Part 1: Power or humor?
In a few days, I will be starting off my field study. As you might have read in an earlier blog post (in Danish), as a part of my studies in Educational Anthropology, I am going to conduct a field work study in a ‘reception class’, or in Danish: “Modtageklasse”.
The fundamental question I am asking, here again, is: How do we build collectives? My hope is that the context of the reception class can help me expand and refine this question, and potentially come up with something relevant to say.
A reception class is a special class where the children of newcomers are being placed until the have a level of Danish that enables them to take part in a standard class, with Danish children.
In these classes focus is, according to official policy, on language acquisition, but in the practical everyday life, according to one of my informants, the teachers spend a lot of time and energy on what she labels as ‘opdragelse’, which could be translated to ‘upbringing’, ‘disciplining’ or ‘(moral) education’.
At the place of my fieldwork, I am going to be part of two reception classes, a ‘class zero’ for kids at age 6-7, and a first grade, for kids at age 8 – 9.
The reason why this particular place, or what I would like to call ‘social ecosystem’, is interesting, is because it exists somewhat at the edge of some profoundly rooted practices. From the first day at school, a child brought up in Denmark will already have a pretty clear picture about what it means to ‘do school’. On the other hand, children in the reception class – newly arrived from all over the world – will have all sorts of ideas about ‘doing school’. But they are probably rather clueless when it comes to the specific Danish way of doing things. In the social ecosystem of the reception class, in order for the teachers to ‘do school’ the Danish way, these otherwise firmly rooted practices will have to surface. What is expected from a pupil in a Danish classroom has to be made explicit, somehow.
At the same time, the reception class is – in general – a place where teachers and pupils cannot be assumed to share the same language. So how do the teachers come about making the Danish way of doing school explicit, if they can’t use words? This is the second aspect that makes this particular social ecosystem so interesting to me. In an ordinary class, it can’t be said that processes of making the school’s expectations explicit are completely absent. On the contrary. In my own experience (through my numerous visits as a workshop facilitator), classroom interaction is full of examples of teachers – and pupils themselves – making clear what’s expected. In these cases, however, the preferred channel of communication is verbal language. This doesn’t mean that nonverbal means of expression are absent. The messages conveyed through a look, a facial gesture, a certain tone of voice, etc. are omnipresent. Still, the use verbal language seems to have the final ‘say’ in these contexts. My impression is that in the reception class, things are different.
If you are still with me so far, dear reader, you might sound a lot to you as if I am interested in questions of disciplining, coercion, power, etc. These are obvious questions to raise in an institutional context like the School. Afterall, the kids are not there out of their own choice. They are forced to. They are not the ones deciding what to do, how and when. On the other hand, the teachers themselves are submitted to all kinds of directives, policies, etc., ‘from above’. And so on. And behind, underneath everything, if you – teacher, pupil or policymaker alike – do not comply with what’s expected, the ultimate violence of the State is lurking.
This is all probably very true, and it’s definitely an important aspect of the context I am going to be a part of. However, these questions have been dealt with in a vast quantity of scholarly works already.
What I am trying to say is that, even though these structures of power are present, and even though people are to a large degree submitted to them, there are nevertheless a lot of things going on in the day to day routines that can be said to represent some kind of value to the people involved. Things that the people involved would talk about using words like ‘creativity’, ‘curiosity’, ‘humor’, ‘surprise’, ‘play’, etc.
In sum, what I am thinking about here is a capacity that people – even though they are submitted to structures that they cannot really fundamentally change – have to contribute to the shaping of the contexts they are part of, by coming up with all kinds of what I would call propositions.