Hillbillies in Higher Ed – Confronting Anti-Rural Bias in Academia

Beginning her career as a teaching academic, Emelie K. Peine found that her students, much like people she studied with herself “were just as earnest and well-meaning, and just as clueless about Appalachia in particular, the south in general, and rural America at large.”

by Emelie K. Peine / University of Puget Sound

August 22, 2023

Photo by Jake Kemman on Unsplash

I am a professor in the international political economy program at the University of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. Tacoma, Washington, population of around a quarter of a million people, is by far the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. Many of my students laugh when they hear me describe Tacoma as a big city, because I suppose to them, compared to San Francisco or Minneapolis, or Denver or Houston, it seems rather provincial. We don’t have many high-rise buildings, a subway, or even a very good bus system, and you can easily get across town by car in 15 minutes.

But to me, having grown up in a place that got all the way dark and all the way quiet at night save for the lightning bugs and cicadas, it’s undeniably urban.

Most spring semesters I teach a class called Cosmopolitan Countrysides: Rural Communities in Global Context. We spend the first couple of weeks of the semester talking about our assumptions and ideas about what makes a place rural or urban. Is it about public transportation and skyscrapers? Is it about nature and quiet? Is it about types of economic activities (farming vs tech), or about types of people? It quickly becomes clear that these distinctions come not just from the physical attributes of a place, but also from our ideas about the people who live there and their culture, beliefs, and values. Rural is a place, but rural is also a state of mind, as one of my students (who happens to be from rural northwest Washington state) wrote in a recent essay.

In their 1997 book Knowing your place: rural identity and cultural hierarchy, Barbara Ching and Gerald Creed invoke the concept of “formative geography” in arguing that place is an overlooked (or actively denied) axis of identity in postmodern social theory. After my students read this introductory chapter, I ask them to think about their own “formative geography,” and to draw a picture of it. As we go around and share these drawings, we talk about how both the social and natural configuration of space shape how we think about ourselves. Usually, my students who are from urban or suburban places describe the social configuration of space: their drawings feature a neighbor friend’s house, a backyard pool, or a bike route to school. Students from rural backgrounds—of which I have only a few—are much more likely to draw the natural topography: mountains, rivers, and cornfields. In my own mind, and my own life, I’ve long thought about this as my “internal landscape”—what you see behind closed eyes, maybe what you see when you die. My internal landscape, my formative geography, is undoubtedly the breaking waves of the Great Smoky Mountains where I grew up.

But indeed, growing up I didn’t necessarily think of it as part of my identity. As for many academics who come from rural places, it took leaving to bring that internal landscape into focus. Another reading that I pair with the Ching and Creed chapter in that early week of class is an essay entitled Kentucky is my Fate in bell hooks’ book belonging. In that essay, she recounts the experience of confronting other people’s ideas about the place you’re from, and what that says about you.

Somewhere in my first week as a freshman at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, we were going around and introducing ourselves as you do on the first day of class. When I dutifully reported my name, year in college, and hometown someone asked me if I had worn shoes to school. A bit later in the term, when I mentioned to a new acquaintance where I was from, they said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Tennessee. I hear it’s really beautiful. But honestly? I’m scared to go there. Isn’t everyone down there racist?”

This was the first time in my life that I had any idea that people had ideas about the place where I grew up. That people might think that the stereotypes they saw on TV were real life. I found it bizarre but fascinating. I couldn’t help but ask, where did these ideas come from, why do they persist, and who benefits from their persistence? You might call this the foundational research question of my life. As an undergraduate, I wrote my senior thesis about Southern exceptionalism, and I wrote my master’s thesis on moonshining in East Tennessee. Both projects were aimed at understanding the intersection of material livelihoods and cultural representation. How do Appalachian stereotypes legitimize and enable successive waves of extraction, exploitation, and dispossession? How is representation reclaimed as resistance?

After bouncing around for a few years and eventually finishing my Ph.D. in rural sociology at Cornell University, I landed back in the Pacific Northwest where I found myself teaching the very students who would have been my classmates a decade before. They were just as earnest and well-meaning, and just as clueless about Appalachia in particular, the south in general, and rural America at large. I felt like it was my duty to unearth this hidden history of their country that no one else had ever taught them. I went back and forth for years about offering a course branded as Appalachian Studies but I was always worried that students in the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t recognize Appalachia as a place that deserved studying. I would tell myself, there are classes on the Middle East, Latin America, Greece and China and Thailand, and even the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Why shouldn’t there be a class on Appalachia? But then I would chicken out because we live in a time when an under-enrolled course could cost a professor their job. The compromise I struck with myself was to offer a class on rural communities, as that was something that was 100% absent from our curriculum in any way. I’ve never had a single student who comes into my class having heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain or the town of Matewan. So, I began to teach them about Appalachia under the cover of a rural studies course.

I am a political economist. When I teach Appalachia I teach it as part of what sociologist Charles Tilly calls the “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons” of globalization. I situate Appalachia within Immanuel Wallerstein’s modern world system, which understands uneven global development as a product of a global division of labor that positions some regions (the periphery) as sites of extraction that enrich the core in a one-way transfer of wealth on a massive scale which is propped up by a superstructure of colonialist ideology. This ideology posits that the folks who live in peripheral regions are incapable of or unwilling to get on board with the inevitable progress of modernization and that it is the duty of the Anglo-European core to deliver them from their misery by implementing “development” projects that act as cover for ever-intensifying wealth extraction. Appalachian scholars like Dwight Billings, David Walls, Helen Matthews Lewis, and others have used the internal colony/internal periphery construct to explain the structural location of Appalachia in the national and global economy. By framing the region this way for my students, Appalachia becomes not just an anachronism or a puzzling exception to the rule of American progress, but an instructive case study in the examination of global power structures.

I use this lens of global development to look at the intersection of political economy and identity that produces and reproduces both exogenous and endogenous representations of the region, and the political-economic realities that crush from above and regenerate from below. I talk about how the political economy of Appalachia is connected to big processes and large structures like international finance, trade liberalization, global governance, and the orthodoxies of international development. As an anchor, I use Steven Stoll’s political economic history of the region, Ramp Hollow. I’ve chosen this book because of how Stoll weaves together a deep analysis of Appalachian agrarianism, state-making, and the ways in which extraction and representation are connected. Following in the long tradition of scholars like Dwight Billings, Kathleen Blee, and John Gaventa, Stoll’s analysis dives into the ways in which these big structures are intertwined and interdependent with Appalachian culture, rejecting both the hysteria of cultural explanations of persistent poverty and the bloodlessness of structural ones.

One of the ways I ask my students to explore this relationship between economic extraction and representations of the cultural other is by asking them to choose a cultural artifact that they think represents rurality in some way—this could be a song, a type of dance, a TV show or movie, a piece of visual art—and research both the artist and the historical context in which the work was produced. They then make a presentation to the class where they reflect both on the artist but also on their own assumptions about authenticity, appropriation, marginality, and representation.

The result is that my students’ worldview is shifted in meaningful ways. More than any other class I teach, my students say that this class makes them see the world in a fundamentally different way. As I was preparing to present on this topic at a conference in the spring, I asked my students if they think that learning about Appalachia in the Pacific Northwest is worthwhile, and if so, why.

Several students said that their empathy has grown and that they have confronted biases that they didn’t know they carried. They realized, in one student’s words “how uninformed and prejudiced my own assumptions were.” One student said that she grew up being taught by her parents that Trump supporters and social conservatives, in general, should simply be written off as beyond redemption, with no effort at all to try and understand why someone in rural America might turn so emphatically against a political party that shows up every 4 years promising to fight for them, only to ignore their struggle in between election cycles. They thought about what it would feel like to hear politicians call them deplorable, tell them that they were going to get rid of their jobs and that they cling to their guns and their religion because they don’t know any better. The ease and thoughtlessness of that dismissal are shocking to them, and they’ve often never before thought about how easy it is for them to do the same.

Another student said, “There have been a few times in my life where there is a clear line between the before, and the after, where I look back to before and can’t imagine how I held the beliefs that I did, how I thought the way that I did. This class is one of those times.” We talked about humanizing people who have different beliefs than we do. They raised the discomfort that they feel empathizing with people who hold racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas. We talked about condemning beliefs without condemning people. We talked about how easy it is to reduce a whole region to an abhorrent stereotype, and that the dismissal that that enables (and the economic extraction that it justifies) is something that is woven throughout Appalachian history.

This is why I think it is crucially important to teach these classes outside the region. As the white working class in general, and Appalachia in particular, remains one of the last socially acceptable groups to ridicule in public, we must ask ourselves what is at stake in failing to confront those prejudices when we see white poverty not as a result of systemic disenfranchisement but as an individual and moral failing. As our politics become increasingly polarized along the rural/urban axis, and fringe extremists and sideshow barkers find increasingly legitimate platforms in our halls of government, we must ask our students, comfortably ensconced in the moral high ground of the woke university, why our student DEI trainings include lessons on appropriative Halloween costumes but not “white trash” parties. Why our writing centers might educate us on acceptance of regionally and culturally diverse language conventions, but not those associated with Appalachia. Why making fun of a southern accent can make students (and staff) feel silenced and othered.

I would love to see Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Demon Copperhead be adopted by elite universities as a common read for incoming students, but unfortunately, stories like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (adopted for that purpose by many schools in 2016) present a far less challenging narrative to the self-satisfied progressive scholars and their aspiring acolytes eager to absolve themselves of responsibility for the country’s noxious political turn. By teaching these classes in places like Boston, Chicago, New York, and the Pacific Northwest, me and my colleagues in the Appalachian diaspora are making our small attempt to chip away at those safe houses.

Emelie K. Peine is a professor and director of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound.