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Q&A with new faculty: Connor Kenaston

Connor Kenaston

Connor Kenaston has always loved history, but he didn’t consider becoming a professional historian until college.

“I remember the thrill of doing archival research for the first time and using what I found to craft an evidence-based argument about what happened, why, and why it matters,” said Kenaston, Randolph’s new Ainsworth Visiting Professor of American Culture. “I have continued to teach and write about U.S. history because I am thoroughly convinced that how we understand the past shapes how we navigate the challenges of the present.”

The West Virginia native majored in history at Yale University. After two years working with a volunteer service program in Missouri, he enrolled in the University of Virginia, where he earned a master’s and Ph.D. in history and a graduate certificate in American studies.

The Ainsworth Visiting Professor is a two-year position. During his time here, Kenaston will focus the American Culture Program on the balance between labor and leisure.

What attracted you to the job at Randolph?
“I was initially drawn to Randolph due to its unique American Culture Program. The program is unlike any other I’d ever encountered. Each year, participants take a deep dive into understanding one aspect of American culture. They learn not just through books and articles but through travel and other immersive learning experiences. As a cultural historian, I couldn’t wait to get started. Randolph College seemed like the ideal institutional home, too. I especially appreciated Randolph’s small class sizes and reputation for excellent teaching.

“Perhaps I was predisposed to like Randolph. My first encounter with the school was several years ago when I came across a brief memoir written by Rebecca Owen, a Randolph-Macon Woman’s College student who participated in a sit-in at the Patterson Drug store in Lynchburg. During my interview weekend last spring, I incorporated the story of Becky Owen and the Patterson Six into a sample class about the sit-in movement.”

Can you tell me more about what you’ll be focusing on as the Ainsworth Professor? What will the American Culture program’s theme be this year/during your time here?
“The theme for this year’s American Culture program is ‘Working for the Weekend: An Exploration of Labor, Leisure, and Music in the United States.’ Participants will examine how people in the past have shifted the balance between labor and leisure. They’ll also consider how this struggle has continued into the present. Why did so many people quit their jobs during the pandemic? And what is behind the current unionization drive in industries ranging from Starbucks to Minor League Baseball? Participants in this year’s American Culture Program will travel to Nashville and Memphis to learn about how music and labor activism have contributed to the long and ongoing struggle for racial and economic justice. To riff on Langston Hughes, we will reflect on how we, too, can sing a new America.”

Describe your teaching style. What can students expect in your classes?
“In my classroom, both what we are learning and how we are learning matters. My top priority is to cultivate an inclusive and democratic learning community where students feel that they belong. Students should expect to be active participants in everything from discussion and activities to co-creating the syllabus and class policies. My goal is that any course I teach will be part of a student’s lifelong journey of becoming a deep thinker and a responsible citizen of the world.”

What classes are you teaching here?
“This fall, I’m teaching the U.S. history survey and African American history. In the spring, I’ll be teaching American women’s history and co-leading Randolph’s American Culture program.”

What were your initial impressions of Randolph and its students?
“I have really enjoyed getting to know the Randolph community. The students are bright and passionate and that makes teaching and advising a delight. I’ve also enjoyed getting to know my faculty and staff colleagues. Randolph’s small size and friendly atmosphere has made it easy to begin developing relationships with folks. And that’s helped make Randolph and Lynchburg start to feel more like home.”

What do you like to do outside of the classroom as far as hobbies or other activities?
“My favorite thing to do outside of the classroom is to go hiking with my wife Maria and our dog, Franklin. I also enjoy singing, going to the theatre, playing soccer and tennis, cheering on Manchester United, and taste testing pastries at my wife’s new bakery, The Flour District. In the summertime, I love to go kayaking on the Greenbrier River back in my home state of West Virginia.”

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