Critique and Fiction: Doing Science Right in Rural Education Research
Howley, Craig, Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)
This essay explains the relevance of fiction to the practice of rural education research, in so doing engaging questions about the nature and purposes of research and, therefore, of science itself. Although many may assume science and fiction (in this account, novels) harbor contrary purposes and devices, this essay argues that, to the contrary, such a view damages research efforts. This damage is palpable in rural education research because of the meanings inherent in rural lifeways. Fiction provides a route to the critique needed to engage rural questions with authenticity and, therefore, with objectivity. Disregard of critique is nonetheless the official standard in education research. The argument here is thus widely applicable throughout education practice, research, and theorizing precisely because critique remains an alien concept in mainstream education research. The essay explains why critique is both important and overlooked, how novels contribute to critique in rural education research, and how to do critique relevant to empirical research.
The commendation of fiction as a means of strengthening critique in rural education research may seem dubious to many colleagues. After all, in the common misconceptions that have prevailed for hundreds or even thousands of years, fiction has been regarded, at best, as irrelevant and, at worst, the enemy of systematic inquiry; that research is serious work, whereas fiction is an entertaining diversion. Another mistaken belief is that research has method and fiction has inspiration. And yet another misconception holds that fiction is lies, and systematic inquiry (the meaning of the word science) is truth. Plato held this perspective, and what greater authority could a view enjoy?
To determine, then, what makes rural education research research (cf. Coladarci, 2007) some colleagues
may think it altogether better to conduct an empirical study showing how rural education research fails to conform to some set of research standards claimed as valid on some authority, perhaps that of the Institute of Education Sciences, or perhaps, more liberally, those proposed by the American Educational Research Association (AERA, 2006). Such a view has some merit. The difficulty is that it accepts a claim I wish to contest, namely that such a process will make our research more like their research-that of the authority. Argument by authority is a typical move in the social sciences. And a dangerous one, for reasons that will surely become clear by the end of the essay.
I'm in favor of better quality, and certainly in my own work. But even with better quality, rural education
research should be less and less like "their" research in some important respects having to do with the rural theory (e.g., Coladarci, 2007; Howley, 1997) That is, the meanings of rural lives and communities are what make rural education research rural-not a geographic boundary, low population density, or remoteness. Those meanings, and not predominately the meanings of generic pedagogies, generic curricular theorizing, or generic administrative or policy studies, are the substance the field must uniquely engage to be a field at all. Otherwise, the only education research conducted in rural communities will be research that has nothing rural about it except that the study author will identify the "site" as rural (cf. Coladarci, 2007).
Rural theory, moreover, suggests a path of methodological improvement additional to faithful adherence to generic research standards. What blazes that path? What might provide the needed connection to rural meanings? The answer is "critique," as the next section will explain.
Critique is needed in all research efforts to assess concepts, constructs, dilemmas, contentions, and outright controversies as they might apply to generating research questions, selecting or devising methods, analyzing data, interpreting results, and making recommendations. …