Imagining the Future on A-Level Results Day

Results

(originally posted here)

In the moment when current school-leavers open their A-Level results letters today, new imagined futures will be conjured into existence, illuminating in new and sometimes unexpected ways the path that leads beyond the present. In this moment, young people may confirm imaginings of the future already well-forged through years of careful preparation for trajectories through university and beyond into careers. Others may experience the jarring uncertainty of plans unmade and undone, if their results do not offer safe passage into the future that they had anticipated inhabiting in September. For many, the new regime of so-called ‘linear A-Levels’, with their ‘harder’ content and traditional format, offer yet further uncertainty because on one hand they may generate lower levels of attainment while also pushing universities to be more flexible in their negotiation of conditional offers for places.  Data out today suggests that male students have out-performed female students for the highest grades  – another shift and change that will, in some cases, have led to new reckonings of what the future may hold for young men and women.

All of this change is exacerbated by the brave new world of Clearing for universities, where evermore immediate imaginings of the future can be forged in the space of a single phone call to a university administrator. While in the past clearing was about jostling to find a place at university if your results weren’t quite what you were hoping for, removing the limit on student recruitment numbers for UK universities means that that clearing now represents an opportunity for students to make a deal that will work for them. Universities are chasing student numbers and fees, and in their role as potential future customers for Higher Education, students are flexing financial as well as academic muscle to cast for brighter university futures than they might have previously imagined.

This takes us back to our ethnographic fieldwork on A-Level results Day a year ago, when we observed the reactions, decisions, and occasional desperation of a results day at a local Oxfordshire school. On that day, imagined futures were changed literally minute to minute, as students called through to prospective universities and secured verbal agreements about changing a course or gaining a place. In these moments, futures are profoundly altered, and individuals must navigate the difficult process of re-orienting themselves to new visions of what their lives will be like post-school.

These issues speak to the broader themes that have emerged in this research project, notable among which is the increasingly rapacious uncertainty that characterises imagined futures of school-leavers, both in urban and rural settings across the UK. Whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between, the results delivered to hopeful young people today will be even less certain in their meaning and implications than was the case in previous years. The future-orientation of everyday life at school and the promise of certain rational-choice outcomes from employment and Higher Education suggest a range of futures that are relatively easy to anticipate (in the latter, the clue is in the term ‘prospectus’). In the present, however, the future is irregular. The freshest crop of A-level holders will today need to find productive ways to reckon with this irregularity as they make their way towards the heat-haze horizon of a future as yet unset.

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Teaching Anthropology in Uncertain Times 

This post reaches you from a suitably changeable July afternoon in Oxford, with dark clouds hurrying across the sky, promising rain but giving over to occasional patches of good old-fashioned, elusive English Summer sunshine. I‘m reminded today of a similar summer afternoon last year, when I sat down with David Mills, the out-going editor of Teaching Anthropology, to discuss future issues of the journal. My immediate inclination was to look to the future of teaching anthropology itself as a subject for discussion in the first 2017 special issue. In the immediate aftermath of the UK referendum on membership of the EU (it’s important to remind ourselves it wasn’t always called ‘Brexit’), and with the impending election of Donald Trump as president of the United States (it will be important to remind ourselves down the line that this was not always a truth stranger than fiction), it seemed logical that we as a community of educators and anthropologists should be thinking about what new pedagogic strategies might be needed to account for the rapacious and occasionally ominous nature of contemporary social and political change. As our discussion of the topic developed, the focus shifted away from a prophetic look at ‘what’s next’ for teaching anthropology to one that encouraged discussion of the discipline’s long-standing engagement with uncertainty and the future, both as substantive themes and as concepts that inform the nature of anthropologically-informed pedagogy. Engaging thoughtfully with questions of uncertainty, we argue, is crucial not just for engaged practice in teaching anthropology, but also for challenging the particular future-orientations of educative practices at large. Kyle Harp-Rushing and our colleagues at Cultural Anthropology have described this kind of engagement with uncertainty as reclamation – as a way of embracing uncertainty not as something to be anticipated as part of an inescapable, impending future, but rather as a concept that can enrich and deepen the learning process in a way that in turn helps to positively shape the future we will eventually inhabit.

In strange but familiarly uncertain times, the editorial collective at Teaching Anthropology hoped that this would spark discussion about how we teach and prepare students for futures defined by uncertainty, dislocation and rupture. Keri Facer, among others, has pointed to the increasing use of the military term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) to describe the current state of social, political and economic systems. Baumann, Beck, and Giddens in particular have helped to shape a more complex sociological understanding of how risk and uncertainty frame our experiences of social life such that future risks and opportunities are presented in an increasingly individualized form, and yet also become increasingly difficult for individuals to know, control, or pre-empt. And yet amidst this increasingly volatile uncertainty, education continues to be represented as a locus for certain future outcomes, whether economic, intellectual, cultural, or in terms of social mobility. In the everyday life of teaching anthropology, this raises tensions because it demands a reassertion of the critical tenets of anthropology as a discipline primed to make strange the familiar certainties of education, but at a time when the teaching of anthropology is embattled and beleaguered because it does not explicitly promise (even if it regularly delivers) a clear return on investment or pathway to employment.

The well-worn tension between creativity and constraint in teaching anthropology was the main focus of discussion at a recent Teaching Anthropology workshop with secondary school teachers and academics, focusing on the theme of teaching about culture and difference in uncertain times. The workshop, held at Oxford Brookes University and funded in collaboration with Oxford University and the ESRC, revealed a range of personal anecdotes, pedagogic strategies, and individual initiatives all of which articulated different elements of how uncertainty emerges in the mundane every-day of the classroom. Some shared affirming stories about successfully encouraging young people to engage with uncertainty in order to unsettle preconceptions and challenge the taken-for-granted. Others described circumstances where critical approaches to teaching anthropologically led to intense anxiety on the part of both students and senior management because the learning was not designed explicitly to aid in examination preparation. In the latter case, this led to a disciplinary hearing and job instability, highlighting another facet of uncertainty for teachers of a subject already at the curricular margins both in secondary education and in universities.

This tension leads also to the question of stewardship, focusing on the disciplinary legacies that teachers nurture and protect, and why they think it’s important to do so.  In exploring the kinds of futures we are teaching anthropology for, we are prompted to consider the pedagogic moments of rupture when teachers decide to challenge disciplinary pedagogies and carve out new directions in response to new challenges. Advocating radically new ways of teaching and learning may offer ways of reimagining what the discipline has to offer students in helping them to find a way in uncertain times. The articles and reflections featured in the forthcoming special issue of Teaching Anthropology reveal how a combination of innovative practice and time-honoured, ethnographically-informed pedagogy can help to frame the teaching of anthropology in a way that makes uncertainty a powerful analytic tool for learning and living in uncertain times.

Growing Up to Be ‘Kinds of Men’

What do you want to be when you finally grow up? In 2014, on a humid September morning, I boarded a crowded subway train to arrive at the New York City public high school where I would spend a whole year exploring this question. I wanted to find out how high school kids make sense of their futures, and to better understand how schooling socialises us to imagine the future in particular ways. I also wanted to know more about the barriers that get in the way of achieving these futures, and how young people manage to overcome these challenges (if they do). I didn’t know then that masculinity would also become one of the more important and evocative themes in the ethnography. Understanding experiences and articulations of masculinity became a way for me to consider how neoliberal framings of aspiration are used to make sense of the future for young people in school. This is what I write about in my recent chapter in the edited volume Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives.

Continue reading “Growing Up to Be ‘Kinds of Men’”

Life Course as Method: Age Imaginaries in School Ethnography

 

 

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Like most social scientists, my approach to methodology is in important ways entangled with personal narrative. 
My interest in age as a field of social analysis emerged from my early experiences as a secondary school teacher. 

As a twenty-three year-old trainee, I was barely older than the more senior teenage students in my charge. At the same time, I was easily recognizable to my senior colleagues as member of the same generation as their own children. Training to be a teacher involved my immersion in the uncertain performance of several different identities: professional adult, grown-up in a classroom full of kids, youthful teacher. It was jarring to me to experience simultaneously what seemed like mutually exclusive categories of age. Out on the playground, students (and, sometimes, teachers) engaged in their own complex and ever-shifting negotiation of the age-based rules of engagement in everything from friendship to bullying, dating to disgust, dominance to deference. This led me, several years later and newly formed as an anthropologist of education, to focus explicitly on age in its multiple imaginings as aspect of social life in schooling in the UK.
Approaching age as the primary focus of anthropological analysis presents methodological challenges. Expanding one’s methodological approach to capture multiple, overlapping reckonings of age is perhaps particularly tricky in schools, where order is predicated on the neat portioning of the life course into categories like age groups, year groups, grades, or stages of the life course linked to educational achievement. The difficulty lies in analysing age as an aspect of social experience, while also recognising that age is both an essentialised and an essentially dynamic aspect of social identity. This makes it something of a moving target for the beleaguered anthropologist in the field.
Ironically, researchers have tried all kinds of approaches aimed at mitigating the impact of age, and its concomitant asymmetrical power relations, as a barrier to robust data gathering. Many of these, I would argue, serve to further reify the discreteness of the age-based positionality that a researcher holds relative to younger (or older) informants. Attempts to adopt a “least adult” role in ethnographic research (put crudely, adults acting out childhood with children) may lead children to experience rather peculiar imaginings of childlike adulthood. The sociologist Ronald King (1978) famously hid in a Wendy House (or play house) in order to conduct non-participant observation with children in a classroom, uninterrupted by the presence of adults; and not surprisingly, this method also raised its own problems. Hammersely and Atkinson have pointed out the tension between knowledge, power and age in the role of the school ethnographer, arguing that, in the eyes of participants, chronologically younger researchers may fit more neatly with the role of ignorant but curious observer than do older, and therefore seemingly wiser, greying professors (2007:77). More recently, the “new” sociology of childhood has championed participatory methods as a way to foreground the voice of children and young people in school-based research. While there are significant gains to be made in better representing the self-efficacy of young people as actors in the research process, there are also issues here: it is debatable as to whether “child-centred” research (research that privileges and makes paramount the voices of children) can always be equated with what might be termed “childhood-centred” research (research that questions the terms by which the children and young people in child-centred research are defined). Research about children’s and young people’s lives in this sense must be seen as an important part of the process by which discourses of age are shaped and reproduced, rather than as a practice that exists alongside and apart from it.
In my own research, I have pursued, failed, and persevered with a range of methods for capturing the social complexity of age. Ultimately, I have found some success in a traditional approach to ethnography that embraces the messy, mercurial, dynamic nature of age as a “unit of analysis” and in so doing also attempts to capture the rich and complex ways in which age is given meaning in everyday life. Rather than limiting my analysis to the known taxonomies of age that shape life in school, my challenge was to capture the complex, concurrent, multiple notions of age that served to structure the lives of both teachers and students. As with my own experience as a teacher – of performing at once a version of grown-up, of growing up, and of being little more than a big kid with a beard – these imaginings of age were constructed relationally, idiosyncratically, and in dialogue with dominant discourses of how age “ought to be” experienced. Age, I found, was imagined in a moment-to-moment way that moved beyond existing taxonomies of age, but was also obliged to render itself sensible to them. The methodological hurdle was the capture this complexity. I have attempted to do so through applying the concept of age imaginaries– a “warts and al” approach to recognising how age shapes the ethnographic process as much as it shapes experiences of schooling for children, young people, adults – and everyone in between.
(ORIGINALLY POSTED HERE)

 

Brookes in the Bronx: Reflecting on A Year of Ethnography

Picture a 17 year-old girl who was shot in the head at a Freshman party, now wheelchair-bound, struggling to graduate. A young Latino man with ‘Game Over’ tattooed on his eyelids, leaving his gang affiliations behind to focus on schooling. A hard working, smiling, first generation migrant teen from Ghana, on his way with a full scholarship to a prestigious private American university. Middle class kids from relatively stable families, pursuing a well-known but increasingly fragile version of the American Dream that leads from college to job satisfaction and security in the future. Picture an incredibly dedicated principal who begins his work day, everyday, at 4.30am, and for whom no issue in his high school of 2000 students is too small to deal with personally. Tireless, caring teachers who may teach English, but who also council the homeless, or disaffected, or desperate youth that they encounter in their classrooms, before hemming and washing the clothes of their students so that they’re presentable for work experience. Picture tired, over-worked teachers who struggle to marry their vision of doing well by their students against the increasing demands for accountability from their institution, the City, the state, and the government. Picture police officers walking the halls of a school, protecting students from within and without, idly high-fiving the occasional straggler on the way to class. Picture an immense, castle-like structure in The Bronx, where these people exist together, carving out aspirations and imaginings of their distinct but interconnected futures amidst the pulsing, chaotic, inspiring, roaring mechanism of New York City.

This is a list of just a few of the incredible individuals who I was fortunate enough to meet as part of my experience as a Fulbright Peabody Scholar conducting anthropological research into aspirations and schooling in New York City during the academic year 2014-2015. As an anthropologist of education, I am fascinated and driven by three connected fields of inquiry: a) the social and cultural processes through which humans learn; b) the ways in which we give structure to our social lives; and c) the means that we use to shape and reproduce culture. In this research and in my previous academic work to date, I have been preoccupied in particular by the ways in which schooling serves to socialise young people (and eventually, older people) into particular practices and ways of thinking. As a profoundly important context in which lasting social norms and values are forged, mass formal education serves a very compelling space for exploring the ideological drivers of contemporary society.

With this in mind, in this research I was especially interested to explore comparatively the ways in which schooling shapes the aspirations and imaginings of the future held by those at the very end of formal secondary education. I wanted to ask high school seniors what they wanted to be when they grew up, and then to unravel the complex set of sociological factors that led them to aspire to particular imaginings of the future. I also wanted to know about the barriers to achieving their aspirations for the future, and the strategies and supports that they used in order to overcome (or not overcome) these barriers. In short, I wanted to better understand in comparative relief what young people in contemporary British and American society consider to be the building blocks of a meaningful life; and I wanted to understand why they think this way. These are issues at the heart of much political and popular discourse in the UK and the US. Indeed, the effective shaping of the aspirations of young people, through schooling, is at the very core of the economic and political ideologies of our respective nation-states. If the children are our future, as Witney Houston would have it, then schools are the contexts in which particular imaginings of the future are given shape, value, and potentiality. I wanted to better understand why certain futures are privileged and articulated through experiences of schooling, and how these may be similar and different in the post-recession realities of everyday school life in the US and the UK.

In order to do so, during 2014-2015 I spent several days each week spending time with seniors and their teachers at a school I call Bronx High School. By adopting this classic ethnographic methodology of socio-cultural anthropology, I hoped to immerse myself in the everyday life of the school, documenting mundane, cumulative, momentary articulations of ideas about aspiration and the future, mainly through observation, conversation and interview. Fortunately for me, schools are inherently future-gazing spaces: most activities and conversations are directed towards a future task, an impending examination or assessment, a future status as college student, college dropout, worker, or even grown-up. This meant that everyday at Bronx High was a good day for exploring youth imaginings of the future.

This is not to say, however, that these imaginings were articulated in a simple or straightforward way. In fact, one of the more compelling emerging findings of the research is the complex, multiple imaginings of the future that individual students are able to maintain concurrently, even when these imaginings may at first seem mutually exclusive. Students must also navigate the contested nature of the futures imagined for them by (and in relation to the relative futures of) the school, the City, or broader US society. As suggested above, Bronx High was home to a range of students, many of whom were much more familiar with generational patterns of entrenched disadvantage in The Bronx than they were with the sparkling affluence of near-distant Manhattan. In reconciling their experiences of disadvantage with the powerful message of potential future success and happiness underpinning the school’s articulation of the American Dream, many students would at once imagine a future as pro basketball players, rappers, lawyers, philanthropic businesspeople, or simply as college graduates, while also articulating their fear and frustration at the likelihood of much less opulent futures ahead. Some articulated their aspirations for the future in keeping with a traditional pathway from hard work at school, to college, and on to employment, wealth, and the happiness that comes with social and economic security. Others were more cynical about the relationship between schooling and learning, and between schooling and the ultimate conditions for a meaningful life (even if they were on their way to college anyway – just in case). Others still had no clear vision of what the future would be like, but were on the way to college because that was their normative framework for navigating early adulthood. Drawing metaphorically from the realm of quantum physics, over the course of the project I developed the concept of quantum personhood as a means of understanding these complex, multiple imaginings of future selves – the uncertain, entangled, seemingly incongruent but ultimately coherent articulations of individual and collective social identity, expressed in the present but always in relation to past and potential future versions of who we are and may be.

In June 2014, as I attended the high school graduation ceremony for seniors at Bronx High (including some of those mentioned above), I had cause to reflect on the truly profound impact that my Fulbright experience had on me, both personally and professionally. I learned a lot from the gracious, welcoming high school seniors and teachers who allowed me into their lives during the school year. This was not only in terms of their particular articulations of aspiration and the future, but also in terms of developing a critical perspective on the broader concept of aspiration as it is understood and articulated in late modern capitalist societies like the UK and the US. Adopting this kind of critical approach is crucial not only in helping young people to overcome risks and develop resilience in achieving their aspirations, but also in helping them to challenge on a more profound level the terms in which these aspirations are framed. As my year as a Fulbright scholar came to an end, I left New York City with a renewed fascination for understanding in comparative relief the relationships between US and UK culture and society. This is inspired as much by my research as in the rich experience of cultural exchange that Fulbright provides. I now look forward to continuing with this research project as I begin a second year of ethnographic school, this time in a London secondary school, where I anticipate I will find distinct but similarly complex youth imaginings of the future.    

Another High School Year Ends

In New York City this year, Spring came and went like the proverbial Yellow Cab. As if impatient even with the weather, New York hurried the crisp, sunny, English breeze of Spring out of the way, in favour of the thickening, humid air of summer. Where New York in winter is almost devoid of smells, in the early days of summer the city bursts into olfactory life. As I make my morning commute from Williamsburg to the Bronx, early morning coffee and pastries waft into flower-filled window boxes on Bedford Avenue. On North 7th street I descend into the bleach/fruit-scented cleaning products and air conditioning of the subway. On the 4 train, we rocket past the sweaty throng of Union Square and Grand Central, and burst overground into summer sunshine at 161st Street, Yankee Stadium. Stepping off the subway and back into the close heat of the north Bronx, there are occasional clouds of vape and cigarette smoke, faint scents of always-decaying garbage, and the sweet tang of piragua – syrup-flavoured shaved ice sold by street vendors. Walking across the avenue, I’m always greeted warmly at Bronx High by NYPD school security staff idling by the airport-style metal detectors in the main foyer. Blistering sunshine recedes to shade inside the echoing, marbled corridors of the school’s main building, and I begin another of the last few remaining days of fieldwork before the school year is finally, and suddenly, over. 
The change in seasons has brought with it even more evidence of the tensions of race and inequality that surge in American society. In April, Freddy Gray, a young black man from Baltimore, died as a result of injuries sustained in police custody. Protests and riots flooded the streets of Baltimore as the city’s populace registered their outcry at yet another example of police brutality against minority men.
In the incessant cycle of American news media, one could be forgiven for conflating this incident with numerous others occurring in the past weeks that have also raised questions about race and inequality. One such incident was the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina. White police officer Michael Slager shot Scott 8 times as he ran away, unarmed. The scene was caught on camera by a passerby, leading to Slager’s indictment on murder charges and further demonstrations about race relations in the United States. 
The Scott case led President Obama to make even more clear his position on race and inequality in the US and the need for institutional and structural change. It seems that as he draws closer to the end of his presidency, Obama feels more confident in making such statements, and to act on them. In May, for example, Obama and his entourage thundered over Bronx High in twin Chinook helicopters, landing in a swirl of dust on the playing field of Lehman College, located down the block. Obama was there to draw attention to the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance aimed at improving outcomes for boys and young men of colour – a cause that seems integral to Obama’s post-presidential career. This did nothing for students’ attention to the task at hand in AP English that afternoon, but it did register a clear commitment at the highest levels of government to issues of race, gender and inequality – and did so in a way that brought all these issues close to home in this Bronx neighbourhood.

Others including Hillary Clinton have also weighed in on the need for change. On a small-scale, in relation to the police this might involve officers wearing body-cameras; but on the large scale this means addressing issues of entrenched racism and poverty – something that is already driving the rhetoric of announced candidates in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016.

Across the pond, of course, the failings of the UK’s outdated electoral system have ensured another five years of austerity-driven Conservative government. For us back in the UK, it seems, questions about the profound inequity of our society have been quickly muffled post-election by calls for a positive psychological approach to our socio-economic woes. Aspiration remains centre-stage for the new Conservative government; but those who experience the sharp end of the austerity spear (namely, disadvantaged, marginalised young people) are increasingly being blamed, and even pathologised, for the hopelessness that their ‘entrenched worklessness’ engenders. In the coming year it will be interesting to find out how these seemingly contrasting sentiments are reconciled and articulated by students making their way towards the end of secondary education and into the brave new world beyond.

The Prime Minister, delivering a major speech on the economy in Bedford today, said Labour had left millions of people trapped on welfare in a system which 'punished the poor'
Issues of aspiration and inequality continue to emerge on a daily basis in the lives of seniors at Bronx High. As we enter their final week of high school (at least, for those who will graduate), the reality of what will come next is increasingly stark. Some already have places confirmed and scholarships won to attend local community colleges, and for these students the next step begins in just a few weeks. For those on financial aid, CUNY colleges provide a suite of preparation classes aimed at getting students ready for entering the mainstream of college life. This speaks to the ongoing issues that students from local NYC public schools have with success at college: all arrive with high school diplomas, but many lack the skills that these diplomas are supposed to represent. This means that students need to take different remedial pathways through college in order to stand a better chance of succeeding in the long run. In this final week of high school, few are fully aware of the challenges that will emerge in this sense in the year to come. Many students will commute to college in the city from the parental home, meaning that life will slowly transition from high school. Others will be leaving the teaming busyness of their Bronx neighbourhoods for leafy campuses upstate – a prospect that is at once exciting and scary, not least because it will be the first time that some black and latino students will experience ‘being a minority’ first-hand. Living in a predominantly black and latino for their whole lives, some talk about the added challenge of having to deal with ‘casual’ racism as part of the college experience. 
Some are excited about the exceptional future prospects that they have secured through years of hard work, application and finally acceptance to private university with ‘full rides’ for funding. Others simply won’t be making it to college this Fall, even if they still maintain and fully believe that this is what is going to happen. Perhaps one of the most compelling and complex aspects of this research is the process through which students are capable of maintaining narratives of the future that are only loosely connected to the realities of the present. These are not ‘fantasy’ imaginings of a future of celebrity and wealth, but simpler imaginings of an impending future at college alongside the reality that they do not have the grades to graduate; or that they failed to pay application fees; or that they applied too late for courses; or that their parents will not allow them to go to a far away college; or that they are just not fast enough to win a track scholarship. Somehow these competing narratives of the future do not cancel one another out, and students maintain them concurrently right until the end. ‘Summer school’ is a dread term at Bronx High at the moment, and when it is uttered, some students finally realise that they won’t be donning caps and gowns at the end of this month with their contemporaries. It is an immediate cure to ‘senioritis’ (the slow slacking-off that comes at towards the end of senior year), but it comes too late for some. 
For the most part, however, Bronx High is filled with the excitement of end of year. Last week, the International Fair led groups of Jamaican students and students from the Dominican Republic to scream and dance for their representatives up on stage in the school auditorium. Yesterday, year books were distributed and seniors began the symbolic process of saying good-bye to high school. Last Wednesday, most took the day off school to prepare for Prom, with all its ritual signifiers of early transitions into adulthood.
As a researcher, this is a poignant time to reflect on the many people who have been kind enough to share their lives with me over this year, and of the mounting pile of data that I have been lucky enough to gather in order to capture this process of ‘coming of age’. With just a few final interviews to do, the first phase of this project is nearly complete. But I have a feeling that this is only just the beginning of a much longer story that could last long into the future – the imagined future, that is – as these young people begin to navigate the uncertain path into early adulthood, and beyond. 
  

Brookes in the Bronx: Spring in the City


A week after Easter, with Passover coming to an end, and Spring has finally come to New York City. This morning the city is washed in windy sunshine, and temperatures are finally on the steady rise. You can tell from the number of slightly overweight hipster runners pounding the pavements of Brooklyn that summer is only a few jean sizes away – and I should know: I’ve become quite accustomed to wrapping up in a big black coat to ward of the crisp NYC winter, and any visible signs of what an American diet can do to an Englishman abroad…


When the first snows started to melt a few weekends ago, New York City looked like it was waking up from a very heavy Friday night: all those snowdrifts were playing temporary host to a million cigarette butts, discarded coffee cups and doggie bags (and not the kind you take away from a restaurant), all of which spread out in cold puddles across the city streets. But in typical NYC fashion this has all been efficiently cleared away, ready for the Spring and Summer to come.


It’s been an eventful few weeks, both in terms of research and research inspiration. At the beginning of March, for instance, I went to a fascinating talk at NYU from Jim Loewen, author of the influential Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995). Loewen challenged the audience to think about their own experiences of history education (and particularly the US Civil War), and in so doing revealed the redacted and racialised ways in which American history is constructed in US schools. Perhaps most striking was his account of ‘sundown towns’ -towns where, until relatively recently, black inhabitants were obliged by law to leave town before dusk. This widespread practice still resonates in rural towns US today, where de facto segregation still continues even if the law no longer officially endorses it.


Questions of race and inequity emerged again and again alongside other evocative themes at the American Anthropological Association Anthropology of Childhood and Youth Special Interest Group (take a breath) Annual Conference, held in Long Beach, California. Presentation topics ranged from gutter punk teenagers riding the rail (yes, this still happens! America’s subcultural answer to the gap year, you might say) to incarcerated migrant youth on the US-Mexican border, to adoption and baby trafficking in China, to my own research on quantum personhood and imagined futures in the Bronx. This proved an excellent platform for discussing the temporal dimensions of social identity, particuarly in relation to race, gender and class as aspects of young people’s lives. 

Another strange highlight of this California trip was an experience of something quintessentially American: gun culture. I was surprised with a visit to a gun range up in the hills above Los Angeles, where, with far less regulation than one might expect at your average British paintballing venue, we were allowed to fire a Magnum 500 (think Dirty Harry). The experience, in a word: terrifying. But also exhilirating in the way that anything that goes ‘bang’ can be. Alexis de Toqueville would have been proud of my commitment to truly understanding the anthropology of American society….

Big guns aside, conversations about youth and imagined futures continued back in NYC when I gave a talk to colleagues at NYU, including Jon Zimmerman, author of the new Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. While seemingly tangential to my own research, Jon’s work on the ideological underpinnings of sex ed at different times in US History (preventing the spread of disease; as Cold War metaphor; as mouthpiece for conservative family values and functionalist sociology; and always as mechanism for ‘taming’ youth) made me think seriously about how sex and relationships are figured in the imagined futures of the seniors in my research. While it’s logical at first to frame aspirations and imagined futures in terms of jobs and economic or career ‘success’, these dreams form part of a tangled, complex picture of the future that also involves imaginings of intimacy and family. Many students talk about aspiring to be successful so that they can provide for their as-yet unformed families of the future. This fits with a more traditional view (also endorsed through sex education) about finding ‘the one’ and settling down to a serious relationship. Interestingly, though, most students have also discussed the winding trajectory that they think will take them towards ‘the one’ – and this is the picture of sex and relationships more commonly represented through media, and particularly media representations of college. But they also complicate this picture: most imagine that only through being with multiple partners can one finally get to know oneself well enough to know what one wants in a significant other. This is a much more sophisticated and subtle reckoning of sex and relationships than most might give teenagers credit for – and may go some way to explaining why (according to Zimmerman) most think sex ed is something of a joke.  



Relationships aside, it’s an increasingly exciting time at Bronx High. We’re edging ever-closer to the end of the academic year, and for seniors this means that the once very distant, imagined world of college will very soon become a stark reality. Most are looking forward to the independence that broader college horizons will bring – most, but not all. The statistics for New York City suggest that many of these seniors will struggle to keep up with their peers in local city universities, possibly having to take remedial English or Maths classes to make up for slower progress at school. Many will take up to four years to complete a two year Associates Degree, meaning increasing debts and a decreasing likelihood of further study down the line. More still, of course, will not make it to college because the challenges of life in the Bronx make getting through high school a real struggle. As part of their effort to alleviate some of the barriers that students face, Bronx High has become a Community School – one aspect of Mayor de Blasio’s programme to integrate social services for young people. The city has seen some impressive success stories in Community Schools where incredibly dedicated principals have been able to harness some of the vast financial and infrastructural resources of NYC to improve life for those young people who need help the most. Some of these stories came out during the Risk to Resilience conference hosted at NYU and organised by Pedro Noguera. The conference was aimed at identifying best practice in community-focused approaches to education, and in frank terms illuminated the confluence of race and inequity in American society. It was incredibly inspiring to see so many individuals dedicated to helping others in their communities. Of course, these charismatic, dedicated individuals also highlight that so much of the success of these programs rests on the personal investment of the few, rather than in structural change that may have a lasting, profound impact on poverty in urban America, particularly for young people, and particularly for young people of colour. Here’s to hoping those structural, scalable changes lie ahead in the not too distant future.