanna Ridgeway, a graduate student in WVU's. Department of Biology. Until next time, I'm Dr. Nancy Caronia for GradLife 601: Research & Beyond.