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Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “Tellability” and Identity Performance. Sept. CE, 2016. Posted 09/18/2016.

Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “‘Keep the Appalachian, Drop the Redneck’: Tellable Student Narratives of Appalachian Identity.” College English 79.1 (2016): 11-33. Print.

Sara Webb-Sunderhaus explores the concept of “tellability” as a means of understanding how students in composition classes perform identities. She argues that these identities often emerge from the relationship between their individual experiences and public discourses validated by the audiences they are likely to encounter.

Webb-Sunderhaus’s specific focus is the construction of identity by people who designate themselves or are designated by others as “Appalachian.” Self-identifying as an “Urban Appalachian”—that is, as an individual who has moved out of a region considered part of Appalachia to a larger city (13, 31n5), Webb-Sunderhaus conducted an ethnographic study at two anonymous institutions in Appalachia (13). She examines the classroom activity, written work, and responses to interviews of six students in writing classes at these institutions in light of the students’ connection to Appalachia.

Webb-Sunderhaus presents contested definitions of Appalachia, including those of the Appalachian Regional Council and the Central Appalachian Network, both of which use geographical measures (14). In contrast, Webb-Sunderhaus cites Benedict Anderson’s definition of Appalachia as “an imagined community” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus14), and that of Appalachian Studies scholar Allen Batteau as “a literary and a political invention rather than a geographical discovery” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus14). Webb-Sunderhaus argues that efforts to define Appalachianness may miss the diversity of individuals who identify with the region; she stresses that this identity is “a cultural identity, rooted in the place of the Appalachian mountains, but not necessarily restricted to this place alone” (16).

Tellability, a concept used by scholars in social studies and folklore, involves the relationship between a particular narrative and widespread public discourses about a given phenomenon, in this case, Appalachianness (16). These public discourses determine which narratives accord with common assumptions and widely shared impressions of the phenomenon. A narrative that is tellable fits and reinforces the extant public narratives; accounts that resist these public narratives may not earn what Michael Kearns calls “the audience’s active validation” (16) and are therefore not tellable (16-17). Tellability, Webb-Sunderhaus maintains, is a function of audience. Writers and speakers are aware of the discourses their audiences expect based on the given rhetorical constraints; what is tellable in one context may be untellable in another (22).

This process of negotiating identities through astute choices of tellable narratives, Webb-Sunderhaus writes, accords with Judith Butler’s view of identity as “a performance that is repeated” by “a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already established” (Butler, qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 17). Tellable narratives provide what Debra Journet calls “tropes of authenticity” necessary to such re-enactment (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 21).

Webb-Sunderhaus interprets her study of how tellability influences students’ rhetorical decisions as they perform identities in a classroom setting as evidence that students exhibit considerable awareness of what kinds of narratives are tellable and that in a number of cases, these decisions were based on what the students assumed the instructor expected (29). In one case, a student “fabricated” details (23) to conform to what she saw as the teacher’s belief that affinity with nature is a feature of Appalachianness; in contrast, the reality of the student’s childhood did not meet this expectation and was therefore an untellable response to an essay assignment (23-24).

Drawing on Nedra Reynolds, Webb-Sunderhaus notes a distinction between “perceived” and “conceived” spaces as components of identity. A perceived space designates physical surroundings that can be apprehended through the senses, such as the landscape of Appalachia, while a conceived space is the way an environment is represented mentally, incorporating sociocultural components, attitudes, and values (20).

Students in Webb-Sunderhaus’s study, she writes, exhibited an understanding of this distinction, noting ways in which being born in or from Appalachia often contrasted with their relationship to Appalachia as individuals. One student acknowledged being physically linked to Appalachia but rejected even some of the “positive” stereotypes she felt were culturally associated with the region (25). Another specifically disconnected her Appalachian birthplace and subsequent experiences, arguing that tellable narratives of Appalachians as tied to place did not represent her own willingness to “explore the world” (“Gladys,” qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 26).

Webb-Sunderhaus sees in this type of resistance to common tellable narratives a form of what Ann K. Ferrell calls “stigma management” (28). Many tellable narratives of Appalachia focus on negatives like poverty, illiteracy, narrow-mindedness, and even criminality and incest (18). In Webb-Sunderhaus’s view, resistance to an Appalachian identity defined by such narratives can act as a distancing strategy when such narratives are invoked (28). At the same time, according to Webb-Sunderhaus, the student who rejected the “down-home” component of an Appalachian identity may have recognized that in the setting of a research study, her more cosmopolitan identity narrative would be tellable in a way that it might not be in other contexts (28).

Webb-Sunderhaus emphasizes the power of teachers in “inviting” and approving particular narratives (28). For example, she writes that by picking up on a student’s reluctant reference to moonshining in his family history and sharing a similar family history, she encouraged him to incorporate this component of the public discourse about Appalachia into his own identity (21). Similarly, the student who embellished her narrative was praised by the teacher for her “imagery and pastoralism” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 22); such responses, Webb-Sunderhaus contends, quoting Thomas Newkirk, reveal “the seductiveness of deeply rooted and deeply satisfying narratives that place us in familiar moral positions” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 24).

The power of this seductiveness, in Webb-Sunderhaus’s view, creates rhetorical pressure on students who are asked to perform identities in writing classrooms. While teachers hope that students will produce writing that authentically represents their views and experiences, the authenticity and “reliability” of a performance can easily be judged by its adherence to the common and therefore tellable public discourses in which the teacher may be immersed (28-29). Responding to Zan Meyer Gonçalves, Webb-Sunderhaus writes that the hope of making a classroom a place where students can “feel honest and safe” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 29) may overlook the degree to which students’ educational histories have led them to make strategic decisions (29) about how to “negotiate successfully [a] particular literacy event” (24).

In this view, the kinds of clichéd endorsements of popular discourses that teachers would like to see students overcome may be among the options the teachers are inadvertently inviting as they convey their own sense that some narratives are tellable in their classrooms while others are not (30).



Drake, Kimberly. Genderqueering Language. Writing Instructor, March 2015. Posted 07/14/2015.

Drake, Kimberly. “Genderqueering Language at a ‘Women’s’ College.” The Writing Instructor (March 2015). Web. 08 July 2015.

In a special edition of the online journal The Writing Instructor, Kimberly Drake, a professor of writing at Scripps College, explores the efforts of her first-year writing students to navigate the complexities of gendered language and the possibilities of “genderqueered” language. Scripps is traditionally a women’s college in the Los Angeles-area Claremont Colleges. Drake recounts efforts to refine language in official documents and in the classroom at Scripps and other colleges, in particular single-sex institutions, as they face the challenges necessitated by the increasing presence and visibility of transgender students.

Drake reports on the experience of Calliope Wong, who was denied admission by Smith College, a women’s college, because on many of her application materials she was identified as male. For Drake, this event highlighted the particular issues confronting single-sex institutions, which, she argues, have been predicated on a clear, foundational “gender binary” of “male” and “female.” Further, she writes, these colleges have traditionally presented their mission as providing a “safe space” for women to realize their potential with no interference from the patriarchy in the culture around them. Drake notes the special resonance of language use in such an environment and interrogates the concern that the missions of these institutions will be compromised if students’ efforts to alter language result in “turning the gender binary into a continuum.”

Scripps students, as Drake presents them, represent a range of feminist positions; some consider it unnecessary to insist on feminist stances because they feel these are implicit in the Scripps environment. Although Drake knew of queer students at Scripps, she felt that “cis-gendered heterosexual women were the normal Scripps students, and those not falling into this category did not have a strong public presence on campus.” As this situation began to change, however, Scripps students made the language of the Scripps Associated Students (SAS) bylaws gender-neutral so as not to “exclude and silence” a portion of the student population (Anna Salem, SAS president 2009-10, qtd. in Drake).

Drake posits that such choices are not perfect solutions to the problems of visibility and inclusion faced by students who do not fit the normative gender binary. While gender-neutral language precludes clearly sexist choices like generic “he,” it evades confronting the prevailing hierarchy that continues to assume a binary and leaves unchallenged the primacy “implicitly granted to members of historically privileged categories, such as heterosexual men” (Mimi Marinucci, qtd. in Drake). Drake writes that “[f]ull access . . . will not be gained by avoiding pronominal reference to the gender binary.”

Tracing the history of gender reference at Scripps, Drake reveals that over time, official documents and public events ranged from employing plurals to constituting students as “she” to a ceremony in which women were only mentioned twice, in the phrase “men and woman.” Members of the Board of Trustees and faculty were historically “he.” Drake posits that the often-chosen retreat to the plural may have resulted from the need to dodge the grammatical problems associated with the supposedly colloquial use of “they” in singular constructions but also possibly from the perception of some that a “representative college student” could not be female. To some students, surrendering the use of “she” as a designation for Scripps students compromises the feminist implications of such a choice. The students, however, ultimately voted to prefer gender-neutral options as a way of refusing the “gender oppression” inherent in sustaining the binary through the use of “she.”

Drake recounts the experiences of students in her first-year writing classes, which she designs around the language of social protests, creating a “brave space” for free discussion within the “safe space” Scripps provides. In particular, Drake develops readings and assignments that present the power of discourse to structure identity and culture, urging “imaginative resistance.” In exploring how language choices can provide such resistance to gender oppression, students learn that the use of “they” to address the lack of a neutral singular pronoun as well as efforts to create neutral pronouns have a long history, including the use of “yo” as a non-gendered pronoun by current-day teenagers in Baltimore.

As an example of an imaginative response to the problem, Drake’s students read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time about a woman in a mental institution who travels in time to a utopian, egalitarian society in which “identitarian categories” disappear, with “person” and “per” replacing personal pronouns and possessives. Students experiment with Piercy’s solutions, moving on to consider other options like “ze” and “hir.” Students grappled with the claims of Judith Butler that not just “gender identity” and “gender performance” but also “anatomical gender” (qtd. in Drake) are all “socially constructed.” These efforts resulted in the conclusion that “if you are admitted to Scripps, it’s because someone in power believes you have a vagina.” The students in this class appropriated a phrase from a video game to generate a slogan, “Person’s Gender is a Lie,” which they used on T-shirts.

Ultimately, Drake argues, using language to refer to gender in ways that diverge from expectations about what is normal disrupts the ability of institutions like Scripps to subsume the diverse identities of individuals under the static gender binary. When readers found a student’s use of “ze” and “hir” in a scholarship competition “distracting,” Drake writes that this “distraction was purposeful and political,” demanding the recognition of gender as a continuum rather than a binary. Such genderqueering of language, in Drake’s view, replaces the idea of a normative, homogenous community with an acknowledgment of the differences within it.