Brit-Chic: tales of geography and education in a visit to the Mid-West

This April I visited the American Mid-West to attend three academic conferences, below I summarize some of the best papers and key issues which my visit covered.


Picture: As a proud Sheffielder and geographer of education, I was particularly tickled to travel all the way to Chicago to attend a session organized by Chris Taylor on the geography of school choice in a room called Sheffield.

Local dynamics of race: the Dept. of Education Policy Studies Conference, Madison

My first stop on my academic excursion in the Mid-West was the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Through a speaker at an urban education session I co-organized at the RGS-IBG in 2014, Linn Posey-Maddox I found out about the annual conference of the Dept. of Education Policy Studies, this year entitled ‘Race, Class, and Inequality in American Education: Placing the Local in Context’. The salience of race, as opposed to class, was a notable feature of the critical educational scholarship in the two American education conferences I attended in the USA. This did not come as a shock per se, but compared to the UK context where the dominant structural inequality in education debates is class this was distinctive. In the case of the Madison conference this was a deliberate theme of the conference and L’Heureux Lewis McCoy’s keynote framed this very clearly. His recent book concentrates on African American experiences in the suburban district of ‘Rolling Acres’, perceived as “a promised land” educationally by the African American families increasingly locating there. However, despite this initial optimism, the reality has been the maintenance of racial inequalities within suburban settings. McCoy drew on relative deprivation theory to highlight the contradictory position of recently re-located parents who found themselves unable to afford the extra-curricular activities which may previously have been offered free through outreach activities aimed at inner-city areas. Similarly success in a suburban setting was still seen by parents of colour to be relative to their own family background as opposed to the expectations of others in the school: parity of destinations was not the aim. He also sought to highlight how rather than Lareau’s concerted cultivation vs. natural growth model of parental engagement in schooling, what was central here was the racially differentiated institutional reception of parents of colour and their white counter-parts. Forms of racial discrimination were both subtle and quietly overt: there were distinctions made between working and middle-class African American parents though both experienced racial barriers, white middle-class parents also successfully petitioned to avoid their children being taught by the only black teacher in the school. At the heart of McCoy’s argument para-phrasing the Wutan Clan he argued that rather than class ruling everything around me‘Class Rules Everything Around Me’ (CREAM), or ‘class matters for all and race matters for something’ and instead emphasise the role of race in these new suburban settings.

Scholar-activism in Madison

The second day of the conference continued these themes with Decoteau Irby describing how their research team asked students and teachers how they explained racially stratified attainment data from within their own school. In discussion afterwards there was also critical reflection on the need to move away from white guilt and hand-wringing from parents and teachers which in the end was not helpful for other minority students: being politically hamstrung by feelings of guilt was not an excuse for doing nothing. The Hope Lab initiatives providing direct financial and pastoral care for students of colour/working class students in university and the Race to equity project provided useful examples of the more activist and engaged scholarship which seemed to me to be more prevalent in Madison and the AERA in Chicago than in the UK context. The Hope Lab approach may be of interest to those working in widening participation in the UK (see below however for at least one exception), though it is worth noting the director Sara Goldrick-Raab’s distinction between the ‘scholar-activist’ and advocacy-type roles of other politically engaged academics. Certainly her randomised-controlled trial-esque approach was quite different to the community organizing and union-aligned approach seen in Chicago. The latter was present here too however, with Michael Apple’s talk recalling the recent demonstrations to protect collective bargaining in the state of Wisconsin.

Community organizing and the politics of research in Chicago

Pauline Lipman’s recent work on the politics of urban school reform in Chicago has provided one of the sharpest and strident critiques of how neo-liberal school reform is moulded to new patterns of urban governance and old forms of racial injustice in American cities. Charter School reform in the city has been deliberately aligned with housing projects of state-led gentrification and displacement of communities of colour. The governance structures of charters have been constructed to allow the school itself to become a direct site for capital to seek investment returns as Dan Cohen would argue the following week at the AAG. The Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Lipman is based, were strongly represented in sessions at AERA. Papers from Rhoda Rae Guetierrez, Carol Caref and many others from the collective highlighted the strength of links between researchers and the rich alliance of community organizations and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) in particular. The latter make strong use of GIS software in reports opposing school reform and also in workshops allowing parents and teachers to use GIS software to explore socio-spatial urban and educational inequalities themselves. Sarah Hainds is employed directly by the CTU in a research role which includes extensive use of GIS in a role which should give UK teachers’ unions pause for thought. Moreover, the tradition of an ‘off-site’ visit organized by one of the SIG’s to hear local grassroots education activists removed the middle-man of academic interpretation, allowing them to speak directly and on their own terms. At a community centre in Pilsen, students, teachers’ and parents’ organizations were all present including a student from a youth organization campaigning for public schools and against school closures. The latter had been included in a book I reviewed on Schools and Urban Revitalization which also reflected the closer engagement of academics in various forms of community-based activism. It was interesting in particular to hear about resistance to newly-introduced standardized testing through parental opt-out, a strategy which I had not heard of in a UK context.

Not everywhere has the rich history of community organizing that Chicago does, but the simple need to consider what effect our analyses and ‘critiques’ actually have was underlined in a joint-session by led by politically-active researchers from Chicago and Chile, two testing grounds for neo-liberal school reform. Lipman spoke again drawing on Tuck’s (2009) paper on the need to move beyond documenting the damage experienced by marginalized communities and instead:

re-vision and firm up our theory(ies) of change and to determine what role, if any, research has in making our dreams come true for our communities

(Tuck, 2009: 23)

With my own work on spatial patterns of social reproduction across urban school systems in the UK, the question does linger sometimes about whether empirical and theoretical critiques of social reproduction are self-indulgent. Hattam and Smyth (2015) have drawn on Rancière to critique Bourdieusian approaches to social reproduction, focussing specifically on the tendency for Bourdieu’s work to ‘assume deficit positions for the subjects of our study’ allowing ‘the critical intellectual to play master explicator again’ (Hattam and Smyth: 281). Knowing the work, background and political activity of those in the Bourdieu Study Group in the UK I am extremely sceptical that Bourdieu is being used in this sense. Moreover, whilst theoretical debates are important the more powerful critique of critical intellectuals is to judge them by their own political activism (or lack thereof). Speaking personally, my activism has been concentrated on politicizing the conditions of my own workplace at the university as a PhD rep I also speak up at departmental meetings, a setting which provides a restricted space for dialogue (let alone activism) despite the number of more established critical intellectuals in the room who are otherwise supportive. However, I feel increasingly that this is insufficient and, whether it be from a sociological or geographical perspective, asking what social and political contribution are critiques are actually making to the communities we research should be central to our work.

Embedding the geography of education…

From my perspective the most exciting sessions were the Placing Education sessions organized by two PhD students, Dan Cohen and Chris Lizotte. AERA had included a panel on the critical geographies of school choice at which Ee-Seul Yoon, Kalervo Gulson, Sarah Hainds and others spoke about the potential for critical uses of GIS in education research. However the Placing Education sessions at the AAG provided the largest collection of papers I have seen at any conference up till now, more than twice the size of the two urban education sessions I co-organized last year at the RGS. The presentations were of very high quality and scope and I cannot do justice to all the speakers here. Alice Huff’s paper on the eradication of attendance boundaries with Charter school reform in New Orleans echoed AERA papers on Chicago school reform where the same process has happened. A central concern was the loss of local public space from which communities can both organize and engage in schooling. Caroline Loomis also provided a rich ethnographic account of elementary schools the division of space in a site shared by both a public school and a new, and academically selective, charter school. The latter confirmed patterns of internal segmentation and classed, racial segregation of tracks within gentrifying neighbourhoods as seen in Allison Rhoda’s paper in an excellent AERA session co-organized with Molly Makris. In the AAG session three other papers stood out for me personally, Håkan Forsberg, Dan Cohen (as already mentioned above) and Nicole Nguyen. Håkan’s work, like my own paper on new-old patterns of social reproduction in a selective-suburban grammar school, drew on Bourdieu pushing this approach forward by combining Multiple Correspondence Analysis with GIS to examine neo-liberal school reform in Stockholm. Nicole’s paper provided a rich theoretical analysis of how neo-liberalism alone is not sufficient to understand contemporary racialized and, in her study, militarized nature of school reform, a historical understanding of the deep roots of these processes is also necessary.

As we discussed after the session, there is a general issue of how we place and position ourselves within geography. Having a strong session like this is key to establish the subject as a regular fixture within the discipline and particularly on an international stage. However, this sits next to the contradictory need to speak ‘out’ and proselytize for the geography of education by participating in non-education sessions. Developing an international network for geographers of education either as a SIG or, more likely perhaps in the short-term, something more informal is something we should consider. This presents various difficulties which face researchers working between and across disciplines but is the only way to establish the sub-discipline and, speaking personally, to combat the everyday isolation of ‘lone-wolf’ educational geographers/spatial sociologists of education like myself.

There are a number of other papers, speakers and friends who deserve mention here. Above all, to my old friend Berit Ness who I stayed with in Madison and travelled with me to Detroit for brief post-conference visit. Also to Linn Posey-Maddox who let me know about the departmental conference in Madison and James Glaeckner who met me there. Meeting Michael Bradford, Geoff Whitty and several other key people who were only ‘big-names’ beforehand was particularly exciting and useful. There were two strong sessions of class-conscious urban analysis from the UK and Chile in a paper organized by Emma Jackson, Michaela Benson, Kirsteen Patton and Roger Burrows. Sarah Leaney’s fantastic paper on classed experiences on a council housing estate and Maria Luisa Mendez’s work on the upper and middle classes in Santiago De Chile particularly stood out for me personally. A paper in an earlier AERA session also attempted to transfer the concept of “red-lining” from the housing-insurance market to racialized inequalities in the class-room which I also found particularly interesting. Another UK grouping also made a splash at the AERA with Ruth Boyask and Katy Vigurs speaking in a session on the politics of educational research from a UK perspective. I gave a second paper in an excellent session on the geographies of higher education organized by the great cluster of geographers interested in education from the University of Loughborough. One of the last and best sessions I attended at the AAG was organized by and for ‘Blue Collar Scholars‘. A group of working class scholars, both women and men, and scholars of colour, discussed openly and honestly the difficulties of being ‘a fish out of water’ and confronting the deeply rooted prejudice and inequalities on which academia itself rests. My friend and colleague Mark Griffiths also drew on similar experiences in his paper which discussed how his Northern English, working-class background played a role in his positionality as a white researcher from the globa north in India: the imperial legacy binds us all but acknowledging how class differentiates us is important. The Blue Collar Scholar session was important for allowing a safe and supportive space in which people could speak about their experiences, for me the key  focus has to be how we move from this to to actively changing the institutions we work in which frequently remain implicitly sexist, racist and classist in how they operate. It was a credit to geography that this kind of session made it onto the programme and it topped off a politcally challenging and intellectually rich visit to the Mid-West.

Here’s to old and new friends, politicizing our research and embedding the geography of education!

In solidarity from London,


Conference report – funding acknowledgement

The funds I received allowed All in all the conferences were a rich intellectual and social experience and I am grateful to both the SSPP Small Bursaries Fund and the KCL Grad School Fund for contributions to cover costs.g me to attend two international conferences in Chicago, the annual conferences of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association of Geographers (AAG), as well as a smaller departmental conference at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I gave two papers both at the AAG and whilst I did not participate as a speaker at the other conferences I was active from the floor as a participant and made some useful connections to younger and more established figures in the field. I am grateful to the SSPP Small Bursaries Fund and the KCL Graduate School Conference Fund for financial support they provided.