09 June 2011
El Ejido

'This is going to be hard.' That's the estribillo (chorus) that keeps running through my head. It's going to be hard to write about people I care about in a critical and compassionate way. Doubts surface: Who am I to comment upon what they do, how they live? But from the beginning, I knew it would be this way. I knew it before I began the project, when the idea was just an idea. I knew I would have to find a way to be analytically focused but caring, and careful, when I write up the dissertation. On a side note, this is one reason I did not vote for the tongue-in-cheek "Staring without Caring" motto proposed for a School of Anthropology t-shirt. We do care. We must care. But showing that in our writing is a difficult task indeed. Showing that we respect our research participants, their daily efforts, struggles, confusions, successes, insights, but that we also see painful contradictions and opportunities for improvement... I trail off, looking for a way to justify my intervention here.

To some extent, perhaps this depends upon what our research participants want to know about what you think of them. Are they interested in knowing, for example, that I think it would be easy to ensure that the paella at a major school-community gathering did not contain pork, and that this would be a simple but enormous gesture of goodwill toward the Moroccan population? Do they really want to hear that I think one of the most counter-productive practices within a classroom is to highlight the differences between Moroccan and Spanish cultures, using specific students as examples? Would it be helpful to hear that I believe one of the most effective changes they could make would be to start listening carefully and deeply to each other and to young people? Really listening, really observing dynamics, and responding with equanimity?

These suggestions highlight the negative, of course -- the things I believe not to be happening right now -- but there are positives, as well: the warm, truly inclusive, but firm m.o. some teachers use in their interactions with students; an atmosphere of collegiality, professionalism, and pedagogical curiosity/experimentation. Such things point to an inherent optimism and full engagement with the practice of education.

Let me reveal the unstated object of my concern: teachers, whose work and character are much maligned. They operate here amidst a kaleidoscope of bureaucratic and social pressures. The process of finding a teaching job -- which I must lay out in another entry! -- is itself an exercise in patience, self-abnegation, resignation to the system, embracing one's role within a system that strips you of virtually all sense of autonomy. (Ironic, in this neoliberal age of free will.) Once in the classroom, teachers have very little authority, and the students know it. There is always the chance to repeat final exams before the start of the next school year, but even if a student fails to make passing grades, they will advance to the next level after repeating a grade. By law, they can repeat a grade only twice in their secondary career. After that, they advance automatically until they turn 16 and are legally released from the system or, if local exceptions are made, until they complete their four years or get tired of showing up for class.

How do I comment upon the work of people who must participate in this system without adding insult to injury?