Finding Place

2011, University of Arizona, Tucson

Taking Root, Finding My Place
My move to Tucson in 2008 brought me to a wholly unfamiliar place, resutling in new images and notions of "home." My experience of being uprooted is common to many academics, and it is one that I will encounter again as I move and attempt to take root after a national job search this year. Eric Zencey (1996) wrote about this phenomenon and what he called the “ethos of rootlessness . . . in academe” (p. 15). Zencey argued for a “rooted education” that entailed professors including “local content in their courses” (p. 19). Furthermore, Zencey called for educators to “live where they work and work where they live,” “to take root,” and “to cultivate a sense of place” (p. 19). Though I encountered Zencey’s work after my move to Tucson, my reflections on the past draw a connection between my initial sense of placelessness and my developing desire to discover a new home. In fact, connecting myself, my teaching, and my scholarship to place has become an important way for me to embrace, understand, and take root in Tucson.

Place-Based Education
Zencey’s claims in the “Rootless Professors” align with the growing interdisciplinary place-based education movement. A branch of new or critical localism, David A. Gruenewald and Gregory A. Smith (2008) define place-based education as “a community-based effort to reconnect the process of education, enculturation, and human development to the well-being of community life” (p. xvi). Methods of place-based education vary considerably, ranging from investigating local histories to going on nature walks. My interest in place-based composition pedagogy coincided with my own personal quest for a place-based education about my new city. Thus, when I had the opportunity to teach multi-genre research after the SVR2 event, I considered ways to engage students in my courses with the places and spaces that surrounded them.

Drawing in part on readings from the Spatial and Visual Rhetorics seminar—specifically, Nedra Reynolds (2004) and Michel de Certeau (1984)—I reconsidered the possibility of a multi-genre research project that asked students to critically examine the spaces, places, and communities they inhabit. Whereas in the past students were free to choose any topic they wished for the multi-genre research project, in this iteration, I asked students to choose a local issue that affected a community of which they are a part. I wanted to situate the project in the lived, material realities of my students; I wanted them to see their local places and communities as sites with rich possibilities for inquiry and research.

Reynolds’ (2004) examples of streetwork and de Certeau’s (1984) theorization of walking both led me to require students to get out of the classroom and into the places they were researching for their multi-genre projects. In addition to the more traditional forms of library research, I asked students to conduct some form of ethnographic research (e.g., observation, informal survey, interview). These methods encouraged students to experience the spaces and places they were writing about and to apply their research to the material locations and conditions of those places.

For these place-based, multi-genre research assignments, students chose to connect with a variety of communities and places. One student conducted research related to the University of Arizona campus community; more specifically, she examined university admissions policies. Based on her library and ethnographic research, she constructed a multi-genre project in the form of a mock admissions packet with materials (brochure, video, calendar) for an incoming student. Another student conducted research on xeriscaping, a form of landscaping that reduces water use. This topic very much connected to Tucson as a place located in the desert. Yet another student composed a multi-genre project that argued for including more organic foods in children's diets. She designed a packet that could be sent home to parents of local elementary school students in a nearby neighborhood. All of these students applied their research to a local context and situated their projects within the places they live and learn.

In the end, I believe that asking students to critically consider place in relation to their multi-genre projects led to compositions that were enhanced by local resources: the culture, the people, photographs of places, brochures from local businesses. The search and the journey of that line of inquiry became exciting for students, and I saw it manifested in their final multi-genre projects.

The Importance of Decelerating
This newly formulated, place-based, multi-genre research project emerged slowly and over many years: Starting first with a post-human rhetorics seminar and a paper on cyborg student writers, it was articulated and re-articulated with the goals in writing programs at Elon University and the University of Arizona, shared with other instructors at a seminar event, and ultimately revised in light of readings about space and place. My reflections here trace this evolution of ideas and attest to the importance of slowing down, remembering our past, and documenting the journey. Digital technologies like the Web may be accelerating at rates that collapse time and space (Virilio, 1997), but we can still look for ways to use technologies to interrupt the acceleration, making virtual spaces and places for deceleration. Blogs, personal webpages, and online journals can and have functioned in these ways.

However, Paul Virilio’s caution reminds us of the importance of balancing immaterial online spaces with material places. Virilio argued that “with the advent of world time..., the perspective of local space is vanishing” (p. 125). We have the chance to reclaim local spaces before they vanish. Positioning our teaching and scholarship within the local places in which we live and work may slow the acceleration of our vanishing spaces. Furthermore, when technologies erase parts of our journey, as in the case of my teaching gallery page being taken down, we must remember that we can also use technologies to reconstruct and document those journeys for ourselves and others. In this way, technologies invite us to reflect on our experiences in new ways and trace the evoluntion of our ideas and experiences, as I have done here. Attending to our academic journeys through reflective practice helps us remember, document, and preserve the essence of the path.