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.
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?
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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:
- 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.
- Further respond to these goals by using tellable markers of Appalachian identity.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.”
- “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.Subscribe
Works sited (listed on the last page.)