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…

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. 

Of Eucalypts

August 2017.

There is a tree, an old eucalyptus, by a creek I cross walking my children to school each day or on my way down town for a cup of tea.  For a eucalypt there is nothing peculiar about it.  It’s like the many others along that creek, or any other creek, river or woodland for that matter.  But then that ordinariness is what makes it exceptional.   It is your typical old gum, with beautiful pristine bark poking through the cracked and darkened old bark that is shredding and shedding, its branches are 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 and Guattari, has become the dominant metaphor for theory and theory development. The tree, the previous fad, has become a clichéd, incomplete and overused way to structure thinking, 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 in some ways more rhizomic than structured European trees. Are they a post-colonial theory in 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 Australian landscape, the devastating fire, only to regenerate in floods and good seasons?

There is something terribly clichéd about evoking a tree in philosophy.  But I’m not evoking any tree here – I’m referring to eucalyptus trees and their influence on my thinking upon southern theory.  See, I’m over the rhizome, the ultimate cliché of northern theory as travelling theory and its cultural domination. There is something self-assured and hidden about the rhizome, like a subtle acceptance of cultural dominance and ubiquitous of culture and power. The gum on the other hand reveals the ongoing struggle of growth.  As we accept the rhizome as theory we accept the culture and social conditions that created it.  More so, we reproduce them, for if the rhizome is northern culture its very lack of a beginning or end reinforces the normality of that culture and those structures. This lack of a beginning or end, the constant state of in-between-ness, is what is deemed attractive about it as metaphor.  That it has no genesis, seeks no pinnacle, no roots and no regular structure like a tree is its strength. However the eucalyptus is not like European trees in that regard. Its un-European-ness is what took early landscape artists so long to understand.  The rhizome as a metaphor for culture has been compared to the spreading of water, slowly trickling into available spaces, often leaving no trace between particles.  Is this not like colonization and cultural domination?  When overt it is resisted, but when it is slowly and gently allowed to percolate over time it becomes hegemonic.

If regularity, predictability and chronology of growth are the failings of trees as theory, then the eucalyptus is rhizomatic. Its irregularity is its regularity. As one’s gaze follows the gum, it is just when you think it will bend one way that it turns in another, defying gravity, aesthetic and expectation.  Except this is its aesthetic. Aesthetic is after all a matter of taste, itself a marker of culture, social power and inevitably the perpetrator of violence and domination. Order, structure, regularity do not accord with the Australian climate and landscape: unlike the rhizome, it is a land of extremes rather than the endless middle ground.

My tree, with its branches twisted and gnarled, is a visual representation of how my brain often feels.  Especially last night after trying to understand and make sense of vexing issues or mount an argument, there are the butts of dead branches, reminders of ideas that grew but then didn’t go anywhere or were broken by the weight of counter-argument. Just as I have followed ideas to reject them or re-sprout them in new places or with new ideas, the eucalypt juts out a new branch or shoots out in a new direction from a seemingly dead branch.  My tree’s bark is shedding, new growth and shedding of the old, it seems to happen just as I move on in my development into new understandings of myself as a human, person, researcher and so forth.

How do I express an emotion through words? That feeling when you are at once elated and animated with the excitement of ideas but equally frustrated, torn and angry, as your head just can’t quite expand enough to make it all visible – that’s what I see in my eucalypt.  Indeed I see the world through eucalyptus.  As I struggle to find the words to express my thinking on a topic, I find a vision of the twisted, gnarled, shedding eucalypt that emerges in my mind’s eye is the closest to the thought I have as yet unexpressed within me.

I should say that my topic invariably revolves around the rural – how the rural is its essence, and distinct and different from the metropolitan-cosmopolitan world.  The rural is, of course, ubiquitous globally as not modern or urban. But other than similarities in relative location, population density and economic base, each rural is distinct and different.  It exists at the intersection of the unique social, cultural, geographic and economic influences that make up each distinct place.  My place is the Australian bush and my initial interest is bringing the Australian rural from outside policy and modern culture to a more equal position.  See, in the modern world we loose our connection with place and places.  We become placeless.  When we do this, we are missing something in our soul.

It takes me back to my formative time ‘out-back’ when I used to travel out and camp overnight, invariably with the swag tied to a eucalypt, and as I watched the sun set and the colours of the eucalypt change, its character change.  I came to feel ‘at home’ in those moments but thought nothing more of them. But now, thinking of my eucalypt I’m transported back to that time and the ideas and meanings I draw in my work, now from a ‘rural standpoint’ – and not in the sense that I look back with nostalgia. Instead, the past, present and all that went between are one, expressed in the shape, colour and form of the eucalypt. I’m not meaning to steal from Aboriginal ontology here, though I recognize the similarity – maybe there is an influence of my learning about beginning to know place. Perhaps I am slowly appreciating the insight of the belief system as I pull away the bark of northern-ness in my soul to reveal new growth.

Just as David Tacey wrote about the sacred evoking Jungian ideas – there is something to be said for how engaging with nature is restorative.  But it’s more than that, it’s a bit like Nicolas Rothwell’s meanderings in his outback, and the unnaturalness of European civilization on this land.  Belonging yet not belonging.  That we are formed through northern theory somehow leaves us forever on the outer and somehow never quite rooted.  It’s in response to this that my eucalypt stirs something within.

It could compare with the rhizome, I suppose, in its unpredictability of shape and form and the randomness of dead branches, new shoots, twists and gnarls. And sure, there are native rhizomes – the kangaroo paw, for example. But perhaps another difference is that the rhizome is hidden whereas the eucalypt changes and evolutions are exposed for all to see. There is something honest about that; it’s not afraid to go down unproductive paths, change its mind, evolve and change.  Maybe this is what is better for academic work, too often faced with judgment we hide behind our positions and present the finished product – rather than expose the thinking, struggles and changes.  Does this fear of change hold back our development: if we were more eucalypt-like, would we happily follow a path and change our mind, evolve our thinking and shed old ideas to expose new ones? I think I like that the disturbances CAN be traced – there is something more objective in the jagged and dead stub of a branch than trusting the methodology of the researcher that produced the latest breakthrough presented in isolation from its production. With the eucalypt, every avenue explored and discarded is evident.

As I struggle to make sense of what is before me, and as I struggle against my own resistance and its symptoms of avoidance and procrastination, I see that eucalypt again.  This time in a form growing in a parched paddock, branches dead from drought akin to the mental drought of avoidance, but new branches of flood and the abundance of hope and reinvigoration.  Just as drought hits the eucalypt, a drought of compassion and humanism hits the social world, but just as flooding rains come so does hope and the prospect of a better future – if only the occasional shower but enough to stave off despair.  That it has to survive an irregular and harsh climate that has no structure has becomes its structure, a structure in which it thrives. The eucalypt defines place to me, and is the focus of decolonization and re-inhabitation: it was appropriated but also offers insights.

The eucalyptus is arguably a central part of the Australian cultural experience, defining the bush, art, and culture.  Though the name itself is northern.  Can we escape this northern theory when we learn to think, feel and read in an imported language?  Even eucalyptus is an imported work tied up with Western science and known European ways.  Etymologically the word derives from theGreek words eu-, well, and kaluptos, cover, meaning ‘well-covered’, describing the cap that covers the flower resulting in ‘Eucalyptus’.  What about the names used by various Aboriginal nations, Jarrah perhaps? Either way, there persists in art an unnaturalness to the depiction of the eucalypt. While not as striking as northern reinterpretation enacted by the early ‘European’ artists, who were either European born or trained in European taste, a true depiction remains elusive.

Just like the immovable object young men like to wrap their cars around on country roads, northern theory is equally impenetrable to many young students having grown in different lands. It becomes a barrier to progress as the eucalypt is to the car.  Part of what makes my eucalypt stand out is how it is juxtaposed against the false landscape of where I now live.  The landscape around me has been homogenized to produce a safe European landscape to match the supplanting of European society so beautifully expressed by Wild in Bradstow. I am writing this in Bradstow where I now live.

There is vulnerability in thinking eucalypt; perhaps it’s linked to the honesty of exposing failure and change.  Physically, eucalypts’ as ‘widow maker’ are known for dropping branches like a dropped thought.  One is never sure if the branch will fall or break under your weight, like an idea that may fail when challenged or in the face of the winds of change.  Then there is the vulnerability of living in a harsh land – will they survive the next drought or be washed away in the coming flood, or is that simply the nature of harshness? Society is equally harsh, when the façade of European aesthetics and manners are removed, the character of few, yet direct, words is left. Action not conversation, labour not thought.

The trick of the metaphor of the tree being slow, long-lived and somewhat ageless in the face of contemporary debates, like Greybeard in Tolkien, is to conjure a view of  European-ness as eternal.  Perhaps here the desert sands are more so. But do they themselves conjure thoughts of ancient Arab-Lands? That’s not so bad I guess, those lands preceded, and facilitated, the European thoughts I need to escape. Thinking the eucalypt may help us move beyond the mistakes of this past.

We tried to ring bark them, not wanting to engage in new thinking.  Do we ringbark them still when we turn to science and European theory to try to classify them? – an impulse that Holland, in Murray Bail’s ‘Eucalyptus’ found futile. Now those dead limbs remind us that we’ve been thinking here before the rhizome.  Thinking in public, not mysterious or hidden, we can look back at what didn’t work and ponder the connection to environment and history that led to false hope.

Indeed while Don Watson and Murray Bail hint at something about the eucalypt in terms of philosophy and the emergence of a southern theory, I think Pyne captures it most succinctly: ‘is not only the Universal Australian, it is the ideal Australian – versatile, tough, sardonic, contrary, self-mocking, with a deceptive complexity amid the appearance of massive homogeneity; an occupier of disturbed environments; a fire creature” (Pyne, 1992, p. 25). In a post-humanist sense we have created them as they have created us. It would seem that trees are fundamental to human existence, for without the eucalypt we may not be able to think here.

Now in the ultimate irony gums are overseas, the basis of Brazil’s biofuel, tackling Spanish salinization and California’s deforestation – only to be a bushfire hazard. Travelling theory perhaps, not suited to local conditions…


Bail, Murray (1998).  Eucalyptus. Melbourne, Vic The Text Publishing Company

Bail, Murray (2008).  The pages. Text Publishing, Melbourne

Connell, Raewyn & Connell, Raewyn (2007).  Southern theory: the global dynamics of knowledge in social science. Crows Nest, N.S.W. Allen & Unwin Cambridge, United Kingdom Polity Press

Deleuze, Gilles & Massumi, Brian & Guattari, Félix, 1930-1992 (2008).  A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Continuum, London

Gruenewald, David (2003a). Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework

for Place-Conscious Education. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 619-654.

Gruenewald, David (2003b). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place, Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3-12.

Pyne, Stephen J (1992).  Burning bush: a fire history of Australia. Allen & Unwin, Sydney

Roberts, Philip (2014) Researching from the Standpoint of the Rural. In S. White & M. Corbett, Doing Educational Research in Rural Settings: Methodological Issues, International Perspectives and Practical Solutions. Routledge: New York. pp. 135-148.

Rothwell, Nicolas. (2013) The mirror that creates: Australia imagined in western eyes. Meanjin, Vol. 72, No. 2, Winter 2013: 18-36.

Rothwell, Nicolas (2009).  The red highway. Black Inc, Melbourne

Rothwell, Nicolas (2007).  Another country. Black Inc, Melbourne, Vic

Said, Edward. 1983. “‘Traveling Theory’”. In The World, the Text, and the Critic, 226–47. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Tacey, David J. (2009).  Edge of the sacred: Jung, psyche, earth (Rev. exp. ed). Daimon, Switzerland

Tolkein, J.R.R.R.  (2005). The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published October 20th 1955)

Watson, Don (2014).  The bush: travels in the heart of Australia. Melbourne, Victoria Hamish Hamilton an imprint of Penguin Books

Wild, R. A. (Ronald Arthur) (1978).  Bradstow: a study of status, class and power in a small Australian town (rev. ed). Angus & Robertson, Sydney

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.