Theses Doctoral

Un/tangling girlhood: Negotiations of identity, literacy, and place at an elite, independent private all-girls school in New York City

Bailin Wells, Emily

All-girls schools are commonly framed as institutions meant to empower girls to be their best selves in an enriching environment that fosters learning, compassion, and success. In elite, private schools, notions of language, privilege, and place are often tethered to the school’s history and traditions in ways that are seamlessly woven into the cultural fabric of the institution, subsequently informing particular constructions of students. Therefore, a closer examination of the dialogic power of belonging and expectations between an institution and its members is required. Failure to interrogate language and power dynamics in privileged spaces can perpetuate systems and structures of exclusivity and prohibit the construction of authentically inclusive practices and place-making within educational institutions.
This study, which took place at an elite, independent, private all-girls school (the Clyde School) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, interrogates how ideations of girls and girlhood are constructed and promoted as part of a school’s institutional identity and, in turn, how members of the institution understand, negotiate, and reimagine ideals, expectations, and forms of membership within the Clyde School. Drawing on literature from sociocultural, sociolinguistic, and communications perspectives, and concepts of literacy, identity, and place as constructed, situated and practiced, this study highlights the importance of context and discourse when examining how young people understand themselves, others, and their socially-situated realities.
Data collection included semi-structured interviews, multimodal media-making, and participant observations. The primary method of data analysis was a critical analysis of discourse—an examination of the language, beliefs, values, and practices that collectively work to construct a school’s institutional identity; and foster insight into how students perceive and challenge notions of what it means to be a student at the Clyde School.
The findings of this case study offer analyses of individual, collective, and institutional identity/ies. It considers the discursive practices, critical literacies, and place-making processes that young people use to navigate and negotiate their experiences in a particular sociocultural ecology. This study contributes to understandings of girlhood, youth studies, and elite, private independent school settings and provokes further questions about the possibilities of disrupting storylines and re-storying pedagogies.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Thesis Advisors
Vasudevan, Lalitha M.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 13, 2018