Thursday, June 9, 2011

thesis teaser: colloquium presentation

On May 9, I gave a presentation of my thesis topic at the History Graduate Colloquium at Simmons College. This is the gathering at which all of the students who have completed their Master's theses in the past semester present their topic to the faculty, students, and other attendees. The point of the presentation is to give the audience a sense of one's research topic, the type of sources used, and the central argument(s) made. 

The following is the text of my talk interspersed with the slides I used to illustrate my presentation. I welcome questions and comments in the comment thread or by email at annajcook [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Oregon Extension, first imagined in the mid-1960s and founded in 1975, is a one-semester off-campus study program located on the Greensprings plateau in the Southern Oregon Cascades.

The program was founded by a group of Midwestern academics who first met at a Christian summer camp in Maryland, where they worked together as staff, and who spent roughly a decade (from 1964-1975) establishing the personal relationships and ambitious vision that became The Oregon Extension (or simply “the OE”). After searching for land in the Canadian Rockies and along the Pacific Coast, they finally discovered the tiny settlement of Lincoln, Oregon.

Founded in 1928 by the Henry Lumber Company as a model mill town, by the early 1970s the company had closed and the land was up for sale, along with the remaining mill and residential buildings. The Oregon Extension faculty and their families purchased the property and, in 1975, moved west to begin their adventure in communal living, supported (they hoped) by the income generated through the educational program.

The Oregon Extension was a one-semester program accredited by Trinity College, a Christian institution affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church and located in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb just north of Chicago. The students who attended the program were drawn from Trinity and other Christian-identified liberal arts colleges across the country. Academically, the Oregon Extension offered students an integrated humanities curriculum consisting of four segments, each lasting about three weeks in duration. The curriculum tackled questions concerning human nature, human society, and the place of science and religion in the modern world. Just as important as the academic curriculum were the trips which took the largely Midwestern student participants out to explore the Pacific Northwest.

Students also enjoyed (and often wrestled with) the ideas and practices of community as they lived and worked together in the isolated settlement. The letters sent to those accepted for the inaugural semester encouraged students to come prepared to discuss big ideas that would have direct moral relevance in their own lives, and to think about what it might mean to be a “Christian learning community.”

My thesis, uses oral history interviews and the personal papers of the Oregon Extension’s founders to explore the relationships and events that led up to the successful establishment of the Oregon Extension in 1975 and the operation of the program between 1975-1980. Between January and May of 2010 I conduced fourteen interviews with three of the founding faculty, two spouses, and seven alumni. In March of 2010 I spent a week in residence at Lincoln, conducting interviews and reading through the personal papers of the faculty, which are what constitute the program’s “archives.”

As an historian, I had two related goals. One was to simply document how the Oregon Extension came to be, since it is a story that has not yet made its way into the historical literature of either 1970s-era communal ventures or the historical literature on American higher education. Second, I wanted to understand the founding of the Oregon Extension as a unique event situated within the context of three contemporary subcultures: the hippie counter-culture, the Christian evangelical subculture, and the flowering of educational experimentation that took place during the 1960s and 70s, both inside and outside traditional institutions.

My thesis argues that the Oregon Extension, as a community and as an educational program, enabled the faculty and student participants to gain geographical, emotional, and intellectual distance from their shared background in the Christian evangelical subculture. The location and structure of the OE gave the faculty a great deal of independence to break with the expectations of their accrediting institution and introduce students to a wide variety of thinkers and ways of learning. Students, in turn, found a freedom in Oregon to re-examine their values without fear of being branded heretics, and often took the opportunity to reinvent themselves. At the same time, the OE has remained connected to both its religious roots and to more mainstream institutions of higher education. Although the Oregon Extension has struggled with financial insecurity and interpersonal tensions, Lincoln and the OE have survived to the present as a liminal space. The exist on the borderlands between established forms of education, Christianity, and community life, and something much more radical in form and philosophy.

For the remainder of my presentation, I would like to share with you a few voices from my oral history interviews that describe the journey to Lincoln.

During the summers of 1972 and 1974, two of the founding faculty, Sam Alvord and Doug Frank, were sent on scouting expeditions to find land on which to establish their community and program. The group was clear about going west, but wanted to avoid known counter-cultural hotspots. In 1972, Sam and Doug drove across Canada; it was the first time either had been west of Minnesota. Sam remembers Doug’s enthusiasm:
Everything he saw, “Look at that! … Oh, man, let’s go up there!” And I’d say, “We’re never
going to get anywhere!” I was, I was really mad at him, “Will you just shut up?” ... Every town we went through, he was ready to move there. We kidded about this. There was this place in the middle of Alberta called Red Creek or something and it was a gas station and a hot dog stand and we stopped and ate a hot dog and he said “Now we gotta look for real estate here!”
     “Are you serious?”
     “Oh, man, this place is really great!”
     “This is hell, you don’t want to live here! You know how far we are from anything?”
     “Oh, man!” So then he kept saying how I wouldn’t let him move to “Red Crap, Alberta.”
     And then it got better and better. He thought Alberta was – and then he saw a mountain and, gee! He was – ejected from his seat!
While they wanted wilderness, and looked West to find it, the group also sought land not too far removed from the amenities of more settled areas – such as an arts and culture scene, a local college where they might arrange for students to use the library, and transportation infrastructure more sophisticated than flagging down the passing freight train. They also wanted existing structures and enough dwellings that each family could have their own private residence. Doug describes how he and Sam finally found Lincoln in the summer of 1974:
I remember when we drove into Ashland either Sam or I said, “Oh, this is a different town than the ones...!” We’d been through these little one-horse towns all over the West. Dusty cowboy towns. Nothing cultural going on in them, at least that we could tell. Here’s Ashland with this big Shakespeare scene happening and there’s restaurants and art galleries and delis and a sense of life. ...It was also a hippie town at the time … you could see that in the clothing of the people in the streets, in the kind of stores that there were.
Despite their determination not to join the hippie exodus, the Lincoln residents ultimately moved to a geographic region second only to Northern California in its number of counter-cultural communes. Lincoln itself was the site of a failed commune, and two communes – Crack of Dawn and The Human Dancing Company – were located in the hills above Lincoln. With its old mill buildings and worker residences, Lincoln offered what Sam and Doug saw as an ideal site for their future life. By the spring of 1975 the group had purchased the property and begun recruiting students. When the school year ended, the faculty packed up their families and headed west to spend the summer renovating the site for student occupation.

Upon arrival in Lincoln, Doug’s wife Marj wrote to Sam’s wife Pat back in Illinois:
We are quite private from the rest of the houses and cabins ... All the rooms [in your house] have flies – but not much dirt. It won’t take long before it’ll be a great house. I think you’ll really like it – and the property is beautiful. Don’t tell your mom about the rattlesnake we killed Sunday.
Marj spent her summer driving up and down the mountain, to and from Ashland and Medford for supplies. “I would go with a list of things I had no idea what they were,” she laughs. Her mother visited Lincoln at some point during that summer and gave the group two hundred dollars so they could paint “Jesus Saves” on the bark burner; they took the money and bought paint to cover the cabin floors, which had been soaked with goat urine by the previous four-legged tenants. Clearly the young communards had different priorities than those of their elders, many of whom had organized their lives around the salvation of souls.

Alumni, too, remember both the wonder of the American West and the thrill that came with breaking with familial expectations. Randy Balmer, who attended in 1975, still recalls the awe of his cross-country drive from Iowa to Oregon:
We were driving around the clock and I got the night shift going through Wyoming and it was – there was a full moon and a clear sky and it was just beautiful ... the driver woke up to take his turn and I said, 'Go back to sleep, I'm fine.' It was just gorgeous.
Alison Wyble Kling, who attended the following year, was a sophomore cheerleader at Trinity when a fellow student convinced her to apply.
My mother [Alison remembers] “(May she rest in peace) said – this is a quote – that I would be ‘deleterious to the academic atmosphere of such a program’ and so she heartily discouraged me. She said ‘you're not an academic.’ ... Maybe that was the challenge that I needed.
Despite her fear of failure, Alison applied, was accepted, and fell in love with both the program and the place. Today, she and her husband Phil (also an alum) live and work at Lincoln.

As a student in 1978, Phil scrawled the following note on an assignment he handed in to Sam Alvord:
Sam, I handed this thing in 2 hours late. I started over 4 times and still ended up with a piece of garbage. I don’t understand the point of it. No one in their right mind can put down what we learned and tie it all together in two pages. Let alone in 3 hours. Anyway – have it for what it’s worth, Phil.
Much like Phil, I’ve had moments, even days, during the past three years, when this research project has felt like something that “no one in their right mind” could put down all tied together. Certainly in a ten-minute presentation I can only hope to give you a brief taste of what I’ve learned.

I know we will have scant time for questions, so if you have questions or are interested in learning more about my research, please email me or visit the project blog,, where I hope (eventually!) to post the audio files and transcripts of the oral history interviews.

And finally, I would like to take a moment to thank the myriad people without whom this project would not have been possible. Without all of you, the results may well indeed have been, as Phil says, “garbage.”