College Composition and Communication Article June 2022 - National Council of Teachers of English

The differences between these two examples illustrate the exceptionally  complex  nature  of  negotiating  a  cultural  identity  characterized  by  stereotypes  that  can  both  align  with  and  diverge  from  students’  lived  experiences. In this article, I argue that these complexities have been un-dertheorized in prior studies of Appalachian college students that primarily focus on rural,  working-class,  and  first-generation  students  who  use  vernacular dialects at universities within the mountain region. This body of scholarship has theorized Appalachian identity as highly visible in that students perform cultural voice through vernacular language and reflect on rural experiences in personal writing assignments. Studies such as Sohn’s reveal how these visible performances of identity can enable working-class Appalachian students to honor connections to home and resist marginalization. By focusing on a subset of Appalachians, however, this research does not adequately address the question of how Appalachian students from a diverse range of linguistic, socioeconomic, cultural, and place-based backgrounds negotiate Appalachian identity in less visible ways.

This question is  especially  significant  as  universities  have  begun  to  develop scholarship programs and diversity initiatives to bring more rural students to college. Illustrated through Goldie Blumenstyk’s Chronicle of Higher Education 2019 newsletter, “How to Get More Rural Students Ready for College? Start With Broadband,” these much-needed initiatives stand to support typically underprepared, first-generation, and rural Appalachian students who do not have access to basic resources for college. However, in supporting exclusively rural and working-class students, these programs do  not  account  for  the  identity-based  challenges  Appalachian  students  from  a  broader  range  of  socioeconomic  and  place-based  backgrounds  encounter  in  negotiating  connections  to  a  stigmatized  place.  Such programs also fail to acknowledge the equally valuable perspectives of more diverse Appalachians and risk minimizing the types of prejudice that these students can face. In Whistlin’ and Crowin,’ Sohn asserts that Appalachians are “being left out of cultural conversations” and emphasizes their “need to be respected for who they are and for what they bring to the multicultural table” (1–2). To adequately include Appalachians, we must develop more nuanced understandings of this group that reach beyond rural, working-class, vernacular students. Appalachian  students  from  more  diverse  backgrounds  who  do  not  look or sound Appalachian can still face identity-based challenges tied to the region’s history and problematic representation in public discourses. Some historically under-resourced areas of Appalachia have experienced high levels of poverty and struggled to diversify their economies beyond coal and oil (“Economic Diversity”). These challenges, however, are not generalizable to the entire region, which is actually quite diverse geographically and  culturally.  Appalachia  encompasses  portions  of  thirteen  states  that  include both cities and rural towns, and is home to increasing Black and Latinx populations (Pollard and Jacobsen). Nevertheless, public discourses depict Appalachia as a monolithic mountain region, its people stereotyped as poor, white, rural, unemployed, illiterate, immoral, addicted, violent, and even diseased hillbillies and rednecks. Other stereotypes romanticize the region and its people as quaint, hard-working country folk with knowledge of the land and a commitment to upholding country traditions.

As a  native  of  the  region,  I  encountered  these  stereotypes  firsthand  when  I  left  home  to  attend  graduate  school  at  a  culturally  diverse  urban  institution. When peers learned that I was from West Virginia, they questioned whether I liked to clog (a type of mountain dance) or go “mudding” (ride all-terrain vehicles). These questions were informed by reality television shows, which at the time seemed especially interested in exoticizing Appalachians as hillbillies who illegally harvest ginseng, hunt for mountain monsters, and make moonshine while wearing camouflage and overalls. I was baffled by how to respond in such interactions. I could identify with Appalachia and  risk  marking  myself  as  an  illiterate hillbilly in a new academic environment. Or, I could deny this facet of my identity and fail to challenge offensive stereotypes of a  culture  to  which  I  wanted  to  remain  connected,  though  certainly  not  by  clogging  or  speaking  a  rural  dialect.  As I  composed  my  personal  statement  for  doctoral  programs  in composition and rhetoric, I referenced my background growing up in rural Appalachia. Yet  I  questioned,  will  my  audience  see  this  reference  as  support  for  my  commitment  to  studying  the  rhetorical  practices  of  marginalized  communities?  Or, will  they wonder if I am adequately prepared for advanced graduate study? My Appalachianess was not a core sense of cultural identity I strived to voice, but a form of difference I was actively negotiating in response to particular rhetorical situations. In this article, I use the case of Appalachian identity to complicate the visibility framework and to therefore question how we can better understand the  diverse  ways  Appalachian  college  students  negotiate  connections  to  the region without diminishing the nuances of their unique backgrounds. I report on research I conducted with five high-achieving Appalachian college students at the university where I completed my graduate studies, an elite institution where Appalachian students were a minority. Ultimately, I show how these students enact what I call rhetorical (in)visibility, a three-move rhetorical process that allows them to reveal markers of Appalachian identity for strategic rhetorical purposes. In doing so, I offer the concept of rhetorical (in)visibility as an alternative to the visibility framework.

The Influence of the Visibility Framework on Composition Studies Composition studies has “a long, proud history of making the invisible visible and of examining how language both reflects and supports notions of Other” (Brueggeman et al. 371). The visibility framework is perhaps best illustrated through the example of the LGBTQ+ rhetor who is empowered by “coming out” (i.e., moving out of the margins into visibility). It also informs writing instruction through expressivist pedagogies that ask students to perform personal voice (Berlin; Elbow; Murray; Hindman) and autoethnographies that encourage students  to  critically  examine  identity  categories  (Shor; Camangian; Carey-Webb). Scholars have described how visibility can enable underrepresented and colonized groups to address their marginalization (Brayboy 128). Others show how visibility can enable marginalized rhetors to form class consciousness  and  take  political  action.  Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara,  and  Deborah  Meem, for  example,  state,  “in  marking  stories  ‘lesbian’  and  ‘working-class,’  the  lives  contained  therein  are  less  invisible and give the narrators—students and faculty—a political site from which  to  speak  and  act”  (72).  Additionally, scholars argue that  visibility  leads rhetors to preserve connections to cultural identity. This perspective is illustrated through David Seitz’s article, “Making Work Visible,” in which a working-class student resists the pressure to speak like a member of the educated class to maintain working-class  solidarity  (210).  Other studies, though, have pointed to the potential limitations of the visibility framework, especially for marginalized rhetors who are negotiating the constraints of predominantly white, middle-class institutions. For marginalized students to be “authentically” visible to white audiences, they must perform identities that align with these audiences’ expectations, which are often shaped by cultural and linguistic stereotypes. 


Scholars provide compelling arguments for why Black and American Indian rhetors’ visible performances of difference should not be easily read as representative of cultural identity. Vershawn Ashanti Young, for example, describes how pedagogies that foreground Black English Vernaculars (BEV) conflate racial identity with language to privilege a particular expression of Black masculine identity and exclude others (703). Such pedagogies can compel Black men to perform BEV to authenticate an identity that appeals to their teachers but is not necessarily reflective of their objective realities. Similarly, Malea Powell analyzes the writings of two American Indian rhetors to show how their texts are not simply autobiographical, but “deliberately rhetorical” (406). Powell shows how these rhetors engage in what she calls a “rhetoric of survivance” by performing the identities of the civilized Indian and the savage to authenticate their experiences to white audiences. By complicating the divide between these stereotypes, this rhetoric allows the American Indians  “to  both  engage  in  and  critique  [i.e.  survive and  resist] beliefs about authentic Indianness” (415). Still other scholars have shown how some rhetors may not actually want to make difference visible, since visibility may lead to further marginalization. Bryan M. J. Brayboy, for example, found that American Indian students at an ivy league institution deploy strategies of invisibility to resist oppression and preserve cultural integrity (125). Collectively, this body of scholarship shows how visibility does not always hold power in the ways we expect, and that strategic silence can be more agentive than we realize. 

Visibility Rhetorics, Appalachian Identity, and Vernacular Language

When we examine the pros and cons of the visibility framework, specifically in relation to Appalachian identity, we can begin to understand the complex dilemmas that Appalachian students face and the need for an alternative theory. In addition to managing cultural stereotypes, Appalachian students must negotiate  an  identity  that  both  is  and  is  not white  in  institutions  shaped by the norms of white, middle-class culture. Appalachian identity has been prejudiced in ways that parallel non-white identities. Victor Villanueva describes Appalachians as “the color without a name;” they are white but not quite, “surely not the whites of ‘whiteness studies’” (xv). Nancy Isenberg sheds light on the historical origins of prejudice against Appalachians, whom she describes as squatters who migrated to mountainous areas after the revolutionary war (108). White landowners viewed these early Appalachians as lower class, immoral, vulgar, and “no better than savages” (Isenberg 109). Additionally,  some  Appalachian  college  students  have  not  had  access  to  the same privileges as their white, middle- to upper-class peers, a struggle that can be felt acutely by students who have left the Appalachian region to attend elite urban universities. Such students must determine whether to disclose problems that arise from an underprivileged background while also negotiating the risks of associating with a non-white, lower-class identity. 

Research in Appalachian literacies reveals a clear trend to foreground the  perspectives of rural, working-class students and scholars who negotiate feelings of  otherness  in  visible  ways.  In  her  study  of  vernacular-speaking  Appalachian  students,  Amy  D.  Clark shares  the  following  narrative  to  illustrate the Appalachian English that defines her cultural identity: “When we rode home from [my great grandmother’s] house in the back of my dad’s blue Ford, we watched for haints in the darkest parts of the holler, and usgirls  never  wore  paints  to  church”  (Clark  110;  emphasis  by  Clark).  Clark  argues for teaching Appalachian students a contrastive analysis approach to code switching by instructing them to write in their vernacular dialects and  translate  their  language  into  Standard  Academic English (SAE). The effectiveness of this approach relies on the assumption that Appalachian students bring vernacular dialects to the classroom that are distinctly different from SAE and presumably connected to students’  cultural  selves.  The limitations  of the approach, however, become apparent when we recognize that not all Appalachian students  perform  cultural  identity  in  such  visible ways. Some Appalachian students do not speak Appalachian English and therefore do not connect Appalachian identity to non-standard language. However, this lack of vernacular does not necessarily indicate these  students’  refusal  to  identify  with  Appalachia.  Rather, they  may identify in less visible ways. 

An additional limitation of previous studies is that they tend to focus on students  who  attend  schools  within  the  Appalachian  region  (Sohn,  “Silence, Voice, and Identity” and Whistlin’ and Crowin’; Webb-Sunderhaus, “Keep the Appalachian” and “Living with Literacy’s Contradictions;” Snyder; Dunstan and Jaeger). The scholarship reveals much less about Appalachian students who have left the region to attend college. It is possible that these Appalachian students do not fully realize the pervasiveness or stigmatization of regional stereotypes until they are in non-Appalachian universities, where they are likely to be seen as cultural Other. If these students do come to college with a core sense of Appalachian identity—a claim that is in itself questionable—the expectation  that  they  will  voice  this  identity  in  easily  recognizable ways is highly problematic, especially when students do not speak vernacular dialects. 

Research Questions

This study examined the nuanced ways students can negotiate Appalachian identity by asking the following questions:

  • What challenges do diverse Appalachian college students face in their efforts to negotiate connections to a highly stigmatized cultural identity in environments where this identity is marginalized? 
  • What do these students do in their writing to respond to these challenges and how do they interpret their writing in relation to their goals?
  • In what ways do these challenges and responses align with or diverge from previous findings in studies of Appalachian students?

Research Location

To answer these questions, I conducted open-ended interviews and analyzed writing samples from Appalachian students at a Research 1 university in the northern Appalachian region, where I was pursuing my doctorate and 

teaching first-year composition. This university is a highly competitive institution where the majority of students are not Appalachian. While data is not available to indicate the representation of Appalachian students across the university, the institution does report student representation by country and state for each first-year  class.  During the first year of the  study,  32%  of  first-year  students  were  from  Appalachian  states.  While that number may  seem  substantial,  it  is  important  to  note  that  the  actual  percentage  of Appalachian students was actually much smaller, since only fractions of each state are considered Appalachia, with the exception of West Virginia, which is entirely included in the region. This data is imperfect in revealing the extent to which Appalachian students  were  marginalized,  since  it  is  specific to first-year students and not all of my research participants were in  this  academic  class.  Nevertheless, the numbers help  to  illustrate  the  limited  representation  of  Appalachian  students  in  the  institution  at  the  time of my study.

Process for Selecting Research Participants

To select participants, I sought out undergraduate and graduate students who had lived in Appalachia prior to attending college. To identify these students, I:

  • Reviewed sports rosters that listed students’ hometowns.
  • Consulted my undergraduate composition students.
  • Networked with other composition instructors.
  • Searched Facebook. 

I identified twelve potential participants, nine of whom agreed to research interviews. Of the nine students who completed initial open-ended inter-views, five shared writing samples.

 This article focuses on these five students because they effectively illustrate the diverse backgrounds Appalachians can bring to the university. The participants are all white, and thus not reflective of the racial diversity of Appalachia. Still, these students are at different academic stages (first-year to doctorate) and from diverse socioeconomic, cultural, religious, and place-based backgrounds,  yet  they  are  encountering  similar  challenges  and  negotiating  identity  in  overlapping  ways.  The following  list  outlines  the students’ backgrounds in detail. Note that none of these students, the exception of Charlotte, were raised by parents who held working-class professions, yet  all  but  Ben  identify  with  Appalachia  through  family  or  community connections to working-class industries. I will elaborate on the significance of this finding in my analysis.

  • Charlotte: First-year physics major from Pennsylvania. Identifies as rural and Jewish. Worked for father’s trucking company. 
  • Jason: First-year business administration major from Pennsylvania. Identified as rural and emphasized family’s connections to the steel industry.
  • Matthew: Sophomore civil and environmental engineering major in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program from Pennsylvania. Identified as rural and politically conservative. Emphasized his home community’s reliance on coal and natural gas.
  • Ben: Junior international relations major from West Virginia. Identified as urban, upper to middle class, and politically liberal. 
  • April: First-year doctoral student in rhetoric from West Virginia. Identified as low-income and disabled. Emphasized familial and community connections to coal and steel. 

Data Collection and Analysis  

  1. Initial Open-Ended Interviews—I conducted an initial open-ended interview with each student on their experiences coming to college. I transcribed these interviews and analyzed them by noting places where the students described feelings of otherness that they connected to their Appalachian backgrounds. I also noted when these feelings emerged in response to an assignment or peer interaction. This strategy allowed me to identify critical incidents in students’ experiences where their sense of difference potentially impacted their abilities to succeed academically or fit in socially. Lastly, I identified places in the transcripts where students described specific strategies they used to respond to these incidents.   
  2. Writing Sample Analyses—I asked each student to share a writing sample where they had explicitly mentioned their backgrounds or reflected on their cultural experiences in the composing process. I did not limit the data to personal expressivist writing. Three students, Charlotte, Jason, and Matthew shared first-year composition research essays. Ben and April shared personal statements for graduate programs. I analyzed these samples by noting places where the students referenced Appalachian identity.     
  3. Retrospective Interviews—I then conducted a retrospective inter-view asking each student whether they wanted to appear Appalachian in their writing, and how their reasoning related to their overall goals. I transcribed and analyzed the interviews to identify where the students were connecting their writing goals to their backgrounds, and what identity markers they connected to Appalachia. Finally, I noted instances in which students elaborated on the reasoning behind their choices to identify with or perhaps conceal their Appalachian identity. After analyzing the initial and retrospective interview transcripts individually, I analyzed them collectively to identify commonalities in the ways students described their relationships to Appalachian identity and their strategies for negotiating connections to the region. 


Position as Researcher
My methods and findings were shaped by my positions as a graduate student, writing instructor, and native West Virginian. I shared details of my background and my experiences with Appalachian stereotypes with each participant. Participants therefore may have crafted Appalachian identities to relate to my experiences. In response to this concern, I conducted more than two interviews across  two  academic  years  with  three  participants  featured in this article—Matthew, Ben, and April. This approach allowed me to not only  confirm  findings,  but  to  also  explore  how  students’  relationships  with  Appalachia  and  attempts  to  negotiate  identity  may  have  changed with time.

Perceiving Connections to Appalachia as Cultural Difference These students described their cultural backgrounds as a sense of difference in ways that align with the students featured in previous scholarship, suggesting that more diverse Appalachian students are still marginalized in similar ways. All five students described how they came from culturally homogeneous  communities  that  strongly  valued  close  ties  to  place  and  culture.  For example,  Matthew  stated,  “my  lifestyle  was  a  lot  different  at  home because first of all there’s no diversity so you know my town’s 99.9% white and secondly its mostly Republican.” Matthew emphasized his desire to maintain ties to his rural, politically conservative home community and draw on his cultural experiences in his academic work, though he struggled to determine how  to  do  so.  He explained,  “With  every  subject  there’s  al-ways a very liberal spin to it . . . and you don’t get much of the other side at all to the argument. So I normally feel like I’m the only one in the entire classroom that’s actually thinking with my head. . . . So I felt like alone.” Matthew’s goal to honor community connections aligns with the priorities of Appalachian and working-class students featured in previous scholarship. For example, bell hooks describes how her working-class students at Yale struggled to  “[maintain]  connections  with  family  and  community  across  class boundaries” (79).

Ben, who was from an urban Appalachian community, also described how residents of his hometown strongly valued community ties, but Ben himself perceived the pressure to  remain  connected  as  potentially  detrimental to his academic goals. Ben explained, “[West Virginia] is a wonderful place and it has so much to offer but if you want to leave, there’s a black hole pulling so hard, you have to run as far as you can in the opposite direction forever.” Ben’s background diverges significantly from Appalachian students featured in previous scholarship in that he emphasizes the cultural homogeneity of his hometown but does so by describing it as wealthy, white, and politically liberal. Nevertheless, he describes the complicated sense of push and  pull  Appalachian  students  can  encounter  in  their  efforts  to  remain  connected to yet also escape from their cultural upbringings. Ben’s words echo the double-edged sword of literacy referenced in previous studies to describe how Appalachian and working-class students who pursue academic opportunities are consequently distanced from family and community ties (Sohn, Whistlin’ and Crowin’ 76). Despite the differences between these five students, all of them recognized close ties to community as an Appalachian value that they needed to negotiate in ways that other students did not.

Four students—all but Ben—identified with working-class experiences and values even though, with the exception of Charlotte, their parents did not hold working-class professions. Rather, they identified as working-class through their limited access to wealth or their local community’s reliance on steel, coal, and natural gas industries, a finding that supports William

  1. Thelin and Genesea M. Carter’s argument that “class is a contested term” and working-class students  cannot  be  easily  identified  by  their  parents’professions,  education,  or  income  (4).  April, for  example,  was  raised  byher mother, a college graduate who worked as a teacher prior to going on disability.  April  was  highly  aware  that  her  success  in  leaving  home  to  at-tend an elite university was unfamiliar and arguably inaccessible to mostin her hometown. She described how her desire to take advantage of this rare opportunity led her to develop a strong academic work ethic, which she described as a “coal mining mentality,” that differentiated her from her wealthier peers. She also described how she struggled to relate to peers who did not have to work while in college. April’s experiences confirm Aubrey Schiavone  and  Anna  V.  Knutson’s  claim  that  working-class  students  can experience  a  sense  of  “isolation  or  exclusion  from  campus  culture  [that tends] to be intensified or heightened at more selective, elite institutions”(24). In sum, the students in this study do not fall under the typical parameters of working-class identity, yet they identified as working-class in ways that contributed to their struggles to relate to their peers.

To fully  understand  how  these  students  experienced  a  sense  of  difference, we must acknowledge that they were all highly aware of negative Appalachian  stereotypes.  Even  students  who  did  not  see  themselves  as  terribly  different  from  their  peers  were  still  being  made  to  recognize  the  marginalization  of  Appalachian  identity  and  the  risk  of  disclosing  this  identity  in  a  non-Appalachian  university.  The  stereotypes  these  students  encountered align with those documented in prior research of Appalachian literacies  and  identities.  However,  the  ways  that  these  students  define  themselves in relation to the stereotypes diverge from studies that suggest that Appalachian students perform visible identities as a reflection of their authentic cultural commitments (Sohn, “Silence, Voice, and Identity” and Whistlin’ and Crowin’; Clark). The following examples provide snapshots into these students’ efforts to negotiate Appalachian stereotypes and illustrate the need for an alternative framework that challenges connections between visibility, cultural authenticity, and empowerment.

Matthew described how he drew on stereotypes of Appalachians as backwards country folk to perform a hypervisible Appalachian identity to entertain his peers, who joked about his background being less technologically progressive. He responded by trying to “one-up them,” explaining, “Like if they say have you gotten this iPhone yet? It’s like no, we don’t even have electricity yet.” Similarly, Matthew described how he responded to peers who made fun of his speech by making his dialect more dramatic, using words such as “yinz,” “slippy,” and “crick” that he did not actually use at home. He explained, “There are some things that people make fun of me for when I’m talking, so I just make it more dramatic then, so it just seems like I’m joking. I don’t actually say ‘yinz,’ but I’ll say it just because they think it’s funny. . . . You know the typical [city name] stuff. . . . Like I’ve said ‘slippy’ before and I  say  ‘crick’  instead  of  ‘creek.’”  In  this  quote,  Matthew  acknowledges  that  he  is  exaggerating,  even  fabricating,  his  linguistic  background  to  appeal  to linguistic stereotypes surrounding urban, working-class Appalachians. Considering Matthew’s identification as rural, he is actually performing a hypervisible urban Appalachian identity that conceals his connections to rural Appalachia and diverts his peers’ attention away from the actual realities of his background, such as the conservative political perspectives he was hesitant to share in class. Thus, what initially looks like hypervisibility is actually strategic concealment.

Matthew’s performance of cultural stereotypes clearly misaligns with previous findings of Appalachian rhetors who voice cultural identity through vernacular  language.  His  rhetorical  efforts  can  be  better  understood  in  relation to recent scholarship in Appalachian literacies that points to the limitations of the visibility framework. Matthew is not simply acquiescing to  stereotypes,  but  is  instead  demonstrating  rhetorical  agency  by  engag-ing in what Kim Donehower calls a “trickster response” (“How to Reread Appalachian  Literacy  Research”  23).  Donehower  states,  “The  psychology  of being Othered can lead Others to perform, rather than complicate, the tropes that define their Otherness. It is a way of taking ownership of these tropes and playing with them. . . . Thus, performing these tropes can be a form of resistance to them—a sort of trickster response or a way to fleece the rubes” (23). In other words, Matthew is engaging in complex rhetorical work by both concealing details of his own rural background while resisting stereotypes of urban Appalachians.

Matthew’s  rhetorical  efforts  are  similar  to  those  demonstrated  by  Julie,  the  student  in  Webb-Sunderhaus’s  study  who  wrote  a  stereotypical  and  fictionalized  mountain  girl  narrative  to  appeal  to  her  teacher.  Julie  explains, “Yeah, I played in the woods, but I wasn’t running around sing-ing all the time or things like that. Where we lived wasn’t that pretty. We lived in a run-down house. It was near the woods, but things were all torn from the mines. . . . So some of it was true, but some of it wasn’t” (23). Like Matthew, Julie fabricates details to create a hypervisible identity that aligns with romanticized narratives of quaint Appalachian life while also concealing details that align with narratives of Appalachian coal country. However,  Matthew  demonstrates  a  level  of  rhetorical  sophistication  that  Julie does not through his attempts to experiment with irony. Julie allows her teacher to view her as a stereotypical mountain girl, while her resistance remains between her and Webb-Sunderhaus. Matthew, on the other hand, is performing an exaggerated Appalachian identity to an audience who knows he is joking and can see how clever he is by his hyperawareness of the rhetorical situation. He is therefore simultaneously performing the stereotype of an uneducated Appalachian while also performing his own intelligence.

Matthew  was  the  only  student  in  my  study  to  acknowledge  that  he  had fabricated details of his background, and he did so in social interactions rather than his academic writing. Nevertheless, his acknowledgment, alongside  Webb-Sunderhaus’s  description  of  Julie,  is  important  for  understanding how the expectation for visibility can constrain Appalachian students’ rhetorical efforts, especially in personal writing. Previous research reveals how all students make strategic choices, sometimes even fabricating details to suit their rhetorical purposes. For example, in The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders, Janet Emig describes how a student writing a personal essay about a job interview chooses to “lie a little” to create an imaginative transition and respond to her teacher’s expectation for concision (61). While all students might fictionalize reality in personal writing, Appalachian  students  have  to  negotiate  the  expectation  for  cultural  visibility in ways that non-Appalachian students do not. This expectation can prompt Appalachian students to fabricate details of their background to align with public discourses of Appalachia that diverge significantly from students’ lived realities.

Ben’s  and  Charlotte’s  responses  to  Appalachian  stereotypes  further  illustrate the limits of the visibility framework. Both students recognized the  pressure  to  either  minimize  or  conceal  cultural  differences  to  avoid  judgment,  but  neither  perceived  this  pressure  as  detrimental  to  their  cultural  identities  or  self-expression.  Charlotte  stated,  “People  [at  home]  are from the mountainous area where they are comfortable with guns and things  like  that.  I  mean  I  can  shoot  a  compound  bow  and  shoot  skeet.  I  can do those kinds of things but it’s not my life.” In her first two sentences, Charlotte identifies her competence with a bow and gun as connected to her  Appalachian  background.

However,  unlike  Sohn’s  student  Lucy,  who  finds  a  sense  of  personal  empowerment  in  writing  about  her  neighbor’s  corncrib, Charlotte does not wish to elaborate on her Appalachian experi-ences to voice her cultural identity. Instead, she is quick to recognize that her  experiences  align  with  stereotypes  of  Appalachians  as  gun-wielding  country people and therefore specifies that these experiences are not central to her understanding of self.

Like Charlotte, Ben recognizes how visibly identifying with Appalachia can actually limit rather than empower his efforts at self-expression. Ben described  how  his  Appalachian  dialect  was  essentially  eradicated  by  the  nuns at his Catholic school, an experience that previous scholarship connecting Appalachian identity to vernacular language would likely interpret as a cultural silencing. However, Ben does not perceive his lack of dialect in this way. He explained:

Very good friends of mine have often said that it would do me a lot of justice to say that I was from south of [city in Pennsylvania] when introducing myself because that puts me on a stronger first impression than it does saying I’m from West Virginia. . . . I am extraordinarily fortunate that I do not have an accent of any kind. . . . I went to a private high school where the nuns were just like no. Water is pronounced water not warter. There’s no “r” in wash.

In  this  quote,  Ben  is  alluding  to  stereotypes  of  Appalachian  students  as  academically underprepared and uncultured. Ben could presumably evoke these stereotypes by referencing his home state or speaking a marked dialect, thereby diminishing his ability to make a good impression. While Ben faces pressures  to  conceal  his  home  state,  he  does  not  feel  constrained  in  the  ways we might expect. Ben’s lack of accent does not lead him to feel that he has broken ties to home. Instead, it allows him to be much more deliberate in revealing his connections to Appalachia and deploying markers of his cultural identity more purposefully.

Rhetorical (In)visibility: An Alternative Theoretical  Framework

These  Appalachian  students’  efforts  to  strategically  conceal  their  back-grounds clearly point to the need for a theoretical framework that offers an alternative to visibility. In this section, I analyze the students’ writing to provide such an alternative through the concept of rhetorical (in)visibility. I argue that the students engage in three key moves of rhetorical (in)visibility that ultimately allow them to tactfully incorporate both invisible and visible aspects of  their  cultural  backgrounds  in  their  writing  while  maintaining  rhetorical agency. Specifically, the students:

  1. Self-identify aspects of Appalachian identity that translate into forms of experiential knowledge and allow students to respond to a sophisticated range of rhetorical goals.
  2. Further respond to these goals by using tellable markers of Appalachian identity.
  3. Negotiate risks of deploying tellable markers in relation to their audience and potential stereotypes.

Move 1: Self-identify aspects of Appalachian identity that  translate into forms of experiential knowledge and allow  students to respond to a sophisticated range of rhetorical goals.

All  of  the  students  illustrated  the  first  move  of  rhetorical  (in)visibility  by  transforming  their  Appalachian  backgrounds  into  forms  of  experiential  knowledge that inform their writing in ways that are not always easily visible but remain significant to their goals. In composing his first-year writing research essay, Matthew self-identified his position in the military as a form of experiential knowledge that connected to his Appalachian background and differentiated him from his peers. He explained, “I feel like most people don’t understand the military at all at least here [at this university]. Because only less than 2% of the entire country is in the military.” He drew on this knowledge to select a topic for the essay, which required him to contribute an original  argument  to  conversations  in  leadership  studies.  Citing  Niccolò  Machiavelli,  Matthew’s  essay  argues  that  the  military  leadership  of  General George S. Patton inspired the ideal combination of fear and love. He described how his military background allowed him not only to respond to the expectations of the assignment, but to also share a cultural perspective that  he  rarely  had  the  opportunity  to  voice.  Matthew stated,  “So  my  goal was basically just to relate what I do to something in school because you know I don’t get the opportunity to ever do that.” Matthew’s ability to self-identify his military background as a form of experiential knowledge therefore allows him to meet his goals to make a unique contribution and to honor ties to his marginalized home culture.

While Matthew’s goal to honor community connections aligns with the priorities of Appalachian students documented in previous scholarship, the way that Matthew negotiated this goal does not. Matthew does not compose a personal narrative about his military experiences and therefore leaves his connections to Appalachia concealed; yet he perceives himself as crafting a cultural voice through his stance on military leadership. Matthew’s rhetorical efforts do not match up with bell hooks’s claim that students who wish to maintain community connections must recognize the value of personal narratives. hooks states, “If we are to remain connected (especially those of  us  whose  familial  backgrounds  are  poor  and  working-class),  we  must  understand  that  the  telling  of  one’s  personal  story  provides  a  meaningful example, a way for folks to identify and connect” (77). In other words, hooks claims that personal narratives allow marginalized students to connect with readers who share their background. This point is less relevant to the students in this study, who were not writing to audiences of fellow Appalachians. Matthew cannot literally connect to members of his home community through his writing because they are not in his audience, but he can honor his sense of community ties by introducing his peers to his knowledge  of  military  leadership.  All  of  the  students  in  this  study  trans-formed their backgrounds into forms of cultural knowledge that allowed them  to  present  unique  perspectives  even  if  their  audiences  could  not  easily recognize these perspectives as Appalachian. By drawing on unique forms  of  experiential  knowledge  without  identifying  as  Appalachian,  the  students reap the rhetorical benefits of their expertise without having to negotiate  the  risks  of  presenting  highly  visible  Appalachian  identities  to  non-Appalachian audiences.

Move 2: Further respond to these goals by utilizing tellable  markers of Appalachian identity.

Three of the students craft more visible Appalachian identities in their writ-ing that use tellable markers of Appalachianess (i.e., markers that appeal to dominant cultural narratives and stereotypes), yet two of the three do not label themselves as Appalachian, therefore leaving their connections to the region partly concealed. These students are not drawing on tellable markers to simply voice cultural identity or identify with fellow Appalachians. Instead, they use the markers to meet the expectations of academic writing by contributing unique perspectives to academic conversations or graduate programs, strengthening their ethos as credible and motivated scholars, and illustrating local stakes of global problems. Jason reflected on his first-year composition  essay,  which  he  composed  in  the  same  course  as  Matthew,  though  Jason’s  section  focused  on  the  topic  of  environmentalism.  Jason’s  essay argues for the importance of environmental education programs in American  schools  as  a  response  to  climate  change.  He  begins  the  essay  with  a  narrative  that  draws  on  tellable  markers  of  Appalachian  identity  that appeal to romantic depictions of the region as untamed wilderness:

Growing  up  in  the  outskirts  of  [city  in  Pennsylvania],  wilderness  and  the  environment have always played colossal rolls in my life . . . The backyard of my house led directly into a valley with 15 acres of rich, old growth forest. . . . Every  new  deer  path  led  to  a  discovery,  and  I  struggled  to  differentiate  my  dreams  from  reality.  Wilderness  is  where  the  imagination  lives,  a  physical  place untouched by man where our minds can expand and explore. I believe that experiences such as these are essential to every person’s childhood, and I was amazed when I learned that people grow up completely devoid of them. How can they be expected to protect the environment and nature without ever having the opportunity to fully appreciate it?

Jason’s narrative is highly tellable to non-Appalachian readers who are likely to exoticize rural spaces. He described how he crafted this narrative to appeal to these readers and meet three key goals. First, similar to Matthew, he aimed to contribute a unique argument for environmental education by highlighting the educational benefits of rural exploration that have likely been inaccessible to his urban peers. Second, he sought to increase his ethos as someone uniquely qualified to make this argument. Third, he aimed to create a “hook” to illustrate the stakes of his argument and engage readers who have not experienced nature in their own backyards. Using imagery of old growth forests and deer paths, Jason leads his urban peers to envision rural environments that need to be protected.

By examining Jason’s writing through the lens of rhetorical (in)visibility, we can better account for the nuanced ways in which Appalachian students negotiate  cultural  stereotypes.  Similar  to  the  student  Webb-Sunderhaus  discusses ( Julie), Jason draws on particular stereotypes not because they provide the truest reflection of his cultural self, but because they align with his  rhetorical  goals.  Like  Julie,  Jason  is  aware  of  tellable  stereotypes  that  appeal to his readers’ value for vivid imagery, but he is also illustrating a greater level of rhetorical sophistication by realizing the potential of these stereotypes to align with numerous intersecting goals. While Julie draws on  her  knowledge  of  tellability  to  craft  a  personal  story  for  a  narrative-based assignment, Jason uses tellable markers of Appalachian identity to effectively integrate a personal narrative into a persuasive research essay in response to the complex expectations of academic writing. Jason’s choice to draw on particular rural stereotypes without labeling his background as Appalachian also minimizes risk, positioning him as a wilderness expert and concealing the more stigmatizing cultural experiences he shared in his interviews, such as his limited access to resources for college preparation. By enacting the first two moves of rhetorical (in)visibility—recognizing his rural upbringing as a form of experiential knowledge and drawing on this knowledge to craft a tellable cultural narrative—Jason is ultimately able to re-envision what is commonly thought of as an underprivileged background as a privileged form of education that he argues should be accessible to all.

Ben enacts the second move of rhetorical (in)visibility when writing his personal statement for a Fulbright grant to fund his graduate studies in security risk management in Europe by naming his home state as a tellable marker of Appalachian identity. The Fulbright personal statement requires applicants to reflect on their “personal history, family background . . . and cultural opportunities (or lack of them)” in relation to their personal and professional  goals  (“Application  Components”).  The  statement  must  appeal to an audience of scholars and professionals in the applicant’s field. In  his  statement,  Ben  describes  his  relationship  with  his  grandfather,  a  navy admiral who told Ben stories about “cultures inaccessible to [Ben] in West Virginia.” Ben writes, “I remember the sense of wonderment hearing about  his  adventures,  which  played  a  huge  role  in  my  choice  to  pursue  international relations, to leave West Virginia, and to study abroad in the Netherlands.” When reflecting on his choice to reference West Virginia, Ben described multiple goals that reflect a sophisticated understanding of the personal statement genre and tellable narratives of Appalachian identity. First, he aimed to emphasize how his lack of exposure to diverse perspectives motivated his commitment to international learning. He elaborated, “[in] a lot of ways I was just so isolated in this homogenous community of relatively wealthy white people. . . . That plays a huge role in why I want to pursue international relations in Europe.” Interestingly, he also explained that his home state would lead readers to see him as a diverse candidate. He  explained, “I  don’t  know  how  many  other  people  from  West  Virginia  are applying for a Fulbright but there can’t be that many. So I was like look, I’m an unusual person from a relatively unusual environment and I bring something to the table that a lot of other people do not.” Ben recognizes how  marking  his  background  as  West  Virginian  can  appeal  to  both  the  largely  negative  perception  of  Appalachia  as  culturally  homogenous  and  the  positive  image  of  Appalachians  as  uniquely  diverse.  My  analysis  of  Ben’s writing suggests that a knowledge of tellability may be increasingly important for students navigating high-stakes rhetorical genres such as the personal  statement,  in  which  they  must  appeal  to  multiple  readers  with  diverse perspectives.

Move 3: Negotiate risks of deploying tellable markers in relation to their audience and potential stereotypes.

For these students to make strategic choices about how to conceal and re-veal their backgrounds, they had to negotiate the risks of deploying tellable markers. April illustrated this careful negotiation in her description of the personal statement she composed for doctoral programs in composition and rhetoric. In this statement, April aimed to appeal to her audience of potential colleagues by positioning herself as a future scholar and teacher invested in supporting marginalized groups. Her connections to Appalachia are partly visible in that she identifies as low-income and partly concealed because she does not name her home place. April enacts the first move of rhetorical (in)visibility by transforming her low-income background into a form of experiential knowledge that subtly informs her commitment to “students  who  face  material  barriers  (such  as  lack  of  financial  or  social  support)” (April’s statement). In her retrospective interview, April further explained how this commitment was shaped by her own financial struggles and desire to maintain friendliness, a value she attributed to West Virginians, in an academic environment she described as “cut-throat.” Enacting the second move, April writes how she is “driven by [her] background as a low-income student with a disability from a single-parent home,” thereby crafting an  identity  that  aligns  with  the  tellable  cultural  narrative  of  the  self-reliant  student  who  overcomes  poverty  to  achieve  success.  April’s  statement describes how this identity informs her research goals when she writes  that  she  wishes  to  question  “what  rhetoric  can  do  for  disempowered  rhetors  as  well  as  how  subaltern  discourses  and  social  movements  (disability,  working-class,  and  feminist)  can  challenge,  motivate,  inform,  and expand rhetoric.” By identifying as low-income but not Appalachian, April transforms her background from a potentially stigmatizing point of difference  into  a  connecting  point  with  other  marginalized  groups  and  strengthens her ethos as a scholar authentically interested in empowering marginalized communities.

April  was  highly  aware  of  the  multiple  ways  in  which  a  low-income  identity aligns with tellable narratives of Appalachia. She weighed the risks of this identity to ultimately reject the possibility that her background could evoke  the  stereotype  of  the  low-income  Appalachian  student  as  under-prepared. April explained, “I wasn’t really afraid to put that down because I think that my record speaks for itself. . . . I think those things would be stigmatizing if this weren’t my application to a PhD program.” In addition to dismissing the risk of the low-income identity marker, she also acknowledged a possible benefit by stating, “in a way it is a marker of achievement, you  know,  that  overcoming  narrative  nonsense.”  April demonstrates  her  sophisticated knowledge of tellability by recognizing how her background might appeal to readers through its alignment with the stereotype of the self-reliant Appalachian who overcomes poverty, yet she rejects the stereotype as “nonsense.” In weighing the risks and rewards of visibility, April illustrates the level of rhetorical agency these students demonstrated across the study. These students resisted the notion that their cultural identities were defined by dominant narratives, while also strategically deploying tellable markers to meet their goals and even gain entrance into elite academic programs.


In sum, the concept of rhetorical (in)visibility offers an alternative frame-work for  understanding  the  complex  rhetorical  efforts  of  high-achieving  Appalachian  college  students.  The  students  in  this  study  are  not  striving  to become visible, but are carefully deploying aspects of their backgrounds while simultaneously concealing others. They do not interpret their efforts to conceal as a silencing of their cultural identities, and instead view these efforts as integral to their success in a non-Appalachian university. Alongside their diverse upbringings  and  unique  forms  of  cultural  knowledge,  these  students describe a shared sense of marginalization. Even Ben, who could be seen  as  just  another  middle-class,  white  student,  is  being  forced  into awareness of his highly stigmatized background. This finding suggests that these students should be included in diversity initiatives. It also suggests that campus communities that wish to support Appalachian students in sharing cultural  knowledge  in  less  discrete  ways must collectively resist the stigmatization of Appalachian identity to determine how students’  perspectives  can  be  valued  while  still respecting their complex choices in when and how to become visible.

Future scholarship should  expand  this  admittedly  limited  analysis  of  five  students  to  include  perspectives  of  Black,  Latinx,  Asian/Asian  American,  American  Indian,  and  LGBTQ+  Appalachian  students  to  further flesh out the concept of rhetorical (in)visibility in ways that account for  the  region’s  diversity.  My findings indicate that  future  research  needs  to  examine  Appalachian  identity  at  its  intersections  with  other  forms  of  difference. April, for example, drew on the intersection of her identities as Appalachian, working-class, and disabled in composing her personal statement. Charlotte identified as both Appalachian and Jewish, and described how the diverse campus  community  embraced  her  religious  identity  in  ways  that  her  predominantly  Christian  home  community  did  not.  Studies that prioritize Appalachian identity can risk assuming that a student’s connections to the region are central to their understanding of self when the student may actually be negotiating multiple forms of difference that can be equally meaningful to their rhetorical goals. My study additionally points to the need to further examine how Appalachian students negotiate identity across different genres. One unexpected finding is that none of the five students shared personal narrative-based writing, a point that conflicts with previous scholars’ stance that this type of writing can be especially empowering for marginalized students. While the personal statement certainly calls for personal reflection, it is a primarily persuasive genre where writers argue for their  fit  in  academic  programs.  This finding  could  point  to  the  possibility that students at this university are not assigned narrative-based writing. Or, it could mean that students are not using narratives in the ways we expect. Regardless, my analysis shows that high-achieving Appalachian students are engaging in complex identity work in writing genres such as the argumentative  research  essay  that  have  not  been  previously  thought  to encourage personal reflection and therefore suggests that future studies should consider a range of genres.

Lastly, more research is also needed to determine how the concept of rhetorical (in)visibility applies to students from other marginalized backgrounds. My findings highlight key points of similarity between Appalachian students and members of other groups:

  • Appalachian scholarship’s tendency to connect cultural identity to vernacular language is similar to scholarship in African American literacies that interprets Black English Vernaculars as an authentic form of Black expression (Campbell). Future research might examine the extent to which Black students draw on the moves of rhetorical (in)visibility and how Black Appalachian students, in particular, navigate the expectations for what it means to be “authentically” Black and Appalachian.
  • Like the Appalachian students in this study, Black (hooks; Young), Latinx (Rodriguez), and working-class (Rose; Seitz) students and scholars describe a desire to maintain connections to their home communities and also emphasize how academic success can make it more difficult to do so. Future studies might examine whether students from these backgrounds strive to voice visible cultural commitments, or if they also honor connections in less visible ways.
  • Studies have shown how American Indian, Black, and Latinx students minimize their visibility on campus to avoid being associated with negative stereotypes. Brayboy, for example, reveals how Ameri-can Indian students “[limit their] interactions with non-Indian students” to resist marginalization (137). Jayanti Owens and Douglas S. Massey explain how Black and Latinx students may avoid seeking academic help to minimize the risk of being stereotyped as unintelligent (152). These findings differ from my own because these students are minimizing their physical presence while the Appalachian students I studied were concealing themselves rhetorically. Still, future research might question how American Indian and at-risk students interpret their efforts to conceal, and whether they enact the moves of rhetorical (in)visibility in their writing.

This article does not aim to argue that the concept of rhetorical (in)visibility can be mapped onto other marginalized groups. However, these points of similarity suggest that the theory may be adapted and expanded in ways that  hold  explanatory  power  for  understanding  how  members  of  other  groups negotiate challenges similar to the ones described by the Appalachian students in this study.



  1. This article relies  on  Webb-Sunderhaus’s  definition  of  tellability  that  emphasizes how rhetors craft tellable narratives by appealing to their audiences’ expectations  for  dominant  cultural  tropes  and  stereotypes  (“Keep  the  Appalachian” 16).
  2. In her article, “Colleges Discover the Rural Student,” Laura Pappano describes how colleges such  as  the  Pennsylvania  State  University,  Texas  A&M,  Drexel University,  and  Clemson  University  have  begun  to  increase  scholarship  opportunities and diversity initiatives for rural students. These students can also access scholarship opportunities through The Hagan Scholarship Foundation, The America’s Farmers Grow Ag Leaders Scholarship, The Foundation for Rural Service, The Rural Health Scholarship, and The National Board of Certified Counselors Rural Scholarships (Zdunek). Tony Rehagen’s article, “How educational gatekeepers  are  overlooking  rural  kids,”  further  demonstrates  the  public  call for universities to better serve rural students.
  3. For a more extensive discussion of Appalachian identity, see Webb-Sunderhaus and Donehower’s introduction to Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance, Webb-Sunderhaus “Keep the Appalachian,” and Kurlinkus and Kurlinkus’s “The Nostalgic Othering of Appalachia.”
  4. “Yinz” is a variation of you guys, and “slippy” is a variation of slippery, both of which have been associated with working-class Appalachian dialect, specifically in Pittsburgh (i.e., “Pittsburghese”) ( Johnstone).


The author would like to thank the students who participated in this study for generously contributing their time, perspectives, and writing. I would also like to thank Juliann Reineke for her support in developing and revising the article.


Works sited (listed on the last page.)