NARRATIVE BIOGRAPHY

KATHERINE K. SOHN

I agree with Lillis that the "reasons we engage in academic endeavour are often connected implicitly to our own experiences and desires . . . our own history and interests" (2). My history and interests relate closely to my personal and academic endeavors as a college composition teacher in central Appalachia where I hope to convey the power of writing for college and beyond to my students, especially Appalachian women whose voices have been diminished by cultural roles. In becoming a mouthpiece for their concerns, I have strengthened my own voice as a southern woman.  

My history began in Greensboro, North Carolina as the oldest of eight, the daughter of Leo and Teresa Kelleher. A university woman without a college degree, my mother was a social activist, friend of the downtrodden, voracious reader, and closet intellectual who passed along the values of work, education, and equality to her children.  Fired by the family script that blessings of life must be shared and by the Kennedy mantra of social action, I worked after college as an American Peace Corps volunteer in rural public health/India, as an organizer with the Office of Economic Opportunity in rural North Carolina, and as a counselor in the Maryland community college system after I had earned my first masters. 

In 1973, my husband, Mark, and I moved to Pikeville, Kentucky, located in central Appalachia, where he was hired as Dean of Students at Pikeville College (PC).  This move turned my life around, for once I knocked the big city chip from my shoulder, I encountered strong mountain women who taught me that the battles of working class women were far different from those of middle class women working to fight glass ceilings.  In a tight job market in a depressed region, I could not find work, so I designed, obtained funding, and implemented the Center for Continuing Education at the college, focusing on noncredit programs for the community, but especially for women.  After a change in administration, I became a part-time instructor of English, a job that temporarily fit well with raising two children. When I became frustrated with the way adjuncts were treated but could not get full-time work, my husband encouraged me to get my masters, and he took his first sabbatical at Northern Arizona University where I earned a second masters degree in Rhetoric and Composition at the age of 42.

Acquiring that degree did not change my job status; I continued to be ignored by a college president who sincerely believed that with Mark's salary, I did not need full-time work. Finally, realizing that I would never be hired without my doctorate, I enrolled eight years later at the age of 50 in the "summers only" doctoral program in Rhetoric and Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Soon afterwards, my husband's second sabbatical was approved, and we moved to Pennsylvania, where I completed the doctoral course work, returning to Pikeville for comprehensive study and research.  I completed my doctorate at the age of 53 in December 1999.

When it came time for me to focus on doctoral research, I recalled the last twenty years before my mother became ill when she enrolled in credit and noncredit courses at local universities to satisfy her intellectual hunger. Her example motivated me to investigate the lives of eight nontraditional, first-generation, working class women who were students in my composition classes in the early 1990's.  From the eight, I chose three for case studies, following them on their jobs to determine their literacy practices since college.  As I had moved through the doctoral program at a nontraditional age, these remarkable women moved from initial discomfort in the academic setting to being active in their communities and continuing their commitment to learning after college.

In September 1999, I was finally hired full-time as assistant professor of English and Writing Center Coordinator at PC.  In this job, I recall the lessons of the women I researched by exposing students to the power of writing while being aware of the constraints and battles students may have to fight at home.  In my mother's memory, I have instituted a yearly scholarship for nontraditional students.

                My primary purposes for writing this book, Whistlin’ and Crowin’ Women of Appalachia: Literacy Practices since College  are to illustrate the importance of lifelong learning once education begins and ultimately to create a more positive picture of Appalachian women who have been unfairly stereotyped even in this day of multicultural awareness. Ultimately, I hope it honors the memory of my mother, Teresa Kelleher, who spent the last few months of her life as my co-researcher over the phone and in periodical visits, because she understood, more than anyone, the value and affirmation of education for women. Though she never lived to call me "Dr." because she died six months before I completed the doctorate, she is the foundation of my history and academic endeavors; she understood more than most how crucial education is to feelings of self-worth, especially for women.

 

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