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37 2 Rhetorics and Realities The History and Effects of Stereotypes about Rural Literacies Kim Donehower Even when pedagogy is related to issues of democracy, citizenship , and the struggle over the shaping of identities and identifications, it is rarely taken up as part of a broader public politics—as part of a larger attempt to explain how learning takes place outside of schools or what it means to assess the political significance of understanding the broader educational force of culture. —Henry Giroux, “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals” This chapter examines what Henry Giroux calls “the struggle over the shaping of identities and identifications” for rural people in light of the broader public politics of rural literacy. As Giroux argues, culture itself is a powerful educational force in shaping public notions of literacy in rural communities. For more than a century, the most commonly held public perception of rural literacy has been of its inadequacy. From images of illiterate hillbillies to ignorant rednecks, the predominant representations of rural literacy in popular culture have been those of extreme deficiency. Academic culture has also had a hand in propagating versions of these same negative caricatures, both inside and outside the classroom . A rural student at the University of North Dakota vividly recalled his first experience in the college English classroom in the late 1990s: “The teacher walked in [to the introductory literature class] and said, ‘You’re from North Dakota. You have no culture. My job is to give you some.’” As teachers who come into contact with rural students in the course of our daily work—and rural students are Rhetorics and Realities 38 everywhere, including large urban universities—it is incumbent on us to understand the cultural assumptions that affect our own understanding of rural students’ literacies, especially as we work to shape those literacies in the composition classroom. The context of literacy development in rural areas, in general, differs from that of urban and suburban areas in the structure of leisure time, in access to literacy materials, and in economic demands for particular kinds of literacy skills. From different contexts come different ways of valuing and practicing literacy. As they do so often in other situations, these differences inspire stereotyping and stigmatization more often than they do curiosity and understanding. As literacy researchers, it is vital that we break the cycle of stereotyping and work toward more nuanced representations of rural literacies. To disrupt this cycle, we must acknowledge that rural people in the United States pursue literacy under a stigma of rural illiteracy. The rural illiteracy stereotype, perpetuated by academics, the popular media, and what Deborah Brandt calls “literacy sponsors,” holds that rural people lack literate skills and value literacy and education less than their urban and suburban counterparts do. This stigma forces rural people, even if they don’t want to identify themselves as generically “rural,” to respond to a label they did not seek. How does the stigmatization of rural literacies affect the development of rural literacies, our understanding of rural literacies, and the relationships between literacy sponsors such as ourselves and rural people? How does the legacy of stigmatization based on literacy affect the identities and identifications of rural people? In this chapter, I first review the history of stereotyping rural literacy in the United States, with a particular focus on the stigmatization of Appalachia as an illiterate region, to document “the broader . . . force of culture” in shaping common notions of rural (il)literacy. By considering the rural literacy research of James Moffett, I investigate how these common notions of rural (il)literacy can affect the relationships between potential literacy sponsors and rural people, creating struggles for identity and identification rooted in different notions of literacy. I then present data from my qualitative research in one Appalachian community to examine the ways that literacy becomes both a site of Rhetorics and Realities 39 and a tool for negotiating identities and identifications among rural people and those who would sponsor their literacy. Sourcing the Cultural Stereotypes The American people cut their teeth on stereotyping rural regions through the demonization, and celebration, of Appalachia. The film Deliverance and the popularized legend of Davy Crockett demonstrate the paradox at the heart of what America likes to believe about rural people—that they are either barbarians or paragons of the pioneer spirit or, somehow, simultaneously, both. Based on the novel by James Dickey, the film version of Deliverance seared into Americans’ minds images of Appalachian natives...


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