Review of Rural Literacies by Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen Schell (Southern Illinois UP, 2007)
Paula Webb Battistelli, Huston-Tillotson University
Enculturation (2010): http://enculturation.gmu.edu/examining-rurality
(Published October 1, 2010)
Most composition and literacy scholars are aware of the effects that identity may have on the writing and reading abilities of our students. Numerous texts have examined literacy, rhetoric, and composition from racial perspectives, ability perspectives, and gendered perspectives. Yet the effects that rurality may have on literacy and writing has received less attention in scholarship. Professionals in literacy and composition have a predisposition or preference for examining urban life and location in literacy and writing but few explore rural ways of knowing. Two books exploring rural literacy and composition immediately come to mind: Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words and Rural Voices: Place Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing, edited by Robert Brooks. Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell recognize this deficiency and bring attention to it in their text Rural Literacies. In the text, they cover such subjects as rhetorics of rurality, literacy work in rural communities, prejudices against the rural, and sustainability in rural communities through literacy initiatives. Their work proves to be an important contribution to studies of rurality and geography in composition and literacy, even though their analysis of social conditions and literacy amongst rural community members seems idealistic in regards to their construction of social class, race, and gender relations. In addition, their work serves as a welcome demonstration of the ways academia may bridge the public/private divide.
The central argument presented by Donehower, Hogg, and Schell is twofold. First, they wish to make the case that rural literacy is an area ripe for exploration. The second part of the argument rests upon the concept of “social sustainability.” The authors borrow their definition of social sustainability from Sharon Pepperdine, who states that it is about “the well-being of communities” (6). With this concept of social sustainability, Donehower, Hogg, and Schell hope to resolve or defeat current misconceptions of rural literacy by critiquing common rhetorics and stereotypes used to describe it. The end goal is to suggest public pedagogies that would redeem and reinvision rural literacy and practice it in ways capable of socially sustaining rural communities. They attempt to meet this goal by covering a wide field of subjects in rural literacy. The chapters run the gamut from an exploration of the history of rural literacy and how it has been depicted, to an exploration of the economic dimensions of rural literacy through the disappearance of the family farm, to a promotion of an alternative agrarian rhetoric. In the beginning of their text, Donehower, Hogg, and Schell write that they began researching separately and were later introduced to one another by the editor of the series for the book. This reality makes sense when considering the range of subjects the authors cover. Because of this breadth, they successfully accomplish the first point in their argument—to prove that rural literacy is an area ripe for exploration.
One observation to make about this text is that, even though the authors developed their individual focuses for this book separately, the book has a recognizable unity. The authors' individual research interests are easily identifiable, yet they create cogent and unified definitions of rural literacy and sustainable citizenship that enable their book to effectively hold together under scrutiny. In fact, the unified definitions and theoretical backgrounds encourage some readers to see the authors’ less similar individual chapters as focusing on a common theme or strand. Even so, a few individuals may find the chapters a little too disconnected. I see such chapters as tantalizing glimpses at future works—potential books developing the authors’ individual lines of research. In short, this book is an introduction to the work of Donehower, Hogg, and Schell and the field of rural studies in composition, rhetoric, and literacy.
Power relationships are sometimes hard to pin down. Why certain groups react the way they do to outside forces can be a difficult situation to read especially when the interpreter strongly supports the community that is being interpreted. One of the minor flaws with Rural Literacies is that occasionally the authors’ terministic screens, aligned with rural communities, interfere with the way the writers read their communities’ reactions to certain events. One example can be found in the chapter written by Kim Donehower titled “Rhetoric and Realities: The History and Effects of Stereotypes about Rural Literacies.” In this chapter, Donehower criticizes the rhetoric used by outside literacy advocates to characterize rural communities. While many of these outside advocates claim that certain literacy practices demonstrate rural communities' inability to accept change or difference, she argues that such literacy practices are actually sophisticated attempts to protect the rural culture. A key focus of this chapter is the book Storm in the Mountains written by James Moffet. The book focuses on a visit Moffet makes to a rural area that has decided to ban his textbook. He visits the town in order to understand why this banning has occurred. At stake for Donehower is the tendency of urban and suburban groups to accuse rural groups of suffering from willful ignorance termed “agnosis” (51). Donehower contests this claim of willful ignorance by interpreting an exchange between Moffet and a religious leader in the area. Unfortunately, her attempt to prove that this rural community does not suffer from agnosis is unsuccessful. She seems to overlook the political and religious differences at the heart of Moffet’s suggestion of agnosis as the culprit. A fuller exploration of fundamentalist Christianity (and perhaps reflection on the William Jennings Bryant/Clarence Darrow debate) would have added great insight and aided Donehower in recognizing the terministic screens that she brings to the analyses in this chapter. She seems both unwilling to recognize weaknesses in the community under study and somewhat defensive of their eccentricities and potentially negative traits.
A significant benefit of Rural Literacies is that the three authors embody the idea of the “public intellectual” as described by Ellen Cushman in the article “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” In it, Cushman calls for scholarship that does not simply speak to and serve academic audiences. Instead, she advocates public intellectuals who serve the needs of their communities. This public intellectual facet is not surprising given that Donehower, Hogg, and Schell hail from rural communities and express a deep attachment to those communities in the first chapter of the book. Each chapter in Rural Literacies aims to serve the needs of rural communities and, in the process, to serve society at large. For example, though the chapter “Rhetoric and Realities” may be limited by Donehower’s terministic screens, her goal in addressing very real stereotypes and perceptions of rural communities is genuine, and her attempt to rescue communities from those stereotypes is understandable. Other chapters also live up to the public intellectual ideal. In chapter three, Eileen Schell examines the rhetoric behind an actual problem facing rural communities—the family farm crisis. She does so to promote an “alternative agrarian rhetoric” and literacy (or way of reading) for the farm crisis. The alternatives that Schell proposes would allow all stakeholders to better interrogate the farm crisis, and she argues for rural, suburban, and urban groups to share the workload in resolving this problem. In other words, Donehower, Hogg, and Schell’s text is not abstract--serving only a curriculum vita. It works to improve the lives of real communities, and it addresses real problems in the public sphere. For this reason, the text exemplifies how scholarly work can bridge the public/private divide that often plagues academia.
In addition to embodying the idea of the public intellectual, the three authors strive to serve the teacher in the classroom. The evidence for this can be found in the chapter “Toward a Sustainable Citizenship and Pedagogy.” In this chapter, the authors offer select themes, revisions to composition readers, and suggestions for community/classroom interactions that will assist students in becoming good citizens not only to serve personal interests but also to serve the interests of fellow citizens who live in rural areas and deal with rural problems. The authors begin by critiquing the composition readers that are available to college students largely because the texts do not interrogate, “identities tied to region, place, and geography” (156), and they review a few of these readers to make their case. The next section offers various themes and readings that will help remedy the texts' shortcomings. One theme suggested is an analysis of “media representations of rural people and rural literacies” (159). Another theme offered is, “Food Politics” (170), which focuses on the methods and problems behind food production today. The final theme is, “Place-Based” (180), meaning that students interrogate impressions of regional areas and identities. As they describe the themes, the authors offer numerous readings, assess the success of the themes, and offer suggestions for community/class interactions. Given this range of resources, this chapter offers numerous helpful suggestions and techniques for incorporating the authors’ theories and ideas on rural literacy and sustainable citizenship.
As good as Donehower, Hogg, and Schell’s chapter on incorporating sustainable citizenship and rural literacy in the classroom may be, some topics are painfully absent from it. For instance, geographical identities and media representations are not without their race, class, and gender based antagonisms. Misogyny does not stop outside the door of rural communities just as racism and classism do not. Because of this, more readings that examine other identities in tandem with geographical identities would be extremely beneficial to instructors and students in the composition classroom. Perhaps the reason these identities are omitted in the readings offered is because no such texts exist. If that is the case, then perhaps the authors should have suggested this omission as an area waiting for research and exploration. On occasion, it may seem like people in rural communities share very similar realities, that their lives are, at best, inconsequentially different. But those who have lived in rural communities will attest to the fact that hierarchies exist, that inequalities exist. Such hierarchies deserve just as much study within rural contexts as they do in urban or suburban ones. Examinations like this allow hidden sores to breathe, to see sunlight, and perhaps to heal.
Colleagues take note: Rural Literacies is a book worth reading. This book is a promising introductory text for an underdeveloped field of study that has relevance for composition, rhetoric, and literacy scholars. It could also prove helpful to other professionals looking for ways to break down barriers between the public sphere and the ivory tower. The only pitfall is that this book at times promotes simplified interrogations of identity, a pitfall to which research in composition, rhetoric, and literacy studies often succumbs. For too long our fields have produced works suggesting, simply by choice of focus, that humans carry only a single identity with them and trade that identity out according to their circumstances. However, a Black, female, middle-class person is never only Black, only female, or only middle class. A rural, Latina, upper class, female, likewise, is never just rural. We are all of our identities at once. Donehower, Hogg, and Schell offer an overlooked identity that should be added to the identity matrix: rural/suburban/urban. But, in so doing, they neglect other identities. However, this more nuanced interrogation of identity in terms of rural communities and experiences makes Rural Literacies an important introduction to the possibilities and benefits inherent in an unrecognized, but promising, field of study.
Cushman, Ellen. “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” College English 61.3 (1999): 328-36. Print.