Rural Education’s Rubicon

It’s been about 16 months since the release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education (IRRRRE). The review provided a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter.  However, the report, and the federal government’s response, was a missed opportunity to address the longstanding challenges facing rural schools. More significantly though, it raises serious questions about the impact of rural education research in Australia, and the effectiveness of rural education researchers in impacting education policy. 

At this moment we need to ask ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘where do we go from here?’ as a research field.  While we may welcome the review’s call for further research into rural, regional and remote education, such a call implies that there is an absence of research.  Furthermore, the review largely ignored much of the rural education research produced in Australia.  Instead the review relied upon non-rural studies, grey literature, older research, international studies and submissions from communities. Why was so much recent Australian research overlooked? What does this mean? And what do we do as a result? In this article I outline the research used in the review’s reports in order to highlight the dilemma we face as a field. 

In the literature review and final report for the review there is very little research cited from people who are usually associated with the rural education field in Australian.  While names one would expect to see such as Halsey, Guenther, Corbett, Vichie, Plunkett & Dyson, and Roberts do appear across the literature review and report they are not drawn on significantly.  Furthermore, references to Guenther, Corbett or Roberts are not to research one might anticipate would be cited.   Most notably however significant researchers’ names from the last period are not cited at all – such as Green, Reid, White, Cuervo, Graham, Cooper, Kilpatrick, Sharplin, Trinidad or Ledger.

As illustrated in table 1, most of the ‘research’ drawn upon by the review was published in the grey literature online.  While not represented in table 1, this was all overwhelmingly non-rural – instead it was reports on international testing, standardised tests and so forth where the difference between rural and non-rural achievement was referred to in the text of the review.  In table 1 I’ve separated out references that are essentially literature reviews themselves, and references that are really to opinion pieces. Finally, the ‘library’ reference refers to research that is primarily available through libraries, i.e. in books and academic journals etc. 

That such a significant proportion of the cited research was available online also raises questions about where ‘we’ need to publish in order to achieve ‘impact’. Clearly in this context peer reviewed research, that university metrics on academics’ performance, and government rating exercises of universities, value, is not impactful. Furthermore, the overwhelming preference for referencing ‘research’ using quantitative data speaks to the preference in public policy for a certain type of research – something (rural) education researchers in Australia don’t produce a significant amount of. 

Given most of ‘our’ research is in academic publications, and often qualitative, we seem to be feeding into an ‘evidence’ bias?, with ‘our’ resultant absence raising serious questions about the impact of rural education research in Australia, and the effectiveness of rural education researchers in impacting education policy.

It seems that in order to have policy impact, rural education research needs to be quantitative and freely available online

To be fair, the dilemma regarding the nature of the research that has ‘impact’ is not only a rural education. The issue must also be considered in the context of the productivity commission report on the national evidence base, which questioned the quality and impact of Australian educational research more broadly. Then there is the proposed education research clearinghouse recommended under Gonski 2.0.  Should this come to fruition, and drawing on the international experience, how do we ensure our research is impactful? and, of course, how do we advocate for the value of qualitative research?

In the end the federal government’s response to the review has been somewhat mute, focussing essentially on rural university centres. While I have not analysed the National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy briefing papers that has been developed following the review here, I will comment that it focuses near solely on tertiary education, and yes, the lack of rural research informing the review remains! 

Indeed, it seems that the only game in town for rural research funding is in relation to rural students’ participation in university.  The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) runs the only real research grants in this space, and nationally the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) – both schemes focus on low SES and rural student participation in University.  There’s really no other rural focussed research grant scheme, with researchers having to compete generally in Australian Research Council general grants. One positive element however, both have strong themes towards quantitative data, and as such start to fill an important gap in Australian rural education research. 

Do we need champions?

I’ve been around this space for a surprising 16 years, including the last 10 in the academy.  My engagement begun when I started to look into the staffing of rural, regional and remote schools.   Looking back, I’ve started to wonder if we need champions for our cause.  The problem with champions, though, is that the field gets re-shaped in their image. 

Most of the major (funded) projects in our field since I’ve been involved have been led by a few researchers.  These key leaders have been successful in obtaining large grants, for instance Sue Trinidad in securing the federal contract for NCSEHE and Jo-Anne Reid, Simone White and Bill Green in various Australian Research Council Grants, and when they existed Office of Learning and Teaching grants.  These have resulted in some of the most significant research projects including RT(E)P, TerraNOVA, RRRTEC.  Reflecting the interests of the leaders, these have had a pre-service preparation focus, with some conducted with the support of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) – that a couple of these key leaders were heavily involved in. Perhaps the only other significant inclusion here is Tom Lowrie’s attention to Mathematics education that includes a rural element.

There was of course SiMERR, led by John Pegg, that still has a role in supporting the ISFIRE conferences, and produced a number of quantitative reports and publications in the early 2000’s.  Nationally there is the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA), though it seems to also need champions such as SiMERR and NCSEHE to sustain conferences. 

Overall, it seems to me that the number of people association with ‘rural education’ has been declining since I’ve been involved. There has been way more retirements than new members.  Furthermore, the field has been shaped in the interests of its champions – primarily teacher education and now increasingly university participation. In the interests of broadening the Teacher education focus and evolving practice orientation of SPERA, the Australian Association for Rural Education (AARE) Rural Education Special Interest Group (SIG) was formed. The aim here was to begin to engage more generally with educational research and ensure ‘rural’ was at the table at the Annual Australian education research conference – though, again, this was initially developed by champions mentioned above. I should note I was co-convenor and then convenor of this group for 5 years. 

Pleasingly, a few new ‘young’ researchers have entered the field. Though the next generation I see are primarily, not exclusively, in Educational Leadership or Hernan’s work with Youth.  There is also now the University of New South Wales ‘Gonski Institute for Education’, led by former NSW Education Minister Professor Adrian Piccoli, which has a rural focus in its equity remit, and Piccoli a committed advocate for rural schools and communities. 

This may read as though there is a vibrant field. However, it needs to be remembered that most of these are ‘past’ initiatives, and that the focus remains narrow – on teacher education and now university participation. Opportunities do abound for research. There is more money for research in the rural than there has been for quite a while, it’s just some things have been deemed researchable (university participation) and others foreclosed or positioned as solved – we seem to have accepted a national curriculum as read, and resourcing as solved.  The way in which the ‘researchable’ issues are framed is the challenge for us to respond to. The determined topics of lower university participation, and the ongoing challenge of staffing schools, are highly visible, and as such demand attention. However, research is about uncovering what we don’t know – not tilling over what we already have exposed. 

Why critique?

I want to step aside here for a moment and make a comment on critique.  To critique is not to criticise, to raise critique is not to be a pointless critic.  Indeed, critique is not to dismantle or attack, it’s to improve.  My reflections in this, and previous, posts and in forthcoming research is not to be contrarian, but to urge discussion of what we can do better. of what I can do better. As noted, I’ve been around this space for quite a while, and been centrally involved for a good part of that. 

That ‘we’ didn’t have much impact on the IRRRRE was for me a wakeup call. This critique is part of my reassessment, and is driven by the thoughts of the children I used to teach and communities I worked with, for whom what we have done seems to have not worked. 

Sure, I’ve been thinking about the field for a while. When we started the 2015 special edition of the ‘Australian and International Journal of Rural Education’ on ‘what next for rural education research?’ it was with a conviction that we needed to more and do it differently to how we had been in the past.  This is a view I still hold.  As it turned out this edition was to be the beginning of my 3 years as a chief editor of this journal, and my time convening the rural education SIG, so I can reflect on the work in the field in this time. 

This perspective has led to two other recent critiques that I will refer to here. The first, with my colleague Natalie Downes, reflect on research pertaining to the staffing rural, remote and isolated schools in Australia 2004-2016.  In this analysis we noted that the same themes emerge as they did in research prior to 2004 (when I did my initial staffing research), those being the attraction, retention, preparation of teachers as well as a focus upon school leadership. With the exception of leadership, most ‘approaches’ to enhancing rural school staffing have been pre-service based. I’d suggest this is attributable to the situation that most researchers are teacher educators. An obvious difficulty here is that prepare teacher’s is the main game, and thus the reason for most academic employment.  but the outcome is we cede other initiatives to non-rural folk, and reduce teacher education to practice based approaches linked to practicum. 

To quote ourselves we observed that ‘The continuity upon a theme within the staffing studies over the past twelve years, we suggest, presents the rural education field with an interesting challenge: if we have such a well-developed understanding of the issues, challenges, and successful approaches, why then are rural schools still hard to staff and why are the approaches proven to work not universally adopted by education jurisdictions?’ (p.45) and that ‘it suggests a need to develop new ways to address the intractable dilemma of rural school staffing on a broader scale’ (p.46)

My second reference point is work we have undertaken in response to Biddle & Azano from the USA Context to both look at how rural has been engaged with and to examine the context of that engagement. The first analysis of this was presented at AARE in 2016 (The final version is taking a while as we want to ensure we get it right). Drawing upon the main journals used in Australian education we arrived at a finding that less than 5% of articles the purported to have a rural link actually engaged with rurality in a meaningful way. Furthermore, for the Australian journal ‘Education in Rural Australia’ (1991-2011) 26% of papers that referred to rural engaged meaningfully with rurality while in its successor, the Australian and International Journal of Rural Education (2011 – present) this fell to 18%.  Indeed, we also discerned that an overwhelming majority of research is qualitative, with scant quantitative studies published by researchers, with the main exceptions being research related to SiMERR – though in the last couple of years we are seeing slightly more in this space thanks, I suggest, to NCSEHE’s focus on data. We’ve been working on a more thorough analysis of this work that will be available shortly, and as such the figures will likely change somewhat. 

What is the point of this critique? Ultimately, to do ‘research’ we need to be advancing the field in new directions: otherwise we’re just revisiting old ground.  

New directions for rural education research.

The IRRRRE suggests some directions regarding methods that make a policy impact, as well as outlining what it regarded as key areas for consideration in rural education.  As I outlined in my previous piece, the rural education field seems to have done what fields do – reify themselves in an idiosyncratic ways that become bounded. Historically I’ve suggested we have become teacher education focussed, and now focussed on university participation. 

However, the issues facing rural communities, and that form the context of education, are broad based, multi-faceted and interlinked. However, we are a bit limited in Australia as there is no well-developed rural studies field here compared to those in the USA and Europe to engage these issues.  In Australia the most well-developed fields with a rural focus seem to me to be health, followed by economists regarding economic development.

We need to prepare now for the next review in about 12 years (…Schools Com 1988; HREOC 2000; IRRRRE 2018…). As part of this we both need to ensure we have ‘impact’, which inevitably seems to mean more quantitative research. However, we can’t only do that. We need to equally problematize the data & statistics used in government, think tank and non-government organisations regarding rural places.  There is an ongoing problem in that such data is invariably put to work in a not so subtle deficit discourse to illustrate poor rural performance and justify some sort of intervention – that is invariably build on metro-normative notions. We can’t discount the big data critiques that are developing, but we can help make them sensitive to issues of rurality. 

As I suggested previously, there is potentially generative theoretical insights to be learnt from the other international rural fields that can then be engaged in our research. The IRRRRE also raises the issue that, just maybe, rural education is a practice field (as the review responded primarily to practice submissions). As such do we need to engage further with practice theory rather than empirical research?  

In what follows I present some thoughts regarding how we might start to think about engaging with the other fields of education studies. I also outline a longitudinal program of research that, in my view, might just start to achieve something useful. One thing that strikes me is the need to get away from short term research programs (that align with a governments term, and/or provide initiatives to announce. A child is at school for 13 years – change in education takes time, and, as we’ve said elsewhere, is often more related to communities than the school per se.

Below I draw on the work of Furlong & Lawn (2011) ‘Disciplines of Education: Their role in the future of Education Research’ (below)

Some other fields (below)

The areas identified in IRRRRE (below)

A possible rural education research program

Outcomes after 7 years:  

  1. To have raised the performance of all schools in Regional Rural and Remote Australia,
  2. Narrowed performance gaps (academic, wellbeing, attendance),
  3. Expanded the professional development of the RRR workforce,
  4. Created an environment of sustainable improvement in RRR schools, 
  5. To have contributed substantially the research and evidence base in RRR education.

I thought I’d finish with what this review cost, as that’s on the public record – expensive perhaps, but if we learn from it and make an impact, money well spent. 

Post Script – I’m certainly not advocating quantitative only work with my comments re impact being quantitative. I think me publication record speaks to that, especially my approach to researching rural places.

Featured picture is Angledool Station,NSW, by John Murray. I have a version of this signed by teachers, students and community members from my teaching days above my computer as a reminder of where this all began, for me…

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. 

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.

Reflections while hurtling through rural space

(an unedited diary of a journey – November 2011)

Day 1: UC-Albury 341KM

Day 1: What am I missing as I hurtle through the landscape on an ambivalent highway?

A rushed drive today to get here in daylight.  Not that that means illegal extra speed, just no time to stop and enjoy the drive. Quite apt though, as I was hurtling down the dual carriageway connecting the two economic centres of the south-east in the bubble of my European made car listening to radio national podcasts. How odd these carved expanses, designed to bypass all the little towns on the old highway and minimize the transit time between Sydney & Melbourne.

It makes me think about my old themes of space and place, in that we are connecting two places by bypassing others, and as technology has improved the space has shrunk between them and the small towns squeezed out.  Time is the issue then, time defines space.  What took a day now takes an hour or so. There is also the issue of scale then as well, as time changes the scale as well.

Thoughts then turned to the land around.  It was a lovely clear afternoon with a soft light, the land was in water colour; the sun in acrylic. It was lovely to see the Murrumbidgee in full flow and water in the overflow channels.  Green hills: blue sky.

Why does the land and sky bring so much peace? Even hurtling along denying the places I pass it’s as though I’m in a trance receiving the energy of the sky and the land.  What does this highway mean for the little farm houses and towns along the way.  Yes there is the decline that comes with being bypassed and the decline that comes with the shrinking space, but beyond that, Is it a symbol that ‘they don’t matter’ and what matters is at either end of the highway?  Then again this town could be a typical suburb of either (except maybe the ethnic mix). But then this is the south west, there is no highway out the far north-west where the teacher I talked to a couple of days ago is.  Sure there is a road so the usual issues of space, time and scale, but not the same symbolism of the highway.  I could however talk to him from my study via skype – the ultimate in space, time and scale compression.


Day 2: 311 Km Albury – Barham

Day 2: The contrast of colours. 

Watet water everywhere. I just love getting together with new teachers in country towns. Today we had 30 new teachers at an event organized by the Border History Teachers Association (I’m the Regional Support Exec member of the NSW History Teachers Assoc), they’re great as they have lots of passion and experience, all I had to do was write some cheques.  The new CSU Campus in Albury is lovely, really it’s lovely on the edge of town, well designed, nice buildings etc. except for the sign ‘snake sighted in area’ along one path.  One bloke has even made his way from Nyngan, a 3 flight trip! Stayed till morning tea and chatted with a number of participants, managed to get a few to interview as well. There is something so familiar in their stories and experiences as new teachers and something so different as well – the social context features highly.

In the first session an experienced colleague was talking about what interests year 10 kids and wanting to talk about popular culture (a subject in the NSW History Syllabus) a few teachers were perplexed, ‘they just wanna go piggin’ ahhh, the role of the curriculum.  The examples of 1960’s Australia and American influence in music and cinema might be great in a curriculum but does it relate to kids that want to go ‘piggin’? how does a national curriculum help here?

Heading west there was water everywhere, irrigation canals that is (turns out the Murray has been in minor flood 3 times since July).  But wow what a volume of water. Not sure how I’d pint this, the sky was still a water colour but the land, well that must have been acrylic, with a green in oil… no wonder no-one has captured the Australian landscape in it’s vividness.  Saw Fred Williams last weekend at the NGA, how great is his work, how much does his canvas evoke the feeling of the land. But eth scale, the scale of his works wouldn’t capture this.  How does one capture a lush vivid green emergent rice crop, with red soil irrigation channel banks topped with dry brown grasses,  and how does the brain cope with horizons of rice paddocks this far inland!

What is the relationship between water and scale? Often water leads to greater population growth and concentration, here though there’s heaps of water but it is as sparsely populated as the north west.  A hell of a lot more ‘developed’ in terms of earthworks.  But regardless what does a kid from here see and imagine, what is their world? It’s open, it’s large, it has a certain organic nature that can’t be pinned down.  Is it different now that t is ‘developed’ is it’s meaning different?

Barham, what a little gem. This is 1950’s Australia well maintained and kept town, with a certain affluence.  Seems like a number of retirees from Melbourne are here.  But seriously it is a nice town.  Wayne (who I’m staying with) says the kids are amasing, no discipline issues at all, most teachers are or have become long term residents.  I can see why.  Walked down the street and saw the odd car but the club, well it’s nearly as big as the Lightning Ridge RSL.  Apparently when only NSW had pokies they’d cross the river for them (it’s a twin town on the border). There’s affluence here, just below the surface.

Why do I feel so good? Why do I enjoy the trip so much? Some would find the expansive plains a cause of fright.  Is it the lack of people? The lack of visual interruption? The freedom…

Right now the sky is in pastels.

Day 3: (round trip 153KM)

Day 3: Water water everywhere.

Went for a bit of a wander today.  Lots of water on the Victorian side since the floods earler in the year.  Beautiful sky mid morning, probably an acrylic blue, now it’s tending to watercolour due to the light brushing of white clouds.  The light makes some of the greens an acrylic or oil – how it all changes with the light.

I’ve been wondering why I respond so internally to this sort of land, why the sky seems different.  It’s as though you can see more of the sky and see further. While this may be true it can’t be because of the topography – flat plains.  There are still trees along the river obscuring depth, but still I seem to see further.  I think there is certain honesty in the country, and I don’t mean that country folk are straight up and down, maybe I do.

I think the honesty is due to clarity.  I realized wandering along the river today that the reason I can see more is precisely because I can see more – the air is clean.  Usually in larger centres I’m looking through some degree of pollution that ensures the vision fades sooner or is obscured.  Without this we get depth but we also get honesty, honesty of colours. This is what blue is, green is, red is and all the pastels of sunset.  I can see clearly to the horizon, itself further away.

There might also be the pace. No doubt country life is different pace, and that itself allows one to spend the time to actually see. With that also comes that some country people only see through the classes they are wearing regardless of the time they may have.  How does this work in a small town bypassed by the highway, a dual time speed geography.

Returning to the theme of scale, it seems that the society that shrinks scale through its technology, transport and culture also reduces our ability to see the land through its pollution – thus limiting the scale of the land we see.

Is it the same at night? Why does vision alter the psyche so?

Do we capture this in education, or do we only see through someone else’s glasses?


Day 4: (only a few KM’s on foot)

Day 4: The history of a place between two states.

Did an interview today that really ticked many of the box’s of typical new teachers experience in rural communities. School wise the issue of the need for appropriate and strong leadership in rural schools came up, the problem being all these leaders that are young and in their first position at that level. For many of these pursuit of the career seems more valuable than the students or even the subject it was suggested.

The issue I want to dwell on though is that of the social mix.  Issues like a strong racism for anyone not Australian, a parochialism of Australian subjects and what may be seen as a teachers struggle with kids whose world is local and a new teacher who values cosmopolitan globalized knowledge and culture. The issue is that students seem to know their futures, a future shaped by place and experience, which tends to be farm futures or vocational trades.  A few may aspire to uni but to many that’s not relevant.  Students were (again) described as having a form of naivety about the world and that they are shocked when they go to the city of coast and see what kids do and wear (or don’t as the case may be).  But how do we respond? Do we need to ‘broaden’ horizons or is this just imposing our cultural values.  What is education for? To enable people to live out their lives happily in their community or is it about making them global citizens with global aspirations? Another new teacher was telling me the other day how after she started teaching and encouraging kids to work hard so they can have options such as Uni etc she had a number of parents complain to her with sentences such as ‘I’ve got a good job, stop filling their head with that rubbish’. How do we respond? Should we? The curriculum and national testing certainly has a view on all this, is that just and fair?

Does the curriculum and ‘the system’ value the rural? Should it? Has Australia changed? I imagine the consensus would be that we no longer value the rural, and instead let it maintain a mythical role slightly to the left of reality.  I’m recalling Judith Brett’s recent Quarterly ‘Fair Share: Country and City in Australia’ which gives a comprehensive account of the issues impacting on rural areas in Australia and the challenges rural areas face.  Using Paul Kelly’s five pillars of the Australian Settlement; White Australia, Industry Protection, Wage Arbitration, State Paternalism, and Imperial Benevolence.  Brett proposes a sixth pillar, namely the trade off between country and city.  This tradeoff involved an acceptance that the state compensated people for the costs of remoteness and sparse settlement in return for the contribution of agriculture to the national economy. This broad acceptance however that rural residents should be given a fair share of Australia’s resources has been undermined by neoliberal the economic policies of the last 20 years and the relative decline of agriculture to the national economy (mining isn’t agriculture and since fly in fly our operations doesn’t build communities anymore). Consequently ‘regions’ have needed to pull their own weight, something the rural has generally been unable to do.   To counter this Brett argues for a renewed understanding of the benefits the city gets from the country (such things as agriculture, pleasure & recreation, national identity and stewardship).

Brett’s essay is unfortunately also notable for its blindness to education. Education is scantly mentioned and when it is it only appears as a mention within another concern, nowhere is it considered.  This should not be surprising however as rural policy, sociology and economic commentary rarely considers the issues pertaining to education.  This ignorance is perhaps symptomatic of the prevalence of economic considerations that the essay, and much social policy, ironically criticises.  It would appear that there still exists a bias to view these regions within a subtle economic frame, perhaps because this is the dominant discourse of our times.  Regardless, the social institution of the local school is a microcosm of exactly all the concerns much of the literature canvases.   To use one example from Brett’s essay, writing about the decline of services in rural areas Brett makes the case of the significance of the loss of the local bank manager in rural towns and the loss of social capital of their wives and children who assist in community organizations and add to local sports teams and the like.  In every town with a bank there at least is a public school, and for each town with a bank there are many smaller localities that do have a public school and not a bank, then there are the towns large enough to have schools with secondary departments or separate secondary schools.  Each of these employs a number of teachers, many more than the bank manager.

I think the model of rural social space being written about by the group involved in the TerraNova project and associated projects ( and manly written by Jo-Anne Reid and Bill Green fits well.  It comes out of a lot of American and Canadian work on rural literacies, place and space theory and rural research.  What works is that it links economy, geography and demography.  You can see it’s relevance in these attitudes schooling and career the new teachers are struggling against.  There is an industry that is based on geography, as well as being undermined by it as well, that is the basis of the economy that influences student’s understandings and expectations.  I’m not sure this is a policy example, but then I guess curriculum and education is a policy issue in some respects.  This all impacts demography as a change in the rainfall or water allocation leads to a change in work (economy) and people leave.  How do we fit education in this, clearly schools shrink as a result as well. But what about the stuff we do in then? As one teacher said in relation to the background knowledge kids bring ‘all they know is the history their dad told them’ or ‘the town has a bridge and an old pub, but that’s not much’.  If only we could see… how long in a place till a teacher can see? How do we teach them to see?

Speaking of seeing, still a watercolour day. Sky white with cloud cover, even had a few rain drops as we went for a walk.  The Barham Lakes, well that’s another surprise. A veritable oasis, like sydney’s centennial park with gardens, BBQ’s and lakes, playgrounds, even a little beach…

Can we open a campus here?


Day 5: Barham – Dubbo 783KM

Day 5: An irrigated dryland & where two levels of though meet.\

a. I’m writing in the morning, having a beer instead.


It’s fascinating how the land changes as you travel north, from the flat expansive irrigated regions between the Murray and the Murrumbidgee, to the gently undulating hills north of Narrandrea and finally to the wooded hills and plains between Parkes and Dubbo with the constant shadow of the western escarpment of the dividing range.   This northern end is lush with thick paddocks and crops.  Plenty for the sheep.  There was a slight thin cloud layer leaving the land in watercolour, except for the red soil and some of the trees, they were leaning towards oils and acrylic respectively.   The pastures were at once the light hay colour of long meadows and green of healthy pasture. How do you paint two colours at once?

How odd it is to be passing large irrigation canals 80KM from the river in the early stages of the drive. No wonder the water issue is so dominant. One town the other day even had a side of a large shed in town painted with the slogan ‘Australia has a water problem. The solution isn’t taking it from the food producers’ in metre high letters. This concern to me seems to account for the focus of kids in the school on their lives being farming lives. Everything in these towns relies upon the water allocation, especially as the entire region is artificially created as an irrigated landscape with veins of water carved into the plains.   But, not meaning to see urban or cosmopolitan, isn’t there something a bit odd about irrigating semi arid regions and growing rice out here: then we have done it now and that is what people know.  Does this mean that rurality may in some instances be a physical construct or urban societies as well as an emotional and cultural one? It also shows what’s important in peoples lives, the farm and farming, something that doesn’t align well with the modern curriculum with cosmopolitan values, globalization and environmentalism.

In an interview a  teacher was describing how in geography instead of studying environmental management (a mandatory topic) locally they study coastal management to avoid community hostility, it doesn’t work they still get complaints. A place conscious pedagogy in reverse. What an intractable problem… I wonder though how the generally conservative cultural values of these communities (now there’s a stereotype) impacts upon pedagogy.  If you are in a challenging community the idea of doing things differently in relation to the situation makes sense, maybe even to transform the situation. Clearly there are some critical pedagogy thoughts lurking behind this but I’m deliberately not debating them. However in a conservative community is pedagogy more influenced by the ‘old school’ teaching of teacher centred traditional approaches? Perhaps that is what an interviewee the other day may have meant when they complained about teachers who live in the town, have farms, have been there 30 years and don’t need to communicate.  It was said they didn’t have programs, taught whatever they wanted, refused to embrace change – they controlled the class rather than worked with the kids.  Maybe in some towns this is what burns out or disenchants new teachers? Maybe rural teacher retention is both a function of personal isolation and difficult communities AND battling conservatism in more settled communities? Then again we may observe that many trainee teachers are themselves conservative in their views on teaching and pedagogy… perhaps they are but they don’t take rural postings, only those with a bit more of a sense of adventure and reform mindedness accept the challenge of the rural?

This trip is of course along the Newell highway, New South Wales longest.  The Newell is marketed as ‘more than a highway’ and as a journey through rural Australia – going by the number of caravans I had to pass and trucks that’s certainly true.   What does it mean that the Newell goes through identifiable rural areas? Why are they identifiable?  Donehower, Hogg & Schell ‘define ‘rural’ as a quantitative measure, involving statistics on population and region as described by the U. S. Census; as a geographic term, denoting particular regions and areas or spaces and places; and as a cultural term, one that involves the interaction of people in groups and communities.’ (2007:2). I guess these areas meet that definition, with perhaps the exception of Dubbo. It’s more a city that both sustains itself as it is of sufficient size while also serving the broader rural region.  How though is the meaning of the Neell different from the Hume from the other day, that artery between Australia’s heart and Lungs.  Are the little towns along this highway more legitimately rural than those along the Hume?

There are lots of little schools along the route I took as well.  How does all of the above help get staff to them and help them get their kids where they want/need to be, and who decides?  We can’t just assume that all little country schools will be staffed by locals, clearly that there is a constant shortage of staff indicated that rural areas canot sustain their own supply anyway. Furthermore this would only see local ideas in the school, surely other ideas are needed, or is this a value statement?

The big issue for me in staffing is that it is not just an industrial situation of conditions.  It has to also be about what the staff do when they are there – a curriculum issue.  However present ‘debates’ in education (debates? Imposed and created problems and imposed solutions…) are not really conditions either.  Standards, pedagogy models and a national curriculum to standardise schools are not working conditions issues.  But they create a whole new dimension of working conditions for deprofessioanlised para-professional zombies.  Neoliberalism has successfully redefined the territory of old industrial battles onto one with clear rules and expectations.   They define who and what a teacher is supposed to, a deliverer of standardized content according to the sanctioned standards and through approved pedagogy.  However teacher unions seem determined to keep balling on the conditions front. How can we have a battle for professional pay when professionalism is being removed, ironically under the auspices of raising just that.   But this focus on conditions may account for the teacher-ed phenomenon we have  with students wanting the recipe, the tools, and wanting to know exactly what they need to do in their assignment and how it will be marked.   What’s worse all this is about what we teach and how – where are the students we are meant to be teaching? Why are unions absent from the field that matters, the what teachers teach.  In the end conditions are important but wouldn’t the very fabric of what they do each day be more important?

Day 6: Dubbo

Day 6: Australian Theory?

I’ve been watching the light change on a large tree of the back verandah of my motel room since dusk yesterday. Some art theorist will have a fancy word for it but it is fascinating how the changing light constantly reinvents the tree – such that its true nature is brought into question or perhaps interpreted as a canvas for everything else. I think what’s needed here is photography rather than paint, a series in time and light rather than one instant.

Todays interview reinforced a constant theme, the most important thing is to relate to kids in this school / community or what I’ll call place.  In many ways this is not surprising, after all the first professional standard is ‘know their students and how they learn’. However we tend to pursue this in the (what’s the ‘school’ model Simon uses?) form of educational psychology and knowing students social, emotional and moral development, and subject content knowledge and subject pedagogical content knowledge.   Where, and how, do we teach those skills of actually getting to know the child, the human being, the developing identity, that is there before thee? We train teachers to identify, categorise, label, diagnose and plan an ‘intervention’. What’s worse can we train this and if we do is it professional or a true vocational issue?  I tend to the we can train broad Emotional Intelligence and that this is only part of the existing array of psychological knowledge’s teachers need, and that they cannot properly ‘diagnose etc’ if that is what they do without first coming to know the student.  Seligman talks about ‘learned optimism’ and learning ‘happiness’ so it can be done. However a bit like this tree, it’s only ever temporal.

There is also that issue of teachers in small schools not having the required subject knowledge. Often they teach outside their field just because there isn’t a full load for anyone.  I remember when I began at the Ridge we were the second year of developing the High School section and there were just three of us.  I had Science, PE and my HSIE.  The History Teachers I’ve been speaking to in small schools are variously teaching Math, Science, Ag, D&T, English & languages.  This flexibility is part of the job, but it takes a certain disposition.  However it also undermines the knowledge base of the subject and the knowledge base as per Shulmans Pedagogical Content Knowledge.   How can we expect teachers to engage the kids with a place conscious pedagogy when they don’t have the subject knowledge to begin that process with?

It seems that with the vagrancies of school staffing which undermine subject and pedagogy knowledge, the tension around conservative and reformist pedagogy and the general marginalistion of including the rural in knowledge systems that Judith Brett is right, the rural is now overlooked.  Her solutions about re-engaging it are problematic though as many are just using the rural as a recreation site, it’s ruralness is only relevant in its openness and sparse population.  The other, the stewardship of the land, is romantic at best and relates to the agrarianism she criticizes. Nothing seems to engage the rural on its own terms, nothing is immersed.

My observations about land and colour are just that, surface observations.  Can I know the rural and what it means through such observations or do I need to bury myself in the soil, lay amongst the pasture, become the tree.  I’m not sure, certainly looking without obstruction and feeling without interpretation helps one become better able to understand such things.  Thinking back to the honesty of colours and the clarity of vision, I think these are what influence thinking and theory development, as long as we take them for what they are, and not position them in opposition to what they are not – for example a known urban or imagined rural idyll.

On this I was looking at an old Eucalypt the other day by the river.  It was your typical old Gum with beautiful pristine bark poking through the cracked and darkened old bark that is shredding and shedding, its branches were twisted and knotted, some mid branch other at the junction of two.  I realised that I’ve seen this old knotted tree before.  I’ve seen it everywhere in the Australian landscape.  Over the last decade the notion of the Rhizome as suggested by Deleuze & Guttari has become the dominant metaphor for theory and theory development.  The tree, the previous fad, has become cliché’ and incomplete, way to structured and overused many argue.  I wonder if it is though.  These old knotted trees of the Australian landscape, these trees that act as a canvas for the changing lights of the bush, are I some ways more rhizomic than structured European trees.  Are they a post colonial theory of themselves, where old European knowledges and traditions are taken and twisted, bits broken off, new bits emerging, where somehow they withstand the harshness of the dry bush, the devastating fire only to regenerate in floods and good seasons.  Maybe they symbolize the emergence of Australian theory, a sub-branch of Connells southern theory perhaps? In that they are not trees or rhizomes, both imported notions, but instead Australian. Genuine.


Day 7:  320 KM Dubbo – Cobar

Day 7: A bloody big hole

How can one not keep returning to the colours, especially as you head to the red earth interior and the coppor mining regions around cobar.  The contrast of the red soil and green scrub of the rolling downs, apparently it is its own bioregion with unique vegetation

Cultivated land extends a long way west to Nyngan, where it becomes intermittent cultivated or grazing land, before you arrive in Cobar faced with wall of an open cut mine.  Then you go around to a look out above the mine and are confronted with a massive hole in the earth, mines are abundant here, I wonder what future the kids plan? Do you need to know about the world when digging holes provides everything? But what about the technology and innovation of the industry, and the geo-economic and political issues that underpin the industry – you need to know at least these.  Perhaps other cosmopolitan ways are not necessary, but then a person isn’t the sum of their occupation. There is the life of the mind, emotion, art & dreams.

Speaking of art, it truly is the light, the ability to see, that makes the difference. Drizzling all day today so the grey wash gave the land a matt acrylic appearance. Still vivid but not vibrant, somewhat subdued. It’s interesting how on the flat roads where you can see the distant horizon how the mind blends the junction of land and sky, they become one over a contact zone.  Is this what happens when we immerse ourselves in the rural, we go through a period of metamorphosis.  How do teachers do it, how long does it take, is it’s occurrence linked to their satisfaction and retention? What’s more is this what happens with curriculum, it may have one appearance but with a place consciousness it’s knowledge code is blurred and redefined? At least in some instances where you can see the horizon perhaps. Returning to the idea of immersing in the soil, if we need to see and feel in order to understand, how can we promote place conscious pedagogies from the rural.  How can we teach with this knowledge if we haven’t felt this knowledge first?

Then again, between Nyngan and Cobar I drove past a billboard advertising a exclusive boarding school for girls.  Why not boys, why is it necessary? What does it say about the values of the community?


Day 8: Cobar – Parkes 398 KM

Day 8: When we look we see.

Took the road less travelled through grazing and crop country, the landscape was familiar from the previous days travels and again it was mat acrylic land given to the overcast day and dark clouds.  Headers worked furiously to collect the crop just in case.

There is a certain parallel between the occasional rise on the road and how it affords the ability to look down on the land and the clarity and distance visible away from the polluting city.  (is this also a pollution of the mind due to cosmopolitan capital concerns, the relentless bombardment of ideas, entertainment, advertising etc).  Rather than being part of the land and starting to understand its meaning you begin to be separated from it as you look down in a semi detached consciousness.  I’m not sure which helps the better development of theory, being down close and closer to it in its particularities, or looking down over larger areas and developing a holistic view. I guess neither is a true representation, each is just a perspective as is always the dilemma.   We need both as the close land level view will itself lead to a form of parochialism, agrarianism perhaps. The view from the rise may be a meeting of landed parochialism and the cosmopolitan view.

What is the role of the rural in contemporary Australia? I know I earlier mused on his in response to Judith Brett, but it keeps coming back to mind. I’m challenged about a few important issues of existence and the meaning of things.  Talking today a lot of people in this town are fly-in fly-out mine workers, the work in the mines results in a community unemployment rate less than 2% (totally against rural trends).  There is great difficulty in engaging students in school as they see jobs outside the window.  A few aspire to university but most can go from year 10 to apprenticeships and be making big money in a few years.  Maybe some will go on to an engineering degree and a small business.  In short the kids can in a few years earn more than their teachers and school principal.  Exacerbating this is low literacy as, employing social reproduction theories, the kids parents have year 10 education, so don’t see the point given their earnings. Thus earnings are the key motivator.  Similarly in many ways the farming draw of earlier days and other regions, the work of life is there so why do school.  This beings me face to face with my fear – maybe life and meaning are just about earning a living and our dominant political discourses of today are correct.  If that so what am I doing? Is it some elitist pursuit of greater meaning? Am I imposing a value on these lives? Why does someone choose to farm? How am I placed to understand this motivation and life choice, is it in fact a choice at all or a way of being  -in Bourdieuian terms a habitus.  Perhaps we don’t need an intellectual life after all?

Another interesting phenonema came to mind today as well. I had previously considered the compression of time and distance due to transport technology.  But there is also new technologies for communication. The fact that I can interview a teacher in a far western school thanks to the internet technology is astounding, he’s in his ‘place’ with his concerns and struggles and I’m in my ‘place’ without any of those – how would this project be different if I didn’t physically ‘go’ to these towns (or have been previously to, does that count?). Maybe that is part of our policy problems, policy makers don’t know place.  Anyway, the issue that arose was of teachers who don’t connect to place, the ones who never feel happy in their school or town and get out at the first moment and get back at the last.  They were described as being able to do so due to new technologies.  In the past you had to get out in town and meet people, get to know the ‘place’. Nowadays they go strait home log into facebook and talk to friends on skype – they live in their other world virtually never really engaging in the one they are in – absolutely fascinating and something to explore further, the notion of living in two places and the distance between them being compressed.  A form of simulated life..

Day 9 Parkes – Moss Vale 378 KM

Day 9: The Journey end, or perhaps begins…

I think I need to buy a farm between Cowra & Borowa – what lovely countryside. It was a dull watercolour, again dark clouds with hints of sunshine illuminating distance treasures.  It could be the tinge of sadness as I know this is the journey home and soon I’ll re-join the Hume, with its ambivalence to place and its familiarity as a road oft travelled by myself.

The place of the rural and rural lives in a troubling one.  As Brett argues they were the defining ideals and images of the nations. The rural ‘image’ is still strong although in contradictory ways.  But how things have changed.  In the lead up to federation a number of the key speeches and conventions were held in rural towns, the rural helped form the nation: today a century after federation we have the show of ‘community cabinets’ but very little reference to the rural, hence the power and rise of the rural independents.

It’s also quite interesting how rural schools are often described as being difficult. This ranges from some in challenging social contexts where there is no economic opportunity and therefore little motivation, to others in more secure rural industries where employment is waiting. Obviously the local economy is a big factor here.  But it is the opposite to the rhetoric about the troubles of disengagement and social dislocation of ‘urban’ schools in America and Europe.   I wonder to what extent the literature on urban schools could be applied to some rural schools.

I also remember passing a caravan on the long paddock which runs along the newell. I’m not sure why it was necessary as there appeared plenty of pasture but that’s besides the point.  There is something meaningful about the long paddock, some sort of collective social recognition of the rural life.  What’s more the caravan travelling it is deeply attuned to the journey, they know not one place and but various places as they travel with the journey being the point of meaning. There is something I can’t articulate here, but I felt some sort of parallel with them and what I was doing.

I must be carful not to romanticize the rural.  I think at times my search for description and meaning may be a form of romanticized agrarianism. But its really about trying to understand how to describe place, and how to develop a disposition to see and sense place: a way beyond describing the enconomy, landscape and people with statistics and other descriptions.  There is something internal that is troubling me in my inability to articulate it.  The TerraNova project talks about ‘community ready’ but how do we do this, there is more than finding out, there is indeed a way of being in these schools. A way we need to see and be aware of, for if we are not we are positioning them as disadvantaged versions of the school we imagine.