A ‘professional tourist’ in Leeds: gaining new approaches to the study of school environments

Guest post by Tamás Péter Szabó, University of Jyväskylä

Tamás visited the Leeds TLANG team back in December of last year to discuss his fascinating research into linguistic landscapes – with a particular focus on schools. Tamás’ work links with the research coming from the TLANG project on linguistic landscapes and the team were also able to discuss our schools engagement work which focuses on this area – ‘Lang-Scape Investigators’ and ‘Lang-Scape Curators’ – with him.

Doing research as a tourist

Some three years ago I was asked to give a presentation at the first Hungarian conference on linguistic landscapes. Since I study education, I talked about the linguistic landscape of schools. I planned to take photographs in school buildings, but I also wanted to know how local school community members talk about their everyday work environment. The submission deadline was approaching quite quickly so I decided to be as time efficient as possible and record the interviews while taking the photos. To frame the situation, I proposed a role play, calling myself a tourist and asking teachers to guide me through their school. Actually, I really looked like a tourist with a camera in my hand, always searching for something interesting to capture. This setting worked quite well: the teachers especially enjoyed their freedom in deciding where to lead me and what to talk about. Of course I also had questions but it was the teachers who were more active in introducing topics and telling me stories about their life in the co-explored buildings. Later I have extended the use of ‘tourist guide technique’, and involved student as parent guides as well.

Affordances

Recently, affordance has become one of the central concepts of my research. I am very interested in how people make use of their material environment, and what affordances they take when acting in various situations. Since school premises offer custom designed spaces for educational purposes, it is revealing to see what principles are followed in the creation, negotiation and transformation of classrooms, foyers and community spaces. In an indirect way, the built environment tells a lot about ideologies that influence educational practices. However, it is of course not the environment in itself that tells stories: it is people who reflect on social space and routines.

Interpreting school environments

In one of my papers I found parallels between organizational cultures and the material environment of institutions, based on a study of state and private schools in Hungary. I concluded that the state schools aimed at integrating local and national culture, while the private schools seemed to foreground students’ agency, and attract a well-defined target group of parents.

While being in Leeds, I have become more aware of the importance of diachronicity in the study of academic linguistic landscapes. Further, discussions with the TLANG group members have enriched my understanding of a wider urban context. Ethnographic studies by the TLANG team put a great emphasis on the texture of a city district or a settlement (as can be found in the TLANG working papers series).

Although in some cases my local guides showed me the neighboring streets, the walking interviews have mostly been restricted to the school premises, ‘inside the fence’. However, co-exploring some parts of the city district would have added a lot to the understanding of school traditions. For example, in my guest lecture to the TLANG team, I included a sign on the façade of a hundred-year-old school building:

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The sign reads ‘Entrance for boys’. I chose this picture because it demonstrates how the potential interpretations of a sign change over the time. Originally, in the 1910s, it disseminated practical information. The building housed two schools: one for boys and another for girls. That is, the sign marked which door to use when entering the boys’ institution (another sign marking the entrance of the girls’ school had been removed). Today, in line with mainstream trends of Hungarian education policy, there is a mixed-gender school in the building so the contemporary interpretations of the sign are mainly historical. However, the diachronic way of making sense of the school environment may go even further the premises. It is well known by local people that the school building is one of four almost identical buildings that had been constructed within a decade in the 1910s, as part of a state-led infrastructure development project. The school buildings have the same floor plan and are surrounded by side buildings of the same design. Although some later additions have modified the overall picture, it is still obvious for a contemporary visitor that the school buildings are part of a set of standardized constructions that constitute the estate. The school buildings fit the exterior design of numerous typified apartment buildings that are placed along a strictly geometrical and symmetrical network of streets that is organized around the main square in the center. The well-preserved uniformity – or, in other words, the easily recognizable character – of the estate attracts inhabitants and makes the neighborhood a popular place to live.

In summary, although it is possible to analyze the school building in separation from the texture of the city district, it seems to be beneficial to consider how local community members interpret it in the context of an early 20th century urban development project which has consequences for constructing contemporary ways of living and articulating social identities. I am looking forward to organizing extended walking tours with school community members to explore urban neighborhoods with the curious eyes of a tourist.

My visit to the University of Leeds was supported by the European Union’s Research Executive Agency under Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship for Career Development within the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research (grant nr. 626376).

Editor’s note: you can read Tamás’s response to this post on his own blog here.

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