Putting the “Critical” in Geographies of Education: An Interview with Dan Cohen, Alice Huff, and Nicole Nguyen

This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.


In Entre les murs (2008) [English title: The Class], film director Laurent Cantet exposed that what takes place “within the walls” (actual title translation) of the classroom has everything to do with its outside. Cantet’s depiction of the ways in which places dedicated to formal state-sponsored education are enmeshed with wider socio-political dynamics in France has given the tale’s filmic protagonists universal reach as they embody resistance to power asymmetries that play out around issues of immigration, ethnicity and gender, inequalities and exclusions, social integration, identity building under cultural hegemonic pressures, and top-down forms of knowledge. The film stands as a direct invitation for all educators to engage critically in analyzing not only the education systems of which they are part, but also their own position and role in initiating change there. It is partly with this film in mind that I found my way to education geographies.

I met Dan Cohen, Alice Huff, and Nicole Nguyen at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in 2019. We discussed their efforts leading to the launch of a new Specialty Group focused on the “Critical Geographies of Education.” I had long been interested in issues of teaching and learning in geography and in promoting the sharing of pedagogical practices across disciplines at EuropeNow. However, always thinking in comparative terms between the US and Europe, I also have had many questions about the bigger picture―about the why, the who, and the what for—and about the socio-political motivations and implications of higher education policies and schooling legislative frameworks, as well as societies’ responses and modes of resistance. In our conversation, the three scholars explained to me how what they do can address these questions, as well as what it means to be engaged in critical scholarship that explores issues of power and social processes that leave the disadvantaged worse off. As they reflect together on the rationale prompting the creation of their research group, they focus on the void they filled, the role of critical scholars in effecting change, what social movement work or activism looks like for academics working in and with communities, and the imperative for an attentiveness to uneven power relations and a “commitment to the political.”

Although they do not focus on Europe in their own research, their approach to these topics applies in universal ways, cutting across specific geographies, disciplines, and scales. This illuminating and inspiring chat was instrumental in my own understanding of what needed to be done and my determination within the Council for European Studies (CES) for the establishment of a new Research Network around issues of critical pedagogies and education scholarship in European Studies. This new CES Research Network, which I co-chair with historian Louie Dean Valencia-García, aspires to walk in the footsteps of critical scholars such as Dan Cohen, Alice Huff, and Nicole Nguyen, to carve out a space of reflection and action―like they did for geographers―that brings together Europeanists already involved in examining and transforming eduscapes, while inciting other scholars studying various subject matters to think about how that work is also relevant to what they do.

―Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow


EuropeNow In 2018, you came together to launch “Critical Geographies of Education” as a new Specialty Group at the American Association of Geographers (AAG), with the mission “to promote, organize, and advance critical geographic explorations of education and schooling; to support the scholarly growth of critical geographers of education; and to contribute to social movements related to struggles over schooling.” There had already been a “Geography Education” Specialty Group. How does what your group does differ from what others are doing in the education field in geography or elsewhere?

Nicole Nguyen The Geography Education specialty group is focused on the teaching of geography, whereas we wanted to ask educational questions that did not necessarily fall under geography education, nor under economic, or political, or urban geography. We felt there was no cohesive group of folks working on the questions we wanted to raise and that there was no place for us to ask these questions about schools, education, or schooling. We felt like we were the only ones asking these questions. At the 2015 AAG conference in Chicago, there was a series of five sessions organized on the “geographies of education.” There, we realized that there was a large group of people asking geographic questions about education. We did not know these people existed, so it was about figuring how to build a space to incubate this kind of research―a space that would at the same time be about the geographies of education and have a critical perspective.

Alice Huff I think that’s right. We care about what happens inside classrooms. Many people in our group are educators and work in that space. But our specialty group opens up a space for doing research that explicitly links what happens inside schools to broader geographic processes and systems, whether political, economic, social, or about cities. How do those systems affect what happens inside schools―as well as other types of educational spaces―and vice versa? In particular, we think about education as a site of coalescence for broader social movements. Education matters to people in a way that brings them together. Geographers are uniquely positioned to speak to some of those processes.

Dan Cohen I agree with all of that. I would add that we are having conversations with different groups―economic geography, social geography, and others. We are broad in our approach. We wanted to carve a space where we could have a conversation that is common across all these subfields when you think through them through education. What is it about education that allows it to be a part of all these conversations? We focus on what we have in common.

Alice Huff Professionally speaking, it was difficult to locate our work within the geographies of education. Until recently, we had to locate our work elsewhere, and we still do to some extent, for all sorts of reasons. What is exciting about this group is to see the energy that exists for exploring questions related to the geography of education and to provide this space for people to anchor their work, rather than having to look elsewhere.

Dan Cohen If I could add one more thing, it’s that now we all have our doctorates, but when the three of us met, we were still students. One thing we hope to do is support the next group of scholars who want to study education, so they feel supported and have that group already. That is really important to us. So that if you are a graduate student right now interested in the subject of education, you don’t have to search out for people who understand your work, or feel like you are toiling in isolation and no one gets it. Now, that space has been carved out and we can help the next generation of students who are studying critical geographies of education.

EuropeNow “Critical?” What is the “critical” for you? What work does it do and why is it important in this particular subfield?

Alice Huff We went back and forth about whether it should be called critical or radical.

Dan Cohen I think that what ties it all together is that by linking what happens in classrooms or schooling spaces to wider geographies, we are compelled, through our work and experiences, to draw attention to the production and reproduction of inequalities through these spaces, and to how power circulates through these spaces. For me, the critical orientation is that attentiveness to how what happens in schooling is shaped and in turn reshapes these processes, which often work to the detriment of the most marginalized in society. The critical focus is an attention to that and a commitment to the political.

Nicole Nguyen For me, it is about thinking about social processes that reproduce inequalities through school spaces and how communities have resisted and pushed back. We’re not just interested in studying people for the sake of studying people. There is this intentionality as scholars, as social movement folks, to tie our research to social change. This is the tension between critical and radical. For us, working critically is not just about documenting the harm done to people, but also how people respond to that harm. Education lends itself to this work because there are so many struggles over schooling, whether it’s hunger strikes, opting out of testing, etc. There is a lot resistance in communities to coalesce around issues relating to schooling. How does our work support those struggles for different educational futures?

Alice Huff What we are interested in doing with the Specialty Group is to create that space where connections to activism and the sort of solidarities that people in communities are building around schools can be enacted. Criticality can be very narrowly defined, and has been at various points in our discipline and in other spaces. I think that the definitions that Dan and Nicole have just spelled out are useful in part because they are specifically tied to the operation of power and resistance to systems of oppression, but they are also broad enough for people who might not feel as comfortable with a narrow definition of criticality. These definitions center on the need for movement and a recognition of the diverse knowledges that exist within communities within and outside of academia.

EuropeNow What are some examples of research that geographers working through the lens of critical education are doing? Can you also speak about your own work? How does this work resonate with scholars in other subfields?

Nicole Nguyen I work in the US, on the national security framework that calls on schools to participate in the co-production of national security―asking teachers, social workers, and other educational professionals to identify young people who they think may be vulnerable to becoming terrorists. Part of that work is about looking at how these criminalizing processes shape school spaces for Muslim youth, and how schools contribute to broader geopolitical, security, and territorial goals. It’s about how national security policies are shaping school spaces and criminalizing Muslim youth and how these processes contribute to a security state’s broader agenda. Part of my research supports social movement work to end this national security policy framework and the surveillance of youth in schools. I wrote a report for social movements as a political education tool. They can take it to their communities and tell people “this is what we know about the national security programs and the ways in which it affects communities, and here is what we can do about it.” That helps them better strategize. For me, what’s important is not only to think about the research, but also the product of the research through that critical lens.

Dan Cohen Most of my work is focused on the marketization of the primary and secondary education systems. What I seek to do is uncover the ways in which markets, which are constructed and promoted as neutral mechanisms through which students can be allocated throughout the city through processes of supply and demand, are actually shot through with power and especially racial power relations. I studied in Detroit, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon, the ways that market structures were set up as to specifically advantage certain populations at the expense of others. I looked at how that reshaped landscapes of segregation and how segregation occurs within schooling systems, leading to the continual pull of resources away from public school districts and from cities that are perhaps already the most underfunded and marginalized school districts in the US―Detroit in particular. The Oregon case is interesting because their teachers’ unions were quite successful at shaping the market within Oregon to allow more public school districts control over the operations of markets. What happened there is that the school districts retained control over the opening of charter schools, so that charter schools function much differently in that type of market structure. I used the classic geographic tool of relational comparison to show that these market structures are actually shaped by politics and political structures in very particular ways.

Alice Huff I collaborate with participants in grassroots collective action to investigate how schooling policy affects place-making and political engagement, as well as how collective action shapes urban policy and places. I focus on how difference is negotiated through efforts to transform neighborhood life, and on how people learn from participation in these efforts. I aim to foster reciprocal learning between scholarly and geographic communities, unsettling hierarchies of expertise and shedding light on how people collectively resist injustice to shape the geographies that matter to them.  Recently, I’ve worked with New Orleans residents to examine the socio-spatial mechanisms by which market-based education policies shape cities and inhibit collective action, as well as the democratic possibilities of community-led organizing that does not conform to explicitly anti-neoliberal models. Neighborhood-led efforts to reframe schooling as a neighborhood issue and engage with divergent views on school reform curtailed some political opportunities. However, place-based deliberative practices also encouraged broader political participation and fostered political learning, which in turn facilitated long-term, broad-based engagement in efforts to shape neighborhood life.

Dan Cohen In terms of other types of work, especially in higher education, our meeting today provides a good example of the variety. There were people there who are interested in standardization of education through testing or the increasing focus on electronic learning that benefits different student populations. We also heard about how in the French context, an increase in tuition for foreign students attending French universities has implications. My new project is about tuition funding and who is advantaged and disadvantaged.

Nicole Nguyen There are also people working on how parents’ philanthropic activities can supplement public schooling in ways that advantages them over poor families who can’t raise the same kind of money. What happens when parents supplement funding to public schooling?

Dan Cohen This is also about the college bribery scandal. This is the kind of analysis for which the critical lens allows us to see the underlying power relations.

Nicole Nguyen If you are interested in gentrification, you have to talk about schools too. Even if your in-roads are not necessarily schools but it’s something else, you can see how schools are critical to these other geographic processes that are probably more centered in the AAG or in other geography specialty groups, like economic or urban geography.

Alice Huff In terms of the sessions we organized this year, we had papers centered on school spaces―for people whose primary work and experience is in the classroom.

Nicole Nguyen Yes, and also others speaking of contested futures. Sallie Marston, for example, and her work on school gardens. It’s about the role of gardens in what happens in schools, but also in broader economic context―school gardens’ role as both about what is going on at schools and gardens within a wider racial context.

Alice Huff That movement from school spaces to gentrification to segregation are more typical geographic topics. But we find that schooling is often mentioned. It has to be. So, people working on these topics will find themselves in our work by tracing out those connections.

EuropeNow What about methodologies? How do you go about doing work in critical geographies of education?

Dan Cohen I think it’s less about methods than about the attention to power and the questions you ask. There is fantastic work being done in geographies of education through quantitative methodologies, specifically using critical GIS (Geographic Information System). Ee-Seul Yoon at the University of Manitoba looks at how students travel through cities and how that’s related to marketization of education and the ways in which students understand their city. But all of us here focus more on qualitative methods. I use mixed methods, depending on what I am studying. Sometimes the questions I ask require me to look at financial indicators, and sometimes the questions I ask are better met through interviews or observation at events. I don’t think there are specific methods, but it’s the questions you focus on while paying attention to power relations.

Nicole Nguyen I agree. I have done an ethnographic study at a school, but I’ve also done interviews of policy makers. It’s more about the questions that are asked and the pursuit of those questions from a critical perspective. There is no right or wrong method; we’ve seen all kinds of methods in this work.

Alice Huff There is surely a lean towards the qualitative in the critical. I agree with Dan and Nicole that it’s the questions that lead methodological choices. I think there is a strong strand in research in this area that takes seriously the experiences and understandings of people who are involved in schooling. But it does not have to always be qualitative. As geographers and academics, we do not have a lock on what it means to be involved in these sorts of movements. We partner with organizations that do grassroots work and it’s important that that expertise is also reflected in our own work.

Dan Cohen For quantitative examples, people have asked children to draw boundaries of their own neighborhood, so that the production of these boundaries does not come in top-down way but trying to understand how people within a school area come up with boundaries for that area.

Alice Huff I also think it’s about the centrality of the questions that we ask. In my work, I may begin with questions that come out the literature and conversations I have with others or previous work that I have done, but questions are profoundly shaped by my work with people in the communities I work with. It’s important to open up our questions so they are not just ours, but shared.

Nicole Nguyen As an example, at one point I wanted to do a participatory action research project with a community organization. When I approached them, they said they were not interested because they could study these problems on their own, but that they needed me to go across the country to interview high-level people. So, you need to understand that your sense about social movement research could be different from other people’s. I am hesitant to say there is a particular set of methods to do critical research. It can take on so many forms. Some people want numbers in their struggle against particular systems, so we need to be open to that. The epistemic questions to know who has knowledge and the kind of knowledge you are pursuing are more pressing than knowing which methods or questions to use in critical scholarship.

EuropeNow Listening to you, what I’m hearing is that this is difficult work. What are the main challenges you’ve encountered in doing this kind of critical work?

Nicole Nguyen Disciplinarily, social movement work is not intelligible to education, nor to geography. Education people don’t understand how geography fits. They might ask if we do maps. And in geography, if you study education, it’s not necessarily as valued as other research. That’s the hurdle. In my own experience, as a graduate student pursuing an education PhD and interested in geography, I felt I always had to speak to two audiences, know the research in two different disciplines, know and read the different journals and go to different conferences. That’s why it’s important to create a subfield, so you don’t have to be speaking to everyone all at once. You can speak to people who’ve read what you have read, who use the same vocabulary and frameworks, so you can develop your intellectual thinking. Otherwise, you can feel pulled in different directions, or feel fidelity for one discipline over another. Part of the goal for this Specialty Group is to create that subfield and have a space to support scholars―especially doctoral students―who are coming into it.

Alice Huff I think that disciplinarily speaking, my experience is like that of many others. We’ve been talking about our relationship to communities we work with and within and about what accountability looks like. What does good and ethical scholarship look like? We are not only translating our work to different academic audiences, but also working in a more activist way, which is not necessarily a role that is only ours in critical geographies of education. I think it’s worth mentioning, it comes up in conversation.

Nicole Nguyen There is also the tension that the work that supports social movements is not always valued by the university. The things we are doing might not count towards tenure, or get you a byline on a top-tier journal. But they are important to both your own relationships and accountabilities to the communities with which you are working. How to balance and navigate that tension is an ongoing process.

EuropeNow How do you maneuver that tension emerging from being critical of the very institution from which you emanate and that you incarnate?

Nicole Nguyen I remember that when I first arrived at the University of Illinois-Chicago, someone told me “my role at this institution is to divert resources back to communities.” We are a public university. People’s tax dollars go to universities, but universities do not necessarily serve poor communities of color in Chicago. The work this person was trying to do was not only make sure that research go back to communities, but also actually divert resources back to them. Resources can be financial, intellectual, or human resources. It’s important to make that subtext part of the text with communities in understanding how you can be tied up with this thing that can be very damaging to communities and in trying to carve out space for alternatives.

Dan Cohen We all study education and have our questions. But we also have our beliefs about the emancipatory potential of education. So, in working within those institutions, part of the imperative is to shape any institution in which you are involved to realize that potential. I don’t see it as a contradiction as much as a political imperative and opportunity. How do you model education, what do you teach in the classroom, how can you help students who are first generation students and students from marginalized backgrounds? What an institution is can feel alienating for those groups. What is your personal role in that institution to help those students, even if it’s not formally written in the contract?

Alice Huff I think there is a nice parallel with what we said earlier about the need to move from critique to action. It’s not enough to critique the institutions we are a part of. But we know that it is a crucial piece, both institutionally and as we are thinking about our work.

EuropeNow Is it easy to be a scholar-activist? Has there been support in academia for this kind of work? If not, do you think it might be changing?

Dan Cohen I don’t think in terms of that label. What I mean is that it’s really hard to hold both those commitments at once.

EuropeNow What is the difference then between action and activism, from the perspective of a scholar?

Alice Huff I think it changes with the different stages in your career. What does it mean to do critical activist work, or to be radical, as a graduate student, as an assistant professor without tenure, or as someone not affiliated with an institution? These are not questions that can be answered once and for all. They continue to be salient in different ways at different times. But the one thing I would say is that it is often very helpful to do that work in a collective space, in collaboration with others. It’s very difficult to be on your own trying not only to do it, but just to figure out howto do it. If we are in conversation with each other, our questions may not be resolved, but we have resources for thinking about what scholar activism might be.

Nicole Nguyen Thinking about my own trajectory… Being in graduate school, people would tell me that this “organizing stuff” I did was something that’s on the side, not central to my studies, and that it should not be treated that way. Going into an academic position, it was not valued, not taken seriously by institutions. But now that I’ve been offered tenure, I feel that I can do whatever I want. So I don’t care so much this year about academic publications; I can write things for communities and it’s more about doing the right thing. It feels like it will have more impact on people, even if it’s still about my research. I can do radio, for example. I feel that this year for me there has been a strong shift because I don’t feel that I have to prove my credentials as an academic. I can focus solely on what needs to be told.

EuropeNow Alice mentioned earlier that geography was uniquely positioned to do this work well. Why do you think that geography is particularly well suited to examine issues of power relations in education? Why not sociology, for example? What do geographers do differently?

Dan Cohen From my own work, I would say that one thing is methodologically the ability to work across scales that highlights how power circulates from places to different places and helps think through why it manifests differently in different sites.

Alice Huff I think that to be even more specific, there have been movements to disassociate education from its geographic context and social context, thereby limiting the emancipatory power of learning and obscuring mechanisms by which education is used to forward social, political, and economic projects. Geographers are particularly well situated to examine these relationships and how education might  transform places.

Nicole Nguyen My training is in sociology of education. I think that the questions geographers are asking are these important ones that get at power and reproduction of inequality. I don’t think that sociology fully addresses these questions. You see spatial turns in education research and trends in sociology, because folks are recognizing that place and space matter and that it’s been absent. Other disciplines are also realizing that space matters and trying to change to reflect that recognition. Geographers can ask these questions because they fit our disciplinary thinking. But we also draw on sociology, political science, and other disciplines in pursuit of answering those questions.


To learn more about the AAG Critical Geographies of Education Specialty Group, please visit: http://www.critgeoed.com/.


Nicole Nguyen is associate professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is author of A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in US Public Schools (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror (University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

Dan Cohen is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. His work on the marketization of American schooling has been published in Antipode, Critical Studies in Education, Environment and Planning A, and Urban Geography. His most recent project is studying the financialization of student debt.

Alice Huff recently obtained her PhD in Geography from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is currently a research associate with the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. Her work focuses on the democratic implications of grassroots schooling struggles.

Hélène B. Ducros is Chair of Research and Pedagogy at EuropeNow. Her work on landscape perception, heritage preservation, and material culture has been published in Norois, Sustainable Tourism, Island Studies, The Routledge International Handbook of Walking (2017), Explorations in Place Attachment (Routledge, 2018), and The Routledge Handbook on Place (2020). She co-chairs the CES Critical European Studies Research Network (follow us at @CESCritEuro).


Published on June 3, 2020.


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