Harvard Educational Review
  1. Corridor Cultures

    Mapping Student Resistance at an Urban High School

    by Maryann Dickar

    New York: New York University Press, 2008. 212 pp. $22.00

    Through an entertaining and insightful exploration of authority within the interior spaces of New York City’s “Renaissance High,” Maryann Dickar’s book Corridor Cultures introduces cultural geography to educational research. Using spatial analyses to augment the sociological frameworks commonly applied to urban schools, Dickar broadens the field’s analytical tools through concepts such as thirdspace, threshold struggles, and liminality. Through these and other space-related frames, Dickar examines spaces and the blurred boundaries between them at Renaissance High. In doing so, she demonstrates how the school and the students mutually define, and are defined by, space. She concludes that, as students move through these spaces, they experience dynamic and complex shifts along the continuum between oppositionality and accommodation. It is these complex shifts across time and space, she argues, that render previous analyses of student resistance to school authority insufficient and oversimplified.

    Drawing on her dual roles as teacher and researcher, Dickar pairs five years of personal experience teaching at Renaissance with classroom observations and interviews with thirty-seven students and seventeen teachers. Suggestive of Dickar’s authentic appreciation of student voices, the true charm of this book lies in the honesty, humor, and insights of the students. Primarily first- or second-generation immigrants from the West Indies, and spanning the achievement spectrum from “high-achieving” to “alienated,” the students whose stories and perspectives fill these pages employ complex, creative approaches to navigating the contradictory spaces of American high schools.

    Dickar begins her exploration at Renaissance High through an architectural analysis of the crumbling, two-hundred-year-old building that was modeled on the residential colleges of Oxford and that housed one of the first secondary schools in the United States. Commenting on the ironic history of a school building where the expansive courtyard and Gothic arches once folded generations of immigrants into the embrace of American idealism, Dickar points out that the entryway arch is now blocked by locked gates to ward off crime. For today’s all-black student body, “the only arch they walk under is that of a full-body metal detector” (38).

    Segueing into an analysis of students’ entry experience into school each morning, Dickar unearths the inherent conflicts of “scanning,” during which all students walk through metal detectors and have their bags x-rayed, while select students are also scanned with an electronic handheld device and have their bags searched. In their quest to make the school “safe,” security guards confiscate contraband items, including markers, do-rags, or gang beads. Scrutinizing the implications of this process for student identity—particularly the ways in which academic identity is contrasted against black cultural identity—Dickar argues that students “counter-balance” this overt school authority at the entryway by commandeering the halls for themselves.

    Using the notion of an “exclave,” whereby students construct the hallways as an all-adolescent version of street culture independent of school influence, Dickar notes the strength of group solidarity at Renaissance—a “homogenized blackness” where students share a collective North American black identity despite their varied West Indian roots. Although most students do not posit the halls as directly contradictory to the classroom—that is, a student can be popular in the halls and do well in school—all recognize the hall culture as central to school life, and many prioritize popularity over academic success.

    Moving into the classrooms, Dickar explores the “contact zone” of schools, where students and teachers battle over authority. She describes student strategies for resisting teacher control, ranging from minimally disruptive “infrapolitical” strategies to more overt strategies that “challenge the legitimacy of schooling” (187), and argues that many students resent the classroom requirement that they relinquish their hall identity. Among Dickar’s most compelling concepts is that of “liminality,” in which students attempt to maintain solidarity with peers while symbolically bowing to classroom demands. For instance, they may drop their bags off in class before returning to the hall during the passing period or lean out into the hallway from their seats inside the classroom during class.

    In blending sociological and cultural theories with a classroom teacher’s insight, Corridor Cultures brings important new topical and analytical considerations to the school culture literature. Unfortunately, some of Dickar’s analyses are presumptuous, resting on questionable assumptions about student motivation or failing to address rival hypotheses that might explain away her conclusions. Her final chapter lacks clear recommendations for practice and carries an unfounded optimistic tone about the potential impact of minor policy changes given the complexity and depth of the conflicts described in the prior chapters. Despite these minor concerns, however, the rich evidence and the introduction of new analytic tools make Dickar’s work an intriguing contribution to educational research.
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    The Editors

    Book Notes

    So Much Reform, So Little Change
    by Charles M. Payne

    Corridor Cultures
    by Maryann Dickar

    In a Reading State of Mind
    by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp