Encountering Space Place and Social Justice in Education (a kind of conference report)

In my last blog, I promised an update on the space, place and social justice in education seminar – so here goes. Now, as I’m starting to ‘get’ blogging, I can see that the art of the blog allows a focus on how it looked to me, from my particular viewpoint. Others post from their own angle (there’s an invitation!) and the conversation grows.  So, perversely, I’m not going to give a straightforward report (suffice it to say that the day was a great success, with around 70 people in attendance sharing discussion around 35 plus papers). Rather, I want to say a little about how four particular but inter-related spaces came to somehow map the territory of the conference for me.

The first space – a space of longing, aspiration, some personal pain and a lot of determination – was encountered in the refectory at Didsbury on Thursday lunchtime, the day before the seminar. A young woman worker (hi, Chelsea…I said I’d name check you!) was preparing the tables for our buffet on Friday. We got talking and she told me her own story of growing up in an inner-city area of Manchester and finally going on to Salford University (the first person in her extended family) after a Tourism btec at the local college. Living at home, trying unsuccessfully to make sense of the culture of university – “I didn’t know what you were supposed to do” – and being involved in giving support to an aged family member, Chelsea struggled to fit in. She talked poignantly about the difficulty of growing away from her ‘friends from home’ while not quite managing to enter the new world that neither welcomed her nor understood the pressures she was under. After a number of difficulties, her Salford experience came to a disappointing and messy end. Her options narrowing, she went back to ‘working a couple of jobs’ (including arranging our tables!) before applying to MMU to start all over again. Chelsea ‘knows’ that she will have to ‘leave others behind’ if she is to become what she feels she might become. She also knows that she will feel compelled ‘to give something back’ if she is to find any ease in her own change. I told her what our conference was about and we chatted about how her own story encompassed many of the themes we intended to explore – place, loyalty, uncertainty, hope, commitment, fairness.

The second space hovered around a couple of tables pushed together outside the Didsbury pub on Thursday evening. Early arrivals to our conference gathered to say hello, eat something and have a drink together. A diverse group of ‘researchers’ – from Australia, Hungary, Germany, Italy, South Africa and the UK – they steadily got to know each other.  As the evening went on, the conversation grew warmly expansive with laughter and sharing as individuals found a collective, if nomadic, home in the intellectual terrain of critical inquiry that ESRI endeavours to engender.

The third space was conjured by the wonderful keynote that Valerie Walkerdine delivered to the conference on Friday morning. Traversing My Fair Lady, the wardrobe of Lauren Bacall, one of Valerie’s own films, and the schizoanalytic cartographies of Felix Guattari, the presentation gathered dreams and embodied imagination to its theoretically radical purpose. In doing so, it charted vividly affective ‘lines of flight’  from those narrowly conventional spaces of educational ‘aspiration’ that frame much contemporary policy discourse yet still fail to hold learners like Chelsea.

The fourth space – astonishingly, I thought – enacted such a line of flight. By challenging our conference to do research otherwise, one of the presentations that I attended succeeded in actually overturning the dominant power relations of knowledge production by constituting a de facto instantiation of socially just research. This space was created by ‘professional researcher’ Beth Cross of the University of Sterling and her ‘independent’ co-researchers Caroline McFarlane, Ian Brookes and Kerry McInnes (all three of whom came to the project through involvement in disability peer advocacy projects). Their presentation, Creating Communicative Space: the use of spatialised metaphors in peer research with disabled people with complex support needs, explored the question of how people ‘upon whom disabling constructs impact daily’ might come to find their place in research on policy that affects them. Incorporating the virtual immediacy of Skype, the usual power relations between researchers and participants were levelled out as Beth, Caroline, Ian, Kerry and those of us actually present jointly interrogated these questions in a live, mini-version of the “public space under pressure” that Prof. Jan Nespor of Ohio State University canvassed in his written message to our conference. For me, this was an extraordinary, enervating experience.

So, how was the international seminar for me? Well, memorably, it ranged through at least these four lived, powerfully critical spaces as they intersected in the domain of ‘education’. But more than that, it kind of shocked me back to the idea of socially produced space – as a dense ‘encounter, assembly, simultaneity…[of] everything that there is in space… Everything: living beings, things, objects, works, signs and symbols’ – delineated by Lefebvre. The job that presents itself now for this loose community that we have created is to work through the theoretical, methodological, practical and political possibilities that such an idea raises for education and social research.  My immediate role will be to try and get some funding to facilitate that process. I‘ll keep you informed.

One thought on “Encountering Space Place and Social Justice in Education (a kind of conference report)

  1. Thanks again for a great conference. I welcomed the opportunity hear and think about how we might understand how space and place operates in education, and the spatial nature of educational identities, inequalities and lived experiences. Now more than ever, these issues need to be on the academic and policy agenda.

    As someone working on class, gender and its intersections in educational spaces, I’m really interested in the gendered dimensions to spatial relationships in/ to education and social justice. I thought there was much in Valerie’s fabulous keynotes on intersections of class and gender in thinking about spatial and social mobility and the affective – the pain, longing, desire, guilt in ‘aspiring’ and moving through (and up and away?) through educational ‘success’, lived by young women including Chelsea.

    One of the things I mentioned in the plenary at the close of the day was about ‘who’ the ‘space place’ ‘network’ (however it evolves) wants to talk to and engage with – both in terms of policy makers, practitioners and also other academics in different areas. As an Executive Member of the Gender and Education Association (GEA), I was wondering if the conference organisers would like to write a short reflective blog post for the GEA website about the gender aspects of the conference. It would be a great way of making that link between the groups and networks….and continuing an important dialogue.

    Kim Allen

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