Place-based Writing Research and Theory in Composition & Rhetoric

Early place-based research and theory in Composition & Rhetoric took as its point of departure either the physical environment or the cultural forces at work in that environment. The focus on the physical environment owed a debt to scholarship in technical communication on environmental rhetorics (Karis and Killingsworth; Killingsworth and Palmer; Herndl and Brown). Such scholarship helped enable the emergence of “ecocomposition,” which “places ecological thinking and composition in dialogue with one another in order to both consider the ecological properties of written discourse and the ways in which ecologies, environments, locations, places, and natures are discursively affected” (Weisser and Dobrin, 2001, 2). Their edited volume offers approaches for linking composition with sustainability (Owens), the politics of place (Drew), liberatory pedagogies (Plevin), ecofeminism (Gaard), and writerly voice (Keller), among other topics. Owens followed with Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation, stressing the urgency of the topic and forecasting in his appendix the focus on climate change that now occupies both scholars and the general public; in 2006 he emphasized “understanding  the mind as inseparably connected to environment”(368). 

Focusing place-based writing research and theory more directly on cultural forces at work in environments is often grounded in critical, cultural, or human geography as conducted by Henri LeFebvre, Edward Soja, Yi-Fu Tuan, Doreen Massey, or Tim Cresswell. It is exemplified in works such as Nedra Reynold’s Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference or her chapter "Cultural Geographies and Images of Place." Reynolds, who helped broaden the focus on temporal processes in Composition Studies by studying student writers' spatial practices in both London and Rhode Island, reflects on the debt to geography:

This study of writing as spatial practices, informed by postmodern and cultural geography and parallel to so much work in ecocomposition, continues a tradition in composition studies of foraging in other disciplines for theories and approaches that help us understand writing. New maps of writing, maps I’ve only begun to explore in these pages, will devote a layer to the where of writing—not just the places where writing occurs, but the sense of place and space that readers and writers bring with them to intellectual work of writing, to navigating, arranging, remembering, and composing. Writing can be studied or understood only in a cultural context…. (176)

Because cultural contexts are inextricably embedded in three-dimensional contexts, recent work on place-based rhetorics and composition instruction has embraced both sides of this initial dichotomy.

In "Deep Maps: Teaching Rhetorical Engagement through Place-conscious Education,” for example, Robert Brooke and Jason McIntosh have explored the “drawings of psychological locations (both literal and abstract) created by writers to represent their relationship to place”(131). They take their title from the work of Native American William Least Heat-Moon, who uses the term “deep maps” to “describe his rendering of the history, geobotany, cultural significance, and personal significance of one county in Kansas”(131). 

Shannon Carter and James H. Conrad have collaborated as rhetorician and archivist to offer principles for using oral interviews with people from under-represented groups to “sustain the local,” re-presenting oral histories that characterize a part of northern Texas.  Johnathan Mauk has explored the lack of a sense of “where” among his community college composition students, most of them commuters, for whose lives academia occupies only a “marginal place”(204). Ironically, his chapter adopts the practice often imposed through IRB approval to assign pseudonyms to both people and institutions, naming his site of study as “Gordon Community College, a growing school in a Midwestern city”(201) and thus depriving readers of bringing their own knowledge to bear on a specific place. (Our research participant John Cusick, like Mauk, acknowledges the time-management demands on students on commuter campuses, and he has creatively crafted his syllabus to engender the sense of campus place--and commitment to it--that Mauk finds lacking.)

Ellen Cushman, known for her work exploring campus-community dynamics of writing in Syracuse, has explored location and (dis)placement in Composition Studies as a means to inflect students’ dispositions:

If we agree with Bourdieu that the habitus writes our dispositions to act in particular ways, then place is written into the body’s location. When we are displaced, i.e., going through culture shock or moving into a contact zone, we need to learn new dispositions to act and speak in various ways. Our bodies are rewritten both in theory and practice with every essay, every assignment, every learning activity. 361

Similarly, Kristie Fleckenstein has observed that “Places and people are tied together in intricate feedback loops by which they create each other. Places and people interanimate”(157). She cites anthropologist Miriam Kahn to emphasize that “Places capture the complex emotional, behavioral, and moral relationships between people and their territory”(158), as well as the philosopher Edward S. Casey to observe that place “is more of an event than a thing to be assimilated to known categories”(1996, 159, emphasis in original). (Casey cites Aristotle’s claim in The Physics that “place is prior to all things”[1993, 13].) As an event, place transcends the oft-understood meaning of “setting” and enters into pedagogical agency (Bruland), thus providing ripe circumstances for teaching and learning to write.

Marilyn Cooper, whose “The Ecology of Writing” has been drawn upon by a number of scholars researching place-based writing, has stressed that writing figures into (local) idea systems: “if one is conducting surveys to increase the efficiency of a particular department of a publishing firm, one must understand what the department does and how it fits into the firm as a whole”(368). This ecological approach has led Compositionists to “think globally and act locally”: Goggin and Waggoner describe an approach to instruction in Arizona that emphasizes “situated practice” and “critical framing.” In the discipline of technical communication, Michael Salvo has engaged the global/local dichotomy to teach sustainable practices in a region heavily dominated by industrialized food production.

The ecological model has also led scholars to re-think theories of writing that posit writer, message, and reader in a given rhetorical situation (often represented in the "rhetorical triangle") as "atomistic" elements (Syverson, 8) and instead represent these elements occurring across many dimensions, including the "physical, social, psychological, spatial, and temporal (Syverson 23). Jenny Edbauer, in an analysis of rhetorical situation in the public discourses in Austin, TX, has built upon this return to Bitzer's well-known definition of the rhetorical situation (and its critiques), to suggest re-reading the elements of a rhetorical situation "against the historical flux in which they move"(8).

Nathan Shepley has followed her lead to focus his professional writing students’ attention on "flux“--"the unique physical transformations surrounding the students and on the discourse-based interests and ideologies that affect and are affected by those transformations” in Houston (n.pag). Shepley observes that in the natural/cultural dichotomy that runs through place-based writing research and theory, most work at the K-12 level has focused on the “natural,” and with an activist agenda that connects with critical pedagogy, particularly in the work of Gruenewald and Gruenewald and Smith.

The brief review of literature here confirms Reynolds’s claim that Compositionists “forage in other disciplines,” and whether or not we call it a discipline or a field, Indigenous Studies has provided guidance in elaborating place-based pedagogies. The work of Brooke and McIntosh reflects this guidance, and place-based researchers and theorists often cite works from Feld and Basso’s edited collection, Senses of Place. In addition to Casey’s philosophical essay, that volume includes chapters by anthropologists seeking an indigenous perspective on the western apache landscape, among the waterfalls in Papua, New Guinea, and among the Lumbee in North Carolina. The field of Indigenous Studies has particular import for our research, given the vibrant presence of Native Hawaiians--or Kanaka Maoli--on our campus and among our research participants (and analysts). Kanaka Maoli scholar kuʻualoha hoʻomanawanui has posited place as the most important part of her teaching of composition, in which knowledge comes first and foremost from the ʻāina—or “land,” in an English translation that loses much of power of the concept (hoʻomanawanui). Our research participant Noʻukahauʻoli Revilla explains some of the full connotations of ʻāina.

In their “Critical Introduction” to Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers, Vandenberg, Hum, and Clary-Lemon say that “rhetorical effectiveness in a given location depends upon one’s interpretation of and attitude toward place, and much public and institutional discourse is engaged—tacitly or otherwise—in endorsing particular ideas about place and the roles individuals should play in it”(13). The instructors who participated in our research were all concerned with enhancing their students' rhetorical effectiveness, and students’ comments frequently indicate that their sense of effectiveness as rhetors did indeed improve through their place-based writing instruction. An invaluable part of our research approach is that viewers can witness that effectiveness in action, viewing video clips of over thirty students responding to a standardized questionnaire.

Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon also theorize the place of place in our collective scholarly practices, and in particular as the field of Composition & Rhetoric trains graduate students to suppress place as part of their scholarship:

At the graduate level, academic achievement typically follows the capacity to write one's way into a "hyperreality," a conceptual or transcendent "where" whose authority in some measure derives from the perception of being cut loose from place and time. Canonical modeling implicitly proposes that both student and evaluating faculty member are located not “in place,” but within a virtual reality populated by generalizations. Like any scholarly discourse—as it is represented by its written artifacts—composition studies must erase the particularity of place in order to have value in many places. Editors assure, among other things, that the particularities of a scholar’s experience or observation are sufficiently generalized so as to make the specific point of their emergence largely inconsequential. (95-96)

We connect this critique and this theorizing of place as it figures in the lives of scholars and disciplines with our review of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and with our review of WAC/WID. With hope, our archive on Scholarspace, enabling some generalizations yet also stressing particularizations and their successes in locating students discursively in sophisticated ways, will enable reader-viewers to make use of place-based writing in their own places of work and life. In our "provisional" coding of interviews (see Methodologies), we have taken from place-based writing research & theory three codes:

 (1) "identity," to respond to claims and findings elsewhere that one's identity is explicitly tied to place

(2) "sense of place," to respond to the research territory mapped out by Reynolds and others

(3) "socialization" to respond to the observation that socialization processes occur in specific places. This code also connects with recent research and theory in WAC/WID as to how learning is not only cognitive but also socially-inflected.

Works Cited

Brooke, Robert, and Jason McIntosh. "Deep Maps: Teaching Rhetorical Engagement through Place-conscious Education.” The Locations of Composition. Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser. Albany: SUNY, 2007. 131-50. Print.

Bruland, Holly. Trinary Collaborations in First-Year Composition: A Mixed Methods Study of the University of Hawaiʻi Writing Mentors Program. Unpublished dissertation, 2012. Print.

Carter, Shannon, and James H. Conrad. "In Possession of Community: Toward a More Sustainable Local." College Composition and Communication 64.1 (2012): 82-106. Print.

Casey, Edward S. Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Print.

---. “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena.” Senses of Place. Ed. Steven Field and Keith S. Basso. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. 16-52. Print.

Cooper, Marilyn. “The Ecology of Writing.” College English 48 (1986): 364-375. Print.

Creswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. London: Blackwell. 2004. Print.

Cushman, Ellen. "Location and (Dis)Placement in Composition Pedagogy." Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 358-62. Print.

Davis, Rhonda. " A Place for Ecopedagogy in Community Literacy." Community Literacy Journal 7.2 (2013): 77-91. Print.

Dobrin, Sidney I., and Christian R. Weisser. Natural Discourse: Toward Ecocomposition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Print.

---. "Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment. Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 258-90. Print.

Drew, Julie. “The Politics of Place: Student Travelers and Pedagogical Maps.” Ecocomposition. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 57-68. Print.

Edbauer, Jenny. "Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35(4) (2005): 5-24.

Feld, Steven, and Keith H. Basso, eds. Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1996. Print. 

Fleckenstein, Kristie. "Between Perception and Articulation: Imageword and a Compassionate Place." The Locations of Composition. Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser. Albany: SUNY, 2007. 151-70. Print.

Gaard, Greta. “Ecofeminism and Ecocomposition: Pedagogies, Perspectives, and Intersections.” Ecocomposition. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 163-178. Print.

Goggin, Peter, and Zach Waggoner. "Sustainable Development: Thinking Globally and Acting Locally in the Writing Classroom." Composition Studies 33.2 (2005): 45-67.

Gruenewald, David. A.  “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place.” Educational Researcher 32(4)(2003): 3-12.

Gruenewald, David A., and Gregory A. Smith, eds. Place-based Education in the Global Age: Local Diversity. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 2010. Print.

Herndl, Carl, and Stuart Brown, eds. Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1996. Print.

hoʻomanwanui, kuʻualoha.“Ike ʻĀina: Native Hawaiian Culturally-based Indigenous Literacy. Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being 5 (2008): 203–244. Print.

Karis, Bill, and M. Jimmie Killingsworth, eds. Environmental Rhetorics. Special Issue of Technical Communication Quarterly 6.1 (1997). Print.

Keller, Christopher J. “The Ecology of Writerly Voice: Authorship, Ethos, and Persona.” Ecocomposition. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 193-208. Print.

Keller, Christopher J., and Christian R. Weisser, eds. The Locations of Composition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Print.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie, and Jacqueline Palmer. "The Discourse of 'Environmentalist Hysteria'." Quarterly Journal of Speech 81 (1995): 1-19. Print.

Kirsch, Gesa and Ritchie, Joy. “Beyond the Personal: Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research.” Cross-talk in Composition Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva and Kristin Arola. Illinois: NCTE, 2011. 485-508.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. (D.N. Smith, transl.). Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Reading Human Geography. Ed. T. Barnes and D. Gregory. London: Arnold, 1997. 315-323. Print.

Mauk, Johnathon. "Location, Location, Location: The 'Real' (E)states of Being, Thinking, and Writing in Composition." Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 181-97. Print.

Owens, Derek. Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.

---. “Sustainable Composition.” Ecocomposition. Ed. Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 27-38. Print.

---. "Teaching In Situ." Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 363-70. Print.

Plevin, Arlene. The Liberatory Positioning of Place in Ecocomposition: Reconsidering Paolo Freire. Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.147-62. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.

---. "Cultural Geographies and Images of Place." The Locations of Composition. Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser. Albany: SUNY, 2007. 251-66. Print.

---. "Composition's Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace. Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 226-57. Print.

Salvo, Michael. "Globalization Amid the Cornfields: Teaching Sustainable Practices in the American Midwest." The Writing Instructor. 2010. Web.http://www.writinginstructor.com/pwdisruptions

Shepley, Nathan. “Environmental Flux and Locally Focused College Writing.” Composition Forum 29 (Spring 2014). n. pag. web. 22 March 2015.

Soja, Edward W. (1989). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-imagined Places. New York: Verso. Print.

Syverson, Margaret A. The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Print.

Vandenberg, Peter, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. "Critical Introduction." Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Ed. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 1-20. Print

Vandenberg, Peter, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. "Looking for Location Where It Canʻt Be Found: Possibilities for Graduate Pedagogy in Rhetoric and Composition." The Locations of Composition. Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser. Albany: SUNY, 2007. 91-105. Print.

Weisser, Christian R., and Sidney I. Dobrin. Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Print. 

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