Saturday, April 22, 2017

Learning rural

An article recently came across my screen about a new college class called "Dolly Parton's America." My initial reaction was a pang of jealously. Why couldn't I have taken this course in college? Could I have double majored in Dolly and Beyonce studies? After I got over these dreams, I started to read a bit more about the course and what it was all about.

"HIST 307: Dolly Parton's America: From Sevierville to the World" is an honors history course at the University of Tennessee Knoxville taught by Lynn Sacco. (Interestingly, Sacco is a former attorney turned academic with an academic focus on the history of incest in America.) According to the course description, the class seeks to answer the question: "How did a poor, young Appalachian woman become one of the most influential popular artists of the 20th century, not only in Tennessee but in the world?" To do this, the class will focus on "histories of popular culture," including movies, radio programs, tv shows, and Dolly's autobiography. Sacco said she was inspired to come up with the course "after hearing students express ambivalence about being from East Tennessee" and "wanted to give them a picture that coming from East Tennessee doesn't mean you don't have a bright future."

East Tennessee is culturally and geographically considered part of Appalachia, which many consider the face of rural, white poverty in America. (For a beautiful collection of Appalachian documentary photography, check out Looking at Appalachia.) For example, over a quarter of the people living in Johnson county, the easternmost county in Tennessee, are living below the poverty rate. In Dolly Parton's hometown, Sevierville, Tennessee, around 25% of the residents also live below the poverty line. According the census data, there are 16,490 people residing in the city and the racial makeup is 88.9% white.

Students will watch "TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and movies like Coal Miner's Daughter, to examine how Appalachian people have been portrayed in pop culture and what can be learned from it." This approach seems familiar. It sounds a bit like our own course, Law and Rural Livelihoods, where we often incorporate movie clips to illustrate aspects of "rural life" and learn about rural people. This concept of showing rural life isn't unique to classrooms. When Assemblyman Brian Dahle presented to our class, his answer to explaining rural problems to urban politicians was to invite them to visit his district and show them how life works out there. It seems to be an effective way to expose urban populations to the realities of rural life.

Putting this all into the context of America's current political landscape, perhaps showing rural is our best hope to come to terms with the "Trump voters" and begin to understand the reality many Americans face. A New York Times op-ed published after the election asked, "Who are these rural, red-county people who brought Mr. Trump into power?" Perhaps this is academia's call for more rural studies and courses like "Dolly Parton's America" and "Law and Rural Livelihoods" are the answer to moving towards a more understanding or less-fragmented American identity. At the very least, maybe the more movies, radio shows, and new stories we have covering rural life will show the current situation in rural America to a broader audience and hopefully foster some sort of empathy or understanding.

1 comment:

Mollie M said...

I love Dolly Parton, and hope to make it to Dollyworld in life one day. Since all these 'hip' trendy urban folk, and academic folk are in a podcast craze right now (I do not claim to be trendy, but I am very into podcasts right now) maybe that can be another way for urban and rural folks to connect and understand each other. I mention podcasts in particular because they can be heard on the radio - so they are rather accessible - and take fewer resources to create than documentaries, and can be relatively low-tec. I found this one to be of particular interest: "Rural Radio Network Podcast" ( It looks like since the election NPR has also increased its reporting about rural areas, though some may argue that NPR is a member of the liberal elite and cannot broaden this lack of communication and connection by itself. Either way. I think that podcasts and radio programs could offer an authentic sharing of information and culture, possibly without a few of the gimmicks of reality tv? (Full disclosure: I am also a fan of reality tv.)