Geography, symbolism and making choices about higher education

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Questions about higher education loom large for many adolescents. As Furstenberg and others suggest, post-secondary education is not just a recognised reality for those who attend, but also a social imaginary of what might be expected of all school leavers. Decisions about whether or not to apply, and what to study, are paramount – but so too are concerns regarding institution and location: why here and not there? Inclinations and aspirations may be influenced by a broad range of push-pull factors. In line with the geographical focus of this study, this post touches upon what symbolic or geographical characteristics may affect decisions about university choice.

Since the 1960s increased university attendance has intensified and diversified mobility across the UK, with it becoming increasingly common to move away from families and out of communities for study and then work. These expansions and transformations inevitably develop certain regions, whilst depleting others with regard to human capital. A relevant aim of our research is therefore to interpret young people’s attitudes towards notions of “locality” and “mobility”. Both have multiple, contrasting meanings: for example, the “local” can be cherished as loyal and familiar, as well as degraded as parochial and narrow; “mobility” signifying “freedom” and “travel” is a common youth desire, though often loaded with privileged assumptions that disassociate it from forms of mobility that may be enforced. In our opening stages of research, both cohorts have stereotypically affiliated “the city” with ideas about “opportunity”. Whilst this understanding may be culturally constructed, to some degree, the map of university place concentration below – from the Higher Education Funding Council for England  – demonstrates a weight to these conceptions. The geographical foci are not particularly surprising, yet there is something significant about the extent of urban concentration and rural disparity – with a number of regions almost deserted.

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In relation to such concrete distributions of institutions and opportunities, we are interested in the emotional and symbolic associations young people affiliate with both experienced and imagined spaces. By this we mean to interrogate the regionally produced meanings inscribed into certain senses, feelings and inclinations. For example in Patrick’s research in the Bronx students discuss how, coming from an urban setting, they associate silence or quiet with danger. Where the hum of the city is the norm, a silence can represent a break in the pattern of day-to-day life and signal a warning that something is “going down”. Imagining and constructing the future with locally produced sensory “switch-boards”, what one is “open to”, “up for” and “excited by” is going to differ regionally. For example Graham was reflecting on 20 years of experience as a PGCE tutor in which he would take large groups of adolescents from an inner city Birmingham school to a rural field-study centre in the English Lake District. Whilst he was initially concerned that they would sneak off-site in the evenings and go into pubs in the nearest village, this never happened. They were disoriented, concerned about the intensity of the darkness at night and worried about getting lost in the absence of street lights and familiar urban ‘markers’. These “unknowns” of the rural environment were far more threatening to them than infinitely more dangerous “known” urban spaces they occupied. What we learn from these examples is that in making choices about the future, such as regarding higher educational institution and location, subtle differences in people’s positionalities are going to differentially shape senses of possibility, permeability, aspiration and entitlement. Rooted in one’s geographic and demographic background, certain familiarities may be reassuring, and others boring – much like forms of “difference” which may variously scare or seduce.

Access and widening participation to university does not form our main subject of analysis, but it is a key subject of concern in understanding the deliberations and motivations of school leavers. People from working-class or ethnic minority backgrounds are often put-off by perceived regional reputations, or by the symbolic associations of particular universities – concerned as to whether or not such universities represent  a place for them and whether or not they’d fit-in. Some would point to a British culture of inverse snobbery that stigmatizes elite universities and demonizes anything that smells of education, or privilege. Lines of difference such as ethnicity and social class intersect with geography in significant ways and an upcoming blog post will explore how to conceptually “deal” with difference; in particular, how to avoid dichotomizing essentialized notions of “the urban” versus “the rural”.

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Maps and Imagined Futures

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This month’s post reflects on a conference presentation at Cardiff University’s Innovative Research Methods with Children and Young People. The event involved some fantastic talks and workshops; and also allowed me to gain valuable feedback on how some of my previous work might inform the methods of this urban-rural project. In particular, I discussed the methodological use of a map in eliciting geographical insights into youth aspiration.

The research I presented was carried out among adolescents in New York City as fieldwork towards my Master’s in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College of Columbia University. On my first opportunity to meet participants, through a community group providing out-of-school opportunities for young people, I found myself mumbling and stuttering as confident seventeen year olds asked me, “so what d’you wanna’ know?” Embarrassingly, I had yet to translate the answer to this from the jargon of my research proposal into ordinary language. Thankfully, they led the conversation, perhaps provoked by their surprise and interest in someone sounding so different (my favourite response to my English accent being: “Yo! Australia!”). The young New Yorkers wanted to talk about place:

“New York is like a box, you’ve gotta’ get out!”; “I’m gonna’ travel the world”; “Upstate is different from here you know”; “Where you from? What’s it like over there?”; “You know my friend, he’s been to Denmark”; “I need to earn the money first, but then I’m gonna’ go all over”.

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This formative experience made me to think about imagined futures in a more spatialized way. Further to asking “what you’re gonna’ be”, there’s important questions of “where you’d like to be” and what circumstances or aspects of culture shape different values towards mobility. By chance – and in true New York “mongo” fashion (a locally used word meaning “something valuable from the trash”) – I found a large and colourful world map in one of the city streets’ ubiquitous piles of discard. Having wiped it down, I proceeded to advertise and run “group conversations about travel, the future and the world”. These were extremely enjoyable and inspired conversations on a vast range of topics. The travel aspirations of participants were often shown to be shaped by imagined histories of the world. Many BME participants sought to reconnect with dis-located ethnic histories and saw travel as a replenishing means of identify fulfilment, as well as a source of education that would be less distorted than that administered in school.

The focus of my presentation was on the success and methodological significance of the map. Marcus Banks talks brilliantly about how a “third party object” can reduce participants’ sense of personal interrogation, enabling a greater ease of conversation and point of concentration for them to “dis-place” aspects of their interior worlds. The map did indeed become a focus of energy and attention and a source of “options” for participant-led conversation. They could put themselves into it (hypothetically or historically) or take parts of it “out” to be imagined and discussed. It offered a prompt for ideas about possible futures and a prop for them to illustrate dream jobs, travel ambitions and reasons to critique aspects of their own schooling and society.

How then might similar strategies help in our present study of aspiration and life transitions? How, we might ask, is “the city” imagined among rural youth? As David Farrugia points out, youth research does tend to be overly “metrocentric” – but do the aspirations of “urban” youth themselves necessarily follow the same urban assumptions? For example, some of the New York youth I spent time with fantasized about “the quiet” and “the countryside”. One possible framework is through Neil Smith’s well-known multi-scalar sequence of: body, home, community, urban, region, nation and global. This allows for a differentiated, though inter-connected perspective of young people’s multiple present and possible relationships with the world. As we experiment with the likes of maps, timelines and sociograms, we will attempt to identify the sources of young people’s geographical identities as well as any motivations for movement across the country and beyond. Part of the fun for us will be the longitudinal aspect, as we physically follow up with school leavers to see how their imaginations are mapping out.