The Myths and Masking of the Rural

When you hear the word “rural,” what images come to mind? Perhaps farmland, miles of empty highway, tractors.  Maybe you think of a particular landscape, Western deserts or Southern cropland? And when you think of people, who do you think of?

You may not immediately think of us, three women born and raised in rural places in the US who are now pursuing doctoral degrees. Our pathways to and through education have seemed somewhat happenstance. At least they felt like chance to us when they were in the making, but looking back we see how growing up in rural places shaped the opportunities we saw and the directions we envisioned for our lives. They also in real, material ways shaped the access we had – by way of roads and highways and transportation and technology and resources – to information about and opportunities for higher education. We ended up in places where many of our childhood friends did not. And then we met each other – at an academic conference, no less – and started talking.

The creation of this blog, is a result of those conversations, punctuated as they have been by laughter, frustration, and the telling of tales.  Through our conversations, we have shared frustrations in the face of popular definitions, ideas, and images that seem to define rural as this monolithic place, rather than as a complex, nuanced, and multi-faceted place/identity that we understand and experience it to be.  We have also shared disappointment in the lack of scholarly attention to issues that seem quite obvious to us, or to what we’ve experienced as real barriers to the kinds of educational opportunity sometimes afforded to students in suburban and certain urban areas. Current research tells us that rural students are attending college at a lower rate than urban students and below the national average, suggesting that something different is happening for students in rural communities.  However, in trying to understand this phenomenon, the focus has been primarily on aspirations and attainment*, highlighting what rural students hope to attain in their life after high school without considering the “qualitative differences in educational opportunity for rural students” (McDonough et al., 2010, p. 193). This blog is an effort to change that, and to continue conversations that will result in critical qualitative research on the lived experiences of rural students, educators, and scholars in higher education.

What we know and want to share is that rurality is complex and cannot be wrapped into one singular experience (or even three people’s experiences!).  People’s rural experiences across the U.S. are deeply inflected, by class, race, and ethnicity, by migration patterns, and histories of colonization. So, instead of us serving as the sole authors of this blog, we have asked some amazing colleagues to join us in sharing their own lived experiences with education and rurality.  In the upcoming weeks, individuals from various rural spaces in the United States will publicly share how their journeys to and through the academy have been shaped by rurality.  We hope these narratives challenge myths of the rural that have become dominant and accepted in US culture and at the same time unmask the nuances and complexities that appear to make educational opportunities for rural students different than those scripted by current higher education scholarship.

Kathleen Gillon & Moira Ozias & Erin Simpson

*For more information about rural students’ aspirations and attainment, we refer you to the following literature.  Please note this list is not exhaustive, but rather a place to start.  Feel free to recommend other scholarship related to this topic in the comment section.

Gibbs, R. M. (1998). College completion and return migration among rural youth. In R. M. Gibbs, P. L. Swaim and R. Teixeira (Eds.), Rural education and training in the new economy (pp. 61-80). Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.

Haller, E. J., & Virkler, S.J. (1993). Another look at rural-nonrural differences in students’ educational aspirations. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 9(3), 170-183.

McGrath, D. J., Swisher, R.R., Elder, G.H., & Conger, R.D. (2001). Breaking new ground: Diverse routes to college in rural America. Rural Sociology 66(2), 244-267.

Ukaga, O. M., E. P. Yoder, E.P., & Etling, A.W. (1998). Rural and urban eighth graders’ expectations for completing high school. Journal of Research and Development in Education 31(3), 155-165.

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