My dissertation examines the public rhetorics of a nonprofit organization in an urban migrant community. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research methods, as well as theories of professional writing and community engagement, I examine the ways in which the organization’s institutional and artistic rhetorics challenge cultural stereotypes and generate better quality of life for urban Appalachian residents. Finally, my study builds a research methodology centered on the rhetorical art of attunement, which holds researchers responsible for adjustment alongside groups struggling to receive educational resources and cultural respect.

Research Methods & Methodology

My project uses ethnographic research methods, including observations and interviews, to assess the everyday discursive struggles and strategies of Urban Appalachian migrants. My fieldnotes and interview responses are triangulated using a threefold analytical framework. First, I conduct interviews to examine how artists utilize rhetorical strategies for promoting diverse conceptions of Appalachian identity. Next, I employ archival research methods to determine how the UAC deploys public discourse that promotes diverse understandings of Appalachian culture and heritage. Finally, I observe and analyze the language strategies employed by Urban Appalachian residents as they live everyday situated within artistic and institutional rhetorics. My project engages the local community by seeking migrants’ participation and including their voices and experiences in the project.

Drawing on theories of service learning and community engagement, my dissertation develops an ethical research methodology that holds academics responsible for attuning their research interests and approaches to meet the needs of local communities. Scholars invested in academic activism have written about the importance of providing community organizations with long-term advocacy, rather than drop-by research (Cushman; Powell and Takayoshi; Smith). Appalachian scholars have similarly argued for the importance of building “coalitions between university and grassroots groups in devising successful local responses” to social issues (Obermiller et al. 75). Problems of communication between universities and their local communities abound. My project offers academic researchers reflections and strategies for ethical approaches to engaged community research.

Chapter Summaries

My dissertation contains seven chapters:

Chapter 1 provides an overview of my study and establishes a need for ethically grounded ethnographic research into the public rhetorics of advocacy organizations. By situating my project within both Appalachian Studies and Rhetoric and Composition, I argue that rhetoric plays a critical role in 1) generating more diverse conceptions of group identity and 2) building networked collaborations of support for communities facing histories of oppression.

Chapter 2 situates my research study within Rhetoric and Composition’s disciplinary investments in community engagement. Before offering my own metaphor for engaged research in Chapter 3, I review here the contemporary communal metaphors circulating within public rhetorics like service learning in order to explain how each metaphor supports or constrains ethical practices of engagement.

Chapter 3 assesses previous models of ethnographic research in both Rhetoric and Composition and Appalachian Studies and develops a research methodology centered on the rhetorical art of attunement. Building upon feminist notions of reciprocity, my methodology argues that ethical research begins with the researcher first asking participants about their needs, then negotiating those needs with the desired outcomes of research. This chapter asks how researchers can create respect for groups offered little or no respect in order to help under-resourced groups improve their current conditions.

Chapter 4 utilizes a variety of mixed methods to assess how one advocacy organization works at the institutional level to support Urban Appalachians by generating a sense of peoplehood in light of out-migration, socio-economic hardship, and racial in/visibility. Drawing on archival documents and interviews, I trace the ways in which the organization’s institutional rhetorics have become more racially inclusive since its founding. I conclude the chapter with recommendations for institutionalizing inclusivity within identity-based advocacy organizations through a variety of research methods, including data aggregation, social needs mapping, and rhetorically inclusive public definitions of identity and service.

Chapter 5 features the everyday rhetorics of residents who utilize the services of the advocacy organization. Drawing on interviews and observations from a year of engagement at the organization, this chapter shares the experiences, stories, and struggles of people who choose to call themselves Appalachians within a supportive institutional context, and the resulting rhetorical struggles and tools that result as an effect of that naming (or claiming).

Chapter 6 analyzes how artistic movements—specifically those of Urban Appalachian and Affrilachian artists—encourage institutions to revise their ways of defining, categorizing, and supporting diverse urban migrants. This chapter also traces the impact that artistic engagement has on residents’ confidence in writing and ability to articulate rhetorical strategies through writing.

Chapter 7 synthesizes the institutional, artistic, and everyday rhetorics of Urban Appalachians. Returning to methodologies outlined in Chapter 3, I argue that attunement is a generative metaphor for acknowledging diversity within local communities and establishing best practices for university-community engagement.

Articles derived from this research appear in journals of academic activism and cultural studies, contributing to current scholarship on public discourse and rhetorical methodologies, and in Appalachian Studies publications, directly impacting Appalachian communities. Please see my CV for details.

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