From the Community | A case for rural studies at Stanford

Opinion by Zac Stoor
May 19, 2021, 9:26 p.m.

When you keyword search for “rural” on ExploreCourses, 26 results appear for the 2020-21 school year, and most of these results are cross-listings. Rural areas in the present-day United States are the core focus of zero classes taught any year since 2016. As one of the less than 5% of Stanford students from a rural area, staring at these results left me saddened, but unsurprised. Rurality has been a defining feature in my life, but it is nearly invisible on campus. The Farm’s nickname masks its lack of inquiry into the lives of the almost 20% of the country residing in rural areas. 

Admittedly, ExploreCourses keyword searches are an imperfect metric. However, even considering the margin-of-error on this measure, it is clear that there is a disparity between urban and rural studies here at Stanford. Searching “urban” in ExploreCourses yields 207 results, almost 8 times the number of hits for “rural.” Stanford also has a program dedicated entirely to urban studies. I want to be clear: Urban areas deserve to be studied and understood in all of their complexity. But urban studies does not preclude rural studies. In fact, they can complement each other, illuminating opposite sides of the ever-growing urban-rural divide. But to do that, class offerings cannot be so disproportionate.

Growing up and living in rural areas presents unique circumstances that change the way rural people see and interact with the world. Smaller, more isolated communities can foster strong community bond. For others, it can also instill a sense of self-sufficiency that comes from distance and lack of access. People from rural areas also have unique access to nature. Obviously, these are rough generalizations, ones that should be deconstructed and examined further. Rurality’s impacts can be varied, but they deserve recognition, attention and investigation.

The different conditions in rural communities create unique challenges that require familiarity and understanding to solve. Rural areas in the US have higher unemployment, higher rates of poverty, poorer education quality as well as less access to affordable housing, healthcare and mental healthcare. A quarter of rural people, a third of those on tribal lands, lack access to broadband internet. These are fundamental policy challenges that often go unaddressed in Stanford coursework. 

Many Stanford students will go on to be leaders in government, the private sector and civil society. While not every student would take a rural issues course if more were offered the chance, Stanford’s current catalog hinders students from fully engaging with these communities and stops many from being able to learn about rurality. Almost none of those rising leaders will have any idea what rural America is like, what its challenges and strengths are and what can be done to fix its problems. Stanford has a responsibility to change this. 

More in-depth inquiry into rurality is needed because stereotypes and misunderstandings are common at and beyond Stanford. Rural communities are commonly seen as exclusively white, straight, Christian, uneducated, poor and traditional. These stereotypes are not harmless. The idea that rural America is exclusively white, for example, obscures the experiences of the 20% of rural Americans who are people of color, including rural Black communities in the South, half of the nation’s Native population, rural Latinx communities in the West and Southwest and rural Native Hawaiian communities in Hawai’i. Millions of people of color live in majority white rural communities as well. 

The effects of racial discrimination already present throughout the United States are compounded by rurality, doubly isolating these individuals and communities. The effects of racism in healthcare, education, infrastructure and more are exacerbated by the distance from urban centers that defines rurality. Black and Native mothers in rural areas have the highest maternal mortality and poverty rates of any group in the nation. Many Native communities still lack access to clean drinking water or running water at all. 

Other questions of identity and status also intersect with rurality. For instance, rurality is often seen as hostile to queerness. As a gay man, I am well aware of the queerphobia that exists in rural areas, but erasure of our existence is harmful. Queerness and rurality, for me and for many others, interact with each other as identities and statuses — they are not mutually exclusive. Viewing all rural people as cisgender and straight only further isolates our queer siblings living in rural areas, whether they live there by choice or by necessity. Rural areas also have the highest disabled population by percentage of any geographic classification. Accessibility necessarily takes a different shape in rural communities, and the aforementioned healthcare and mental healthcare access problems complicate rural disabled people’s lives unnecessarily and unjustly.

International contexts are important too.  Many of the current rural-focused courses are indeed centered on international rural areas. Here, though, Stanford’s slim rural course catalog is even more worrisome. Of the world population, 44% is rural. The study of other countries, regions, cultures and peoples needs to include rural perspectives.

Rurality is not monolithic. Rural areas are complex; rural people are multifaceted; rural communities are dynamic and complicated. Ignoring these facts erases marginalized people in already underserved communities. Rurality’s impact needs to be considered in depth, but right now Stanford offers precious few ways to do so.

Stanford must study rurality more meaningfully. As a political science student, I focus mainly on policy issues, but rural areas and people have something to offer every discipline. Rural arts and music have long and important histories — just look at the blues, folk, bluegrass, country or any of the books or films with rural settings and/or creators. Rural communities are on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. Medicine, science, politics, ethnic studies, linguistics, economics and more could all have meaningful, impactful research in and connections with rural communities. Both students and faculty would benefit from deeper understandings and commitments to rural scholarship and engagement. 

Studying rural areas would provide students with a fuller picture of this country and help dispel harmful stereotypes. Rural students deserve the opportunity to learn about their own communities in an academic context; non-rural students deserve the opportunity to learn about rurality and its impacts. Most of all, rural communities deserve visibility and understanding. If Stanford wants to seriously engage with rural students and rural communities, it should start by sowing seeds of scholarship here on the Farm. 

Zac Stoor is a junior majoring in political science. He is from Crystal Falls, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

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