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This paper profiles research that developed out of an interest in youth, youth identity formation, and how people engage in the process of place-making (Massey, 1995). This project examines how students use the facilities of an after-school computer lab to negotiate and navigate the structures at work at the adjacent high school. Using qualitative methodology in a postcritical ethnography mode (Noblit 2003), students were interviewed and observed with special attention paid to issues of power and position both in the setting of the study and the practice of the study itself. In effect, these students engage in the process of place-making specifically to "get what they need" to find academic and social success in a highly socially stratified and segregated urban school--they both learn and create a curriculum of making place. The paper relates critical readings of theoretical texts from cultural studies and critical geography to interviews and observations with/ of the students of the computer lab to consider how students in effect create an economy of identities to function in their high school and community.
Students continually move about the room creating an odd sense of controlled chaos. The sounds of conversations retelling the events of the school day, and the printer continually clicking off documents for waiting students fill the room with a kind of hum, an electric feel to the hour just after school is out. English, Spanish, Vietnamese (I think), academic, computer geek, punk rock and hip- hop languages all resonate within the room. The director and his assistants roam through the lab, mostly stopping to answer a quick question rather than direct activities. This place seems to run itself. The computer lab of the WELL is today packed with approximately 33 people. The comings and goings make setting a number difficult. It's busier than usual but most seem content with their ability to access the computers or their friends.
At another moment, an attempt to assess the demographic makeup of the computer lab showed 21 African Americans, 5 Caucasians, 2 Hispanics, and 1 Asian. The director of the program was in and out of the lab, as were the two student assistants who circulated socializing and answering technical questions. The director made an overly obvious display of his attention to what was on the screens of the computers. The students were supposed to notice. An office with observation type windows is situated in the corner of the lab. Students directed questions there when a roving assistant was not available. Following the director's lead, a quick scan of the computer screens noted most on the internet, some in email, and a small number in word processing programs or spreadsheets. Books and notebooks filled the spaces between the computers and book bags cluttered the walking space. It begs the question, "Is it always this crowded?"
Focusing on half the lab, two groups of students seemed actively engaged in some form of assignment. Although, frequently interrupted by passers-by, both groups returned to task in front of them. Group 1 worked on a word processing document. The three female, two white and one black, all huddled around the computer screen and struggled with what appeared to be formatting an outline in Microsoft Word. The black student seemed to be in the role of writing the paper, while the two other students advised. At one point, a student jokingly commented, "You're not very computer literate, are you?" Laughs ensued by all. Continual questions and answers bounced back and forth between the girls with one student occasionally addressing her math homework spread out in her lap.
Group 2 consisted of two black students browsing through Internet sites. A notebook and textbook strewn between them, the students conversed and compared the information found to a drawing of some sort of geographic formation. The male student seemed to be the most involved as evidenced by his female partner occasionally slipping over to check her open email account. Often the student, brow furrowed, would hold up the crayon drawing to the screen, checking for comparable images. Interestingly, most of the help and instruction given comes from other students working in the lab. The director and assistants focus their attention on keeping the machines running and seem to pause in mid-stride to answer questions.
In the second half of the room, four students against the wall were playing some form of text based online game. Their screens rolled vertically with text of yellow, red, and green against a black background. One student hovered behind their chairs and took notes on a legal pad. Occasional groans of distress or exultations of pleasure emanated from the group. The group, which clearly became a unified collection of interactive activity, included 2 whites, 1 Asian, and one black student. Eventually, as more students entered the lab, the milling around became nervous and impatient. Apparently, different from earlier in the observation, students now needed the computers. An assistant eventually, after making sure the new lab goers were serious about doing academic work, asked the gamers to give up their seats to the other students. Without any ado, the students complied.
A parent walked into the WELL, talking on a cell phone, obviously looking for her child. After some scanning of the room, she asked some students. One volunteered, "you looking for Jackie?" The parent was told her daughter was at the school working on another assignment and left to find her. Cell phones rang, the printer kept printing and the conversation kept rolling. I realized.... This is gonna be hard.
This ethnographic field study uses cultural studies at large and critical geography in specific as frameworks to focus on how the students who participate in the after-school services of the William Edenton Learning Lab (hereafter the WELL) perceive themselves in relation to the services provided, the broader contexts of their high school and the particular urban community within which they navigate and negotiate their lives. It is here that this study suggests that the WELL, through its lack of formal, set curriculum or for the sake of this paper, a curriculum of nocurriculum, represents unique sets of intersections of identity, space and place for the young people that attend. In effect, students in the process of place making at …