Experiential learning encompasses any activity in which a student is actively engaged in their education inside or outside of the classroom. At Trinity, experiential learning includes undergraduate research opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, volunteer experiences, internships, study abroad opportunities, and more.

By Mariah Wahl

As high schoolers, many of us were tasked with reading Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction, perhaps against our will. My first O’Connor experience was reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in a sophomore year English class. The story outlines one elderly woman's darkly humorous car trip with her son's family and concludes with the murder of each family member by a serial killer known only as "The Misfit."

All I remember about that first experience is wondering, “Why is this story so disturbing?” But afterward, I was hooked. Her stories snagged in my brain. I reread her first collection of stories repeatedly as I finished high school and began studying English in college. Why were this woman’s stories so gruesome? Why couldn’t I stop reading them?

Flannery O'Connor, age six. 
As I began preparing for my senior year and my honor’s thesis, these questions resurfaced. I decided to spend the year exploring Flannery O’Connor’s short stories further. My timing couldn’t have been better. In October of 2014, Emory University acquired the collection of O’Connor’s personal papers and a large part is now available for public use. Several of these letters have not yet been published, meaning the majority of O’Connor scholars have never accessed them.

Samples of O'Connor's correspondence. 
Funding from Trinity University's Mach Fellowship gave me the opportunity to fly to Atlanta and visit the archive. I had the opportunity to view O’Connor’s actual papers-- the letters she had touched and the manuscripts she had written. Reading O’Connor’s letters and the letters of her mother and acquaintances gave me a glance at her entire adult life. I spent three days learning about the small details of her daily routine, her reaction to historical events like Kennedy’s assassination, and her thoughts as she wrote her novels and short stories. Each event was colored by her continuous struggle with Lupus, the debilitating illness that would eventually take her life. O'Connor conveys every event with her signature dry, witty humor. 

Emory University houses the Flannery O’Connor Archive. This collection of manuscripts and letters was moved to Emory in October of 2014, and is currently being documented and archived by library staff, though several letters and manuscripts are available for public use.r

Recordings in Emory's archive reveal O'Connor's snarky response to criticism. 
This archive enabled me to get a better sense of who O’Connor was in her personal letters to friends, and how these relationships and events in her personal life interacted with her writing. Beyond their practical scholarly application, the O’Connor papers made Flannery O’Connor a human figure, rather than a mysterious literary one.

Learn more about opportunities for undergraduate research here. Find more information about experiential learning by visiting Trinity's Office for Experiential Learning in the Coates University Center. 

Photos courtesy of Emory University's Rose Library.