New course to explore white ‘Middle America’

December 7, 2018

The newest addition to the English department in the courses dated post-1800 is ENG 88b, titled “Rednecks, Hillbillies, and White Trash: Literature and Culture of the ‘Deplorables.’” This class aims to explore sources written by or about poor whites and consequently discuss difficult topics such as racism, classism and privilege and how these topics affect modern-day America.

Instructor Courtney Miller (PhD-ABD, ENG) hopes that people bring their own experiences and emotional reactions into the classroom in order to create a more profound and beneficial discussion in which individuals can uncover the deep-rooted reasons behind why and how racism, classism and privilege affect American culture. Although these topics are difficult and may lead to heated discussions, it is important to articulate that the problems have been present throughout American history and will continue to plague us unless we create changes in society. Therefore, it is vital that we bring light to these topics through discussions in college classrooms or through discourse with our friends and family.

Miller highlighted the originality of this course, as it is the first time a class that explores works regarding white “rednecks” and “hillbillies” is being taught at Brandeis. Furthermore, this topic is particularly relevant in the current political climate, which allows individuals to apply their thoughts and ideas to our currently divided country. Miller also explains that “I grew up in a small, rural town in the Midwest, and I come from a working-class background, so I’m very familiar with the tendency to judge and misunderstand “Middle America.” Engaging in scholarly conversations about individuals who seem to be the antithesis of scholarliness is, on the surface, paradoxical. But I think we have the responsibility to figure out why that is—why is it so easy for us to write off a whole category of people as stupid or not worth examining?” An insightful professor who has personally experienced judgment along with students who are passionate about this subject should create an engaging environment in which individuals are able to uncover how and why racial and social constructs affect our current society.

A combination of sources from all types of media will be used to analyze racism, classism and privilege in modern and historical America in this class. Specifically, what struck me personally as extremely creative was Miller’s plan to have students analyze the @queerapalachia account on Instagram and the #ruralresistance movement to understand how individuals are attempting to reappropriate the terms “redneck,” “hillbilly” and “white trash.” Miller also plans to include theories of class and race such as Pierre Bourdieu and his theories describing the way in which power is reassigned to different individuals, along with theories of performativity, using communication to create social change and disidentification and understanding how minority groups claim their identity in a world that is dominated by the majority, using work by Judith Butler, Michel Pecheux and Jose Esteban Munoz. These theories will be used as lenses to analyze previous forms of racism and classism that were more overt, along with discussing how prejudice and privilege, although not as overt, are still present in modern America. The balance between important theoretical content along with new media that is relevant in the current age will create an interesting discussion of racism and classism.

Miller hopes that students are able to educate others on the importance of these topics. She specifically explains that her “goal is that when they tell their friends or family they’re taking a class called “Rednecks, Hillbillies, and White Trash,” that when they are met with laughter and/or skepticism (which they undoubtedly will be), they can confidently and persuasively explain its seriousness. Unpacking how race, class and privilege are deeply entangled is an important conversation to have, and I want to encourage my students to question, to disagree, and to come out on the other side with a new perspective.” Overall, this class aims to create discourse and allow for a discussion on racism, classism and prejudice in the modern world and possible ways of decreasing these problems that plague modern America.

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