Stories from our data – Miriam: ‘I want my children to know a woman can do it’

We’re currently working on ways to make our findings accessible to a general audience including those who work with young people such as teachers, careers advisors and youth workers, as well as other researchers.  As part of this we’re writing up vignettes based on the individual interviews we did with young people. With advice from our advisory group and other ‘friends’ of CelebYouth we’re working on a dedicated interactive website which will host these and other research findings and resources.

As we develop these we thought we’d share two of these vignettes in two blog posts. In this post, Kim shares the story of Mariam from Manchester. In another post,  Heather shares one of her interviews, with someone from a rural school who chose the pseudonym Will Smith.

We’d love to hear what people think of these – Are they interesting? Do they give a useful insight into the participants and their aspirations? Do you think these will be useful resources and to who? What questions do these raise for you? In what ways do you think these stories might get used?

 

Introducing Mariam

Mariam is 17 and attends an inner-city academy school in a multi-ethnic area of Manchester which has considerable levels of deprivation. Mariam is originally from the Horn of Africa but moved around Europe as a refugee for most of her life. Aged two she moved to Holland with her mother and sister where she grew up; the family then moved to Manchester a year ago and lives very close to the school. Her parents are divorced and Mariam is estranged from her father and his family. Mariam likes the area where she lives, which she describes as ‘multicultural’. She spends most of her time with her mother and siblings. She described herself in social class terms as ‘in the middle’ but is objectively defined as ‘working class’: her mother is currently studying English at college and seeking part-time work. Mariam has modest aspirations for her future: she talked of wanting a ‘stable life,’ to do well at school so she can go to university and get a good job, and to make her family happy: ‘I just want a good life – not a million pounds.’

Fractured transitions, disrupted pathways and dead ends

Mariam’s experiences of education are deeply entangled with her experiences of migration, characterised by fracture, disruption and frustration in realising her aspirations. Mariam’s family moved to the UK in part because of bad experiences of education in Holland, where her mobility as a refugee has interrupted her studies, restricting the opportunities available to her. Applications to study hospitality and events management, as well as teaching, in Holland were declined because of her grades and perceptions by admissions tutors that she was too shy. Because of these limited options, Mariam and her family decided to move to the UK where they felt the education system was better and offered more opportunities. Despite feeling relieved that she was now studying courses that would open up opportunities for her, Mariam lacked confidence in her abilities.

Celebrity inspiration: hard work, talent and deserved success

Mariam was what we might call a highly critical and distanced consumer of celebrity. She dismissed celebrities that she viewed as ‘famous for nothing,’ emphasising the importance of celebrities she thought represented success based on hard work and talent. Of the 12 case study celebrities, she chose BeyoncéTom DaleyWill Smith and Bill Gates as those she’d most like to befriend because they ‘started from nothing’ and had achieved the most. While Mariam defined herself as someone who wasn’t very interested in celebrity, she spoke about these celebrities as role models who can inspire and motivate her and others to achieve their dreams: ‘I would look up to them because they are important people and have achieved a lot. I would think that if they can do it, I can do it as well.’ In her talk about celebrities and her own future, Mariam, like many participants, drew upon meritocratic ideas about individual success: ‘What might stop people achieving their dreams? If you work hard and try hard, you will be secure a future, your goal, you will achieve it. [For me] I guess, I need to change myself and be more determined to get what I want.’

Independent women: Beyoncé and maternal role models

Mariam admired her single mother and maternal grandmother as strong, independent women and role models: ‘My mother showed me how to be a good mother without having a job and an education, and my grandmother showed me to be a good woman and mother with a job because she worked for [her children]. So they both did it on their own.’ Mariam’s view of her mother and grandmother as inspirational, was entwined with her estrangement from her father and her desire to inspire others. She talked about wanting to prove to her father that she can do well without him, as well as provide inspiration for others: ‘I want to prove to my father’s family that “I grew up well without your help.” And I want my children to know a woman can do it, and you don’t need help.’ This investment in strong independent women was echoed in her identification with celebrities, notably Beyoncé, who she saw as ‘cool’ and inspirational: ‘she shows what women can like do a lot without a male … she fired her father as a manager, and then she decided to manage herself. … She uses only females on stage. So I find her a very good person to look up to.’

Popular culture as a careers resource

Despite a lack of confidence in her academic abilities, Mariam spoke passionately about her aspirations for a career in fashion promotion, and had clear plans to achieve this, explaining her intention to apply to a local college to take a vocational course on fashion or marketing, and eventually apply to a local university to study international fashion promotion. Despite being a critical disengaged consumer of celebrity, when asked what sparked her interest in fashion promotion, Mariam spoke at length about watching MTV’s The Hills – a ‘reality’ TV show set in Los Angeles about young women working as fashion interns for high profile fashion magazine Teen Vogue. Mariam explained how much she enjoyed watching the show and how it inspired and excited her about a fashion career: ‘On MTV I used to watch The Hillsand I really loved their job, working for a fashion magazine … I used to watch it every day [and think] “I wish I could do that.” It always stayed in my mind.’ After watching the show, Mariam explained that she started researching fashion careers online with her sister and exploring courses she could take to achieve this career.

Kim Allen

Kim is currently working on the ESRC funded project Celebrity and Youth project with Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey (Brunel University). This was originally posted on the CelebYouth blog. 

When is a GCSE pass not a GCSE pass? – when it’s a PISA-influenced Grade 4

On April 3rd, just as students and teachers were getting ready for the Easter holidays, Ofqual – the body whose job it is to “maintain standards and confidence in [educational] qualifications” – started a “conversation” on standards for the new GCSEs.

Now, as a national exam, GCSE grades have more¹ to do – from reporting on student performance to ranking schools to informing teachers’ pay decisions – than perhaps any other exam grade in the world. A lot depends on GCSE results and Ofqual might well be keen to find out what people think about how best to maintain standards as GCSEs exchange letter grades (for courses starting next year and assessed in 2017) in favour of numbers.

There’s lots to say in and about this conversation but two proposals stand out:

  • “The same proportion of candidates will achieve the bottom of the grade 4 as currently achieve the bottom of the C grade.
  • The standard for a grade 5 will be set in line with the performance of students from the higher performing countries in international tests.”

It’s interesting to think for a moment about how these two might interact and, from there, about which tests these are, on how they are constructed, which knowledges and skills they aim to assess.

Firstly the mapping of grades. From Ofqual’s statements, it will appear something like this:

A diagram showing how Ofqual's proposed changes to GCSE grading might look compared with the current grading

Old GCSE grades next to new (Click to enlarge)

If a grade 4 is fixed by a blend of historical precedent and expected outcomes for the cohort (ie “Comparable Outcomes”) but a grade 5 is set by benchmarking against international cohorts as measured by PISA or similar then a grade 4 will be a particularly odd (and novel) sort of grade indeed. Whether you get one or not will, in part, be established by (1) your performance; (2) previous domestic students’ performances (3) your cohort’s performance (as is and was the case) but now also by (4) international students sitting very different exams with very different curricula.²

The most worrying bit of this is the ultimate effect on classroom learning. Presumably the granting of an extra 2 grades to the 4-9 distribution over the C-A* is the assessment system’s attempt to enshrine statistically what the government wants politically: “The Government has a policy aim that there must be an increase in demand at the level of what is widely considered to be a pass.” Now there’s plenty of implications (and issues) here. But, if we assume intentions translate unproblematically into actions then these extra grades above a C-equivalent Grade 4 will wash back into teaching and learning: a range of practices and discourses will develop, so the idea presumably goes, that bring about real improvement in assessment outcomes. Assessment outcomes as defined by the “performance of students from the higher performing countries in international tests.”

The idea of a truly National Curriculum has long gone but it may not be so far-fetched to say a PISA™ curriculum is around the corner. It is worth remembering a point made by Harry Torrance in a review of the assessment of the National Curriculum in England in 2003: “The larger the system of national assessment envisaged and implemented, the simpler the testing regime must be. And this, in turn, will carry consequences for curriculum focus and quality of educational experience.”

Ofqual proposes that the new GCSEs be influenced by a much larger system of assessment – “international tests”. This will have an effect on what students do in school though quite how, it is harder to say. Will students practise with PISA-like tests? Will our curriculum shift to reflect the kind of skills measured by PISA?

Either way, Ofqual proposes that our assessment system grow a step more complex – it is a conversation worth having indeed.

The consultation runs until the 30th June 2014 and can be found here

Adam Wood


¹ = GCSE results are used to inform decisions regarding: student performance; teacher performance; teacher pay; school performance; LEA/Academy Chain performance; school closures; public confidence in education; future exam results; students’ post-exam career and study choices; university entrance; job selection (think especially of the magic “C’s” in English and Maths and the list goes on. They also have to test (reliably and validly) what is deemed useful/important to learn.

² = very different, that is, for the moment. Theory would suggest that benchmarking assessment system X to assessment system Y would draw X’s curriculum in the direction of Y’s. Now PISA doesn’t have a curriculum (yet). But there are kinds of teaching and types of skill practice that would return higher scores on a PISA test – these are not ones that I would want to teach nor have my children taught. This is theory. And you test a theory before you put it into practice, especially on this scale, don’t you? Ofqual’s proposal is untested (and unprecedented, as far as I know).

The Big Allotment Challenge – competition and history

In recent weeks, The Big Allotment Challenge, in which pairs of gardeners compete in a series of competitions to ‘grow’, ‘eat’ (preserve making) and ‘make’ (flower arranging), has featured on primetime television, attracting around 2.5 million viewers. It’s really no surprise to see this familiar format applied to allotments; there’s clearly a ready audience with around 350,000 plots in Britain, plus around 100,000 people on waiting lists.

Writing about the programme in The Guardian, Julian Baggini raises some interesting points, but one which doesn’t ring true for me is his claim that The Big Allotment Challenge “turns the allotment into a site of competition, when in essence they are all about solidarity and co-operation”. He links this move to the ways in which late capitalism packages non-material goods and experiences as consumer products. This ignores two important features of allotments: their competitive history and their integral role in industrialisation and the development of capitalism.

While there has always been a ‘gift relationship’ associated with allotments, whereby allotment holders share produce with friends and neighbours and participate in charitable and community activities, competition has also been present through the history of allotment holding. As a traditionally male environment, allotments shared this competitive element with other male working class pursuits, such as pigeon racing, bowling, clog dancing and sport. Secret techniques, seed varieties, fertilizer recipes and so forth were fiercely guarded, as an allotment holder I interviewed for my PhD described:

You can imagine the rivalry that used to go on…and secret things and secret this and where they get the seed from…the specialist seed merchants who supplied the real stuff, you know, the real selective stuff and you’d never disclose where you bought this stuff from it was all secret (Dudley allotment holder).

While not all the allotment holders I interviewed took part in competitions, it was an important activity for some, and a common source of dispute and rivalry. Many arguments are carefully recorded in allotment society records. In a typical example at Palfrey (Walsall) Show in 1926, an exhibitor was asked to refund his prize money when it was discovered the sweet peas he entered were not grown on his allotment.

While sometimes the rivalry could get out of hand, competition and co-operation aren’t necessarily opposites of course and allotment holders also told stories of how competitors had helped each other:

…sprouts had gone just the week before the show, cabbage root fly. Well the other people, like say my dad, people like that as had got some sprouts spare, ‘cause they’d put a couple of spares at the end of their rows, they’d dig it up for him and they’d take it…although they were competing against each other and that’s how it used to be, great (Dudley allotment holder)

Although they were active in organising competitions and community events, allotment associations have rarely been politically active in comparison to other forms of working class organisation. It was only in the last decades of the twentieth century that anti-consumerism and more radical environmental groups began to show an interest in allotments. When they were first introduced into industrial towns and cities in the nineteen and early twentieth centuries, allotments had a clear role in supporting capitalist agendas. Allotments were an example of ‘rational recreation’, a notion based on middle class fears of radical social and political movements which aimed to ‘respectabilise’ leisure, combat idleness and to promote acquiescence. They were seen as a form of social control by employers, who hoped that allotments would help create a ‘play discipline’ which would diminish working classes threats to social stability by promoting industriousness and improving labour discipline. Allotment holding was seen as an acceptable form of recreation because it had a useful purpose, promoted industry and could help to counter idleness and dissention. Awarding prizes for growing was one aspect of this strategy.

So while competition has always played a part in allotment holding, as in The Big Allotment Challenge, this has been, for the most part, carefully controlled and designed to reinforce the status quo. The origins of urban allotments were closely linked to the growth of capitalism. Perhaps the nineteenth century manufacturers had some success in dissipating dissention via allotments because, for most of their history, politics have been of relatively little significance in this environment. But this is only part of the history of allotments. Crucially, they offered something more important than a supply of cheap food or a way to occupy their leisure time. Throughout their history, allotments have offered working class communities (or men at least!) a freedom they enjoyed in few other spaces: the freedom to participate in acts undeniably anti-capitalist in their own way: thinking, reflecting and dreaming:

…you’re in another world…when you go up there, you’re in a totally different world, relaxed, easy-going …You haven’t got the cares of your job or your study or whatever it is you’re doing… (Wolverhampton allotment holder)

                                                                                                                                           

…you can just talk to it and look at it, sit on the seat for ten minutes in the sun if it’s shining, ‘cause we’ve always had a seat up there. Have a cup of coffee on the wall… (Dudley allotment holder) 

Sarah McNicol

The Great PupGrad Crash of 2023

Okay, so another design fiction for you all (see my first one on drones monitoring Ofsted inspectors here).  This one is focuses on the great PupGrad crash of 2023. It’s about the

The idea with design fictions is to try and make them look realistic. I’ve no idea what how or if the news will be delivered in 2023. I guess it could be pulsed into your synapses in between adverts that seek out memories and implant products. I don’t have the skills to recreate that so I went for a fake newspaper generator.

news 1

news 2 OTHER STORIES:

  • The widespread miss-selling of insurance to teachers is discovered. Dred-Excelsior pay minor fine.
  • EduGrad market securitised, enabling selling and re-selling of asset-based insurance. Critics say it’s similar to the Collateralized Debt Obligation from pre-2008. Supporters say education needs innovation.
  • Dred-Excelsior found to have fraudulently re-sold data from excluded children, including murdered school girl Jenny Diddington. Supporters say the rude health of the market demonstrates the scheme is working.

news 3

The next stage is to figure out what the fall out of the collapse would mean for education in relation to how education at that point might be configured.

James Duggan

Surveying the Wreckage – On funding and rejection

There’s a lot of talk about mental ill health in academia at the moment (see here here). Being an academic, especially an early career researcher, involves fighting against the uncertainty of short/long-term employment, the continual slew of rejection from publications and funding bids, all the while having to appear a bright-eyed bunny with something interesting to say and on the go. Of this rather sour bunch of grapes, the rejection of funding applications seems particularly bitter.

I remember reading that in some US states a woman seeking an abortion had to name the child that wouldn’t be born to instil in that moment the gravity of her actions/ some politician’s ideological agenda (delete as appropriate). There’s an Onion video riffing on this where women seeking abortions have to decorate a room for the child they are carrying (see here).

The situation for bid writing seems almost as bizarre. One, as an early career researcher you have to bring in funding to get on and do more of the things you like, rather than work on other people’s projects. Two, you take all your ideas and reading and passions and hopes and magic fairy dust and roll it up into a big ball of hope and then spend a month or two writing it up in densely argued prose. Three, then the funding agency ask you to not only name it – thinking up another bloody acronym in the process – but develop a budget, a data management plan, a series of events and publications… behind all of which is a vision of an enobled, lauded and applauded, you passing down humble pleasantries via the social media nexus described in your knowledge exchange strategy. And then, and then, you don’t get it. *deep breath, hides reddening eyes, points at throat and mumbles ‘frog’*

I read someone talking about all the non-projects and dead papers that haunt the desks in universities and spare room studies, and let’s face it, people do harder jobs and young children go to bed hungry but if you think of all the embedded effort, labour, hopes, insight and potential laying inert in those drawers it seems a bit of a waste and a hell of a shame.

Nic Whitton wrote about some tips for being a resilient researcher (read here). So in this spirit I decide to survey the wreckage of a recent unsuccessful application to the AHRC, and see what I silver linings I could come up with.

First the idea: The application was to the AHRC Connected Communities Design Highlight Notice. We wanted to engage with the critical design field that develops inventive and provocative installations to change the way we view the world yet these people often don’t work with the marginalised communities they hope to help. We wanted to adapt these practices so that that marginalised people could co-produce critical design projects that were provocative but also useful. A neat idea we thought.

So, what are the silver linings?

Silver lining 1: My first one, and I’m a fan of the conference tourism, was I got to present at Discourse, Power and Resistance 2014 (see the slides below), receiving some great feedback on this project that, hmmm, won’t happen. Then I’m off to ICQI to give another paper on the, erm, non-project.

 

Silver lining 2: We’re going to write up what we read and found and publish it.

Silver lining 3: As I was working on a funding proposal I got to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about design and critical design (read earlier blogs here here here and here), and from this I have a number future collaborations in the offing.

Those three were easy but then *the air fills with sentimental music* I figured out the following:

Silver lining 4: In developing the application I got to work with some great people. Janet Batsleer and Nic Whitton took a wacky half-idea and made it theoretically sound and practicable. Germaine Loader in the research office was ever present to offer advice and help with all the endless particulars and details, right up to the wire.

Silver lining 5: The AHRC are rightly concerned with researchers getting out into the communities to begin from the get-go to co-produce research with people. I think this is great practice and something I want to do from now on. So, in developing the application, I went and talked to two of the three great community groups we planned to work with. One woman who had been homeless most of her life but was going to cycle to France for Christmas because it was warmer told me in no-uncertain terms that my project was a waste of her time and embarrassing. Another said that people wanted jobs or training for jobs and so the projects we developed would have to be useful. Humbled and told we changed the project to focus on creating politically provocative design installations but also ones that were useful to the people who participated and the wider community, which was in itself an interesting theoretical and empirical point.

So, yeah, defeat sucks but there are some great people doing some great work out there and we can help by bringing the theory but, as ever, only if we can get the funding – although I’m open to hearing of alternatives. So let’s get cracking!

James Duggan

The Chapel Session: Improvising with sound and image

A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by colleague Prof Tony Brown’s son, Elliot, to see if I would help him out with a film project he’s doing. Tony is aware of some of the playing I’ve done and, wondering if a short snippet of improvisation on soprano sax might be a suitable subject for Elliot’s film work, he put us in touch. Basically, Elliot is exploring the fragmentation and piling of images and the idea of recording different short performances on multiple cameras then layering them together felt as if it might be a productive one.

Around experimental art, performance and music since the late 60s, I’ve been tangling seriously with improvised instrumental playing and vocalisation – both free jazz and free improv – for 30 years or so and have played in many settings from solo to 50+ player performances. This, however, was the first time I’d played three short solo performances separately but with a view to them then being presented together – kind of overdubbing without being able to hear the original. With Elliot supported by second camera work by Usman Shah, we did the session straight off without re-takes in the Chapel at MMU’s Didsbury campus on Wednesday last. Have a look and a listen…

For me, Elliot’s approach enables a visual form that is particularly open to multiplying those deliciously provocative musical accidents (and collisions) that one hopes for as an improviser, indeed that are at the core of what improv is all about. It is an approach, also, that is beautifully attentive to music as a continual becoming of simultaneous fragmentation and integration – a process that the film renders in a very subtle way.

Geoff Bright

Pharrell’s ‘New Black’”: On Racism, Happiness and Not Being a ‘Sore Point’

pharrell-oprah-interview-1We’ve been struck by news this week that Pharrell Williams – successful music producer, singer and collaborator – has asserted his belief in ‘the New Black’.  In an interview with US chat show host Oprah Winfrey, Williams stated that he represented a different kind of black identity:

The “new black” doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The “new black” dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.

In this post Kim troubles Pharrell’s move, arguing that it denies the ongoing realities of racism.

Those familiar with the project  will know that we’ve been fascinated by the ways in which race and racism have featured within  Will Smith’s celebrity mediation. Will – another hugely successful black man in the entertainment industry – has continually asserted the significance of individual motivation, a ‘sickening work ethic’ and the power to dream , when explaining his ‘success philosophy’.

Within this, race and racism have been absent presences in both his on-screen and off-screen personas.  Most strikingly, this is evidenced in Will’s public declaration following the election of President Obama that America is not a racist nation and that there is no ‘white man’ keeping African Americans down. We’ve used this before but it’s worth repeating here:

When Barack Obama won, it validated a piece of me that I wasn’t allowed to say out loud – that America is not a racist nation. I love that all of our excuses have been removed. … There’s no white man trying to keep you down, because if he were really trying to keep you down, he would have done everything he could to keep Obama down. … .I’m an African American, and I was able to climb to a certain point in Hollywood. On that journey, I realised people weren’t trying to stop me. Most people were trying to help me. … If Barack Obama can win the presidency of the United States, you can absolutely be the manager at Saks.

As we’ve argued elsewhere, these narratives of post-racial meritocracy and the denial of racism embodied in Will’s celebrity and  Pharrell’s ‘New Black’ manifesto, need to be read critically.   What does it mean to insist on looking beyond colour? To insist that we not ‘blame race’ ?  To insist on the power of individual ‘mentality’ and ‘hard work’?

Sara Ahmed’s work continues to be a great resource for us in thinking through the symbolic and indeed material effects of these post-race narratives.  In her work on racism, Ahmed states:

People of color are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to ‘give way’ by letting it “go back.” Not only that: more than that. We are often asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures. The smile of diversity is a way of not allowing racism to surface; it is a form of political recession. …. Racism is very difficult to talk about as racism can operate to censor the very evidence of its existence. Those who talk about racism are thus heard as creating rather than describing a problem. The stakes are indeed very high: to talk about racism is to occupy a space that is saturated with tension. …. When you use the very language of racism you are heard as “going on about it,” as “not letting it go.” It is as if talking about racism is what keeps it going. .. .The melancholic migrant is the one who is not only stubbornly attached to difference, but who insists on speaking about racism, where such speech is heard as labouring over sore points. The duty of the migrant is to let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain.

Pharrell’s latest single is called ‘Happy’, and has been taken up as a global anthem for happiness – the focus of his emotional interview with Oprah.

We’ve written before about how Will Smith has come to operate as a ‘happy object‘ in our data – talked about as a cool guy guaranteed to make you feel good. That both of these men have come to be associated with happiness is compelling. In their happiness, their gratitude for their success, their refusal to speak of or use the language of racism, Will and Pharrell create ‘shiny surfaces’ that conceal racism and appease our white guilt. They are not melancholic killjoys, angry or fixated with injury. Neither are they harbouring over ‘sore points’. Both carry the injunction that those of colour must ‘get over it’ : pick the ‘right side’ and move on.

trayvonOne of the most intriguing moments I experienced over the sixth months of collecting data on Will’s celebrity mediation – from news articles to social media – was the discovery of a tweet purportedly posted by Will in response to the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighbour George Zimmerman – acquitted in July last year. This tweet went viral, retweeted by millions as people expressed their outrage at the racial injustice of  the case.  It was in fact a hoax.  Will had neither posted this tweet nor made any statement on the murder of Trayvon Martin.  For me, the case of this never-tweeted-tweet neatly encapsulates Will’s complex position as a figure of post-racial fantasies.

As the Guardian rightly states, Pharrell’s ’take on The New Black seems incredibly naive, if not damaging’.  In embodying ‘happy’ diversity, Will and Pharrell de-emphasise and depoliticise  blackness – taking it out of its historical, social and cultural context.  The ‘New Black’ manifesto elides the presence of racial inequalities and practices of white privilege operating within society’s institutions of mediaeducationworkpolicing and so on, that we know continue to shape young people’s opportunities and experiences.

As Ahmed states, ’unless race is taken up as an explicit object of concern, made into a question, whiteness is the default position’. As happy objects, these ‘New Black’ narratives mask the depressing violence and injustice of racism.

Kim Allen

Kim is currently working on the ESRC funded project Celebrity and Youth project with Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey (Brunel University). This was originally posted on the CelebYouth blog.