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 1 Constructing Rural Literacies Moving Beyond the Rhetorics of Lack, Lag, and the Rosy Past Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell The sheer size of rural America argues against a dominant type of rural experience. The United States is the fourth largest nation in land area, and most of its territory is rural. It covers seven time zones from east to west and reaches latitudes north of Sweden and south of Egypt. If rural America were a separate nation, its population would comprise the world’s 23rd largest country, following the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. —Dee Davis and Tim Marema, “A Rural Perspective” When you saw the words “rural” and “literacy” together in the title of this book, what came to mind? Visions of a nineteenth-century farm wife reading by candlelight in her claim shanty? Pictures of a quaint one-room schoolhouse? Or were there more contemporary images of idyllic small towns or rural counties populated by farmers and those who work the land for a living? You might recall Sinclair Lewis’s portrait of the narrowness of small town life in his novel Main Street or the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan in the rural South as depicted in Birth of a Nation. Or perhaps the title led you to expect a Jonathan Kozol–like exposé of the insufficiencies of rural education or an analysis of the “red state”/”blue state” dichotomy promoted by the Right and taken up by the mainstream media in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Maybe you grew up in a rural area or have rural students and came to this book because your experience with rural life and rural literacy do not match the images you find in the media. We pose these questions to address the multifaceted way in which the word “rural” signifies and brings on a series of images: some positive , some negative, but many highly impressionistic, ahistorical, and seriously out of synch with the current economic realities of rural life. Constructing Rural Literacies  Ralph Weisheit, David Falcone, and L. Edward Wells characterize the “rural” definitional problem accurately when they argue that “like such concepts as ‘truth,’ ‘beauty,’ or ‘justice,’ everyone knows the term rural, but no one can define the term very precisely” (qtd. in “What Is Rural?”). Who is included under the rubric of rurality and who is not? The United States Department of Agriculture acknowledges the contested nature of the term, remarking that “many people have definitions for the term rural, but seldom are these definitions in agreement . For some, rural is a subjective state of mind. For others, rural is an objective quantitative measure” (“What Is Rural?”). As a quantitative measure, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Census defines rural essentially as not urban: “For Census 2000, the Census Bureau classifies as ‘urban’ all territory, population, and housing units located within an urbanized area (UA) or an urban cluster (UC).” Urbanized areas and clusters include “core census block groups or blocks that have a population density of at least 1,000 people per square mile and surrounding census blocks that have an overall density of at least 500 people per square mile” (“Census 2000”). Rural areas, therefore, include “all territory, population, and housing units located outside of UAs and UCs.” Geographic entities, such as census tracts, counties , metropolitan areas, and the territory outside metropolitan areas, often are “split” between urban and rural territory, and the population and housing units they contain are partly classified as urban and partly classified as rural. For the purposes of this book, we define “rural” as a quantitative measure, involving statistics on population and region as described by the U.S. Census; as a geographic term, denoting particular regions and areas or spaces and places; and as a cultural term, one that involves the interaction of people in groups and communities. Calling someone or someplace rural also sets off a chain of associations and representations that carries complex histories and cultural narratives. For instance, it is often thought that rural America is largely a homogeneous place. However, as Dee Davis and Tim Marema’s report “A Rural Perspective” indicates, “the myth of rural homogeneity masks underlying diversity among the people who have historically lived in the American countryside.” Many ethnic groups’ traditions are rooted Constructing Rural Literacies  in rural areas, including “music, food, visual arts, folk tales, crafts, and other cultural manifestations of distinct rural groups.” At the same time, contemporary rural America is still thought...


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