New Andalusia Institute has robust opening

New Andalusia Institute has robust opening

I t was a bizarre time to begin a new job—let alone launch an organization from scratch. 

Dr. Irene Burgess
Dr. Irene Burgess
COVID-19 quickly turned Dr. Irene Burgess’ new position as inaugural executive director of Georgia College’s new Andalusia Institute into a quagmire of possible pitfalls. But the opening was ‘virtually’ flawless.

“It’s gratifying that we’ve been able to develop the start of an Andalusia Institute culture, despite the challenges of the time,” Burgess said. “Actually, COVID was one of the better things that happened to us. It gave me time to work on our virtual presence, create a Facebook page and establish ourselves in a way that’s really unique.”

Actually, COVID was one of the better things that happened to us. It gave me time to work on our virtual presence, create a Facebook page and establish ourselves in a way that’s really unique.
– Dr. Irene Burgess
Putting events online turned out to be a smart move—amplifying the works of famed author and alumna Flannery O’Connor, while introducing the institute to a wider audience. People worldwide tune in for lively discussions about O’Connor’s novels, short stories and essays. 

Before the pandemic, Burgess planned to begin slowly, building up the institute with author visits and readings. COVID changed that direction, and Burgess couldn’t be happier with the results. More than 200 people are registered to participate in virtual events—the most popular given by English Professor Dr. Bruce Gentry.

For years, Gentry led a monthly discussion on O’Connor with residents in Eatonton. Online, his sessions have blossomed into a bimonthly international affair. Viewers from all over the United States—as well as Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey—link into his Zoom programs. People who can’t otherwise travel to Andalusia find a sense of community, connection and common interest with likeminded readers via computer.

Andalusia Institute’s online programs also sparked global interest in Milledgeville, Georgia history, Southern studies and mid-20th century literature.

This little thing in Eatonton once a month is now worldwide because of coronavirus.
– Burgess
“This little thing in Eatonton once a month is now worldwide because of coronavirus,” Burgess said. “Only half the audience are scholars. Some are just happy to have someone to talk to because of COVID. Others are fanatic about her books. They love her and they love her books, but they never had anyone to talk to about it. Now they have an outlet.”

Burgess understands the magnetism of O’Connor’s peculiar, charming and sometimes gruesome stories. She grew up in rural Maine and sees many of her townsfolk in the quirky mannerism of O’Connor’s characters. In high school, Burgess read O’Connor and marveled at a world much like her own. Her father was a chicken farmer, before working at a local factory and eventually moving the family to New Hampshire. 

She left to get an undergraduate degree in agricultural economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Burgess worked as a line supervisor at food production plants, before deciding she’d rather read and discuss books for a living. She got her master’s in English at the University of New Hampshire, then a Ph.D. in women writers and English literature of the 16th century at SUNY Binghamton University in New York. 

From there, Burgess did a number of things. She taught at Wheeling Jesuit University, where she became chair of the English department. She was associate dean for academic affairs at Wilmington College in Ohio, then provost at Eureka College in Illinois; vice president of academic programming at the Appalachian College Association; and head of a scholastic consortium in Pennsylvania.

But she was looking for something different. 

The Flannery O'Connor farmhouse at Georgia College's Andalusia.
The Flannery O'Connor farmhouse at Georgia College's Andalusia.
Burgess saw an ad for Georgia College, which was starting an institute based on one of her favorite post-modern writers. She jumped at the chance to visit campus and see where O’Connor got her undergraduate degree in sociology. Burgess couldn’t wait to tour the Andalusia farmhouse, where O’Connor spent her remaining years writing and suffering from Lupus—a devastating inflammatory disease when the immune system attacks its own tissues. 

Becoming head of a new institute based on O’Connor was a rare chance to build something from the ground up. Burgess was intrigued and jumped at the opportunity—bringing along skills uniquely suited to the job like her experience starting organizations and raising funds, as well as her interest in literature and O’Connor.

At her interview, Burgess asked Georgia College administrators the “why” question. Why did they think it was a good idea to start an institution based on the writer? University President Dr. Steve Dorman gave a satisfying answer. He said the famous alumna had to go elsewhere for a masters in Fine Arts. He wanted “future Flannery O’Connors” to get the support they need here.

Flannery O'Connor's bedroom at Andalusia.
Flannery O'Connor's bedroom at Andalusia.
This answer so captivated Burgess that she’s planning a future writing residency on 487 acres of land behind the Andalusia property. She hopes to build individual houses and a writing center with advanced accessibility and supports for the disabled. She feels this would best honor O’Connor, who walked with crutches due to her illness. The author developed Lupus in her mid 20s and died at age 39, while living at Andalusia with her mother. Nearly all of her short stories, novels, essays and letters were written during those years.

Burgess envisions a writing residency for all people, but one especially equipped to assist people with all types of disabilities. There are other writing residencies in the country. Out of 5,000 higher education schools, however, maybe 50 are tied to alumni writers. None are built to uniquely support the disabled.

There’s this whole group of artists, who have disabilities...We’re building something from scratch. Why not build something that’s highly accessible? Build it so everyone can use it.
– Burgess
“There’s this whole group of artists, who have disabilities. About one-in-five people in the U.S. has a disability,” Burgess said. “One of the problems with writing residencies—many are in old houses converted to be accessible. We’re building something from scratch. Why not build something that’s highly accessible? Build it so everyone can use it. Make it easier for all people.”

“It will be a challenge,” she said. “But it could also be very appealing and distinctive.”

Another idea Burgess is working on involves collecting and preserving memories of O’Connor. Burgess is taking Dr. Stephanie Opperman’s oral history class to learn more about the art of historical storytelling. The oral history project is being podcasted and kept at Ina Dillard Russell Library. A student from Gentry’s Southern literature class is busy transcribing interviews from people who remember O’Connor and members of her family.

The rocking chair front porch at Andalusia, where Georgia College students met the author for literary chats.
The rocking chair front porch at Andalusia, where Georgia College students met the author for literary chats.

While living at Andalusia, O’Connor kept in touch with former professors. College literary groups often visited the farmhouse in the spring, sitting in rocking chairs with O’Connor on the front porch. Every Monday night, O’Connor was part of a reading and discussion group in Milledgeville—called “The Quart Club,” because each member brought a quart of ice cream. People remember their parents talking about the club and how O’Connor read her stories out loud.

Working here, I've become aware of her as an individual. People tell stories about her. I go to the Andalusia museum so often, and I talk to scholars and people who met her. She’s become real to me.
– Burgess
Several university scholars help lead discussions for the institute’s monthly virtual events—like Jordon Cofer, associate provost of Transformative Learning Experiences, and Dr. Carolyn Denard, associate vice president and chief diversity officer in the Office of Inclusive Excellence. Various people know O’Connor’s work and life history well and have tidbits to offer—like Nancy Davis Bray, associate director of Special Collects at the library; and Monica Miller, head of the Flannery O’Connor Association in Macon and professor at Middle Georgia State University. Monthly events are also being used to highlight emerging new authors, like Yaa Gyasi. 

Georgia College was an intellectual hub for O’Connor, and Burgess wants the Andalusia Institute to continue this tradition. Along with the Andalusia museum, the institute will keep the memory of O’Connor and her work alive and vibrant.

“It’s kind of a thrill,” Burgess said. “I’ve taken this deep dive into reading and understanding Flannery.”

“Working here, I’ve become aware of her as an individual,” she said. “People tell stories about her. I go to the Andalusia museum so often, and I talk to scholars and people who met her. She’s become real to me.”