A native of Elizabethton, Jami Bennett first came to ETSU on a full vocal music scholarship several years ago. She had enjoyed numerous choral and band concerts in the ETSU Department of Music during her years in junior and senior high, and knew she would enjoy the program. The fact that ETSU was close to home was a plus, too. However, complications from an autoimmune disease left her unable to attend classes, and she soon had to withdraw from school.
While she was dealing with her illness and growing stronger, Bennett discovered anthropology by watching an ethnographic film series on television. “I figured if I was too unwell to go out and experience the world outside, I would try to experience it on TV and in magazines and books,” she recalled. “From there, I found a passion for documenting human identity and studying culture. Anthropology was so much more than an enjoyable hobby at which I happened to excel – it was something I was very passionate about. So, I came back to school.”
As a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, Bennett has been heavily involved in undergraduate research, particularly in the practice in Appalachia of dowsing, the art of divining or finding water, metals, ores, lost items, and other objects using such tools as rods and pendulums. Some scholars trace this practice to 15th century Germany, and it survives today in many places.
“I was interested in dowsing as a representation of how Southern Appalachia can retain traditions while still allowing them to evolve,” she explained. “Culture is constantly bombarded by outside forces, and I wanted to see how that affected dowsing in this area.
“There are all kinds of uses for dowsing today. There are new communities popping up all over the place. The younger generation, from what I’ve seen and understood, is using it in new and different ways and inviting new technology into the practice, such as using electromagnetic field equipment in conjunction with dowsing rods.”
Bennett has shared her work at numerous research symposiums and conferences both at ETSU and other universities. She presented “Earth Energies: The Evolution of Dowsing in Southern Appalachia” at this year’s Ivy Plus Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., and is the only ETSU student to date who has been invited to this prestigious event co-sponsored by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also shared her work with Tennessee state legislators as part of this year’s “Posters at the Capitol” Day celebrating undergraduate research at institutions across the state.
Bennett combined her major with a minor in film studies. “As someone who had such a huge background in the arts, it only made sense for me to want to represent my research in multiple forms, so I looked into the film program here and was able to cater my studies toward production,” she said. “I think I’m very much in love with the idea of public scholarship. The combination of visual anthropology and film is a way to bring my research to life, allow others to see and hear exactly what it is I’m experiencing in the field. Everywhere you look – YouTube, smartphones – there are media and video, and it only makes sense to bring research to that next level.”
She has done just that by writing, editing, directing and producing several short films, including two which premiered in this year’s Made in East Tennessee Film Festival in Johnson City. One of those films, “A Sound Discovery,” won the top award in the film festival, which is sponsored by the Radio, Television and Film program in ETSU’s Department of Communication. She also did an internship in film last summer at the University of Michigan.
Bennett, who graduated from ETSU on May 10, will head to South Korea this summer to teach English in a private school for one year. Afterward, she plans to enter graduate school and is applying to master’s degree programs in visual anthropology at various universities. Her goal is a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology.
Bennett offers encouragement to current and prospective students who face challenges, such as her own illness. “I know students who have been through even more difficult circumstances and didn’t even think school was a possibility,” she said. “If they find something they’re passionate about and something they want to do for the rest of their lives, they can do it. I may not be ‘the next American Idol’ or be drafted by the WNBA, but anything with the mind is possible. You just have to find the thing you love to do.”