Urban and Rural Memoirs: Making Connections

This paper analyzes the significant life experiences that students share in autobiographical narratives written in their high school and college English classes. The experiences of students from an urban poverty environment are compared/contrasted with those from a rural (Appalachian) poverty environment. My questions include: How are their experiences similar and/or different, especially when it comes to traumatic experiences, for example, violence, drug addiction, incarcerated parent(s), etc.? How do they deal with these experiences and what do they learn, if anything, from these? I will use excerpts from my former student’s autobiographical writings to give voice to these experiences. I also hope to inspire dialogue about how educators--and others-- can begin to understand who they are, how to help them to connect with others, and how they may seek help when needed. As a professor in a small, rural community college and as a former high school teacher in a large urban high school, I have found many similarities among students of poverty environments; for example, most are able to somehow find strength and a sense of hope despite extremely difficult experiences. What inspires them to keep going through such difficulties? Another question that should be considered: If students from Appalachia are able to share their autobiographies with students from urban environments, will they be able to connect and see themselves in what is often considered the “other” --and vice versa? With this connection among cultures, students from different backgrounds may come to understand and appreciate each other.

To help me gain more insight into this topic, these are a few of the sources that I am consulting: “Appalachian Self-Fashioning: regional identities and cultural models,” Esther E. Gottlieb in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education (2001); “The Memoir as Provocation: A Case for ‘Me Studies’ in Undergraduate Classes,” Megan Brown in College Literature (2010), and “The Body in Poverty,” Sarah Smarsh, Nation (2018).