It's okay to get out of the ivory tower, but make sure your work results in something real.

[imgcontainer right] [img:ivorytower.jpg] [source]Boston Globe[/source] It’s okay to get out of the ivory tower, but make sure your work results in something real. [/imgcontainer]

Over the last twenty or thirty years or so, studying rural America has become trendy in academe.

New professional organizations and journals have popped up to “fill the gap,” and researchers are jumping all over rural areas poking at everything from cemeteries and heritage tourism to the expression of religious beliefs. Now rural studies have been around a long time, but these days if you say you are interested in, or actually doing research on issues in a rural area (no matter what your discipline) people actually pay attention because it’s “real world.” 

This kind of work has become popular and some of the work is very good. But while academics may be stepping out of the Ivory Tower to get their feet muddy on rural roads, I have to wonder about their motivations. Do they have a connection to what they are doing, or is it some kind of tenure-fodder-harvesting expedition? What is their attitude towards the people they are studying?

Are they smugly secure in their endeavors, convinced they are doing a great service by bringing their expertise to the unwashed masses? Are they in it for the long term or just here until the grant money runs out? Are they willing to invest in a people and community and roll up their sleeves and really get involved? How many of them are willing to live the experience (and I don’t mean in a Peace Corps or VISTA way) and really come to understand what the issues are? 

I am suspicious, and for good reason. Most of the academics I know talk a good line about rural studies but have never lived in a rural area (unless you count the exurbs where high-end housing developments, country estates and hobby farms are built over once-productive fields). They don’t have the faintest idea what it is like to live without reliable broadband (or for that matter reliable electricity), a local Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, or a Whole Foods. And given the opportunity to trade their metro-university life for a rural one, although many say it is their “dream,” most will politely decline the offer for whatever reason is convenient at the time.

(My favorite is the excuse that rural school districts just don’t offer the opportunities that urban ones do, and they want the best for their kids. That’s true; most rural districts don’t offer opportunities like gang fights, shootings, and pervasive drug problems. Neither do they have as many Advanced Placement programs. But if these parents enrolled their kids in a rural district and got busy, could they help bring about some real changes, making rural schools better for all students? Nah, never mind.)

From what I have observed, there is a palpable disconnect between academia and the “real world,” including rural America. Partly to blame is our system of higher education and what we have traditionally valued in academia (we are “doctors of philosophy” not technicians or engineers, and certainly not farmers). Part of it is, yes, our system of tenure, which forces many into a frenzy to publish or perish. This pushes many academics to jump from topic to topic, going with whatever is trendy at the time so they can say they made a “contribution,” the whole time making their vitas longer and heavier but producing very little of use to those of us on the ground. 

However, rural America has finally been noticed (well, sort of) and that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to benefit from the notice. I challenge those in academe who study rural areas to show me precisely why I should value their work and how it is going to improve my life as someone who lives and works in a rural area. I want to see real results and real impact. I want to be able to shake your hand and say, “Thanks,” not just, “Well isn’t that interesting.” 

I shouldn’t have to challenge you to do this – you should be doing it already. You want to make a difference, make one, and not just in the length of your vitae.

Until you can convince me that you really do have something to offer, I’m keeping that “No Trespassing” sign up and my shotgun by the door. My front porch is not for the faint at heart, so if you show up you’d better have something to show me to help me solve my “real world” problems. Until then, enjoy hanging out at Starbucks with your buddies talking about “rural America.” Meanwhile, I’ve got cattle to vaccinate and a pigpen to clean. Save one of those White Chocolate Mochas for me – I’ll pick it up after my chores are done.

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