I.11: Re-Reading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance

Reviewed by Cecilia Bonnor, University of Houston (cbonnor@uh.edu)

Chair: Kim Donehower, University of North Dakota
Speakers: Joshua Iddings, Virginia Military Institute, “Re-Reading Appalachian Literacy: A Functional Linguistics Approach”
Emma Howes, Coastal Carolina University, “Libraries and Living Rooms: An Exploration of Where Archives and Communities Meet”
Sara Webb-Sunderhaus, Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, “Re-Shaping Literacy Studies: A Theory ofand forAppalachia”

This Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) session coincided with the recent publication of Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance, edited by Sara Webb-Sunderhaus and Kim Donehower (2015). All three speakers addressed various aspects of their research contributions to the book by considering place-based literacies, accessing archival and non-archival records for what they reveal about people’s lived experiences, and offering specific examples of how local texts can be fruitfully analyzed, so as to show how literacies are locally constructed.

First, Webb-Sunderhaus began her presentation by contextualizing the genesis of the edited collection, the inspiration for which came about while she was writing her dissertation. Webb-Sunderhaus pointed out that her dissertation director, Beverly Moss, suggested the book project. Rereading Appalachia sought to overcome the binaries of insiders and outsiders as well as to critique Peter Mortensen’s (1994) earlier work, which seemed to obscure the complex relationships of Appalachians with outside forces. As Webb-Sunderhaus noted, non-text-based cultural products have been well explored, but very little, if any, work has been done on literacy in Appalachia, which has led to a misconception about the absence of text-based literacies. Both Deborah Brandt’s (2001) Literacy in American Lives and Nancy Welch’s (2005) term rhetorical space inform the foci of this edited collection. Sponsors of literacy form a complex backdrop in which resistance calls into question our perceived notions of literacy. The essays in the book argue for a new theory of literacy for Appalachians. Welch’s (2005) work and James Paul Gee’s (1989) discussion of mastery of a secondary discourse suggested that individuals learn to value literacies through church and families. Resistance is complicated, and the book presented contradictory understandings of literacies as well as the contradictory nature of Appalachian identity. Rereading Appalachia offered a theory that acknowledges the complexity of Appalachian identity. Although group identities and family identity related to literacy are more readily accessible, the book attempted to offer individual perceptions of literacy. As this collection of essays pointed out, theories of literacy make simplistic assumptions about the meaning of literacy. The process of discovering new literacies, however, is difficult and painful, not only for research participants, but also for those who are undertaking research. Outside alienation needs to be understood. Accumulation of literacy no longer can position Appalachians as passive, a central argument of this book which challenges Ellen Cushman’s (1998) naïve participant. Another important term in the book is Elspeth Stuckey’s (1991) notion of violent literacy, in which literacy is used to achieve exploitative ends. Literacy is both for good and for ill. Nevertheless, the contributors to the book attempt to show that literacy can have a beneficial impact on people’s lives.

Next, in her presentation, Emma Howes showcased her contributions to Rereading Appalachia by focusing on feminist methodological approaches to her research on local histories in North and South Carolina. She discussed the implications of “archival accretion” and formal literacy building. Howes acknowledged the centrality of the mill industry in generating jobs during and following the Reconstruction era, although mill towns were unincorporated spaces. Mothers and children became part of larger labor pool. Both paid labor and formal education became attractive resources for local inhabitants. For example, social welfare programs as well as what might be considered personal development classes on hygiene and dress making were popular in the mill towns. “No cooking; no quilt” mill campaigns should be contextualized in larger national movements. By way of illustration, Howes mentioned that the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) were instrumental in sponsoring these educational objectives. The mill towns provided glimpses into the working lives of the local people. Mill towns not only highlighted investment models, but they also had an impact on literacy learning from rural to urban. Howes went on to argue that Brandt’s (2001) term ideological freights can be seen in the archival histories of Appalachian mill towns. Furthermore, she emphasized that researchers have much to gain from contextualizing research participants’ lived experiences within less traditional spaces. People’s working lives in mill towns could be taken into account as part of archival accretion. According to Howes, other lingering concepts that played an important role in her research had to do with lived cultural places, process of methodological changes, and reactions. As she demonstrated, accessibility of people and places shows complicated relationships between their public and private lives. She emphasized that the history looks very different in the Glencoe Mill Museum from theoretical book learning.

Howes noted that the feminist archival work of Cheryl Glenn and Jessica Enoch (2010), who foregrounded why researchers approach groups of people, informed her own investigation. The larger social work has to do with connections and relationships. The nostalgic recollections of one research participant (“Leon”) led Howes to acknowledge her own affective reactions to research situation. Although Leon was not associated with any archival collection, Howes felt compelled to demonstrate her ethos. As much as possible, she wanted to begin by trying to understand who the people were. Howes discovered that, more than discovering historical information, she established a relationship with Leon that generated an affective dimension. This presenter mentioned Gesa Kirsch and Liz Rohan’s (2008) view that the communities researchers study are rarely intact, as a result of which existing feminist methodologies can offer deeper appreciation of the communities being studied. Such methodologies emphasize mutually contemplative dispositions. She recognized this contemplative strategy in her e-mail exchanges with Leon, who was concerned about her ability to understand the grassroots community. She provided excerpts from Leon’s messages in which he urged her to set aside preconceptions. By discussing her correspondence with Leon, Howes touched on outside researchers’ desire to respond to an urgency to communicate and convey these histories. Historical literacy campaigns taught her how to listen to pauses. Howes noted that ethos requires more than academic research.

Lastly, Joshua Iddings offered an overview of his research on Systems Functional Linguistics (SFL), which he addresses more fully in a chapter in Rereading Appalachia. Iddings began by pointing out that, although this theory of language often has not been studied in the U.S., it has been studied extensively in Australia. He then discussed the uses of tenor, which is the role of language between interlocutors as well as the experiential nature of people’s language choices. As Iddings noted, David Brown (2006) argued that SFL gives students choices and another way of expressing themselves without coercion. Iddings advocated for a pedagogy focusing on Appalachia as well as emphasizing that the textbook used should be by Appalachian writers. To illustrate his claim about the valuable insights of such texts, Iddings used Diane Gilliam Fisher's (2004) poem, “Explosion at Winco No. 9” (published in Kettle Bottom) to demonstrate how it could be analyzed, according to SFL’s three stages: 1) Orientation; 2) Complication; and 3) Resolution. These stages thus offer a way to access the power of this poem, which aims to tell a heart-wrenching story. As Iddings showed in a session handout, SFL focuses on the smaller details and language of the text being analyzed. This approach can yield patterns of meaning in the poem, by leading audiences to make interpretations about the mental processes of men and women. In “Explosion at Winco No. 9,” men were portrayed as more physically active, whereas women were seen as less physically active participants. Iddings went on to argue that, by taking a look at these local texts, students are learning about their history and culture as well as their own lives. In addition, such texts can offer a vision for participating in democratic processes. Iddings showed that collectively deconstructing texts enables students to control a genre’s language, by moving from collective to individual pieces. As though reinforcing the significance of the book’s title, Iddings’s SFL exercise offers possibilities for students to deconstruct texts and make them meaningful throughout their lives.

After the speakers gave their presentations, a productive question and answer exchange occurred. An audience member mentioned current educational approaches in which Appalachian writers are discussed in Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses (e.g., “The Mothman”). A question was raised about Common Core and how it would affect place-based literacies, studies, and education.

In addition, there were comments about representations of Southern Appalachia. Specifically, one of the speakers mentioned that notions of Hillbilly and Appalachia were deeply rooted in exploitative rewriting of ideologies. Mill owners are seen as people who took care of their workers, which was shocking to Howes, who noted potential sites of violence.

In discussing interviewing and researching communities, one of the speakers mentioned that resisting stereotypes actually closes off other areas that need to be analyzed. The example of Victoria Purcell-Gates’s (1995) representation of Appalachia in Other People’s Words was used in connection with the concept of “tellability,” having to do with narratives we can and can’t tell was also mentioned.

After the panel discussion, enduring questions for these researchers include: How do we enter communities? How do we account for multiple perspectives? In this connection, a panelist mentioned Ann K. Ferrell's (2016), “It’s Really Hard to Tell the True Story of Tobacco,” from Diane Goldstein and Amy Shuman’s The Stigmatized Vernacular, which emphasized the layered complexity of encountering, researching, and explicating another community on its own terms.


Brandt, Deborah. (2001). Literacy in American lives. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, David. (2006). Micro-level teaching strategies for linguistically diverse learners. Linguistics and Education, 17, 175–195.

Cushman, Ellen. (1998). The struggle and the tools: Oral and literate strategies in an inner city community. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Ferrell, Ann K. (2016). “It’s really hard to tell the true story of tobacco”: Stigma, tellability, and reflexive scholarship. In Diane E. Goldstein & Amy Shuman (Eds.), The stigmatized vernacular: Where reflexivity meets untellability (pp. 14–42). Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

Fisher, Diane Gilliam. (2004). Explosion at Winco No. 9 in Kettle bottom (p.7). Florence, MA: Perugia Press.

Glenn, Cheryl, & Enoch, Jessica. (2010). Invigorating historiographic practices in rhetoric and composition studies. In Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, & Lisa S. Mastrangelo (Eds.), Working in the archives: A practical research guide for rhetoric and composition (pp. 11–27). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Gee, James Paul (1989). What is literacy? Journal of Education, 171(1), 18–25.

Kirsch, Gesa E., & Rohan, Liz (Eds.). (2008). Beyond the archives: Research as a lived experience. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Mortenson, Peter. (1994). Representations of literacy and region: Narrating "Another America.” In Patricia Sullivan & Donna Qualley (Eds.), Pedagogy in the age of politics: Writing and reading (in) the academy (pp. 100–120). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Purcell-Gates, Victoria (1995). Other people's words: The cycle of low literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stuckey, J. Elspeth (1991). The violence of literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara, & Donehower, Kim (Eds.). (2015). Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, place, and cultural resistance. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.

Welch, Nancy. (2005). Living room: Teaching public writing in a post-publicity era . College Composition and Communication, 56(3), 470–492.

Created by KaitlynS. Last Modification: Tuesday January 3, 2017 22:36:54 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.