Rural Education: Pasts, Presents & Futures

NWNU July 2018

I had the great pleasure of being an invited Keynote at Northwest Normal University (NWNU), Lanzhou, Gansu, for the International Conference on Rural Education Development in the New Era in July 2018. 

At this event I talked on the topic of ‘Rural Education: Pasts, Presents & Futures’.  This was a general overview to the rural education field, but with a particular focus as well to China and comparative education.  The China links were made with reference to some of the points made about rural education research in an introduction to rural education in China as part of special edition on the same topic I published with Emily Hannum from the University of Pennsylvania. 

What I find fascinating about rural China is that we can observe the processes, and implications of, modernity happening before our eyes. That China is a nation with a distinct history and culture that is longer than Europe’s where most contemporary powerful academic knowledge and theory emanates from means we can examine the process of modernity removed from the social and cultural construction of rurality within Eurocentric cultures.  I should note, how Europe came to be dominant in knowledge production, and what was taken from other nations (Inc. China), and the implications of this and its eventual change is a topic for another day. 

Half the globes population lives in cities

Half of the Earth’s population now live in cities! indeed modernity can be defined as the move from the rural to the urban.  This occurred in 1948 in Europe and the USA, 2012 in China and was pretty much the state of affairs since the British turned up on our little isle in the pacific.  Modernity, the dominance of urban populations, and resultant metro-normativity in knowledge and theory raises profound questions about how we understand and interact with the world? the knowledges we value in education (curriculum), what we assume as normal or standard (benchmarks/averages), issues pertaining to the potential loss of cultures, values & knowledges and the very research methodologies and epistemologies we engage. 

Globally the ‘non-urban’ and issues of ‘equity’ and spatial self-determination have become a wicked problem that no nation or community seems to have adequately engaged. Wherever you look we tend to see, on average, in non-metropolitan spaces ageing populations, overall population decline, increased proportions of Indigenous and minority group populations (both natural increase and non-indigenous exodus), less health care access, higher suicide rates, less, and often declining, economic activity, comparatively lowereducation outcomes and difficultly in attracting professional staff (e.g. doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers).  Focusing specifically on education, we tend to see in non-metropolitan spaces  less access to early childhood education, decreasing literacy & numeracy scores, decreasing retention rates, decreasing senior secondary completion, decreasing subject access, lower rates of matriculation and higher proportions of students studying vocational pathways (not necessarily a bad thing, but if pre-determined by location a problematic assumption). In Australia the recent 2018 Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (the pirate review ‘IRRRRE…’) highlighted many of these issues. 

The Rural Education Field. 

I’ve become a little critical of late of the rural education research field. Specifically, this criticism has been around the scope of research, its limited impact and the propensity to rake over old ground. I think this reflection began back in 2015, was spurred further by the responses I read to the ‘rural backlash’ in global politicsreading about the rural in comparative education, examining staffing work that’s seems to do the same old thing and the limited engagement of rural education research in the pirate review in Australia. Consequently, I’ve been critically re-reading my field and reading deeply and widely in rural studies.  

What I see is a field that has a persistent, and somewhat narrow, focus upon the different educational outcomes and achievement levels of rural, regional and remote students. Typically, this revolves around issues of access to a full curriculum, access to further education and training, the attraction and retention of staff, the socio-economic composition of rural populations and regions, and higher, and increasing, Indigenous and Minority Group populations.  Consequently, arguments in these areas are usually predicated upon notions of equity for rural regions and rural people, economic development of regions and the human capital development of rural populations. 

In this context arguments about the levels of rural achievement and development are usually framed in comparison to a metro-centric norm.  In this situation the ‘rural’ has been defined by major centres of power in this research and not in its own terms.  While rural education research has begun to problematize this construction, it seems to me that these arguments are often couched in romantic or nostalgic notions of the rural and the nation’s (and maybe the researchers’) past. 

Perhaps more intriguingly these positions have tended to emanate from within education studies and often only draw on the broader fields of the humanities and the social sciences in a limited sense. They also tend to be within nation studies – with one key exception.  What we seem to have are separate spheres that don’t often overlap.  

To explain figure 1.  The separation of education studies sub-disciplines and parent disciplines I put down to the history of education studies as university disciplines (I recommended reading Furlong 2013 and Furlong and Lawn 2010 whom I paraphrase poorly here).  As the university study of education grew in the 1980’s-90’s the sub-disciplines emerged from their parent disciplines, and in order to obtain credibility in the academy developed distinct research cultures and journals.  Slowly they, and their scholars, became more removed from the parent disciplines such that they are often no longer recognisable to each other. The only place I see a trend towards a sustained link is in the sociology of knowledge pertaining to recent debates about knowledge and the curriculum as part of the curriculum studies field. Furthermore, we can see that rural sociology has experiences somewhat of a similar history, itself becoming a separate sub-field within sociology (perhaps the same can be said re geography and rural geography).

What I find fascinating is the peculiar case of comparative and international education. There is a distinct group of ‘rural educators’, often sitting in sociology departments internationally, who study rural schools in other countries – particularly China. Note all the other international guests at NWNU in 2018 were in this category. They call themselves ‘rural education’ people but don’t look at their own countries. Interestingly, they really don’t know the other folk who call themselves ‘rural education’ researchers in their countries exist – and visa versa. Nor do the within nation studies folk look at their work or other nations. I suspect this may be a national academic cultures issue pertaining to the power of policy and the economics of education sub-fields. Though, I would add the comparative education folk are the closest linked to sociology, probably as they usually are sociologists in the traditional sense in sociology departments in the USA and Europe. The only limitation is they are then often not educators and thus the nuances of education are not familiar. The situation seems somewhat different here in Australia where the remnants of comparative education are generally in education faculties – remnants as the dominance of practice-based program standards is slowly killing the disciplines. 

This is of course my initial reading and thinking on these matters. There seems like such wasted opportunities for cross fertilisation of theory and ideas. Our ‘Mapping Rural Fields’ project and symposium at the World Congress of Rural Sociology (in Cairns, Australia, July 2020) will present initial findings of a more academic study of these relationships that is currently underway.  

I’d really like to see a field that looks a bit more like figure 2 below – though I’m ambiguous if I mean sociology or rural studies. Rural studies are essentially rural geography and rural sociology. Either way greater links here will help all as, in general rural studies does not engage with education other than through limited human capital notions

There is such a great opportunity to build the field, and rural studies, through greater cross field integration.  For mine the opportunities lie in engaging with the spatial turn in social theory and education research as a matter of the representation and production of the rural in modernity.  Productive notions from Lefebvre (and Soja) such as space as produced and space as ‘real-and-imaginary’ are fantastic tools to look at the production of rurality in modernity.  Similarly, the notion of Spatial Justice provides powerful new ways to look at equity and justice in, and for, rural spaces.

Why Rural?

I’ve argued in papers, and previous talks, that defining the rural is important aspect of research that claims to be ‘rural’. I won’t reiterate those here. Though I will step sideways for a quick comment.  I think the position I hear reported that there is a school of thought that it’s the ‘guys’ who do this sociology thing (oddly so many people now call themselves rural sociologists on twitter nowadays, a search for legitimacy perhaps?) who argue about defining the rural, and the line that ‘we all know the rural is hard to define so we should just move on knowing that’, are both limiting and potentially dangerous.   Complexity is where new insights and theoretical advances lies, and clearly what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked, other than keeping us employed and published, so…

Anyway, for the issue of researching modernity and rural China my position here is a little more nuanced. The complexity of understanding the rural is indeed the opportunity.  The multiplicity of defining rural places, and perceptions of the rural, remind us of the forces that have become otherwise invisible in modernity and that, inevitably, place matters. Furthermore, increasingly rural research in education uses the theoretical tools of place and situated practice to justify a difference in rural schools. Repurposing these orientations to the social system that positions rural schools, and their communities, are marginal and deficit provides avenues to critically examine the influence of established, and powerful, methods on the construction of the rural (Gruenewald, 2003) and the relationship between centres and their peripheries (Nespor, 2006).   It gets a tad more complex in rural China where the pragmatics of economic development and lifting people out of poverty are key drivers. Furthermore, the very social and cultural position of the rural is distinct, hierarchical and classed in China – but again, this is the opportunity born of challenge and the foundation for comparative research on rurality and cultures. 

Defining rurality

The rural is generally defined in some combination of demographic, geographicand cultural terms. The definitions, and its composition, are important as they then relate to how the rural is researched and represented. Consequently, rurality is represented methodologically as statistical, geographic (spatial mapping or distances) or cultural (qualitative accounts of difference (to?)). In Australia, for instance, we really only use a limited version of demographically and geographically defined notions of rurality that is expressed solely in a statistical frame of analysis and considered as a policy variable. 

Internationally there was a period in the early to mid 2000’s when discussion per definitions were topical in rural studies. This resulted in three influential constructions. Firstly, Halfacree’s (2006) Three-Fold Model of (rural) spaceas rural locality (geographic), formal representations of the rural and everyday lives of the rural. Next Balfour, Mitchell & Molestone’s (2008) Generative Theory of Rurality which was rurality as context, forces (Space, place & time), agencies (Movement, systems, will) and resources (Situated, material & psychosocial). Finally, Cloke’s (2006) Three Theoretical Frames of functional (land use & life linked to land),political-economic (social production) and social (culture & values).  

What’s important here is not necessarily some definitional conclusion, as that’s probably unachievable, but the act of understanding how the rural is constructed in relation to the research task at hand. Moreso, this act helps us reflect on the limitations and affordances of our research approaches, consider the forces constructing the rural and the phenomena we are exploring, and temper our conclusions. Returning to my sidestep above, rural studies authors don’t go out of their way to define the rural in contemporary publications. However, the influence of this definitional work in the background is clearly evident in the way the rural is prefaced, phenomena constructed, research approached and written – it is foundational and understood by the field. I’m not convinced that is the case in rural education. 

In education Donehower, Hogg, & Schell’s (2007, p.9) construction of a working principle that ‘It is important to define rural not only demographically and geographically but culturally as well’ has become popular in some circles, myself included. Adding to this Howley & Howley (2010) provide a useful typology of three rural community types (in the USA), durable-agrarian, resource extraction and suburbanizing, with each having particular equity challenges and opportunities. I lean towards this being a good construction for Australian rural community types as well. Finally, Reid and colleagues (2010) Rural Social Space model is increasingly being seen as a productive model to explore education, and related social policy practices, in non-metropolitan contexts. 

Engaging such definitions open up exciting new research possibilities. For instance, Donehower, Hogg, & Schell’s (2007) construction helps set up the frame of reference for exploring rural literacies. This work has convincingly illustrated the different literacy practices in rural places, which are typically marginalized in contemporary standardized education. The burgeoning field of rural literacies, as explored by Green & Corbett (2013) is the result. Similarly, in mathematics research on spatial reasoning has illustrated the different spatial practices of rural communities (e.g. Lowrie and the STEM education research centre), again something marginalised in contemporary education.  These examples rely upon thinking about the rural as constituted distinctly, and not only in (deficit) comparison to the metropolitan where its difference is erased in the pursuit of comparable (statistical) measures. The possibilities of uncovering new insights, and generating new theory, through reconsidering what constitutes the rural (considering the rural in its own terms) is immense – and even more so when we throw different cultural contexts into the mix.

Opportunities for rural studies & education re China

There are comparatively limited studies of rural education in China in the English language, with these studies predominantly emanating from comparative education or fields such as sociology or policy studies.  Notably this work does not tend to draw upon rural studies. furthermore, rural education in China is relatively unexamined within the rural education field.  

This is not to work against comparative education, sociology of policy studies. It is merely to point out that their limited familiarity with the nuances of education as a process, with cultural assumptions re knowledge, cultures and practices leads these studies to implicit comparisons and input-output assumptions of the education endeavor.  As such they can reinforce metro-normative, and harmful, assumptions about education and equity.  Instead it is important to see education as a product, and process, of modernity par excellence – with modernity referring to the metro-normative world view outlined above. 

Comparative education is predicated on producing insights for policy transfer, being context sensitive (in terms of nations & cultures, not the rural as far as I can see) and providing insights for professional development of policy actors (Crossley & Watson 2011).  As such comparative education provides insights into what does, and doesn’t, work in relation to educational issues. There are however no magic bullets as such insights are bounded by context. Included in my thinking here is both the potential for rural educators to engage in comparative education research and broaden the understanding of education in that field, and visa-versa. 

We have an opportunity in engaging in comparative rural education studies, informed by rural studies, to foster new understandings of ruralities in the globalised world.  through such studies we can explore the social and cultural constructions of rurality and its impact on policy and practice. In a context such as China undergoing mass urbanization we can engage these in action, and have real world practical impact. 

A rural education research program drawing from rural studies could expand the field of study, and generate new insights.  I wonder what would happen if we engaged ideas such as:

Rural Studies + Curriculum Inquiry = valuing new knowledges (& examination measures)

Rural Studies + Human Capital education research (staffing) = 

Rural Studies + Policy Studies = 

In the end what we all share, and are implicated in producing, is the place of the rural in modernity…

Institute for Education Research in Western China

SNNU July 2019

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last two and a half weeks at Shaanxi Normal University* (SNNU), Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. Xi’an* is the largest city in Northwest China and one of the oldest cities in China.  It was the capital for 13 Dynasties and often regarded as part of the cradle of modern China. Xi’an is perhaps most renowned for its role as the capital of the influential Qin dynasty and the Terracotta Army.  It’s location in northwest China, excellent infrastructure and institutions make Xi’an an excellent base for research in rural China.

This was my second research trip western China. Last year I was fortunate to be an invited Keynote at Northwest Normal University, Lanzhou, Gansu, for the International Conference on Rural Education Development in the New Era. Here I outlined ‘Rural Education: Pasts, Presents and Futures’.

A well ranked university in China focusing on teacher training, especially for rural regions, SNNU is stepping up their rural related educational research.  They have recently established the Institute for Education Research in Western China, charged with enhancing education in western (rural) China, and have an exciting research plan for the coming years. I’m honored to be appointed an Adjunct Professor to this institute and help develop the research plan.  In order to help achieve its vision the Faculty of Education has recently recruited a number of exciting ‘new’ and ‘young’ staff members to collaborate on this broad work.  Rural education is indeed the focus, and more exciting the team here are on the same page as me regarding issues regarding the representation of the rural, rural knowledge, place sensitive methodologies and curriculum issues. Furthermore, the institute will also engage with rural teacher education research in neighboring countries.

Rural China is an exciting research site due to the range of issues unfolding right now. Indeed, we can look at modernity and its implications for rurality in real time unfolding, and consequently better understand these processes.  Geographically China has a similar scale and population distribution to Australia (with the obvious exception of population 1.3bn v 26 Million) making it an interesting comparison. Given the cultural and historical differences between our nations we have the opportunity to start to better understand the process of rurality both within, and distinct from, the cultural contexts in which we typically observe it.  An exciting opportunity.  I won’t go into the range of issues and challenges facing education, and communities, in rural China here. Instead I’ll merely reference an introduction to rural education in China as part of special edition on the same topic I published last year with Emily Hannum from the University of Pennsylvania.  All I’ll say here is this is an exciting and fascinating research site, with a big dose of real significance added – millions of people’s lives are impacted in this work. 

Finally, It’s such a pleasure to spend quality time in a nation with such a long and rich history. I’m constantly amased at how little ‘we’ generally know about China and its history (in Australia).  This is a bit bemusing given the history between our nations for centuries, itself pre-dating ‘modern’ Australia. While we know northern China was one of the cradles of civilization, as I wandered the Shaanxi History Museum* I was struck by the pottery, Craft work, Frescos and so forth of comparable date and quality to those studied more typically here in Australia. Then visiting the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda* and the Terracotta Warriors* I was further struck by just how old and powerful a civilization this is – these sites are truly awe inspiring.  Consequently, it’s terribly sad to read the perspectives put forward in some contemporary political, and ‘news’, commentary: I have nothing but positive things to say about the people I’ve met on my travels, including the passersby, shopkeepers and so forth. 

I’m looking forward to long term collaborative relationship and the comparative projects we have developed, and started to roll out, both at SNNU and with other colleagues in China.  I look forward to reporting them here in the near future… 

*I’ve used Wikipedia links for simplicity, as some of the original websites default to Chinese, I encourage readers to link through to the relevant sites in China and choose the English function. 

Education & research for rural regional sustainability

Education & research for rural regional sustainability                                           Dr Philip Roberts                                                                                                                4thMarch 2019 1-1.30pm Building 25 ‘TEAL’ Room University of Canberra.

In this presentation I sketch an evolving ecosystem of rural education and community research, broadended through a recent period of outside studies.

The release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education (Halsey 2018) provides a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter.  Notably, the review calls for further research into rural, regional and remote education, and in so doing invites the education research community to engage with this space in their work.  However, the rural is a difficult site to define, with the definitions engaged with implicitly linked to the construction of the research object, the methodologies engaged with, and the phenomena observed.   This I argue, necessitates bringing research from a wider educational audience into rural education debates, and the participation of this wider audience in these debates .

To illustrate this point, I introduce the idea that there are a multiplicity of meanings of the rural (Roberts & Green, 2013).  Indeed, determining just what is rural and what rural itself means a central pre-occupation of rural studies (Woods, 2011), and something that remains an ongoing topic of debate and discussion. Recognising this complexity, models representing the rural advanced in the rural social sciences tend to be multidimensional – encompassing statistical, cultural, spatial and cultural dimensions.  The resultant multiple ways of representing the rural tend to draw upon divergent epistemological traditions, emphasising that researching the rural must similarly draw upon various epistemological traditions.  Here I highlight these multiple models to emphasise the point that defining the rural, and then by association, rural meanings in research, is inherently complex and contested.

Building from these definitional dilemmas I introduce the relationships between rural studies (rural sociology & rural geography) and rural education.  I suggest that the rural education field has tended to work from within its own boundaries. Consequently the field has been becoming increasingly narrow and removed from the parent disciplines.  While rural education is somewhat ambiguously placed it draws primarily from the traditions of sociology and geography, with broader engagements with the non-education fields of rural sociology and rural geography.  Important here I suggest that sociology, and the sociology of education, does not engage significantly with the rural – hence the development of sub-fields of rural education and rural sociology.  Consequently, scholarship is necessary in order to bridge these divides and enhance the quality, and breadth, of scholarship in all related fields.  Supporting this claim I make reference to a recent empirical study (under review) of how the ‘rural’ has been referred to in the last twenty years of Australian education research. I also note recent theoretical advances in rural studies, and explore how these relate to rural education research.   

I argue that a lack of engagement with rural definitions, and their relationship to how we conceptualise and undertake research, policy and practice, contributes to the continuity of metro-centricity/metro-normativity in education research, policy and practice.

Reflections on a visit to the Centre for Rural Economy

During August 2018 I was fortunate enough to spend the month visiting researchers at the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) and incidentally Centre for Learning and Teaching (CFLAT) at Newcastle University (UK). Key people include Mark Shucksmith, Jeremy Phillipson, Sally Shortall, Liz Todd and David Leat

This was part of my study leave, funded by my institutions ‘Outside Study Program‘.   Having recently developed the Rural Education and Communities research group, situated within the Faculty of Education, aspects of  my travels were geared towards thinking through the directions this research group will take, and hopefully building some connections to collaborate with in this work.  As an aside the group is deliberately named as per the centre at Penn State, with Kai’s agreement, as we have strong relationships with them ( I spent time there in 2016).

I’d stress that the conception of education I use is a broadly defined one and not delimited by appending ‘school’. Indeed I sit with the Australian Institute for Sustainable Communities (AISC), and much of my work has been the role of education in communities and how rurality is engaged with in education.   AISC is essentially the remnants of the former ‘community studies’ part of the faculty, and much AISC work is related to development, and located in ‘developing’ contexts.

Rural Education 
It’s a space that has a similar community in North America and a growing community in Europe.   There are two journals in this community, the ‘Australian and International Journal of Rural Education’ (I was Chief Editor for the last 3 years) and the ‘Journal of Research in Rural Education’ based at Penn State.

I’ve been reflecting upon the nature of the field for a while, as I’ve been feeling that it is increasingly narrowing itself, becoming self-referential and overly focussed on preparing teachers for rural areas.  My initial analysis of the international field reveals a persistent focus upon the different educational outcomes and achievement levels of rural, regional and remote students.  Typically this revolves around issues of access to a full curriculum, access to further education and training, the attraction and retention of staff and the socio-economic composition of rural populations and regions.

Arguments in these areas are usually predicated upon notions of equity for rural regions, economic development of regions, and the human capital development of rural populations. Problematically, these positions have tended to emanate from within education studies and often only draw on the broader fields of the humanities and the social sciences in a limited sense.

Notably, arguments about the levels of rural achievement and development are usually framed in comparison to a metro-centric norm.  As such the ‘rural’ has been defined by major centres of power in this research and not in its own terms.  Rural education research has begun to problematize this construction.  However, these arguments are often couched in romantic or nostalgic notions of the rural and the nation’s past.

Interestingly (well I think so), there are a group of scholars who call themselves rural educators who come from ‘Comparative and International Education’. These scholars appear to draw from sociology and are equally as likely to be located in humanities and/or social science faculties as education faculties. They tend to study education in countries other than their own and no, they don’t know anything about the other rural education folk (or visa versa) or draw on rural studies. However, they have a number of high ranked journals, much higher ranked than the two ‘rural education’ ones.

Recently, a couple of us have been arguing for a greater engagement with the parent disciplines and related rural fields.  Gaining a better understanding of these disciplines and fields is what brought me to CRE and Newcastle University.

It seems that while rural education is somewhat ambiguously placed it theoretically draws primarily from the traditions of sociology and geography, with broader engagements with the non-education fields of rural sociology and rural geography (Roberts & Cuervo, 2015).  It seems to me that sociology, and the sociology of education, does not engage significantly with the rural – hence the development of sub-fields of rural education and rural sociology.

Consequently, scholarship is necessary in order to bridge these divides and enhance the quality, and breadth, of scholarship in all related fields. Currently, there are a number of moves to strengthen these connections, for instance the emergence of the area of study of ‘rural literacies’ (Donehower, Hogg & Schell, 2007; Green & Corbett, 2013) and ‘rural social space’ (Reid et al, 2010).

I came to CRE then with the broad intent to explore these relationships further.  At this moment in time it seems that the key issues are the different philosophies/theories/methodologies, the UK/Europe/USA differences in rural studies, as well as coming to recognise the recent developments in the fields – so as to start linking with education (broadly defined).

One outcome of my visit has been the positive response to my, perhaps outsider, analysis of the fields.  This has encouraged me to frame a project on ‘mapping the rural fields’. It seems there is a potentially useful project here in mapping the various rural sub fields.

A first project – ‘mapping rural fields’
This is a more formal approach to the broad plan of my study leave, and I’ve kicked off an ethics application. The broad plan is to survey/interview leading scholars in the various rural sub fields about theory, methodology, key works etc. and map the relationships. It would also involve examining the reference and citation links of the key works and theories they cite.  The aim would be to present initial aspects at the world congress in 2020 in Cairns, Australia. 

An even more exciting development (for me at least)
While based at CRE, I also met with others at Newcastle University, and Durham.  Through these conversations I have been exposed to a much more exciting development.

(and here I digress for a moment) I’ve just started working on the initial draft of a major research grant application – a 3 year project.  In that project I want to look at rural knowledges in education and how they are, and are not, engaged with and how this relates to issues of equity and social justice.  This would involve working with communities and schools, and seeing how teachers can bring in other knowledges in a standardised curriculum framework. In my draft notes I had this term ‘local knowledge’ and in the past have referred to ‘rural knowledges’ – something I’d argued pertained to knowledges emanating from a rural standpoint as distinct from the metro-normative knowledges of the global metropole. Hence the need to understand rural studies better as the possible site of the theory I’ve been looking for. Until now I could only gesture theoretically that there were ‘rural knowledges’ and make analogies to knowledge ala class, gender and so forth.

Until now I say because I discovered that CRE and the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CFLAT) have established research programs that together bring the two pieces of the puzzle together in a concrete fashion> while not focussed explicitly on engaging rural knowledges in education, they are closely related and transferable.  The work of the CFLAT, especially that related to community curriculum making, articulates well into the local knowledge, stakeholder engagement and knowledge transfer work of many CRE researchers and projects (esp. the Rural Economy and Land Use program (RELU)).

Consequently, I found the two pieces of the puzzle that I knew were missing – when I wasn’t looking for them at the time.  The first a model for engaging local knowledge in curriculum making, and the second engaging rural knowledges per se, more on that below…

Learning about interdisciplinary and knowledge exchange
The rich interdisciplinary traditions at CRE, and the work on interdisciplinary research, stakeholder engagement and knowledge transfer, are certainly areas the institute I sit with (AISC) can learn a lot from.  We’ve had some experience in a related space, but after discussing the work of CRE and the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) I’ve come to gain further insight into how we can progress in this area.

One of our projects ‘Towards Place-Based Education in the Murray-Darling Basin’ was part of the Murray-Darling Basin Futures Collaborative Research Network (MDBfutures). This network was funded by the Australia Research Council.  There were minor similarities here to the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) in the idea of an interdisciplinary design and its rural focus. However, it lacked key elements and was nowhere near as influential as RELU.  The power of leadership, interpersonal skills, and the interdisciplinary framing of projects seem critical – whereas ours was discreet projects around interdisciplinary themes.

Our project explored the ways in which sustainability is understood in Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) communities (including Indigenous, rural, small towns, regional centres, local industries, co-ops and so forth).  The project then examined how local understandings are, and can be, engaged within education to achieve more collaborative outcomes. To achieve these collaborative understandings the project explored approaches to place-conscious education as a vehicle for social inclusion and community representation. By surfacing various understandings of sustainability, the project aimed to help educators, in both the school and community sector, engage more effectively with ideas around sustainability in their work.

Following this project, we were funded to look at the aspirations of rural students for agriculture sector careers. The project identified a lack of understanding of the nature of modern rural industries by many students and teachers in rural schools. Many students, and teachers, did not understand the relationship between school subjects and careers in modern rural industries.  This then discourage students seeking places in university. Similarly rural industry leaders did not understand the language of school subjects, and consequently were not able to link their industry needs and the subjects students study at school. Bringing this together the projected illustrated a significant language gap between students wanting to pursue rural careers, teachers and rural industries – now we need to bridge that gap!

It seems a lot of what we have been doing is inherently interdisciplinary and linked somewhat to issues of knowledge exchange and stakeholder engagement. My time at CRE has helped me understand how we can better position these in the wider fields of rural studies – not a bad outcome considering it wasn’t part of the initial plan. I think rural knowledge exchange with a focus on education might have just become my central research area! well it was, but now I have some models to work with.  

While at CRE I was fortunate enough to discuss this recently published paper, then in draft form. Expertise in rural development: A conceptual and empirical analysis‘.  For mine, it provides a great framework and overview from which to do this work…

What next?
From Newcastle I headed to Aberystwyth University for a week with Michael Woods and then spent a month in Tromso, Norway with the Space, Time and Education research group in Tromso, Norway, and specifically the RUR-ED program on spatial inequity and spatial justice. Led by Unn-Doris Bæck, who spent 2017 at UTAS (where we joined up for this seminar: Space, Practice, Mobility: On social Inequality and Educational Politics)  , this group are doing some innovative statistical and ethnographic research into spatial, mainly rural, inequities. Oh, and there was a bit of a holiday in between these stops.  But more about those soon…

NB: An earlier version of this post was published on the CRE blog at this location 31 August 2018. 

On being a rural social researcher in the age of Trump

21 April 2017

Self-doubt takes a while to process: four months in my case.

These last four months of reflection were precipitated by a comment I observed while in the audience at an education conference.   The speaker, clearly affected, recounted their sense of being flabbergasted to the point of immobility by the suggestion someone had to put to them that Brexit, the politics of Hanson, and Trump, were not shocking to some.  Someone had had the temerity to suggest to them that Brexit, Hanson, and Trump, were indeed someone else’s reality.

Wheather it was a visceral or intellectual reaction I am unsure.  Either way the speaker was clearly shaken to their core.  What’s more it seemed that Brexit, the rise of Hansen, and Trump, was somehow a failure of education.

This comment, and the depth of shock expressed by the presenter, shocked me – I think more than they were. I’m still trying to work out though how my reasons relate to theirs.

For two decades now I have worked in, and with, rural schools and communities; initially as a teacher, more recently as a researcher.  It took me a while to realise what was behind my sense of injustice and the desire to speak up. Eventually I came to understand that this itch was the marginalisation of rural Australia and the realisation that modern education was largely complicit in this.  To succeed in education kids need to become a little bit ‘less rural’. Indeed education is a project of modernity par excellence.  In modernity the city is the beacon of the future and progressives, and the rural the symbol of a bygone era and representative of ‘backwardness’.

Brexit , the rise of Hansen, and Trump, and the associated media coverage of rural voters disgruntled with their lot in the world, being left behind by modern economics and the cultural changes brought on by globalisation, was not nonsensical to me. Let me be clear, I am not for a moment implying any support for the far right positions adopted by the political opportunists who have tapped into some of this discontent. Indeed I regard these as exploiting the marginalisation’s I am concerned about. It does however make me wonder how my concern for those marginalisation’s has empowered these extreme positions.

For two decades I’ve been arguing that the metropolitan mainstream doesn’t understand the rural. Rural education academics have been doing so for much longer – both here and internationally. We have been pointing out how schooling is designed on city-based models, how what we value in education is based on the experience of those in the major cities and how the life of rural children and communities is often absent.  We’ve been saying that we need to find room to value the rural in the cosmopolitan cultural globalisation that is contemporary education.  We’ve been showing how rich forms of literacy exist in rural communities, just not the one school, national, and international, tests value.  We’ve been showing how children in rural communities undergoing decline due to the economic changes of globalisation have been struggling to see a future in their communities.

Have I inadvertently contributed to the rise of rural discontentment, and ultimately these right-wing politics? How do we, as rural education academics, respond? Especially when, by virtue of our position and role, we represent the liberal (metropolitan/city) elite that these movements are reacting against.  We may not have the economic capital, especially in an increasingly casualised academic workforce, but we embody other privileges.

If I think of my conference speaker, he seemed to be saying that I can’t think, and feel, the things I do in relation to the communities I work with AND be what I represent.

Indeed, I realise now I’ve been observing the same slight of hand while following the response to the pivotal six months last year (Brexit in June, our Federal election in July and Trump’s presidential victory in November).  It would seem that many commentators, even my rural academic colleague commentators, have largely failed to separate themselves from the issue. Rather than genuinely engage with communities and the complex issues of rural difference they seem to have resorted to fantasy and doubled down on our biases.

One the one hand rural academics have been arguing rural difference needs to be recognised and valued, but then make arguments that undermine such a view.  For instance, the majority I’ve read argue the need to focus our attention on rural education – to better educate the rural.  Such a view seems to be code for further advancing the move to modernity and urgently making rural areas more liberal, egalitarian, cosmopolitan and integrated into the global economy: the very things the communities seem to reacting against.

In Australia we reduce the issue to race relations, in the UK it is couched in economic terms, while in the USA it is presented as a bit of both.  The response of academics in the field defending the rural from the accusations in the mainstream press has been to argue that this is not the rural they know. However this is to engage in fantasy as a form of self-delusion.  A fantasy in that a picture of rural places as sophisticated and cosmopolitan in the image of metropolitan world is created rather than one that recognises the complexity and multiple dimensions of rural places.  Sure sophisticated and cosmopolitan rural places exist, but they manifest in a different form to metropolitan ones. If they were all like that we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

There also seems to be a strange separation between economics and culture in these arguments. While the arguments recognise many rural areas are economically challenged as result of globalisation, they remain culturally cosmopolitan. Something that seems to contradict the very need to be better educated in order to not hold values of a bygone era.

The self-delusion evident in much of this commentary is perhaps understandable. For how do we deal with the tricky ethical implications the Brexit, Hanson and Trump rural phenomena pose for our work? We have given voice to many of the differences. However we have used them to justify place conscious approaches to enhance the achievement in the metropolitan-cosmopolitan knowledge system these movements are reacting against.  Thus we have simultaneously raised the issues and reinforced the problem.

It would seem that many of us in this field have been blinded by the march of western liberalism, and the centripetalgravity of metropolitan-cosmopolitan values as discourse, and the associated social and economic benefits of globalisation.  Some things won’t change, small family farms, and manufacturing for instance won’t return.  Economics, and our taste for cheap products, dictate as much. Thus our tastes reinforce our commitment to globalisation. But we can, and must, find ways to value cultures and places beyond the cities.

The shifts signified by commentary on the rural voters linked to Brexit, Hanson and Trump put a mirror to our work, and ourselves.  The work suddenly got a lot trickier, and more important.