Evil or Dumb?: Examining Common Media Stereotypes and Student Perceptions of Appalachia

Appalachia. App-ah-latch-uh? Confusion appears on my students’ faces when I discuss my research interests. Quickly, I have to change my language to accommodate their understanding, while subtly noting the regional differences that emerge as a scholar of Appalachian Studies while teaching in a place beyond the borders. When teaching courses on persuasion and rhetoric, an everyday example to me is coal baron Don Blankenship’s relationship with the media after of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Not once did he apologize or take responsibility for improper mine safety; however, the media did not vilify him. Was it because of Appalachian stereotypes? Was it because his behavior, or his “performance” of Appalachian identity is what the media expected? Using Don Blankenship’s interviews, primarily from ABC with Diane Sawyer, and the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009), my paper examines how popular culture influences the perceptions of students’ understanding of Appalachia. Using pedagogical theory from Freire, 1968, I explore how these judgements help construct a particular narrative for defining Appalachia when the classroom is situated outside of the Appalachian region.