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Linking Appalachia and Academia

Inspired by Maxine Greene, Gail Russell is pursuing an academic career while staying true to her roots

Inspired by Maxine Greene, Gail Russell is pursuing an academic career while staying true to her roots

By Penina Braffman

In sixth grade, Gail Russell decided she wanted to be a teacher. It was a lofty goal for a girl growing up in Ronda, North Carolina—a town so small, it lacked a traffic light—and whose parents didn’t graduate from high school. But education was always fiercely important to Russell, and her parents were supportive. She received her bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University (where she was granted a teaching fellowship) and taught high school English for seven years in the Appalachian region.

But there is education and then there is academia—and when Russell began a doctoral program at UNC Greensboro and then transferred to TC in the fall of 2010, her parents had mixed feelings.

“Because of my roots, there’s a tension for me in moving towards the academic discourse and becoming a scholar,” says Russell.

Russell first became interested in TC as an undergraduate at Appalachian State after she read Dialectic of Freedom by Maxine Greene, TC’s great philosopher. Greene’s educational ideals inspired her to pursue the world of academia—in part because those ideas are so much about everyday life.

“It gave me the emotional support that I needed to do my work. I realized that I didn’t have to choose between ‘becoming an intellectual’ and being a daughter to my family.”

Indeed Russell is proud of her parents, whose work ethic she credits for inspiring her to create her own education consulting company, Education Success Unlimited LLC. As a consultant, Russell draws on her experience as a teacher and uses ethnography skills to devise content-based literacy practices. Her mission statement is that “every student can succeed in formal school contexts.”

“People who grow up in an educated discourse take for granted a lot of the things that were harder for students who are coming in from any kind of outsider perspective,” says Russell, “And I was definitely an outsider.”

Russell is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English Education, and this past fall she took Greene’s course, “Education and the Aesthetic Experience,” which she describes as a dream come true. Like Greene, Russell has a passion for art, and views it as the first medium that gave her access to the world of ideas. She began regularly meeting with Greene, and they have developed a close relationship outside of
the classroom.

Russell is now involved in an effort to commission a statue of Greene to be installed on TC’s campus. She would like the initiative to be student-led and feels confident that fund-raising for it will be an easy task, given Greene’s stature at TC.

“I feel a responsibility to recognize her work, if for no other reason than the fact we don’t have any other women sculpted here at TC,” says Russell. “Maxine talks about not wanting to be an icon, but she is an icon. I need Maxine to be my icon so that I can do my work.”

Published Friday, May. 20, 2011