When Cultural Visibility is Not Enough: Supporting Appalachian Students as They Navigate a Stigmatized Identity Away from Home - National Council of Teachers of English
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When Cultural Visibility is Not Enough: Supporting Appalachian Students as They Navigate a Stigmatized Identity Away from Home

This post was inspired by Amanda Berardi Tennant’s article “Rhetorical (In)visibility: How High-Achieving Appalachian Students Navigate their College Experience” in the June 2022 issue of College Composition and Communication.

My recent article in College Composition and Communication reports on research I conducted with Appalachian college students at an elite urban university where Appalachian identity is minoritized. The article shows how these high-achieving students strategically negotiate connections to a stigmatized cultural identity in response to different rhetorical situations. In some cases, these students conceal their connections to the Appalachian mountain region; in others, they draw on unique forms of cultural knowledge in both visible and more subtle ways to, for example, craft ethos and contribute new perspectives to academic conversations. In this post, I discuss some of the implications of this research for the ways that the field engages with students from Appalachia and other stigmatized cultural backgrounds.

Studies have shown how students can discover a sense of empowerment through “cultural visibility” or opportunities to make cultural difference visible, for example by incorporating vernacular language or writing about cultural experiences. Students in my undergraduate writing courses at West Virginia University compose personal narratives on their experiences transitioning to college from small rural communities in Appalachia and use vivid details to describe the beauty of West Virginia’s natural landscapes. Many of these students find a sense of motivation in the opportunity to share personally meaningful experiences and reflect on (often stigmatized) Appalachian experiences with other Appalachian readers.

However, one of the key implications of my findings is that cultural visibility does not always empower students in the ways we might think. In particular, Appalachian students negotiate visibility differently in non-Appalachian environments where students are minoritized, such as the elite university where I conducted my research. When students are writing to audiences who may share their experiences, identifying with a stigmatized background in visible ways can be a powerful way to resist marginalization and build connection. Yet, when there are not many (or any) students who share their background, visibility can further marginalize students in environments where they already feel Othered.

In the five years I taught at the university where my study was conducted, I never had a student  in one of my classes from my home state of West Virginia. This aspect of my experience is significant as it points to the possible under-representation of Appalachian students at elite universities. It also means that the students in my study are addressing non-Appalachian audiences. These Appalachian students are from diverse socioeconomic, place-based, and religious backgrounds, therefore challenging stereotypes of the region’s people as impoverished, rural, white, and uneducated. Yet, they all describe how they have been made highly aware of Appalachian stereotypes, leading to their sense of marginalization in the university. These rhetorically savvy students therefore recognize the risks of Appalachian visibility in a non-Appalachian university and develop strategies for concealing or strategically incorporating their connections to home in response to different rhetorical goals.

When I first started this research, I interviewed a student from West Virginia who had graduated from the university where my study was conducted with a 4.0 GPA after only two years. She had completed a significant portion of her college coursework in high school through advanced placement and dual credit courses. She also increased her coursework during her second academic year at the university. This impressive feat saved this student tens of thousands of dollars. During the interview, she explained that she also chose to leave the university because she struggled to relate to wealthier peers who failed to understand her background beyond the lens of cultural stereotypes.

This student’s experiences point to two of the most important goals of my research: to challenge the common assumption that Appalachian students are underprepared for college and to reveal how high-achieving students from the Appalachian region can still face challenges in negotiating a stigmatized cultural identity. Much of the research and public discourse surrounding Appalachian students focuses on first-generation students from rural and working class backgrounds who speak Appalachian dialects and who struggle academically. This research risks further affirming the expectation for cultural visibility in ways that can disadvantage Appalachian students. When we expect students to “appear Appalachian” through their dialect, dress, or by writing about Appalachian culture, we can fail to see the complexity and nuance of their individual experiences. Research on first generation, working-class, and under-prepared Appalachian students is important because it works to uncover the barriers Appalachian students can face in their academic and professional trajectories. However, it does not provide a full picture of the Appalachian college experience.

Colleges have developed a renewed interest in bringing more students from Appalachia and other rural regions to college. As recruitment initiatives develop, they must consider the range of social and cultural challenges these students are negotiating, even if they do not appear to be under-resourced or academically unprepared. Though these initiatives are a step in the right direction in responding to the marginalization of Appalachian students, there is still much we can do to include these students as active participants in academic conversations where their backgrounds are viewed as valuable forms of cultural knowledge.

Amanda Berardi Tennant is a Teaching Assistant Professor and Associate Coordinator of Undergraduate Writing at West Virginia University, where she teaches composition and mentors new writing instructors. Her research examines how Appalachian  rhetors negotiate cultural identity and respond to stereotypes across different rhetorical situations. Dr. Tennant’s work appears in College Composition and Communication and Literacy in Composition Studies. Prior to joining the faculty at WVU, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow for the Partnership for  Appalachian Girls’ Education and an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Center Director at West Liberty University. Her current book project expands on her research with high-achieving Appalachian college students.

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