Brookes in the Bronx: New York City Winter

Welcome to the Winter Installment of Brookes in the Bronx!

There have been a lot of changes in New York City since the trees became bare in late November, and winter started to creep across the city. Until the heating was finally turned on on the 1st December, we froze for a few days in our new apartment in the trendy epicenter (sic) of Bedford Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now I know why all these aspiring hipster artist-entrepreneurs have such large beards, I thought – but this was long before the winter proper began and the beards really started to come in handy…For an expat Brit more used to the drone of air conditioners and humming radiators than old-fashioned oil-and-gas boiler heating, the tap-tap-gurgle sound of pipes took some getting used to – but now, after weeks in the snow, the singular and peculiar sound of American heating  has comfortably blended into the relatively quiet background of bars, sirens, dogs barking, moustachioed bluegrass bands a-playing and Apple Macs whirring in the coffee shops across the East River from Manhattan.

December began with controversial rulings on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, black men who both died at the hands of police earlier this year (see my previous post about this). There was a real sense of outrage in New York City, as mass demonstrations surged into the streets under the uniting assertion that Black Lives Matter. It was interesting to note that few students at Bronx High (my research site) seemed particularly phased by these developments – for them, these things happened far, far away (on Staten Island, in Garner’s case), and to ‘other’ people. But the ruling was also not particularly surprising to them – after all, one of the most profoundly disturbing issues with these cases is that they are just some of the more recent incidents where black men (and particularly young black men) have been killed by police in the United States. Joining the crowds that filled Washington Square Park and Broadway in December in demonstration against rulings, it was evocative to be surrounded by people for whom this was a very real issue. In the crowd were many of the black and hispanic young people of New York City for whom these issues could have fatal consequences, if their impending future actions were to be construed in the wrong way, at the wrong time, by law enforcement.

December also brought a gathering of a different kind – the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in DC. After visiting the White House and the Lincoln memorial on a dour, suitably atmospheric winter evening (think House of Cards), it was inspiring to join in with the thousands of anthropologists arrived in the capitol from all over the world to tout their wares. I gave a talk on the emerging findings from my research, including a first public airing of the concept of quantum personhood – which was mercifully received by those in the audience. Excellent contributions from Ray McDermott, Jean Lave, and Bruno Latour, among others, made for an incredibly thought-provoking and engaging few days of discussion. It’s also good fun to play ‘what to wear: or how to dress like an anthropologist‘…    

Christmas in New York City is, needless to say, something to behold (we took a stay-cation all the way to the illustrious Jersey City… 15 minutes across the Hudson). And as the festive season drew to a close, the real winter started to set in. Local American news, in its usual understated fashion, deemed that we would be struck with ‘Snowmageddon‘, featuring the end of the world, among other things. In the end it has just been a regular extremely cold winter with lots of snow and ice, and the occasional dip in temperature to -24C. For the first time in my life, I own a pair of longjohns, and it does not seem strange to see pugs and poodles walking around in Burberry jackets and little neoprene booties. New York in winter is a strange world indeed…

None of this weather made much of a dent in the school calendar, however, and the weekly routine of ethnographic fieldwork has continued in spite of the sleet and the snow. Students and staff alike at Bronx High have been incredibly welcoming during the winter months, and with their help I’m continuing to paint a complex picture of how futures are imagined as part of the normal everyday lives of seniors in this American high school. Imagined futures can be seen in all kinds of places – from articulations about imagined futures in discourse and policy at the national and regional levels (see Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address for an example, along with campaign claims from NY state governer Andrew Cuomo, NYC major Bill de Blasio, and the NYC Department of Education), to imagined futures at the level of the school, in the curriculum, in individual classrooms, and in the individual lives of teachers and students. They emerge in plays written by students, in college personal statements, in preparation for work experience – even in the banal filling out of applications for federal students loans. At times, multiple imaginings of the future vie for primacy as macro- and micro-scale imaginings come together, intersect, and collide. As seniors come closer to graduating high school, concerns about graduation, college acceptance, gathering credits, and about failing classes all speak to the many potential futures that must be negotiated at this juncture in their young lives. Many of these issues I have captured in an article that documents the emerging findings from the research, and which I hope will appear in a special edition of Anthropology of Education Quarterly later this year.

Other highlights of the last short while have included giving a talk and receiving great feedback on the emerging research from colleagues and students at Columbia University’s Teachers College, as well as a conference there at which Jean Lave gave an excellent Gramsci-inspired keynote. I was also proud to represent Brookes at the UN along with other Fulbright colleagues, where we discussed how the values of the United Nations can be fostered through education (we also had fun pretending we were in The Interpreter). Breaking with the ‘tough it out through the winter’ NYC narrative, I also snuck off to California for a few days of sun in February, which was rather nice. Back in NYC, this week I had the pleasure of attending another evening of discussion about New York City schools at the NYC Google HQ, which provided more food for thought about how imagined futures are shaped by education in particular ways within cityscapes as vast, challenging and inspiring as this one.

Today marks a slight break in the weather; and with thawing of the city I’m also made aware that time is ticking by, and soon enough the research year will be over. Time to refresh the batteries in the dictaphone and get back to it…

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