purple square, return  open_space:

for the future you

I am collecting data for my master's thesis. I ask students in my first-year composition class to create their own definitions of words like space, place, environment, and nature. We will spend the rest of this semester revisiting these definitions, revising them, and reading them in conversation with essays about space, place, and nature. How have others defined these terms, and how are their definitions evident in their writing? Our work is grounded in an understanding of ecocomposition suggested by Sidney I. Dobrin and Christian R. Weisser (2002):

Ecocomposition is the study of the relationships between environments (and by that we mean natural, constructed, and even imagined places) and discourse (speaking, writing, and thinking). Ecocomposition draws from disciplines that study discourse (primarily composition, but also including literary studies, communication, cultural studies, linguistics, and philosophy) and merges their perspectives with work in disciplines that examine environment (these include ecology, environmental studies, sociobiology, and other "hard" sciences). As a result, ecocomposition attempts to provide a holistic, encompassing framework for studies of the relationship between discourse and environment. (p. 572)

In other words, ecocomposition moves beyond the study of relationships among writers, readers, and texts to include critical explorations of the extent to which writing — more broadly, communication — affects and is affected by the locations through which it moves (p. 572). By asking students to define spatial terms for themselves, I hope that we can explore how our own writing affects and is affected by the places we experience.

But I have not heard of Nedra Reynolds's (2004) Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference, and I do not know who Michel de Certeau is. I am in the spatial turn, but I am unaware of it. I move toward something, participation in spatial rhetoric, but the distance between me and the ground is so great as to render imperceptible the speed with which I travel. It's all green and brown patchwork squares from here anyway.

purple square, section 2
Doreen Massey (2005) in For Space argued for a reimagining of human relationships to space, and she grounded her argument in three propositions — that space emerges from relational interaction, that space and multiplicity are interdependent, and that space is unfinished or "always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far" (p. 9). The most compelling of these propositions, that space is always open, makes the most sense to me in the context of the singularity of received history, the story we tell about how our society has come to be and where it is headed. Massey argued that the "frameworks of Progress, of Development and of Modernisation" assume a narrative structure in which the future is already scripted. Setting, exposition, conflict, resolution — progress is clean and demands movement through these phases. If, however, we can reimagine space as multidimensional — not flat and to be filled, but a collection of always-growing and multidirectional trajectories — we can understand her proposition that, to redress social injustice, we must act with the knowledge that the future is not known. This seems obvious, and Massey acknowledged this earlier in her work (p. 9). Nevertheless, we act, she argued, as if this is not the case. The future is not an inevitable denouement in the story of progress, because the future is a space constructed of (possible) relationships among individuals — relationships, thus, too numerous to be accounted for in an imposed story of progress (pp. 11-12).

Massey's proposition helps me reimagine the classroom space I share with my students. If it is to be open, I must enter it with the knowledge that, for better or worse, the academic semester seems to carry with it a story of progress, of constant movement toward perfection, toward the A. Students know this story, and they write their academic experience with it. What do I have to do to get an A, they ask. I received a B on the first assignment, and a C on the second, they say. How is that possible?

The future must be open, the semester cannot be closed. Progress, constant and steady, is, for many, a fiction. Instead, I hope that a close study of spatial rhetorics in the composition classroom — to include analyses and activities like those proposed throughout this hypertext project — will help students see space as happening among peoples rather than as a void to be filled with one label, one truth, one story about how it came to be. Rather, thinking critically about the openness of space might help students see what they do in our classroom spaces as bound up with the work of their classmates and as a story with a multiplicity of possibilities for growth, reflection, and re-growth.

purple square, section 3
My days are full, often academically challenging and compelling, but what I remember most about days recently passed are my daughter's bowel movements. Before she was born I pushed her into the world, I knew about the importance of gleaning information from messy diapers. They reveal secrets about the hopefully healthy body functions of a child too young to tell you she's constipated, crampy, eating too much iron, or dehydrated. But I did not realize how much the day's degree of happiness would depend upon my reading of her diaper's contents. It is particularly important, I have read, to monitor the diapers of breastfed babies. How much are they eating? Are they consuming enough calories to maintain a healthy position on the growth charts distributed at the pediatrician's office? Positive that she wasn't eating enough — that I wasn't providing enough — I looked forward to each diaper, and I hoped for the descriptions detailed in parenting books: mustard in color, the consistency of smooth peanut butter, and sometimes seedy. Seedy? Like sunflower seeds or mint seeds? Not sure. A peanut butter consistency? Like hippie peanut butter you buy from Whole Foods and have to stir every time you want to use it? Or are we talking about your standard, creamy Jif, the one choosy moms choose? I guess it resembles peanut butter, but who can say?

If the diapers were difficult to interpret, the scales would not lie. Every two months, I waited anxiously to hear the nurse pronounce my daughter's weight. At one month, she was in the 20th percentile. At two, the 50th. Yes, she is perfect, thank you. So I was concerned — very concerned — when, at her four month visit, Zora had regressed to the 25th percentile. Is she happy, the pediatrician asks. Yes, very, I reply. She laughs all the time. She sleeps well, and everyone says she's so content. She's happy.

Then she's fine, and I'm not worried. You shouldn't be either.

This does not stop me from standing watch over her diapers, comparing consistencies from the evening before, taking them into better light so as to determine the exact color with which we're dealing — a greenish mustard but maybe a little brighter than before? I don't even really like mustard, I say. I didn't know I was supposed to pay attention to its colors. It's mustard, Michael says. Throw it away.

But are those gray spots? Was that chunkiness there yesterday? Maybe we should weigh it.

Is she happy, Michael asks. Yes, very, I reply.

Then she's fine, and I'm not worried. You shouldn't be either.

Okay. But shouldn't she be rolling over by now?

thirdspacing the university: performing spatial and visual literacies hello/goodbye: project introduction/conclusion bringing svr to fyc: video responses and experiences orientation: svr, theory, and invention thirdspace: mapping svr at the university of arizona references: all text sources used in my project
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svr, theory, and invention

In this space, I present a little of the theory that informed my ideas for the design of this project. Below, you will find glimpses of two academic texts and the theories explored within them. Each excerpt is accompanied by small, reflective pieces in which I consider how the threads of theory might work both in this webbed space and in the classroom.

geography and composition
space and place


geography and composition

from Nedra Reynolds (2004), Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference

"Characterized by paradoxical spaces, confusion between public and private, and resulting identities in flux, the modern city becomes a text made up of both material and metaphorical elements, the flaneur its composer." (p. 69)
[ . . . ]
"Strolling through the literature of modernity, geography, urban studies, and critical theory, the flaneur embodies the spatial practices of walking as writing, writing as walking; his main focus is to absorb and render the city through writing." (p. 70)
[ . . . ]
"The rambler is a figure worth habilitating for material rhetorics and geographies of writing not because he solves something in our dilemmas about visual culture but because he embodies method. Forms of flanerie stand for an approach to street life, a way of moving through the world, collecting, arranging, and remembering, dependent on seeing." (p. 70)

When I first read about the flaneur in Reynolds's (2004) Geographies of Writing, I was excited to find such a fancy word for an activity I enjoy every day: walking, seeing, and thinking about spaces humans create. As a practice, however, flanerie privileges a few things: the ability to walk and see. With these limitations in mind, we can expand flanerie to be more inclusive by emphasizing critical thinking as a way of experiencing the world. Here, I think the practice of flanerie could be an entry point for students. What projects and research ideas might come from a collection of students moving through the university with all of their available senses fully engaged? In Michel de Certeau's (1980) The Practice of Everyday Life, I see an opportunity to provide students with terms (space and place) that might otherwise seem ordinary or uncomplicated. These terms might help teachers open up a dialogue about the relationships among sight, action, and the stories we (collectively?) construct about everyday places.


space and place

from Michel de Certeau (1980), The Practice of Everyday Life

"In modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes a 'metaphor' — a bus or a train. Stories could also take this noble name: every day, they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them. They are spatial trajectories." (p. 115)
[ . . . ]
"[S]pace is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of actualization, transformed into a term dependent upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts." (p. 117)
[ . . . ]
"In short, space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers." (p. 117)

What a compelling idea: a mode of transport is a metaphor. Stories transport people from place to place just as metaphors transport people back and forth between what we already know of an object and what the metaphor calls us to imagine of the object. And just as the awareness of a metaphor changes our perception of the thing it attempts to reshape, stories change how we see and relate to places, how we make sense of them. Walking from place to place, we create stories, new links of meaning as we physically link places with each movement.

I am reminded of Lev Manovich (2001). A webbed space is a collection of links that resists narrative construction. But choices are rhetorical, necessarily wrapped up in narrative, no? Even if a collection of always-growing links and webpages exists without narrative, users create a story as they move from one link to another, from one place to another. Is this what "interactive" means?