Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Critical Geographic Modalities in Education

  • Reagan Patrick MitchellEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_290-1



Critical geography counters traditional proposals of boundaries put forth by the field of geography as objective. Critical geography situates Marxist critique as the root of analysis and gained momentum in the 1970s with Jürgen Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Broadly, critical geography challenges ideologies that cultivate hegemonic constructs and promote notions of boundary rigidity, while simultaneously inquiring into the dynamism of geographies. At the intersection of these collective approaches to critical geography is an educational discourse. Within the field of education, this constantly raised discourse is in relation to space and place. The longevity of this discourse is witnessed in the scholarship of Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Dubois, Pauli Murray, and Fredrick Douglas, to name a few. Collectively, their discourses raise an aspect of geographic transgression related to self and public sphere.

In discourses on education from scholars inquiring from a marginalized position and/or in advocacy of marginalized communities, critical geography is directly engaged in acts of resistance and fights to establish or reclaim space and place. Similar acts in the critical geographical discourse are raised in the scholarship of Cameron McCarthy, Stephanie Springay, Eve Tuck, Katherine McKittrick, and James Tyner. The work of these scholars, and many others, demonstrates that critical geography critiques are ancient, especially when considering how the history of communal displacement has violently functioned around ideologies of racism, sexism, ableism, classicism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQIA+ beliefs. Altogether, critical geographical analysis has been essential for marginalized communities’ development of resistance and reclamation and formation of space and place. However, the aforementioned weaponized ideologies, at their hegemonic cores, rationalize the claiming, taking, and denial of space and place to various communities.

This entry begins with discussion of educational scholar Jan Nespor, who is essential to consider regarding critical geography in the discourse in education. His publication of Tangled Up in Schools: Politics, Space, Bodies, and Signs of Educational Process (1997) began the turn toward applying critical geographical analysis to schools’ spaces and places. Robert Helfenbein’s contribution to critical geography in education is discussed in the following section. While Helfenbein’s initial analysis is rooted in the context of the Indianapolis, Indiana, school system and its space of occupation, his critique utilizes postcolonial analysis to consider how schools operate in relation to the forces of globalization, along with redistributions of capital and empire. Following this is a consideration of the array of scholarship arising from the Curriculum Theory Project (CTP) at Louisiana State University; in this section, the scholarship of Ugena Reta Whitlock, Brian Casemore, Laura M Jewett, and Nicholas Ng-A-Fook is highlighted. Finally, the last section discusses sonic modalities in relation to critical geography, an essential inquiry in the scholarship of Walter Gershon. While the tendency of discussions around sound in education has been to rest on music, Gershon’s discourse extends ideas around critical geography in education with an emphasis on the broader context of sound.

Introducing the Discourse: Jan Nespor

Jan Nespor situates the discourse of critical geography in light of the pre-, post-, and proposed future imaginaries for schools and education. He presents this discourse along with 2 years of ethnographic research rooted in participant observation, at Thruber Elementary (pseudonym) School in Roanoke, Virginia. Nespor simultaneously flips, challenges, and inquires into notions of “authentic” knowledge, stratification of knowledge, and, most importantly, the locations of knowledge. His critical geographical analysis applied to the study situates the place of school as wrought with an autonomous ethos. Furthermore, he argues that schools are not merely physical structures, in which learning and knowledge analysis occurs only in classrooms at the hands of educators and administrators. Instead, the dynamics of space and place in schools operate with a fluidity, moodiness, and temporality. Nespor’s critical geographical analysis, while situated at Thruber Elementary, presents the ways in which sociopolitical geographies influence learning-layered geographies (intellectual, identity, social, etc.). Additionally, Nespor’s consideration of the ways that knowledge production occurs resides in witnessing the overlaps and intersections of multiple boundaries, which produce and sustain ways of knowing and being for bodies within and transgressing them. For Nespor, realizing that knowledge is temporal and privileged in a variety of ways expands consideration of how collectives of conceptual and physical geographies function with respect to how stratifications are produced, sustained, and maintained in school and learning. Simultaneously, Nespor considers notions of governmentalities embedded in classical notions of the school, schooling, and the process of learning to be a student (Gershon 2017).

Blues in the Spatial Truths: Robert Helfenbein

Helfenbein’s chapter “Thinking Through Scale: Critical Geography and Curriculum Spaces” (2009) challenges rigid geographic and curricular framings through his inquiry into: “1. spaces that speak, 2. spaces that leak, and 3. spaces of possibility” (Helfenbein, in Malewski (2009, p. 305)). Like Nespor, he addresses the meanings cultivated in the interactions in the in-between spaces within bounded institutional spaces. However, Helfenbein’s analysis moves further to consider how school and other spaces deemed educational exist as political actors in the distribution and redistribution of power. His discourse emphasizes the necessity of “rhizomatic analysis” (p. 308). In other words, the ethos of Helfenbein’s analytic approach to critical geography moves from a unilateral linear approach to one of omnidirectional inquiry, which aims to uncover the political nonneutrality embodied in broader educational geographies of the Indianapolis school system. He nuances his critical geography analysis with concepts of reterritorialization and deterritorialization, the latter of which, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, specifically addresses the effects of capitalism in localized educational spaces (Deluze and Guattari 1987). Reterritorialization is the reworking of space and place, whereas deterritorialization is the decimation of the cultural, political, and social fabrics indigenous to space and place. Thus, for Helfenbein, instances occurring in Indianapolis school system, such as white flight and constant reformulations of economic disparagement, stand as points of simultaneous reterritorialization and deterritorialization. This is exemplified by cooptation of educational space and place along with the expungement of communal pedagogies once embodied in those geographies by the inhabitants and matter. Coming back to Helfenbein’s inquiries of “1. spaces that speak, 2. spaces that leak, and 3. spaces of possibility” (Helfenbein, in Malewski (2009, p. 305)), these function as an analytical matrix for attending to the emergent geographical dynamics of globalization and its effects on educational spaces and places.

Facing South: Considering the LSU Collective

Here attention is shifted to the CTP scholars at Louisiana State University (LSU). Before going into the specifics of each scholar’s contribution to critical geography in the field of education, they have been situated in a sort of choir with one another. Following the tensions they each highlight, extending the critical geography discourse in education is discussed. Collectively, each of the CTP scholars use autoethnographic methods to interrogate and expose their personal biases, connectivity to, and distance from the inquiries they pose. Each scholar has a unique exploration of space and place. Furthermore, the body, understood anthropologically and metaphorically, becomes an essential radical political space/place of interrogation. Each CTP scholar uniquely explores layers of intimacy (Jewett 2008) and the imposed and embodied acts of silencing that occur through oversimplifications of regional geographic narratives about the US South.

Reta Ugena Whitlock’s work reconciles a number of her subjectivities, including “white, female, lesbian, working-class, liberal, fundamentalist Christian, teacher educator” (Whitlock 2007, p. 2). She addresses what these subjectivities mean in the context of Southern space and place. Whitlock contends with how the notion of the Southern, land- and community-wise, is situated as barren of intellect and without agency. Specifically, the inability for others to see, embrace, or acknowledge points of agency in the choices of Southern communities, especially those marginalized (e.g., Black, LGBTQIA+, impoverished, etc.), to remain in Southern territories. Her broader geographical narrative considers how resistance pedagogies give teeth to national forms of resistance. Whitlock furthers her discourse through interrogating how metanarratives create conflict in considering alternative narratives of space and place with regard to the south. For her, nostalgia is a permutation of the metanarrative. Thus, her critique is framed as “curricular forum” to present an ethic of “Southerness” (Whitlock 2007, p. 7). Whitlock frames this suggested curricular forum around four points:

1) unsettling prohibitive nostalgia so as to disrupt rather than solidify identity/place norms; 2) homeplace as a site for the interrogation of the construction of identify rather than the consoling, pacifying mirror of identity; 3) queer Southerness, exemplified in the conjunction rather than the opposition of fundamentalism and queer desire; 4) grace that shatters rather than absolves traditional raced, classed, and gendered notions of Southern identity. (Whitlock 2007, p. 7)

Through these four tenets, Whitlock proposes a curricular Southern reimagining of geographies of place, self, and community with an ethic that is fluid, flexible, and continually in motion.

The second CTP scholar, Brian Casmore, challenges rigid conceptualizations of Southern place through the problematization of hegemonic white maleness in regional narratives. His autoethnographic critique of his personal narrative of Southerness/white maleness, along with looking to authors such as William Faulkner, form a nexus of analysis. His intent is to rethink and decenter a Southern narrative hegemonically formulated around white heterosexual maleness engendered personally and through literary construction. Casemore implements a geographical critique in an interrogation of how fetish functions in constructions of Southern space and place. He poses an inquiry in regard to what happens when white male subjugation becomes a normalizing factor in construction of Southern place through Southern literature. For Casemore, the precursory ethic is engendered in the necessity that has relegated the Southern discourse to being rooted in “the purity of identity and place” (Casemore 2008, p. 19). Here, the notion of purity is rooted in a metanarrative solely relegated, problematically, to straight white maleness, further promoting and sustaining varieties of monolithic Southern spatial discourse.

The discourse challenging rigid metanarratives around the US South is extended yet again through the scholarship of Laura Jewett. Her exploration of the complicated meanings of space and place is derived from teaching multicultural education to preservice teachers, in tandem with learning and taking part in zydeco dance traditions in the Acadiana region of Louisiana. For Jewett, like the aforementioned scholars, geography is an unstable dynamic set of relationships. However, it is the dancing body, theorized as “a body of knowledge rather than as a cultural spectacle” (Jewett 2008, p. 19), which is essential to her conceptualizations of geography. Jewett combines this with consideration of the meanings of intimacy gleaned from her engagements with zydeco dance and the connections that bodies constantly incur. Thus, intimacy through dance becomes an essential inquiry toward considering and countering the alternative or marginalized meanings of Southern geographies. For Jewett, it is the developing ethic, developed from epistemological and ontological fusions through acts of dancing and intimacy within, around, and through Southern spaces, which present possibilities to rethink the meanings of geography. Altogether, her constant recursive reengagements with Southern, multicultural/multiethnic, and gendered geographies present variations of Southern curricular discourse.

Lastly, Nicolas Ng-A-Fook (2007) extends the continuum around Southern geographies in relation to the United Houma Nation, situated in Houma, Louisiana. Ng-A-Fook’s discourse considers the historical and current disenfranchisements of the Houma Nation. One context of this disenfranchisement is the displacement of communities through the oil, gas, and mineral industries. Ng-A-Fook juxtaposes this discourse with a consideration of how the larger problematic of hegemonic discursive constructs, formulated through patriarchal law, have functioned as sorts of displacements. Ng-A-Fook’s analysis of patriarchal law frames how geographical displacement functions through both land and customs. The direct ramification of these displacements is the inability of children of the Houma Nation deemed illegitimate to inherit land from their elders. When considering the epistemic violence of devaluing the Houma Nation’s knowledge and customs through settler colonialism, Ng-A-Fook frames and roots these discourses, along with others, in geography. While Ng-A-Fook’s geographical analysis picks up on a centuries-old discussion of displacement of indigenous communities, nationally and worldwide, he moves it further by relating it to rationales and spaces deemed educational. Like the scholars mentioned throughout this entry, his notions of education, educating, and learning are not bounded to the brick and mortar institution. Rather, his analysis centers on the violence of settler colonialism and presents a powerful reminder that it is essential to engage the material nature of space and place. Lastly, Ng-A-Fook’s scholarship is a reminder that geography, especially Southern geography, reveals how space and place are living and how they permeate communal psyches while holding and radiating communal histories. Thus, the relationship between land and community presents a series of curricular possibilities.

Sonic Geographical Considerations: Walter Gershon

Finally, the work of Walter Gershon pushes the field of critical geography in education toward sonic inquiry. Considering critical geography as a counternarrative to traditional notions of geography, inquiry into geographic modalities must be considered. While Helfenbein posits the need to inquire into the ways that space and place are enlivened, Gershon’s contribution enlivens critical geography in education by considering how relationships are constructed sonically. He takes his cue from scholars such as Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Dubois, and Pauline Olivaros, who collectively root their critical geographical sonic discourses in music. For Gershon, critical geographical analysis resides in considering the ways in which sound beyond music, or the extra musical, functions as a dynamic educational/curricular system. Gershon’s inquiry into sonic constructions of geographies acknowledges the narratives simultaneously embodied individually, communally, and materially. Gershon emphasizes the turn toward the sonic in relation to educational narratives, and, more importantly for critical geographical analysis in education, does not assert an inherent hierarchal elevation of sound above or below written text. Thus, his consideration of sound aligns with Helfenbein’s third tenet around “spaces of possibility.” Furthermore, Gershon’s attentiveness to the sonic acknowledges the possibilities of inquiry into the realms of learning (or, in Gershon’s words, “beknowingdoing” (2017)), and how these occur and develop in the overlapping geographies of self, body, community, and environment. Gershon’s discourse on the sonic in relation to critical geography is a meditation upon the narrative parallels and intersections occurring in learning and inquiry.

Toward the Future: Conclusion

The distinctions presented in this entry do not define points of authenticity around whose scholarship constitutes “real” critical geography. Rather, the attempt is to bring attention to some influential educational scholars who directly claim the analytical frame of critical geography. While the mentioned scholars in this entry are responsible for raising the discourse of critical geography in education, there are many other brilliant education scholars who are developing additional rich analyses. This entry is a dedication to the scholars mentioned, unmentioned, and currently developing. Thank you for the work you have done, are doing, and are about to do.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Liberal ArtsUniversity of North Carolina School of the ArtsWinston SalemUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Kupferman
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Teaching and LearningMinnesota State University MoorheadMoorheadUSA