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CAE Invited Roundtable: The influence of ethographies of schools and communities

Welcome, Guest Blog Moderators, Janet Hecsh (California State University, Sacramento) and Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher (University of Pennsylvania)!

To initiate a conversation that will extend through an invited roundtable entitled “The Circle is Unbroken: Ethnographic Studies of Schools and Their Communities in Pedagogy and Praxis (Council on Anthropology and Education, 109th AAA Annual Meeting in New Orleans: Saturday, Nov. 20 from 1:45 – 3:30PM)” the panelists and organizers of the roundtable invite you to respond to the following question:

How has your research, teaching, and/or learning been influenced by previous and/or contemporary ethnographic studies of schools and their communities?  What aspects of your work either reflect the work of colleagues, mentors, or “elders” in the field?  

Here’s a bit more about the exciting upcoming roundtable.


Janet Hecsh (California State University, Sacramento)
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher (University of Pennsylvania)

DISCUSSANTS: Doug Foley (University of Texas at Austin), Heewon Chang (Eastern University), Gustavo Fischman (Arizona State University), Thea Abu al-Haj (Rutgers University), Lesley Bartlett (Teachers College, CU), Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher (University of Pennsylvania), Janet Hecsh (California State University, Sacramento)

INVITED ROUNDTABLE: The Circle is Unbroken: Ethnographic Studies of
Schools and Their Communities in Pedagogy and Praxis.

Forty-two years ago the Council of Anthropology and Education was formed at the 67th meeting of the American Anthropology Association in Seattle as a way to both bring together and recognize the works of anthropologists, such as Bateson, Benedict, Sapir and others, who has been examining the educational contexts of formalized systems of education and enculturation of children (deMarrais) since the early and mid-20th Century. While ethnographic studies of schools and their communities are considered by some to be heart of the field of Anthropology and Education–certainly they were at the core of CAE as the first committee in the organization–ethnographic practices, methods, and theoretical perspectives have flowed in multiple directions and engaged scholars within and across a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, education, human development, and cultural studies. At the 109th meeting, we inquire into these core ideas and ideals embodied in the ethnography of schools and their communities; and the practices and processes that have endured, evolved, emerged, and disappeared during the decades since 1968.

As an embodiment of the metaphor of circulation [the theme for this year’s meeting], this session brings together scholars from several generations. All have been influenced by the Spindlers, Willis, Wolcott and others, to focus on themes, theories and key ideas in educational anthropological literature: the production and reproduction of inequality; cultural continuities and discontinuities between students, educators, schools and communities; and the ethos and pathos of adolescents and adults in schools. Recognizing the circle of scholarship across and along “generations” of scholars, we consider the circulation of ideas – and of the literature itself – as texts to prepare and inform the next generation of educational scholars and practitioners. How then have these ideas circulated, recirculated, and ultimately, been reformulated and renewed, as ethnographers and scholars continue to research and teach from an ethnographic perspective?

8 Responses to “CAE Invited Roundtable: The influence of ethographies of schools and communities”

  1. jpk says:

    Ameena, Janet, and expert panelists:

    I look forward to the dialogue that will emerge from the important question(s) you post.


  2. Janet Hecsh says:

    It is a pleasure and an honor to have been invited into this space. I, too, look forward to our dialogue. Recently I welcomed a new “office-mate” after some years of solitude. When Dr. Deidre Sessoms moved herself in, and all her books sat on shelves opposite my books—I found many of the same ethnographies, twins of the ones on my own shelves. Foley’s Learning Capitalist Culture, McLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ it, Spindler’s Interpretive Ethnography of Education, Eckhart’s Jocks and Burnouts. This session and this dialogue is an opportunity to take stock, reflect and enrich each other’s thinking about the ethnographies of schools and their communities. Write on!!!

  3. When I consider the circulation of ideas within the anthropology of education, I am struck by the continuing preoccupation with certain issues and also by the creative approaches that scholars have taken in recent years to perennial concerns. Here I’ll talk about three: cultural production, diversity of language and literacy practices, and studies of immigration and education.

    I took my first course in educational anthropology with Dorothy Holland at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to that time, my experience in a bachelor’s teacher education program with a heavy psychological, developmentalist emphasis had left me completely unprepared for intense sociological challenges I subsequently faced teaching high school English. When, in Holland’s class, we read key texts like Doug Foley’s _Learning Capitalist Culture_, Michelle Fine’s _Framing Dropouts_, Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart’s _Educated in Romance_, and Shirley Brice Heath’s _Ways with Words_, I found critiques of the sociocultural production of class, race, and gender inequalities through schooling that quite literally changed my life.

    The first strand, cultural production, has unfolded in the past several years in lively and exciting ways, as has been ably discussed by Levinson and Holland in their introduction to _The Cultural Production of the Educated Person_ (2006) and more recently by Doug Foley in his fine 2010 AEQ article titled “The Rise of Class Culture Theory in Educational Anthropology.” In general, scholars’ creative uptake and re-readings of Bourdieu, Gramsci, and Foucault have yielded illuminating analyses of governance in schools and individual and collective agentic struggles alongside and against structural constraints and the threat of being “captured” by cultural categories described in depth by Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne. Activist anthropologists of education, including Lalitha Vasudevan, Julio Cammarota, Andrea Dyrness, Sofia Villenas, and others, have built upon these critiques to engage youth and parents as co-researchers who document and dispute educational practices that create inequality.

    A second strand of inquiry that remains vibrant is the concern regarding how linguistic difference is regularly turned into deficit. Heath’s comparative analysis of the privilege attached to white, middle class ways of speaking and engaging text within schools provided a solid foundation for the subsequent development of concerns with language and education. A new generation of (often bilingual) scholars have contributed detailed studies of language minority (or what some pointedly call language minoritized) students and their mis-education in U.S. public schools, developing analyses of language policy and the enactment of language ideologies. Another exciting development in this strand has been the consolidation of a linguistic anthropology of education, as detailed in Stanton Wortham’s 2008 Annual Review of Anthropology article. The careful application of linguistic analysis to educational concerns has resulted in exciting new directions for the field.

    Finally, based in John Ogbu’s ground-breaking work and building also on the sociology of immigration, contemporary scholars such as Thea Abu El-Haj and Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher are pushing the boundaries of our understanding of immigration and education by considering how national ideologies and gendered practices are interactionally produced in the context of global political economic shifts.

    There are of course other critical developments in the anthropology of education that have made critical contributions to our field. This venue will provide us ample opportunity to discuss and debate how seminal ideas are circulating, and the more recent developments that are pushing us to develop in important ways.

    Lesley Bartlett

  4. Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher says:

    Let me start by saying a big thank you to Jill Koyoma for graciously hosting our pre-session virtual discussion on her blog.

    I am humbled to be part of this community of school ethnographers as my foray into anthropology has been far from traditional (something I’ll save for another post!). In this post, I’d just like to say a little about how this roundtable came to be.

    This roundtable is directly inspired by this year’s theme of Circulation. A second inspiration is something that Bryan Brayboy said at the CAE business meeting last year. He talked about the idea of having a council of elders and youth within the CAE community. This was particularly inspiring to me as a “youngster” in this field. While the initial idea for this panel was simply to invite scholars whose school based ethnographies have been influential in anthropology and education, Bryan’s idea about bringing together “elders” and “youth” together inspired Janet and myself to make this a panel that crossed generations. And here we are!

    I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate to be among these fine scholars on this panel. I should mention that my fellow panelist, Lesley Bartlett, has been my mentor for several years now and she’s the reason why I came to my first AAA meeting back in 2007. Also, Thea Abu el-Haj is my “newest” mentor thanks to the CAE Early Career Presidential Fellowship. More on this later!

    For now, Janet and I look forward to an engaging discussion on the ways in which school based ethnographies have and continue to inspire anthropological research and educational practice.

  5. Porfirio Loeza says:

    Yes, history is important as we can only move forward by taking stock of where we came from. I look forward to this space. Gracias!

  6. Thea Abu El-Haj says:

    I came to my graduate work in anthropology of education having run away from an admittedly very traditional, graduate program in child and clinical psychology.
    Anthropological perspectives on learning gave me a language through which to express what I had implicitly learned through my years of teaching. This language was decidedly different from the dominant languages of psychology, which presume that learning is (mostly) what happens inside of the heads of individuals. I had left the field of variables, and measurement against reified norms, to enter a tradition that investigates carefully the ways that contexts afford certain kinds of learning and the development of certain kinds of identities; and that takes seriously the notion that people are always actively making meaning and acting upon the contexts in which they learn, and live.

    Fred Erickson and Michelle Fine started me on this new journey through which I began to investigate how “differences” come to make the differences that they do, in particular local contexts. Understanding “differences” to signal political relationships—relationships that as Varenne and McDermott have cogently argued are an outcome of the “houses we build,” not the people who inhabit those houses—I became interested in investigating how assumptive frameworks structure possibilities for action in particular educational contexts; and how local, grounded political dialogues challenge our theoretical debates about justice and inclusion in multiracial/multiethnic societies.

    More recently, anthropological perspectives on the relationship between education, citizenship and nation formation (for just a few examples, Kathy Hall, Bradley Levinson, and Ritty Lukose’s work) have shaped the ways that I thought to investigate the experiences of Palestinian-American youth as they negotiate the politics of belonging and citizenship in relation to both the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the U.S. “war on terror.”

    The perspectives I have developed as an educational anthropologist make me alternately hopeful and despairing in my work as a teacher educator and researcher. At times, I despair that we will ever break through the tenacious discourse that locates “differences” in the bodies, or brains, of individual children: I cringe as I hear the increasingly common question, “Is s/he classified yet”? And I find myself fighting an uphill battle against reified notions of culture that continue to justify everything from academic underachievement, to the “war on terror.” And the recent New York Times’s article on the resurgence of the “culture of poverty” argument did leave me wondering if we can ever break through to a new language. What leaves me hopeful is that as a field have developed very powerful perspectives, but more importantly we seem to maintain our fundamental faith in the power of people, particularly young people to act upon and change the world.

  7. Reading ‘Successful Failure’ was a revelatory moment — finally, a language that I understood! An explicit engagement with an otherwise prevalent matter-of-factness about “how things were” and the practices of labeling and sorting that are the hallmarks of schooling. I came to this text as a teacher, as a new graduate student, and as someone who previously had been a member of a practitioner inquiry group. Thus, the invitation that is implicit in SF to not only look and look again, but also to change our posture (metaphorically and sometimes literally) to our looking, opened up questions about how it is that we come to know what we know; what we assume when we claim to know, what structures and social arrangements we implicitly reinforce when take them for granted… There began for me an explicit engagement with ethnographic interrogations of schooling and education.

    I was led then to other names that evoke significant questions and now-familiar tropes about the production of knowledge and ways of knowing about dropouts, funds of knowledge, words and our ways with them, the cultural practices of literate lives and the not-so-literate understandings of other people’s children, how class and gender are produced and interconnected. I worry, like Thea, about how these larger, “powerful perspectives” might find their way into local, everyday decisions and interactions. And wonder, like Lesley, about the framing of everyday practices, like our language, within globalized frameworks. And I remain moved by these words by Ladson-Billings: “Our social world is not fixed; rather, it is something we construct with words, stories, and silences. But we need not cave into social arrangements that are unjust; we can write against them.”

    Ethnography, as not only a way of doing and knowing, but also as a way of being offers both pen to write with and canvas on which to author new narratives. Perhaps it is this “old” idea that continues to circulate in meaningful ways as communities are brought into the circle and as new forms of meaning making and meaning sharing are explored. And that as ethnographers of education, we are constantly seeking and making space to destablize the “known” — not merely for the sake of disruption or out of resistance, but because the very nature of being (being institutions, being individuals, being communities) is not static. It is perhaps this reason why I have returned to ‘Successful Failure’ at least once a year since that initial encounter in the spring of 2000 in Kathy Hall’s Anthro of Ed course. The questions inspire anew, and continue to move me to attend to the “words, stories, and silences” in an effort to render visible the dynamic…

  8. Qiongqiong Chen says:

    Dr. Koyama, thanks for introducing this blog to me. I really enjoyed reading these inspiring dialogues in this space. As a graduate student with interests in globalization and transnational identity formation, and also as an international student having lived and studied in three countries (China, Japan, and US), I view globalization in terms of mobility, global connectivity and imagination. Just as what Dr. Bartlett, Dr. Ghaffar-kucher, and Dr. EL-Haj discussed in the blog, I believe the issues of immigration, identity formation and education can be better understood from anthropological perspectives. Even though I am new to the field of anthropology and trying hard to get started with Dr. Koyama, I am excited to know that such a new journey began, and to imagine that as a reader and a student I could be part of it.

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