Spatial Shock:
Place, Space, and the Politics of Representation

Jenna Vinson

Spatial Shock

I use the term spatial shock to describe students’ feelings of discomfort, uneasiness, or alarm that surface in the moment of crossing a material boundary and visiting an unfamiliar place. It is spatial because the emotional/visceral response is not an inherent response to the place—that is, the rather stable physical instantiation of the school (e.g., bricks, gates, sidewalk, classrooms, or landscaping). Rather, the shock stems from subjective engagement with the place in a particular moment under particular conditions that construct it as an alarming space. When productive, spatial shock brings both recognition of socially-produced assumptions and, potentially, reflection on one’s own subject-position as an outsider to that place. My theory and observations of spatial shock come from my experience as a service-learning coordinator and instructor participating in a University of Arizona (UA) program called Wildcat Writers.

Wildcat Writers

Wildcat Writers is the University of Arizona Writing Program's service-learning initiative. Writing Program instructors team up with local high school teachers in Tucson, Arizona, to facilitate a primarily online writing exchange between First-Year Composition (FYC) students and high school English students. For instance, students may exchange emails in which they discuss writing, shared readings, research projects, or college in general. At least once during the course of the semester partnership, FYC students voluntarily visit the high school, and the high school students visit their college partners on the UA campus.

Teachers and students who have participated in Wildcat Writers often state that the best part of the partnership is the school visit (whether it is on the UA or high-school campus). Not only do students get the opportunity to meet the partner they have been exchanging writing with, they also get to see the places that they work and learn in. For high school students, it may be a chance to experience the campus that they hope to attend someday. For college students, it is a chance to venture outside the college campus (as many travel a distance to attend our state university) and see a local high school.

However, teachers have noted that some college students' first reactions to the high schools are problematic. For many university students, visiting local, public high schools in low-income neighborhoods is a shocking experience. I share the following teacher narratives in order to concretely theorize spatial shock and claim that strategically social strolling, and the preparation that goes into arranging a self-reflective, spatial practice may encourage university students to broaden their understandings of place and possibility.

My Experience with Wildcat Writers and Spatial Shock

One semester, I partnered my class with Sunnyside High School. After weeks of student writing exchanges, the Sunnyside teacher and I settled on a date to have my students come visit her class. My students would meet their partners and conduct a college question-and-answer session for her senior students. On the day of the visit, my students and I carpooled to the high school. I drove two male students in my car. As we turned to pull into the school parking lot, a security guard stationed in a large rectangular security booth motioned for me to stop the car. He peered into my driver’s side window, taking account of all inside and requesting to see I.D. from everyone.

“What is the purpose of your visit today? Is someone expecting you?” he asked.

I answered his question politely, casually pulling out my license from my wallet at the same time. Once he finished scrutinizing our I.D.s, I put the car in motion and found a parking space. I thought nothing of the interaction as I myself attended a school with a gate and guard and visit similar schools all over Tucson for my work with the Writing Program. Yet, as I switched the engine off I could sense tension in my Honda Accord. The student in the passenger seat—who had been chattering away the whole drive—suddenly looked nervous, eyeing the large blue gate that enclosed the campus. He asked, "Is this a school or a prison?"

I chuckled, asking if he had fences at his school. "Not like this!" he replied.

Later in the semester, I had my students reflect on the experience of partnering with students from Sunnyside. Many of them commented on the shock they experienced when visiting the high school. Indeed, some students saw the layout, design, and material conditions of the school as a real disadvantage to their student partner's high school experience. They were certain that only oppressive, limiting experiences could happen in that seemingly harsh place.

Other Instructors' Experiences with Spatial Shock

Curious as to whether other Wildcat Writers instructors observed moments of spatial shock when taking their students to high schools, I decided to interview two Wildcat Writers teachers. I sent FYC instructors Amy Parziale and Faith Kurtyka the following questions via email:

  1. Describe the general reactions/responses your students had to visiting their high school partner's school. Did your students walk onto the high school campus with their high school partners or did they meet their high school partners in their classroom?
  2. Do you think that the students' relationships changed after experiencing each other's spaces (either the high school or college campus) and after seeing each other face-to-face? If so, how? If not, why? Describe the kind of relationship you believe your students had with their partners (working partners, friends, mentee/mentor, distant just-got-to-do-this-for-school acquaintances, etc).
  3. What do you each see as the benefits of actually visiting the schools? What are the potential issues it raises?

Faith's Experience

Faith Kurtyka, a graduate student in the University of Arizona's Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English program, is a composition instructor who used her experience with Wildcat Writers as evidence for an argument about the overlooked experiences of students doing the service in service-learning classes. Thus, she was eager to answer my questions and even agreed to allow me to provide quotes from a paper she wrote for a graduate course. Below are some of her thoughts/responses on her partnership with Desert View High School.

From Faith's seminar paper:

Class disparity was made evident...on the day I told my students that we had been invited to the high school to meet the students. I expected them to be excited because they would get to meet face-to-face with the person they had been emailing. This was how the students responded to my announcement:

"Oh God no."

"Jesus Christ, the kids there – "

"Have you seen that place?"

"No thank you."

One student began a story about how a student at the high school (not involved in our email exchange) had threatened to beat her up.

"SAVE IT!" I barked in my best teacher-voice.

Rhetorically, in the emails sent to the high school students, they did not assert privilege, but in the comfort of the classroom, safe within the confines of the ivory tower, they did. Afraid of the community, desirous of remaining within the "safe" boundaries of the university, I can see that it wasn't just my overstructuring of the email communication that contributed to the hard line between the college and high school students. The space and materiality of the high school factored into their reaction, particularly in the way it disrupted their own class identity. The high school is composed of flat, square, red-brick buildings surrounded by a high fence. Security guards are positioned around the school and staff a booth at the front gate to check in visitors. The school, in short, could not look more like an oppressive institution, a physical presence of the social forces that serve to deny people access to higher education.

In response to my specific questions, Faith wrote the following email message:

As I mentioned in my paper, the students were EXTREMELY hesitant to visit Desert View. They saw it as an unsafe space, and I had to offer extra credit to get anyone to go. Several features of the school stuck out to both my students and me: 1. The guard positioned at the front gate, who asked for our names, 2. The way the school was set up as a compound, with a central office and the outside hallways extending like spider arms into the classrooms, 3. The racial makeup of the students, so wildly different than U of A, 4. The fact that many of the young men at the school were wearing military uniforms as part of a junior ROTC program, and 5. As one of my students described it, the "R-Rated" hallways. Many students were kissing or hugging or making out in the hallways. We walked to Ms. Denbo's class and met her students there. Once we got into the class, things actually went really great. My students sat by their partners and chatted with them. One of my students gave her research presentation, and then we just had an open forum for questions about college. It went really well. This was the best thing we did as part of Service Learning! I'm not sure I think you can really build a relationship with someone without seeing them face to face. I wish I had worked harder to make sure more people could go, and I wish more had volunteered -- I'm going to work on that for next time. Once my students actually got into the classroom, things were okay -- it was more "crossing the boundary" into the school that was the problem.

Amy's Experience

Amy Parziale is a graduate student in the University of Arizona's literature program who participated in Wildcat Writers for two years. Here are her thoughts/responses to her experience partnering with Cholla High School. students not only got to see the classroom our matches [i.e., partners at the high school] use for class but also the Cholla library. We had to walk through campus in order to get to the trailer classrooms where [our high school teacher’s] class was held, so they saw a lot of the campus. I remember students commenting both "This is nothing like my school" and "This is exactly like my school", which was interesting because then the students talked to each other about their past educational experiences and the spaces they were used to. I think some students were genuinely shocked at the trailer classrooms, which were so hot. I also remember a student commenting on how "non-academic" the books in the school library were. Finally, our matches did not have access to computers, so that led to a discussion of technology needs and budgets.

Meeting face-to-face and getting to ask specific questions about their educational space definitely changed our students' relationships. I think my students had a better understanding of how the level of expectations changes depending upon the environment in which you are educated. They got to see firsthand the distractions from education that happen at Cholla - like not having the technology needed and being in a "hot box" for class. I think my students also felt much more empathetic toward their mentees and got a better feeling for why the work they were receiving was not able to meet the expectations they had for the high school students.

Since we got to meet twice face-to-face at Cholla, I found that most of my students became friendly with their matches and with the other students in the class. I wouldn't go as far as to say they were friends because I do not think any of the relationships continued after the semester ended. Perhaps I'm wrong in that assumption, given Facebook and MySpace. I felt my students were very friendly with their matches but still professional. Having my students make comments like, "I can't imagine going to a school like Cholla" and then having other students in class that actually went to Cholla was a bit stressful. But, my students then talked out their comments and explained their points of view in such a way that I don't think there were any permanent hurt feelings.

I do think I lucked out with the students I had last year, as they got along exceptionally well, and many of my students became friends through our class. The benefits of visiting of the school are endless. I knew meeting their matches face-to-face would help my students become better mentors, but I found that visiting Cholla made them more empathetic to their matches and each other, and helped keep their research projects on education in America grounded in reality (instead of becoming an abstract issue they were arguing about, it was an issue that had real life consequences).

Spatial Shock and Service Learning

Although I originally positioned these personal narratives as stand-alone pieces, adjacent to my description of Wildcat Writers at the svr2 event, I will take the opportunity here to reflect on the connections between Faith’s, Amy’s, and my own experiences with high school visits.

Faith’s narrative stands out in its illustration of how socially exchanged stories about a place may construct attitudes about both that place and the people who belong there. The college students who were familiar with (or at least cognizant of) Desert View, knew it through shared stories about the school as dangerous, alarming, and comprised of potentially violent students. Indeed, Desert View seems to be what Nedra Reynolds (2004) would call a “contested place,” or a place marked by “some conflict, a mix and diversity that some students will find unnerving while others will find it refreshing” (p. 100). Faith’s students found this contested place and the diversity of its student body (primarily low-income and Mexican-American students, see Arizona Department of Education, 2008), unnerving—a feeling that Faith explains stems from her middle-class students’ economic and educational privileges and their assumptions about low-income communities. Yet, Amy encounters her own unnerving situation when her class includes students who are repulsed by the idea of Cholla High School, as well as students who attended that school or schools “like that,” inspiring conversation about schooling and difference. Again, conflicted, controversial shared stories and subjective relations to the place render each school contested, and shape the experience of the visit even before either instructor takes her students there.

In contrast, students from my course, most of whom were from other states, were unfamiliar with our partner school. The students who volunteered to go were excited to meet their partners and see their school. However, as evident from my narrative, our visit was marked with tension as well. Amy, Faith, and I observed that during the actual visit, the layout and material conditions of the school startled the college students. Indeed, witnessing first-hand a high level of security around a school campus troubles grand narratives about school as a site for guided exploration, creativity, and intellectual exchange. Gates and security officials connote limitations, surveillance, and the priority of behavior control. Further, for students who come from high schools with air-conditioning and Internet-equipped computers, visiting a school without such luxuries (or thinking of such things as luxuries at all) is alarming. While Faith’s students explicitly note the diversity of the high school student body (with their different ethnicities, ROTC uniforms, and public displays of affection), they also note the gated entrance, library materials, and structural design, and use these observations to come to conclusions about what it is like to go to school there. In short the practiced place (or space) of the school, how it is structured and how it is used, shocks the students. Perhaps spatial shock stems partly from a moment when a seemingly shared identity position (student attending school) is challenged by a startling recognition of difference constructing and constructed by space. The middle-class college students realized that where you go to school determines/affects what “school” and being a “student” is. My student-passenger’s question, “Is this a school or a prison?” suggests a belief that schooling and student activity do not mesh with such a structure. How could his high school student-partner be a student here?

I see these moments of tension as different from Reynolds’ “contested place” in that these feelings are actively created within the “place.” For me, this shows that places in the everyday (even those that are not well-known as controversial or diverse) are always spaces, socially defined and, thus, consistently contested, negotiated, and (re)defined.

Reynolds worried that low-income, diverse, contested places, and the middle-class, normative ideologies that render them such bodes ill for service-learning initiatives (p. 9). She supported Bruce Herzberg’s (1994) argument that service learning does not in-and-of itself raise important “questions about social structures, ideology, and social justice” and, instead, tends to focus college students on serving the hapless individual (p. 309). Yet, Wildcat Writers is an interesting case because it begins with a student-to-student personal interaction (the exchange of writing) and then encourages an interaction set in a physical space outside of the composition classroom. As Amy noted in her narrative, college students’ attitudes about their student partners changed when they recognized the structures within which they had to work. Perhaps this leads to student recognition of social structures shaping unequal schooling conditions—certainly a social justice issue. But, surely, this interaction could just as easily foster college students' senses that they are saving poor high school students who are stuck within such a terrible place by telling them about college.

I agree with Reynolds (2004) that “writers or learners need strategies for entering unfamiliar areas or ways to recognize the politics of space enacted in various places” (p. 4) and that service-learning teachers (like me) need to do more than just have students reflect on experiences of spatial shock after-the-fact. It is interesting to note how Faith, Amy, and I tried to mediate these tense moments: I laugh at a student’s discomfort and position him as different for not having a similar school place, Faith barks for silence, and Amy works to keep her game face under the stress of student conflict. Clearly these moments, and the eagerness with which we exchanged emails about these incidents, illustrate we would benefit from guidance on how to better handle these remarks and how to prepare students for these visits. I know that, as the Wildcat Writers coordinator, I could have done much more to help teachers prepare their students for a more productive spatial rhetorical practice than just walking hesitatingly from a shocking front gate experience to the apparent sanctuary of the high school classroom. Yet, it is important to note that even with these rather tense and complicated moments, we all believe in the school-to-school visit. It is our favorite part of the semester-long exchange and the students who attend the trip tend to agree.

But how can rhetoric and composition instructors make spatial shock a teaching moment? How can we negotiate and work with the fact that stereotypes, subject-positions (class, race, gender, sexuality, age), and shared stories often determine what our students see even before they arrive? How can we encourage our students to see these seemingly structured and stable places as actively embodied spaces, shaped not only by these seemingly austere physical structures but also by the students who attend those schools?


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