..........More than 20 years ago, it was demonstrated repeatedly that the relative silence of certain children in certain classrooms is not a generalizable property of these children's personal make-up (Cazden, John and Hymes 1972). Change the setting and they suddenly became extremely verbal, capable of amazing feats of poetic improvisation (Gilmore 1983). The supposedly "hard" sciences would not have hesitated to call this the "Labov effect:"[ftn2] The behavior of any human being in any setting is first of all indicative of this person's place within the setting as constituted by the patterns controlling the setting. It is an inaccurate indicator of this person's behavior in any other setting.
..........In educational theory, all this work has confined the simple versions of the "deficit" model to the ash heaps of history. It is generally agreed that children do not generally "fail" (to speak, to write, to learn) in school (or anywhere else) "because" there is something wrong with them. They fail because, in some ways, the school is so organized as not to give them a place for success. As we explore what are these ways, we are also getting to understand that this is not simply a question of curriculum design located within the school. The school itself is organized by more fundamental patterns which enforce on it the need to provide for two differentiated roles both of which must be inhabited: the role of "success" and the role of "failure."
..........As very often happens in the sciences, the recognition
of an effect comes long before the clear understanding of
the mechanisms that produce the effect. What we want to
explore here is the alternative, and altogether minority,
view concerning the proper understanding of the Labov effect,
the view which McDermott and
Tylbor propose we call the "collusional
model" (1983). The model which dominates the contemporary
common sense of the educational professions is, of course,
the one that is often referred to as the "cultural difference"
model: Children bring to school a "culture" which may or
may not be "the same as" the culture of the school, and the
more fit there is between the two, the easier it is for children
to succeed, and vice versa of course. But, McDermott argues,
this model soon fails. On the practical side, the "difference"
model fails to explain how people "who do not share the same
culture," "who misunderstand each other," and other such
qualifiers, can in fact spend years with each other, constructing
an everyday life together, one that may be extremely unpleasant
on both sides, but still accomplishes something (McDermott
and Gospodinoff 1979). On the theoretical side, the model
rests of an impoverished understanding of the concept of
culture. At its most powerful, "culture" indexes properties
of a usually differentiated group, not of individuals.
[ftn3]This is an old intuition which we
if we want
to understand how people make an everyday life in such a
place as West Side High School, an "alternative" where students
who have dropped from other New York City high schools can
drop back in. There many students who have failed according
to all criteria complete a program which allows them to pass
with some difficulty a minimal competency test for graduation.
This in many ways, including some that are not quantifiable,
is "success." It is also "failure." What is interesting
is that the paradoxical character of such failure in success
is in fact locally performed.
The Student and the Culture: Activity and Social Structure
..........The problem we are addressing is a general one. To grasp it, one must first come to see the difficulty that has remained implicit in the normal statements of the Labov effect. In the prototypical case of the "silent" child, it is argued that the teacher "mistakes" the child who reveals her own self[ftn4]in the courtyard, with peers, or in other non-classroom situations. The problem is that, for the teacher, the "silence" was in fact performed. It is as if, to be identified as silent, and thus dumb,[ftn5] a child has to be silenced interactionally so that any common sense observer-participant can be justified in making an evaluation. To say that such evaluation is a "mistake" does not explain how the evaluation was made in the first place so that it can legitimately reverberate on less and less local stages. It is not enough to talk in generalities about "what we do in America," or "racism." If we want to understand how very specific behaviors can be mutually enforced in very specific places at very specific times we need an analysis of the cultural center that defines major institutions such as the School not simply as vague ideas or symbols but as prescribed dramatic local practices.[ftn6]
..........It is, however, easier to make this argument than it is to conduct the research which it calls for. Anyone who, like Varenne, works extensively at what he calls "the ideological center of the United States" (1977, 1983), that is, "America," will soon be confronted by a visceral and altogether cultural refusal to consider the power of a cultural pattern that is the social contract on which political life rests.[ftn7] In America, as Louis Dumont showed a long time ago ( 1980), it is always scandalous to highlight the inescapability of cultural centers. We do not, of course, deny the presence on the territory of the United States of many cultural alternatives. There are many fringes to America, and we must pay attention to them. But there is also a center and it defines much of what passes for these alternatives. [ftn8] We ignore it at our peril.
..........This is not the place to outline a theory of the cultural center but certain matters must be clarified at the outset.[ftn9] First, our perspective takes most seriously the ethnomethodological insight that social action is always a locally performed matter, a matter of joint performance by individuals who can be demonstrated to be acutely sensitive to the conditions that they set for each other by their own constructions. A person cannot be said to be a "member" of a group unless she exhibits in her own behavior the signs of her sensitivity to its organization and its boundaries. The "group" is thus a secondary accomplishment of participants in a joint performance.
..........Second, we take it as established that participants in even the most closed of communities enter into joint performance with many more people than they can be seen with at any one time. Any careful analysis will eventually demonstrate that one does not have to be in face to face contact with others to construct an accountable group: A principal, school board members and others, are "group" with a teacher and her students even when they are not in physical contact. This is something that actual research in the ethnomethodological traditions has obscured. To approach the matter in this manner does not, however, contravene the fundamental intuitions.
..........Third, the behavioral sensibility to which we are referring here concerns the set of those who are making themselves into a group. It does not concern individuals as conscious, or even unconscious, entities. An individual may be completely unaware at any level of what it is that she is being held accountable to. She may still be seen to be controlled by the overall pattern through the identifications, symbolic and practical, which are made of her behavior and thus become the conditions in which she must perform. The issue is not "knowledge" as was more or less directly suggested by the early versions of ethnomethodology (Berger and Luckman 1967; Cicourel 1974; Garfinkel 1967). The issue is accountability in its cultural patterning.[ftn10]
..........What we are proposing here, then, is a recursive model in which persons in a local setting organize each other into a group run by specific rules that are sensitive to the patterns of the larger groups to which the local is accountable. To the extent that the local group is active, what it produces can always be demonstrated to be "more than," or "to the side of," or "different from," what the broader group, in its common sense, would expect the local group to produce. The flip side of this productive process which, in certain historical conditions could be the beginning of a "different" culture, is that the difference may not be noticeable by the larger group. Even if it is noticed, there may be no mechanisms through which the larger group can incorporate what some within it may notice. The produced difference may remain, for all intent and purposes unconsequential--and this may be the fundamental problem faced by educational reforms who attempt to deal with the Labov effect by focusing on classroom, or even school building, management.[ftn11]
West Side High School: Center and Periphery
..........West Side High School is a noble experiment. It flourishes at the peripheries of one of those huge bureaucracies which efficient industrialism produces. There, a few hundred students who have dropped out, been kicked out, and otherwise found themselves estranged from the main stream high schools of New York City, can drop in and complete a regular high school program in two years. There, 18 to 20 year olds, fathers and mothers with their babies, can try to complete an interrupted education. There African-Americans and the children of recent emigrants from the Carribeans meet and, perhaps for the last time in their life, have to spend extended periods of time with each other and with representatives of the white middle-classes with whom they are likely otherwise to have but minimal and extremely ritualized contact. There, two dozen European-Americans teachers, liberal Jews, lapsed Catholics and conservative ones, agnostics of various stripes, along with a few African-Americans with different backgrounds, people who were born and raised in the least melted neighborhoods of New York City, and some who were born in places like Michigan, make their own lives in a place that is as exciting as it is difficult.
..........For West Side High School is a difficult place, a run down building that is "Gothic" not simply because of its architecture. It is not quite Hell since those who enter, both students and teachers are told, and tell each other, never to abandon hope. There is always tomorrow when new beginnings can be made, where help is always available to those who ask. Indeed, in the lore of New York City Public School, this is a "good" school when compared to other "typical" high schools. It is small, run by a dedicated principal who encourages teachers to think for themselves and take the initiative. There is much interaction among the teachers and most of them know most students by name and life history. There are no metal detectors at the entrance, and there have not been any serious fights in a long time. It is a place where human beings do flourish, a place where things get done. Success stories do get told as a goodly number of students graduate and enter the more satisfying sectors of the working class, and teachers--as we document here--do find work by their students which they can display proudly.
..........The students are quite aware that all this is available and that in many ways this is, positively and negatively, "the end of the line"--as one put it--"if you don't make it here, you won't make it anywhere." Still, most of them are in the school because, in one way or another, they have not "made it" in other high schools, sometimes for academic reasons, and often because they have been caught doing something that goes beyond what is usually ignored: persistent truancy, carrying guns or knives, getting into fights for which they have been arrested, drug dealing, etc. Above all, many of them are older; they are "kids" in a structural sense only. In all other senses, they are adults, indeed they are probably more properly adults than their contemporaries who attend Columbia and Barnard College a few blocks north. They come from the most difficult places in which to make one's life. They are not all poor--some do have access to large sums of cash--, but they all know the street and what it takes to survive there.
..........Inevitably, they bring the street into the school and, for all that can be said positively about West Side High School, it is still a place that is constantly simmering as an unlikely mix of people are thrown with each other in a pot that may not be melting them into each other but which at times gets very close to the boiling point. As such, it is a very good place to study certain implications of the Labov effect. However one wishes to evaluate what happens there--along possibly romantic liberal lines, or along possibly over-realist conservative ones--, many things do get accomplished in what is certainly some of the worst circumstances modern urban society can mete to the people it organizes. These people, often, suffer. They are rarely "successful" in the sense one usually says that schools, teachers, students, are "a success." But the school does reproduce itself. It recruits teachers who may stay with the school for years. It attracts students and places them in settings that all agree are "educational": classrooms, counseling sessions, "family groups" (as "home rooms" are called to emphasize the added responsibility teachers are given for their students). The students graduate; a few move on to college, complete it and become teachers, social workers or even successful entrepreneurs. They do so at a comparable rate to that of the other "normal" high schools of the New York City Public School system. West Side may even graduate a few more and it is quite possible that, without this school and its program, most of those who attend would not have graduated. And all this has been going on with little change for more than fifteen years.
..........How any of this is possible cannot be fathomed
unless one abandons models of social action that center on
the separate ability, knowledge or even "culture" (in the
usual sense) of the participants. More useful would be various
theories of resistance that emphasize the extent to which
people who are "different," in cultural, class or gender
background, can still penetrate practically if not analytically
the conditions set for them (Willis 1977). At West Side,
displays of resistance are common indeed. Uncle Tom is dead,
and "Fuck you, you White bitch" is always available as a
rejoinder. In fact, students rarely resist to the point
of destroying the institution. Given everything else, this
must be precisely at issue. The students refrain from resisting,
and the teachers persist in finding new ways to try and take
them out of the ghettos in which many would confine them.
We must focus deliberately on the underlying social contract,
on what is done by people who behave together in
where they jointly construct. This, in our sense of the
word, is West Side's culture. It is the historical pattern
to which all participants are accountable--whatever their
position and type of understanding.
The Study: One Moment in American Time
..........A social contract is best analyzed in the detail of the dramas it organizes. In this spirit, we report on a half-hour of classroom time in West Side High School. This half-hour was video-taped and a five-minute segment was examined closely. The locally accountable task (what the participants would have said they were doing) was a discussion of a larger project about being homeless in New York City conducted by the students and Rizzo-Tolk. This task was accomplished effortlessly by a very diverse group and, to this minimal extent, it was a "success."
..........Because of its anchoring in the pragmatics of every day life, the study fits within a tradition of classroom analyses that have been criticized by some for making much about little. This particular study is in fact grounded by the several years Rizzo-Tolk spent as a teacher in West Side High School, the perception of her successes and of the limited value of such successes on a broader stage. A sweeping description of the school and its classroom--a description that would enrich the sketch we have been providing over the past few pages--would not however tells us more than we already know, ethnographically and theoretically.
..........We do have general accounts of such classrooms as are found at West Side, particularly in the work of Page (1987, forthcoming). In many ways, the "normal" pattern of West Side classrooms is the pattern she identifies as "the caricature" of the best in liberal academic high school education. In this pattern, the attempt to have the students think for themselves in a self-directed manner with the teacher as moderator, becomes a continual exchange of half-joking challenges, games, life-history details, etc., that justify the teachers' overall interpretation of the students as "your basic bottom." Page talks about this as "chaos" where we see an overwhelming order. She does describe it as something that reproduces itself from day to day and from year to year. She wonders, as we do, about the limits of the students' resistance, and the fact that it remains fully within limits that do not threaten the organization of tracking in the schools she describes: as a group, the students' performance does not challenge the wisdom of having a "lower-track." They do not resist either to the point of dropping out altogether (or directly revolting against the school).
..........The fact of such reproduction in large groups and over long periods of time has been well documented. It is the stuff of general sociology. Much theoretical speculation has been built upon it by those who have understood that to demonstrate the structural functionality of an institutional organization is not necessarily to have said anything as to how actual human beings let themselves do the actual reproduction in face to face interaction. This is the challenge we are picking up here in a dual movement. On the one hand we anchor teachers and students within New York City, its Board of Education, and the American definition of Schooling. On the other hand we pay close attention to the moment to moment construction of a moment in time to marvel once again at the sensitivity of students and teachers to the organization of their setting.
..........We do this in several steps. First, we highlight
the rhetorical ways through which a classroom project is
constructed as something controlled by the teacher in charge.
Second, we highlight how students can deconstruct such projects
by playing on the properties of the rhetorical pattern.
Third and fourth, we focus on the exact process of such
and deconstruction during the taped half-hour. In the final
step we show how such local performances get replaced within
less local ones, in the context of the West Side as an alternative
high school of the New York City Board of (American) Education.
Classroom Construction -- A Teacher's Task
..........One aspect of the central educational stage is
that does not allow for an
account of schooling that emphasizes the joint activity of
teachers and students. It allows for fragmented accounts
"from the point of view" of each of the formal roles. Nothing
seems more common sensical than the following account:
.....I was hired at West Side High School at the beginning of 1985. Approximately one month later, 20 newly enrolled students were about to enter the school. I convinced the principal and others who were present to assign the new students to me so I could try out the idea I had for a class, a course called Social Issues.
.....Towards the end of the course and during the first discussion we had about homelessness, I asked the class what they knew about homeless people. One of the boys honestly and solemnly confessed that he knew little except that he and his friends had "lit one on fire" several years before. The class roared with laughter. I was shocked by both the story he had told and the class's response. Further class discussions revealed strong and biased opinions about the homeless. They were considered common street people. Bums were useless, either lazy or crazy. Students discussed homeless people much in keeping with society's view of the homeless and less sympathetically than one might expect. For the most part students came from poor or disadvantaged homes, and it would be logical for them to believe that the poor would become poorer because of conditions set by the society which were beyond individual control. However, downward mobility was believed to be earned and, within each person's purview, by design and will, a result of active, individual choosing.
.....A part of me honestly believed that the students were used as an arm of conservative social thinking when they harmed the homeless. Encouraged to do violence by covert messages in the society, teenagers like the boy who set fire to a sleeping man are in a sense victims. I was fearful that without further discussions, they and the homeless would be further victimized. In an attempt to reduce violence, to protect the students and the homeless, and to evoke a more moral response regarding the homeless, I asked the students if they would be interested in participating in a documentary-making class exploring homelessness in New York City. Approximately twelve students registered.
.....The students in the documentary class were taught to use portable video equipment. Soon they began video taping street scenes, surveying everyday moments, capturing interesting settings related to homelessness. Film crews attended conferences and public hearings and held interviews with knowledgeable people on the subject of homelessness. The class talked with homeless people, homeless advocates, professional homeless representatives, and spent considerable time in a squatter settlement on the lower east side of Manhattan.
.....Students began to talk about feeling differently toward the homeless. In the middle of the documentary-making cycle, the students began telling unsolicited stories of how they helped a homeless person get a cup of coffee or some food, how they helped protect a person or his property, how they gave someone some money or helped find a place for a homeless person to live. Each time the students returned to the squatter settlement, they brought something to the residents. At first the students easily collected uneaten school breakfasts. Later, they brought clothes, blankets, and cooked meals from home. It was clear to me that the students were becoming more sympathetic toward the homeless and more keenly aware of the problems the homeless had to face everyday.
.....A private funding source granted the school $2,000 to turn the students' tapes into multiple copies of a finished documentary. In consultation with a professional editor, I helped recount the students' research journey. We assembled the film pieces to reflect the students' experiences. The result allows an audience to participate in the students' odyssey and to allow the same conclusions to be drawn. At the end of the film Yasmin summarizes: "You have to watch out, 'cause it could happen to anybody."
.....The tapes were delivered to the school early in October. An after-school workshop was held to give the students an opportunity to see the finished documentary for the first time.We wrote this deliberately as the heroic tale of a self-possessed actor who evaluates a situation and produces, indeed "creates," something.
..........To underline the cultural construction of such a story, and thus is artfulness, if not its artificiality, is not to denigrate those who may see nothing strange about it. After all, they are accountable members of an educational world that is extremely consistent in the image which it proposes, from the schools of education where teachers are socialized into the profession and its rhetoric, to the bureaucracies who require proof of individual professional competence and, when evaluators are most sensitive to educational theory, proof of individual "creativity." All this in fact ties not only with what is most powerful in the United States, but also to what is best in America, to the fundamental striving to construct institutions that "foster the ability of individuals and communities to elevate their levels of competence, increase their number of life options, and disseminate those human and ethical values that will help insure all citizens equal access to a democratic society in a world at peace"--as it is stated in the "Vision Statement" of a major school of education. Such strivings should not be abandoned. But waving such flags will not get us where we want to go if we do not also severely criticize the ways we have chosen in our earlier strivings.
Classroom (de-)Construction -- A Student's task
..........The rhetoric of education allows for a "student's point of view" but its expression is not equally consequential to that of the teacher. In School[ftn13] ordinary times, there is no setting where a student can justifiably say "this is the classroom which I designed for fifth period." A teacher or researcher can request a student to produce a text, and this text can be edited and made to look like an adult text and thus become the proof that students can understand what is happening to them.[ftn14] But these are extra-ordinary texts. A student's articulation must proceed along different performative ways. Mostly, Student responds with what Teacher suggests. In West Side, as anywhere else, students can always be seen to be taking this frame into account. They never fail to acknowledge that they are in school. If they didn't, the school would cease to be a school, the students would cease to be students, and the broader social forces, in the guise of a central Board of Education, would enforce what could then truly be called a "collapse" of the social order. In fact the social order does not collapse in West Side. The students participate. Further on in the paper we examine in more detail how they do so. Let us now just look at a moment when a few students constructed the main formal features of a classroom and, at the same time, all but deconstructed it in an altogether post-modern fashion:
..........A poetry class.
..........Before lunch (some minutes before official ending time).
- student begins, teacher responds, and they proceed with the following exchange:
- the students stay in the room until the end of the period.
Ray McDermott (McDermott and Goldman 1983) has made much of what others had used as an exemplary case of the situated nature of all questioning (Mehan 1979; Humphrey 1980). Thus we have information seeking "what time is it?" conversations (Answer: "It's twelve o'clock"), and knowledge revealing "what time is it?" conversations (Answer: "Very good, John. Can you, Sarah, now tell me what time it is?"), etc. There is also a "what time you got?" conversation which is not a matter of information seeking, nor a matter of knowledge testing, but one of establishing the accountable boundary of a scene that, like most social scenes is only legitimate for a Time. It is a conversation in which the accountable answer is "It's (not) time (yet/now) to end a time-bounded activity." As such it is an extremely appropriate conversation in what some are describing as "the cultures of the clock" which human beings began constructing in the 19th century (Frykman and L?fgren 1987 ).
..........The students, in this West Side example, take the boundary-making process seriously. They do not ignore the social fact that classrooms are timed constructs and that, during Time, only Teacher can free Student from Classroom.[ftn15] In this instance, as in most instances, the students stayed and played with one significant feature of the frame, the fact that, in a school without bells, the teacher is the keeper of the clock that will eventually free the students (and teacher) from Classroom. Thus the accuracy of the teacher's clock can accountably become an issue without challenging the place of the teacher. Teacher is paradoxically constructed by the very fact that a question about the teacher's watch is asked. Eventually the students yield, thus revealing that Classroom is indeed Teacher's to construct.[ftn16] And yet, through the very fact that they have for an instant revealed the structural framework of Classroom, they have literally "taken apart" the actual classroom, with the effect that, as with any other human object that is apart, lying deconstructed as an engine in a mechanic's shop, this classroom has stopped working. Such sensitive deconstructions may delight those of a nihilistic bend. Teachers and students do not have this luxury and, often, they despair. Like most of us, they prefer their machines and other cultural artifacts put back together and purring smoothly as they perform their tasks in our lives.[ftn17]
A Teacher's Task for Her Students
..........Let us now look in some detail at a moment when the machine was together, smoothly performing a task. Let us look at it as something that was jointly produced by equally active participants. This task was given by Rizzo-Tolk in a kind of epilogue to the much broader task described earlier.
..........Before the tape was to be shown to the whole school, the students who had been involved in the project were invited to a discussion and showing. There was a lunch in their honor. They received a certificate. Now they proceeded to a classroom where they were first asked to discuss homelessness as it affected them. Besides the six students and one student's two-year old son, Rizzo-Tolk, an assistant teacher (Chuck), and another guest were also present. The discussion lasted about half an hour and was videotaped. First, the students were assembled in a circular fashion. They were asked to present themselves to the camera, and then Rizzo-Tolk started the conversation with a question. The students responded. Rizzo-Tolk asked other questions and this went on for about 20 minutes. Table One summarizes the main "tasks"[ftn18] that, quite clearly from every evidence we have, the students let the teacher give them.
..........In her dissertation, Rizzo-Tolk looks at this at two levels of amplification. In a first phase, she examines the organization of the five minutes in terms of rather gross behavioral units. In a second phase she examines more closely a few seconds to highlight an organizational pattern that probably does not have easy labels but which demonstrate some of the same properties of mutual organization that concern us here.
..........In this paper, we concentrate on the former analysis because it most clearly illustrates what happens when human beings come together and hold each other accountable, and can be held accountable by principals and Boards of Education, to the position of Teacher and Student, that is asymmetrical though jointly performed positions. At such times, it is not enough for each person to be aware of her role or status within the structure of the School. She must also accord her actual performance with the performance of the people in the complementary positions. That this is what indeed happens is abundantly clear when looking at the tape and it is easy to segment the total performance into units related to what McDermott has called "positionings" (McDermott, Gospodinoff and Aron 1978). A first analysis reveals units that have a specific label in the participants vocabulary. They may be explicit dramaturgical answers to a command, or they could be gloss which the participants would offer when asked "what is happening here." For example, Rizzo-Tolk declares "we have a task for you to do," and the students later perform something that she takes practically as evidence that the students have done the task. Eventually, a student asks "What do we do now?" as the whole group which had shaped itself into a huddle of sorts open up again and faces the teachers as they had at the beginning when being "given" the task. From this point of view, we can summarize the whole sequence into a series of sub-sequences:
.....Gg- Getting//giving instructions.
.....Rg- Reading cards/listening to the reading//attending passively.
.....Lg- Laughing//attending to the laughter.
.....Dg- Discussing the choices//attending to the discussion.
Each positioning is typified by the relative position of all the participants (teachers and students). During Getting/Giving, Laughing, and Discussing, the basic distinction is between students and teachers. During Reading we have a further subdivision among the students as one reads and the others listen. See Table II for a summary of the temporal progression of the segment in terms of these positionings.
..........In fact, these descendants of African slaves, Amerindians, Spaniards and other Europeans, these people at the far periphery of the official middle class, these persons who have "failed" all schools of the hegemonic center, persons who do not speak English very well, the children of people who may not speak English at all and have probably failed all schools themselves, these people who are usually presented as the prototype of those outside the main stream, these people settle in an accountable huddle, organize themselves so that one person can act as a secretary of the group's process as Charmaine holds the cards, reads from them, informally ensures that everyone does speak and records the emerging decisions. Four minutes later they are accountably done, the nine choices have been ranked and the cards are turned back to the teacher who, in the Classroom frame, is the only one who can actually close the sequence.
..........Then there is an hesitation. The cards have been taken away, the students return to their huddle and to a conversation heavily marked by behaviors that were not performed earlier: laughter, whispering, jostling and such. Eventually one student asks "What do we do now?" as the whole group reorients itself towards the teacher. There is no place for them to generate School tasks. What they have been doing since the cards were handed in is "nothing," no-School-thing, a negative of the accountable positive. All they can do is keep themselves in School. Indeed, by asking the teacher what they should now do, the students practically discipline her. They enforce Teacher on her in a way symmetrical to the way she enforced Student on them when she gave them the task.
..........In the process, and against the common sense with which the students in fact operated, a teacher's task for the students has revealed to be what it always also is, that is, a students' task for the teacher. In fact, we should just have written that, as the teacher responds coherently to the students' call, she is enforcing Teacher on herself, in the same manner as they enforce Student on themselves. It is only in the formal educational rhetoric that both teachers and students do use, that what a teacher does and what a student does is distinguished. Analytically, and as we struggle to understand the Labov effect, we must step out of the rhetoric and consider that teacher and students are always together, that they are a unit, pre-defined, and actually constructed through the feedback mechanisms that keep everyone on track.
The Voice of the Group: Laughter, Resistance and Reconstruction
..........At this point in her analysis, Rizzo-Tolk moved on to a finer-grained description of certain exchanges among the students while they are "ranking the options." Not only does the five minute conversation proceed smoothly to an accountable ending, it can also be shown that, in the detail of specific exchanges, the students' various contributions to the discussion meshed smoothly. Indeed, there is evidence that they were not simply "conversing" in the traditional exchange model analyzed by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson, but that they were producing something that is more akin to a multi-voiced improvised monologue by someone who is talking aloud: They terminated each other's utterances, expanded on them in other directions, agreed on the relative position of the choice and moved on. They were a single voice speaking through various mouths.[ftn20]
..........These are altogether paradoxical skills which these students exhibited. They had done exactly what had been asked of them. They had "come to an agreement as a group," and they had done so in a manner that demonstrates that they were indeed a group controlled by a social contract, a set of cultural conventions that they had fully incorporated in their speech and, indeed, in their bodies. From a broader point of view than the one we have used most recently, we could first worry about the extent to which this common voice that emerged had silenced personal voices, and then celebrate the ways in which most of the participants did talk, made comments that sometimes were at odds with what had just been said and, properly, yielded politely to the expression of the majority, e pluribus unum in the best great tradition of American democracy. Indeed, when Varenne first saw the tape, and before it had been quite contextualized for him, he saw--as probably many would if they did not play close attention--a group of middle-class teenagers from a middle «class suburb having a discussion in a school or a church group. The baby that was taken away from the group as it started its task, the fact that people who have lived in the United States will eventually notice that some of the participants are "blacks" and others probably "hispanics," all these common sense signs that this was not the prototype it appeared, and in fact does seem to be, disappeared.
..........And yet, the educational tale we used earlier to summarize the historical organization of the project underlines that the students' task is framed by the School's identification of these students as being in some trouble. Rizzo-Tolk herself was moved to design the project by her experience in a class when students laughed at putting a homeless man on fire. She was moved to conduct the research when, on first watching the tape and talking about it with others, she could not easily convince them that the students had indeed learned what she was otherwise certain they had learned.
..........One moment particularly stood out. Let us look at it briefly. One of the choices to rank was "living in Shantytown." This referred to a settlement of people in a vacant lot on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The group had visited it several times during the filming of the documentary, and, because of the political awareness of the settlers and the fact that they had organized themselves into an active and caring community, they had served as the model of what to seek if one was forced by circumstances into the streets. The educational message had been strong and consistent: Shantytown is the kind of place that should not have to exist in a proper America, and one should change the conditions in order to make it unnecessary for people to live in such places. In the meantime someone who found herself homeless would find most help in such a community. Not only would she help herself, she would also help the political movement that would change the conditions.
..........In the final ranking, however, Shantytown came last and, to make things apparently worse, the students laughed when they established this ranking. There had been an episode of group laughter after Charmaine finished reading the list of the choices and as the students settled into the discussion that would actually accomplish the task. The laughter that interests us now comes at the end of the task and, in formal terms, can be seen as the symmetrical marker to the first one. As the laughter subsided, the students moved out of the "task" positioning, they shifted their bodies, shifted their voices, and moved into a "waiting for the teacher to give us a new task" positioning.
..........This identification of the laughter as an interactional marker is the only proper one to make within the strict framework of conversational analysis. General audiences, however, are not constrained by the same intellectual concerns, and, eventually, it is through them that the power of the center exercizes itself. To them, there is something powerfully evocative in an act that seems to reverse the priorities suggested by the educational effort (placing Shantytown last rather than first, or perhaps second or third), and possibly ridicule the whole effort. After all the students used laughter,[ftn21] an altogether powerful performance even though it does present difficult interpretational problems given its lack of semantic (rather than semiotic) content. In fact, while laughing, the students talk briefly about the visit that some of them made to Shantytown after the project had officially finished (and thus at a time when the School had relinquished control over them). Mention was made of being afraid, of the roaches that kept coming, of the smell and, for the first time, one person attempts to put a hand on the microphone apparently to block the recording.
..........In fact, while laughing, one student affirmed that
things hadn't really "been so bad." An act like covering
the microphone could be seen as an indication of the fact
that the students had learned what they were supposed to
have learned but were not going to use--a proof of independent,
possibly "critical," thinking ("Yes, I know what want you
want us to learn, but I do not think this is the way the
world works"). It could also be used as a proof of the way
teenagers fall prey to peer pressure. It might even be an
instance of the displays of distanciation that true believers
perform when they make fun of their deepest beliefs by emphasizing
what they know those who do not share their beliefs would
consider most absurd. The laughter could thus be considered
a negation of the negation, and the overall effect may be
that the moment must remain ambiguous. We may have a display
of resistance, of resistance to resistance, but also, eventually,
a display that is wide open to cooptation by any of the parties
to whom the local group may find itself accountable.
The Voice of the Center
..........Many parties may make this local group accountable to their own organization. We can only wonder about what might happen if this tape was shown to Charmaine, Rob or Yasmin among their peers, during a party far away from school. When would they laugh? Would they start talking about homelessness? Would they worry whether they have failed? We do have some information about what happened when the tape was first looked at by people in the Teacher mode: they focused on the laughter, bracketed away everything that happened earlier, and engaged in a conversation structured around the issue of "failure." In so doing, they performed locally a version of we are doing here on a broader stage. Like the teachers, we, the authors, watch the tape for what it might tell us, anthropologists of education who participate--however critically--in the major scholarly and professional conversations that America has conducted for many decades: why can't Johnny read?
..........This conversation defines what School Education is all about. It is particularly intense at West Side High School perhaps because everyday practice there continually challenges its grounds. Probably not one day there passes without passionate, soul-searching, exchanges centering, sometimes optimistically, sometimes pessimistically, on the relative success of the school, of its programs, or of the teachers' teaching--a success that is completely dependent on the students' own. This is particularly difficult for the teachers since the students rarely "succeed" according to the canons of academic success. They come with universally acknowledged "low skills," their attendance is spotty, their skills improve but very rarely to the point where they could compete meaningfully with students from any but a few other urban high schools. The simple version of the teachers' question to themselves may be: "what are we doing here?"
..........One answer is trying to get Charmaine to read to some level. Others answers are given: West Side does go to great efforts to provide an institutional environment where students are helped, understood and always given another chance, as they would be in a "family" (the model which the principal uses in order to counter the indifference of the streets and other institutions to the fate of the students). The hope is that, through a modeling of caring, the students will care for their own and for each other. The goal is for changes in behavior, not for increases in stored amount of information. This was the goal Rizzo-Tolk had given herself, and she has much evidence that such changes had occurred among her students. They might still have to laugh about the homeless in certain contexts, but they had helped some in direct and practical ways. Hopefully, they would continue doing so. The principal likes to say that the school is not working necessarily for the immediate success of the current generation. It is working to provide a basis on which to build so that, twenty years from now, a student who is now abusive and rebellious can be heard hanging her eventual survival around the neck of "this great teacher who disregarded my adolescent nastiness and gave me the understanding I needed so that now my own children can go on to college."
..........Such alternate answers are made necessary because, no matter what is tried, Charmaine won't demonstrate that she can read so that teachers, locally and on broader stages, can say unambiguously that she is an academically successful high school student. The identification of West Side High is just as settled, and so is the identification of the New York City public high schools.
..........Traditionally, the behavioral sciences, when they have been applied to education, have fully participated in the conversation and, eventually, in the rhetorical identification (or "labelling") of students, teachers, school systems. This is true even of those research traditions who have criticized this or that identification. This is undoubtedly true of those who have worked with what we called "the Labov effect" to the extent that they tried to give a better answer to the question "why can't Johnny read?". To work on the answer to this question is to fail to see the cultural constitution of the question: where does our fascination with it come from?
..........As anthropologists, we must ask the broader question for ethnographic reason to expand our understanding of the cultural bases of educational systems in general, and America's in particular. As Americans, we must question the native question because of all the evidence that real personal damage is done to all those who make their life in such places as West Side High School--particularly when their experience is framed by the "success" conversation. We talked earlier about our desire to celebrate the effort of all the people there. Initially, we were tempted to couch this celebration in a language well exemplified by Gilmore in the conclusions to her work on "sub-rosa" skills: "teacher expectations should be raised through an awareness that students are capable of doing more with language when they are given the room and respect to do so" (1984: 390). This indeed guided Rizzo-Tolk when she designed the homeless project we reported on.
..........Eventually, however, we came to doubt whether such attempts, and a scholarly celebration of the students' performance, were quite enough. We were alerted to the problem by the careless identification by some teachers that the students' laughter demonstrated that they had indeed "not learned." We could have tried to argue that the teachers were mistaken, that it was they who "had not learned." We would have shifted the blame and stopped our investigation where it should really begin: how is the world so constructed that School success cannot be demonstrated. Gilmore showed the way in her comments about children folklore: "once [this folklore] is neutered, colonized, and socially controlled by the school, it is, in fact, no longer children's folklore" (1984: 390).
..........A celebration that proceeds by shifting the blame is certainly not what we are looking for. What is marvelous about the people of West Side is that they persist in building an everyday life in spite of the persistent negative reinforcements they give each other, on lines enforced by the less local stages on which the teachers at least continue to perform. All of them have "succeeded" in schools. Many of them have advanced degrees from major Schools of Education. All of them read the papers, watch television, and listen to Superintendents and union Presidents talk about "improving education in our failing schools." Still, they persist, and, at times, as they wonder "what are we doing here?", they suggest that, perhaps, they are more aware of the artificiality of the task that they have been given than most scholarly analysts of education.
..........Where does Education (in all its performative and
dramatistic aspects) come from? Why is it that, for the
past two hundred years, all the cultural productivity of
Euro-American civilization has strained to make schooling
available universally, and even to make it compulsory? Why
did the United States, or France, risk civil war to separate
Church from State while trying always more fully to integrate
School with State? There are philosophical and political
reasons for this, and we are not necessarily criticizing
them by calling our attention to their overwhelming presence
in the conduct of our everyday life in schools. Still, the
practical reasoning that makes of "success," as measured
in School, a central category in American culture cannot
remain the frame of our inquiries. It must become an aspect
of our field.
Appendix A: Transcript