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.