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.