A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Lessons of Appalachia: A Review of Whistlin’ and Crowin' Women of Appalachia: Literacy Practices since College by Katherine Kelleher Sohn

Review of Katherine Kelleher Sohn, Whistlin’ and Crowin' Women of Appalachia: Literacy Practices since College (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006)

Amanda Hayes, Belmont Technical College

Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/the-lessons-of-appalachia

Katherine Kelleher Sohn's book Whistlin' and Crowin' Women of Appalachia: Literacy Practices since College uses case-studies to track the literacy development of three female Appalachian college graduates, all of whom are Sohn's former students. Sohn explores the varied ways that literacy can benefit women personally, professionally, and socially and extends her critical lens into the ways these Appalachian women's developing literacy can affect their families and culture. On a larger scale, she exposes the intricacies and fallibilities of anti-Appalachian bias in academic and mainstream culture.

Thankfully, there aren't many of what one might call “acceptable prejudices” left in American society. There is prejudice, of course, but American academic culture in particular embraces multiculturalism as an antidote to existing prejudices and cultural/ethnic biases. Also, though much maligned, political correctness has become a formidable presence in public debate and education. Memorable examples of public/authority figures making prejudiced or racist statements have been memorably deplored and debated.

Of the acceptable prejudices (meaning those that are either widely accepted, overlooked, or embraced as truth) that remain, the negative mainstream American attitude toward Appalachia has gone largely unchallenged for decades. In fact, Appalachian “hillbillies” are often seen as being barely American, or barely human. Victor Villanueva theorizes in his introduction to Sohn's book, “There's a racialization to Appalachia...(they are) the color without a name” (xiv-xv).

This attitude extends beyond the mainstream; it is disturbingly notable even in American academia, that bastion of learning, tolerance, and celebration of multicultural awareness. This revelation informs much of Sohn's purpose in writing Whistlin' and Crowin' Women of Appalachia. While exploring the educational, professional, and personal reading and writing habits of three Appalachian women, Sohn is attempting to clear years of cobwebs and fuzzy half-truths away from the educational and public perception of Appalachian culture as a whole. She states that she was distressed by the depth of ingrained prejudice she found even amongst her academic colleagues. In the opening of her book, she recalls the 1994 CCCC in Nashville, during which two attendees publicly mocked their waiter's Appalachian accent. These were colleagues “who, if asked, would probably pride themselves on their multicultural awareness” (1). It's a disturbing attitude I've experienced personally; at the college where I formerly taught, which included a high percentage of Appalachian students, “West Virginian” jokes were displayed on the faculty bulletin board, an area students passed when visiting faculty offices.

As an Appalachian, I, like Sohn, have often been confounded by the stereotypes surrounding Appalachian culture. Even those stereotypes that extend from “idealization,” so to speak, rather than denigration are often false. Sohn notes the identification of Appalachia as “the last bastion of the pure white Anglo-Saxon race” (2). In fact, many Appalachians, particularly in the South, have Native American or African American blood, as well as Celtic Scotch-Irish ancestry (actually, their ancestors might have clashed with Germanic tribes such as the Angles and Saxons). In seeking an in-depth, respectful academic treatment of my own culture, I find that this is a book I've been waiting for: the careful exploration and research Sohn has compiled might do more than any other book I've encountered to question Appalachian stereotypes, both “positive” or “negative.”

It is clear that this book emerged as an extension of Sohn's doctoral dissertation. It maintains the basic format and conventions of research work, including introductory chapters (1-2) outlining her methodologies and criteria, exploring her biases, and positioning herself as a culturally non-native investigator. These are followed by individual chapters (3-5) for each of her three main case-study participants: Lucy, Jean, and Sarah. Each of these three chapters is clearly demarcated into subsections exploring the subject's pre-college, college, and post-college literacy development. A final conclusion chapter (6) highlights Sohn's insights and emerging questions, and is followed by Appendices A-G, which provide the reader with copies of Sohn's interview questions and original writings from each of the three participants.

Sohn's academic formatting and organization should in no way be taken as an indication of her primary audience. While Sohn does write from the perspective of a teacher-researcher (including explorations of how each of the interviewees has affected her personal approach to composition teaching), she is careful to avoid any overwhelming academic jargon, favoring instead clear language and an engaging narrative style that can appeal to mainstream readers. As she notes regarding her own language choices, “I struggled with uncertainty and unfamiliarity with academic discourse” (12), and for this reason she identifies with others outside the linguistic pale, such as her non-traditional Appalachian students. Also, the readability of this book in part results from large sections devoted to the participants' written or transcribed oral responses to interview questions. The linguistic clarity is perhaps also attributable to what seems to be Sohn's larger goal: exposing the truth behind the misinformation and prejudice of both academic and mainstream audiences. The language and tone Sohn employs help to make this book accessible to a wide range of possible readers.

In each of the three case-study chapters, Sohn focuses on individual and overlapping aspects of Appalachian women's literacy and experience. The first of these three case studies (chapter 3) centers on Lucy, an art major with a self-proclaimed dislike for reading. This section highlights a little-discussed but vitally important issue in Appalachian education: the dismal experience faced by Appalachian students in grades K-12. Lucy sees her home life as being educational and beneficial: her parents read Reader's Digest for pleasure, teach Sunday School, and teach Lucy sewing, crafts, gardening, food preservation, and other creative survival skills that she in turn teaches to others (Sohn 67-68,88,91). However, she recalls her public school teachers lacking any sense of interest or value for local culture; in addition, she and other less affluent students were mocked by their teachers for their appearance and poverty. “The teachers had no use for me or my family,” she recalls, and notes that, regarding high school, “I do not remember ever writing an essay” (qtd. in Sohn 69).

This situation is not unique. Sohn cites similar responses from other studies, including one in which an informant exclaims, “I didn't know I was poor white trash until I went to school and somebody told me. If I had never gone to school, I never would have known I was poor!” (qtd. in Sohn 71). Sohn sees these negative educational experiences as actively discouraging literacy on the part of Appalachian students, who are taught to dislike school and to “see college beyond their reach” (70). The resulting cultural effects are wide-ranging; Sohn even sees it effecting the anti-literacy attitudes of Lucy's abusive husband, who “may have been alienated from the education system and was not encouraged to finish school. He probably knew how little education and its benefits affected people like him” (77). Sohn's analysis shows that attitudes in public education—rather than being a means of personal growth and community uplift—can actively cause Appalachian students to feel denigrated and less valuable than their more mainstream counterparts, which in turn risks a culture-wide failure to seek out postsecondary education. Through Lucy's experience, Sohn makes an interesting and relevant argument. Unless public education stops viewing its primary role as steering exceptional students into the corporate world and starts working “to prepare critical thinkers and problem solvers to contribute those skills for survival in their communities” (93), Appalachian class and cultural isolation will remain unchanged.

Each of Sohn's informants challenge the dominant stereotypes about Appalachia through her literacies. Chapter 4 follows Sohn's former student Jean, who demonstrates the important effects college literacy can have on students' professional lives, and in doing so she bursts long-held myths of Appalachians as lazy and undisciplined. Jean makes a compelling case for the far-reaching effects of college literacy. Though not an A student, Jean is proud of her willpower and her ability to find learning styles that work for her (99-100). Though the style of academic writing Jean learns in college is different than the “more concrete” (110) style she later uses professionally as a nurse, Jean's college literacy and study skills help her to flourish in a job in which writing is “50 percent or more of (her) day” (106). By, in essence, teaching her how best to learn difficult concepts, college literacy prepares Jean for her work as a nurse and a graduate student (108, 115). Though, like Lucy, Jean had a disappointing public school experience (96), college kindles in Jean a desire to keep learning. Far from lazy, she embraces the challenges of further schooling and professional development; as she herself states, “I am ready to keep learning for the rest of my life” (118).

Sarah, the focus of Chapter 5, demonstrates what Sohn calls “intergenerational” literacy (120) amongst Appalachian families, in sharp contrast to stereotypes of Appalachians as ignorant or uninterested in literacy. Her mother, Naomi, is a largely self-taught religious scholar, “bring(ing) home huge quantities of books” (122) from the local library. Along with her sense of intellectual independence, Naomi is proud of her ability to maintain economic independence; contrary to the Appalachian stereotype, she exclaims, “I never drew a welfare check in my life!” (122). Her daughter Sarah inherits both Naomi's intellectual abilities and her deep pride in motherhood; by attending college, Sarah and other Appalachian women in Sohn's classes hope to interest their own children in continuing education (124). Like Jean, Sarah continues her education beyond her bachelors degree, in her case by seeking a masters degree in social work, and continues to credit her mother as the “key person in (her) development” (120).

In her conclusion (chapter 6), Sohn synthesizes the various insights she has gained as a non-native teacher-researcher in Appalachia and expands these into useful ideas for any teacher of non-traditional students. Significantly, Sohn theorizes on the applications her work might have for colleges, so that they may better recruit and support non-traditional students like the Appalachian women in her study. She notes that this recruitment should be an important goal for colleges, since non-traditional students tend to be “more committed to finishing their degrees and . . . they add value to the classroom and become role models for younger students” (165). She sees college as having an equal value for the students and their societies: while non-traditional students diversify and enrich the colleges, colleges can have equally beneficial effects on the non-traditional students and their communities.

One point of concern I have with Sohn's book is her deep reliance on the idea of Appalachia as a heavily patriarchal culture. This issue is important in formulating reader responses to Sohn's interpretations, and my response is quite different from Sohn's own. Sohn sees Appalachian culture as being highly patriarchal in nature; she even interprets their presence in her classroom as signs that Appalachian women are “taking steps out of their cultural roles in this patriarchal society” (9). She sees Appalachian women as being empowered by college, and although this is almost certainly true, she also perceives Appalachian women as being disempowered by their native, “patriarchal” culture. Though it is true that men tend to have an economic advantage, in the form of male-dominated jobs such as coal mining, the view of Appalachia as primarily patriarchal is somewhat over-simplified. As even Sohn at one point notes, “women hold society together” (64). However, she continues to devote multiple sections to the patriarchal nature, as she perceives it, of Appalachian culture. In fact, every chapter refers to Appalachia's so-called patriarchal nature, coloring Sohn's interpretations of the participants' motives, which she claims are largely alien to their cultural upbringing, and therefore more extraordinary (9). However, if patriarchy in this sense is defined by the male-enforced powerlessness of women, I would argue that Appalachia is in fact one of the most matriarchal (defined by female power) societies in America, and in being so has valuable lessons to teach other cultures.

Gender stereotypes of shrinking female powerlessness in Appalachia are among the greatest slurs offered by outside culture and media. In fact, women play major social roles in Appalachian culture, primarily as mothers and nurturers (as Sohn herself notes [37,64]) but also by extension healers, defenders, activists, and decision-makers. What Sohn interprets as a disdain for women's college education on the part of some informants' family members (54) is equally interpretable as fear for the time and personal toll schooling might take on the women as mothers and nurturers, thus harming their children. This concern regarding women's ability to be both college students and involved mothers is also shared by the participants themselves, who view motherhood and homemaking as the central force in their lives (126).

This form of matriarchal power is often misunderstood by those ingrained in mainstream cultures, who see, as Sohn does, women “bow(ing) to their husbands' wills” (64) as subservient homemakers. In fact, for many Appalachian women, this seeming deference, if it occurs, is far from voiceless or subservient. This is one of the only issues on which Sohn's self-recognized status as a cultural outsider (13) seems detrimental to her understanding, and it is one of the only times my own experience as a cultural insider led to a differing view. From my perspective and observations of other women throughout Appalachia, I've found that an Appalachian woman may “bow” to cooking supper for her husband (fitting the nurturer-role Sohn recognizes as important to many Appalachian women), but he's expected to be grateful for it (and, if he doesn't seem grateful enough, may find that meals for the following week, if cooked at all, are burned). While this might seem to be mere “henpecking” or passivity, it is actually a private but uninhibited use of voice and power within personal relationships. And in truth, Appalachian women's resistance to male domination is frequently far from passive. Each of Sohn's informants feels empowered enough to attend college, even though some faced disapproval from their spouses (54-55). Even Lucy, whose marriage is outright abusive, is far from a shrinking victim of violent patriarchal control. When she learns that her husband is having an affair, she is empowered enough to confront him, despite the risk of violence. His abusive reaction leads her to gain a restraining order and a divorce (75)—again, hardly the actions of one worn down by patriarchy. (Sohn's title is chosen from an Appalachian adage: “Whistlin' women and crowin' hens, always come to no good ends,” [39]; I think this needs to be considered along side another saying: “Don't hit a mountain woman; she'll likely hit back.”)

Sohn frequently cites patriarchal gender constraints but doesn't seem to connect the concept of Appalachian gender roles with the fact that Appalachian women tend to be more educated than men (54) and that with most of her informants, the driving encouragement for higher education came from their supposedly dis-empowered mothers. Consider in this vein the informant Sarah's mother, Naomi: despite an eighth-grade education, she is a voracious reader who actively encourages her daughter's college education and frequently argues with her pastor's anti-feminist religious interpretations (122-123). In combination with Sohn's other research into Appalachian society, it's not much of a stretch to see Naomi's female strength, voice, and values being based at least in part in her native culture, rather than formal education. Given this, one of Sohn's central interpretations—that their native culture cripples women's voices, whereas formal education can strengthen them—is at least somewhat questionable. Though she claims it as a goal with this book to challenge stereotypes about Appalachian women (10), on this issue Sohn risks falling into the trap of one of the most deeply held stereotypes in mainstream America.

Although Sohn is laudable in wanting to explore the themes of gender and power for Appalachian women, I think her view was a bit narrow in this instance. Appalachian women may have gendered societal roles, but those roles—particularly as extensions of motherhood and nurturing—allow women to cast a wide opportunistic net. What appears to be passive deference to male authority may be solidity that emerges in different, often domestic, ways. Certainly there are societal gender constraints, as in most cultures; for students, education could affect these beneficially. Yet rarely is Appalachia credited as being, in some ways, an almost proto-feminist culture, given the strength many of its female members are taught and which they display. It is important to remember that, while Appalachian women can emerge from college (as Sohn's students certainly did) with greater financial independence and more practiced, confident voices, they still had voices going in—in many cases, stronger voices than women in mainstream American cultures.

Overall, Sohn's book proves for an academic and mainstream audience what a small and often overlooked few already know: that Appalachia has much to offer modern American culture. In our current economic climate, Appalachia's traditional adaptability and sheer will to survive could not be more significant; these traits shine through in Sohn's case studies of women tackling academia and professional literacy. By exploring Lucy, Jean, and Sarah's literacy struggles and triumphs, Sohn shows a side of Appalachia that few academics have ever considered: Appalachians as college students who are intelligent, strong, and determined in the pursuit of their goals. Their sense of place, family, and community values, which inform their writing and daily lives, could add valuable insights to America's ongoing social and environmental debates. To these ends, Sohn's readable, informative book seeks, at times quite skillfully, to tackle two important goals: to help make Appalachian women more ready to speak to a wider world, and to make that wider world ready to listen.