Transforming Rhetoric: Opening Doors through Material and Place-Based Writings

Roseanne Carlo

College of Staten Island, CUNY

No, no, no nos moveran! No, no nos moveran!

Como un arbol firme junto al rio.

No nos moveran.

-- Protest Song

On a Sunday afternoon, several of us stood around a large foldout table in a church hall, assembly-line style, as we added various items to large, clear Ziplocs. When the bag was passed to me, I added packets of Welch’s fruit snacks, two per bag. We were volunteering for a local Tucson organization, No More Deaths / No Más Muertes, which strategically places the bags and gallons of water to aid migrants. The Sonoran Desert—our natural border—is a harsh place, in any season, and thousands of people cross through it every year. The severe dryness and heat, coupled with the vast stretches of open land, claims many lives—no wall necessary.

Touching these artifacts, these everyday items—like toothpaste, crackers, and baby wipes—can inspire a kind of imaginary labor. Who will find this bag? Why is this journey through the desert necessary? What are his or her hopes and dreams, and who does this person love and who loves this person?

One of the No More Deaths / No Más Muertes’s public campaigns is to show the various possessions migrants leave behind in the desert. Stark pictures of piled backpacks and caps and sweaters send a clear message that belongings are not neutral things—that they have force and power in the world because they make us think of the actions, places, and people attached to them.

Objects signify. They have a rhetorical purpose. In the case of migrant border crossing, the left objects bring attention to migrant lives (and their loss) through a haunting absence. They bring attention to the issues of life on the border and the ways colonialism affects all of us living in America. Who left these things?

“Who?” is inevitably a question of character; objects in places beg for a narrative, though one may never be supplied. Rhetoricians need to come up with a particular rhetorical vocabulary for describing how people relate to objects and places, and additionally how objects and places potentially reflect peoples and cultures (present and past and future).

One term that we as rhetoricians should pay more attention to is ethos because it is central to understanding character development as a process entangled in the geographic and the material. Ethos is the “who” of rhetoric. Ethos, as Nedra Reynolds describes in Geographies of Writing, is a term that “invites us to revisit the connections between habits and places, between memories and places, between our bodies and the material world” (141). My writings here, through analysis of my own and others’ ways of engaging the material and place, show how ethos is constructed and further communicated to others in writing. Engagements with the material and the geographic—investigating our own and others’ affective relationships to them—have the potential to further our understanding as a field of rhetorical ethos and to build relationships (imaginative or real) between the self and other(s).

Ethos, I believe, is key in creating identification(s).

If we can see the things and places that matter to others and the reasons why they matter, this gives us a whole new way that we can identify with the other. When we understand that inhabiting the world is a process that others undertake through their objects and in places, we begin to see another’s values and their characters emerge. With this motive in mind, I keep asking the following questions: How are we affected by the material? How is character (ethos) related to materiality and to place? Can we find people among their effects, in their places? How are material studies important to rhetoric, specifically to the development of theories of identification(s)?

No More Deaths / No Más Muertes’s public campaign reminds the viewer that migrants live and die in the desert, and that their lives matter (literally, by taking up space and using objects, and figuratively, in terms of value). The ideal audience of this campaign is a resistant viewer, someone who believes in building a HUGE wall along the border. Or, perhaps, the benign white lady who cannot acknowledge her own privilege; I think I mean to call out a younger version of myself through writing this paper. How can the objects and narratives of migrants speak to this resistant viewer? How can we cross an ideological and racial divide and make connections? These kinds of ethical questions can result from the study of the material and place and the way it “rhetorics.” Transformation—going from one way of being and living and seeing to another—very rarely occurs only because of the word (logos) and the limited uni-directional rhetor-to-audience relationship; transformation is rooted in place and the material, in ecological and circulatory ways, and the old rhetoric can no longer stand when we want to think about possibilities for transformation(s) in the age of Trump.

Rhetorical Transformations

Some contemporary practices for composition have focused on the key idea of transfer, not on transformations of the self and others; at the same turn, our scholarship on the material and place-based writing has focused on methods, not on grounded experiences. Both these foci show an aversion to personal, expressive discourse and instead rely on theories (i.e. writing about writing) that create a distance from the writer / scholar and her surroundings, except those—of course—in the university. I want to sound out some of my own objections to these movements in order to frame how a place-based curriculum that values expressive discourse and a focus on ethos acts as an alternative intervention to these prominent ideas in the field.

When we look at the longitudinal study discussed in Writing Across Contexts and consider its attendant curriculum of Teaching for Transfer (TFT), we are placed in an ideological framework that supports the notion that first-year writing “help[s] students develop writing knowledges and practices that they can draw upon, use, and repurpose for new writing tasks in new settings” (2). Students, it is argued, need to learn how to write about writing, how to theorize the process of writing—only then, its authors argue, can students learn to meaningfully transfer writing across contexts. This idea, on the surface, looks to be one that would create writers that respond to “the rhetorical situation,” but the book and its curriculum only measures writing “transfer” in a narrow setting, that of future university writing tasks beyond FYW. Transfer, as a key term, presupposes that the only writing that “counts” is that in the university. An “expressivist” class is discussed in the study (77-82), and it is found that the writing done in that class did not “transfer” to the other writing done in the university—and, to be honest, I am not surprised that was the conclusion. My question is, did the writings in this “expressivist” class “transfer” to other contexts, to students’ lives outside the university? Did the writing and thinking done in that class “transform” the writers, in that it allowed them to see themselves in a new way and to communicate to others in a new way? We do not know. These questions, though, are important. They are questions of character development because they involve different places and times beyond the walls of the university.

This root of the transfer movement, to me, is most evident in the approval and dissemination of the WPA Outcomes Statement and its updated versions. This is the document we point to for justification of our curriculum development and goals, and it is the one we often use in defense of our Writing Programs from administrative oversight. It is a document by which we guide new scholars in our field and also one that we use in the professional development of adjuncts. In other words, it is a foundational text that represents who we are (or want to be); yet I think many of us feel an aversion to its framing and language—particularly in how it defines rhetoric. For example, Peter Elbow reacts to its first release in The Outcomes Book, expressing unease with what the statement omits. What is absent is important because it shows what ideas are being suppressed. Elbow responds: “Insofar as the Outcomes Statement treats invention at all (and it mostly doesn’t), it treats it more as a matter of finding and responding to material in readings. I see no awareness in the root ability to find thoughts and topics of your own—to write as an initiator and agent rather than as a respondent” (179-80). To cast writers in the role of a respondent to other texts (voices) is to limit their potential for self-knowledge and transformation, and additionally to use their voice as a way of communicating with others. It also casts rhetorical invention as a process that comes only as a response, not as an act of creation.

Furthermore, “rhetorical awareness”—as its outlined in the Outcomes Statement and in Writing Across Contexts—emphasizes that students need to be good practitioners of discourses for academic contexts. Students are cast in the limited role of responders to academic texts. When we look closely at the wording of the WPA Outcomes Statement, for example, we see how rhetoric is framed as a mere set of strategies to employ in writing—“negotiating purpose, audience, context, and conventions” for the purpose of teaching students how to achieve personal advancement in their disciplinary fields and eventually in their workplaces (“WPA Outcomes”). The WPA Outcomes Statement, to this end, puts forward three goals for the acquisition and use of “rhetorical knowledge” in first year writing; these are for students to learn:

• The expectations of readers in their fields

• The main features of genres in their fields

• The main purposes of composing in their fields

The repetition of “in their fields” hits home the idea that the WPA Outcomes Statement only casts the applications for the study of rhetoric in a narrow way—as a tool for professionalization / transfer.

At the same time, the conversations in the field around material writings have tended to highlight more traditional spaces for research—the archive at special collections, the library, the museum, the historical society—and also seem to frame the materialist as an academic. These conversations distance the study of the material from the experiences of everyday life and alienate people outside the university. Rhetoric and composition as a field has been interested in the material as archive even as early as Robert Connors’ description of historical research as an “August mushroom hunt” through the available data saved from the past (23). Rhetoric Review has hosted a venue for several issues called The Octalogs where scholars have contributed to the discussion of methodology and historical research in rhetoric and composition. Now scholars are continuing to pay close attention to the process of research and material interactions with artifacts—I am particularly thinking of edited collections like Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process and Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition. Additionally, the CCCCs has sponsored workshops on archival research, as has RSA during its summer institutes. The recent theories of new materialism, too, are often focused on the ways the material acts in the world, however, they downplay the role of narrative meanings of the material in favor of a systemic, ecological approach to its analysis (Bennett).

There is a stark contrast, though, between my opening example of migrant belongings which frames material objects as connected to both rhetorical argument and the place and lives of their owners, and the often-sanitized ways we discuss studying the material in rhetoric and composition. In other words, the field often approaches studying the material as a research method rather than as an experience and a communicative act.

Furthermore, there is a distance from everyday life in the applications of rhetorical theory and the actual writing style of some scholars in the field. The definition of rhetoric as a form of dwelling and ethical practice—as a guidebook on how to live—is unfortunately lost by the field’s contemporary notion of rhetoric as a procedural drilling of terms solely for academic preparation and performance (transfer), or even worse, a convoluted word-mess of academic discourse that only five people actually understand.

It is important to center discussions around rhetorical practice in place and with objects because rhetoric theory can become more understandable to lay people, like students; hopefully, we can help people see how rhetoric is essential to public life and culture. The definition of rhetoric I find most grounded in the real world is from Michael Hyde’s The Ethos of Rhetoric; he offers a fuller appreciation of rhetoric as a “‘hermeneutic’ and ‘situated’ practice, an art that informs and is informed by the way human beings dwell [and live together] on earth.” Seeing rhetoric as a relational and multimodal practice (encompassing people, places, and things) creates ethical possibilities for our speaking and being with one another. It creates the possibility not just for transfer, but also for transformation.

I argue that material and place engagement is another way that world-making can occur, and I want to account for how the material world contributes to character development and how it could further be a catalyst for rhetorical identification. So, studying the material as rhetorical experience has two prime motives: to reconcile the divide between the self and the material and then to see how this reconciliation can help us recognize other humans who live and work through their own materiality.

Jody Shipka’s work illuminates material analysis as an experience and a communicative act, and thus showing how it has the potential to transform. In Toward a Composition Made Whole she reminds us that communication is a process that is a “dynamic, embodied, multimodal whole—one that both shapes and is shaped by the environment” (26). Throughout the book, Shipka offers practical examples of the multimodal compositions of students in her classes. These compositions break the fourth wall of the screen (digital writing) and take on the tactile dimension. In other words, Shipka’s work taught the field to see ballet shoes as a communicative act with rhetorical force (3). In her later work on “found objects” at estate sales and flea markets, Shipka creates video compositions to show how these objects have a kind of “life” by “giving voice” and “new potentials for meaning to these strangers [the previous owners] and their largely silent life materials” (Provocations, Shipka). Her remixed compositions—with videoed objects, environmental stills, and narrative—bring attention to how the life of objects is intertwined with their environment (non-human) and with human life.

Shipka’s scholarship is aligned with terms like “memory,” “pathos,” and “ethos” as she recovers and gives meaning to objects. She shows how objects are indeed deeply connected to understanding identity, to finding a place to be situated. The material is closely related to our ways of being and dwelling in the world and, most importantly, to a rhetorical practice that transforms.

In an unpublished work, Jim W. Corder, like Shipka, discusses his need to go to flea markets and estate sales in order to understand the time in which he lived, to find artifacts that are meaningful to his existence. He aligns the material with a type of survival after death. He writes: “Still, if I locate the particulars I’ve sometimes lived with, maybe I’ll be found among them, or alongside them. Perhaps they will situate me. Anyways, I can remember. If we do not remember, who’ll save our daily blessings and curses, who’ll find us in some archive?” (“A Portable Flea Market” 19). In Corder’s few sentences, we already see how materiality is connected to a rhetorical vocabulary—specifically, the ancient concept of kairos. Like Corder and Shipka, I want scholars to see the generative possibilities of an expanded notion of time that resists linearity, and how it can be fortuitous to the study of the material and place as an experience / communicative act. The past, the present, and the future are fluid; they give way to one another in a moment. Spaces contain time, multitudes of time. Corder’s quote captures a focus on time well through his injunction to work toward a project of remembrance in the present, “if I locate . . .I can remember. . .If we don’t remember,” a call to consider the places and things of our pasts, “I’ve sometimes lived,” and a gaze toward the future of a legacy “maybe I’ll be found. . .Perhaps they will situate me. . .who’ll save. . .Who’ll find us . . .” (19). This grammar indicates to the reader that the meaning(s) of the material continue to be absent and yet present to us. For the creation of the archive—which Corder is very concerned about in his last question—signals that we must preserve what we have, and yet what we have often reveals what is missing (or who is missing) or yet to be found. This can be thought about metonymically: an object stands for a whole history that lies behind it or is obscured by it, a backpack stands in for a migrant.

Indeed, the absent-presence of material meanings gives way to a posture of longing; we wait and wait for the meaning of things and places to be revealed or for inspiration to create something new from them. We wait for something—or perhaps someone—to return, if only to shine light on one aspect of life from a time past or a future yet to be experienced. This continued search is a hope for the future, as the materialist rhetorician believes that what is lacking will eventually become present, will materialize and act in the world. For to be someone who interacts with objects—finds them, collects them, archives them, analyzes them—is not necessarily to align this work with the remembrance of the past—though the work may do that—but rather, the impulse to find and collect and to archive is also for the future. 1

Being a rhetorician is, I think, a form of activism that roots out the absent-presence of things, people, and places in the hope of a more just future. Essayist Rebecca Solnit describes the idea of anticipatory future as an open door in the dark, relating to readers her childhood memories of Passover. In this celebration, Jews leave out a glass of wine and keep the home door open to the prophet Elijah in anticipation of his return. She describes the nights of Passover as time to embrace the unknown, “the door into the dark” because the dark is “where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, where you will go” (Field Guide 4). Standing near the open door in the dark is the position of someone open to the possibility for transformation or to be transformed. Whenever we set out to learn and to be good people speaking well, we are standing near the open door. Solnit further describes this readiness for transformation as taking an unknown risk. She writes that the things we want most in life require stepping out into the unknown of night: “Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration—how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” (Field Guide 5). The self as someone else, I imagine, gestures toward a transformative process of identifying with others different from us. Crossing the threshold of the open door is, I believe, one of the only ways for rhetorical identification(s). It involves risk and messy, messy affect(s). As scholars in the field, I think we have to talk about the material not just as a method but as an experience; as writing teachers, I think we need to talk about writing not just as a vehicle of transfer but as a process for transformation.

The Story Behind the Theory

I am trying to account for transformations in my own life. I have passed through doors in the dark, and now I am interrogating the rhetoric(s) that surround those crossings. You see, I was not “woke,” and I am still probably prone to regression(s) through white privilege transgression(s). Colonialism does not just disappear because I personally acknowledge it. Or, even because I have decided to work in my teaching and in my institution to dismantle it. In the past, I was, at best, someone who may have been considered a colorblind racist and definitely someone who was a working-class believer in that good old platitude, “If you work hard, good things will come.” My head was bent over desks believing that for many years. I was going to write myself ahead.

These questions circulate in my daily life: How am I learning to understand my own white-ethnic (Italian-American) privilege? How am I working to be an ally with people of color and other minority groups? How am I calling out institutional and structural inequalities that manifest through patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy?

Transformations, for me, are related to the material and to the geographic and to the story. They manifest themselves through rhetoric(s) that rely on the ethos appeal.

I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in a small, rural town in Connecticut. In 2003, when I was in high school, the town hosted a meeting by the KKK in its public library. I attended public school with (mostly) white, middle-class children. My family and friends were working class Italian-American Catholics. I barely left the region where I was born. I was the first woman in my family to attend college, and the first to earn an advanced degree. I worked hard, and I believed in the notion of hard work as advancement.

I did not understand systemic inequality.

I was uprooted from all that I knew when I walked through the door in the dark as a graduate student. Tucson, Arizona was that threshold for me.

Transformations occurred when I visited high school campuses as a college coach through the GEARUP program and worked with local teachers to create writing centers on the Southside of Tucson. Working late one evening with these students on personal statement applications for college, I remember coming home in tears. One student wrote about how he feared the sound of helicopters flying low because he associated the noise with border patrol coming to take his father. Another wrote about living on his friend’s couch because he was gay and could not go home anymore.

Transformations occurred through working and talking with my contemporaries at The University of Arizona. Aja Martinez taught me the value of critical race theory counter-story and how students of color are marked by institutional prejudice (“A Plea for Critical Race”). Cruz Medina taught me about the importance of valuing the ways of ancestors through practicing decolonial rituals surrounding death that subvert western notions of purgatory and separation of the living and the dead (“Day of the Dead”). Rachael Wendler Shah taught me the importance of working with community members in service learning projects and how to involve members in assessment of the outcomes of those projects (“An Architecture of Participation”). Jessica Shumake taught me about the lives of LBGTQ activists in New York during the AIDS crisis and the ways their rhetorics of public mourning are a kind of activism (“Archival Research as Queer Practice”). There were many other graduate students that served as my teachers while I was learning how to be a scholar and a professor in our field.

Transformations occurred through my worship at Southside Presbyterian, and my witness to and participation in the work of the church. Southside provided sanctuary to undocumented families, facilitated jobs for undocumented workers through its worker programs, and hosted daily meals for homeless community members. The gospel music I sang with the choir on Sundays taught me about how worship can uplift you out of your darkest days.

Transformations occurred when I participated in marches for immigrant rights and protests against discriminatory bills like SB1070, and when I joined others in singing “No, nos moveran” in the desert.

Transformations occurred during the All Souls Processions through downtown Tucson. With skeleton-painted faces, thousands gathered in the streets, holding candles and signs and posters with pictures of loved ones, bible passages, and political statements. We marched alongside homemade parade floats, some constructed with PVC-pipe and Christmas lights taped to bicycles and wagons. We moved to the beat of drum circles, mariachi music, and protest chants: “Ní uno mas!” The desert air and the closeness of bodies in the streets left me flushed, tingling. A rag-tag crew of mourners, we came out into the night to look up at the clear, starry sky and to commemorate those lost to us that year and in the past. We recognized that the living and the dead are not separated, and that death is another stage in life. We were reminded of the pain of loss and the healing of community.

I know that objects and environments have the ability to “touch” us, but those of us devoted to the study of rhetoric do not yet have an exhaustive vocabulary to describe the intrinsic power of things or places, the myriad of ways they affect us, or additionally, how we assign meaning to objects and places through narrative. We do not yet have the vocabulary to describe the motives and emotions of materialists and writers of place. We do not yet have an understanding of the key role that materiality plays in the construction and expression of ethos. The field needs to create an understanding of the material and the geographic that is more spacious, one that accounts for the process of meaning-making across space and time.

I want to assert here that I am seeking a theory of rhetoric that, first and foremost, explores ways of “being with” objects and in places. I want to situate the reader in a discourse of affect, to bring emotions to the forefront of this inquiry into rhetorical persuasion(s). I think that emotions toward objects and places are the force that drives people to be moved by other narratives. I will not shy away from affect. I want to bring this theory of the material more to the ground of the familiar, the everyday, because the work we perform with objects and in places is one that is not necessarily an abstract and theoretical engagement. The movement of bodies in processions and the singing of songs matter; these are rhetorical acts.

The following section discusses how I bring movement and place into the first-year writing curriculum as a way to teach rhetorical persuasion based in storied reflections.

Movement / Place / Object / Pedagogy

Instead of focusing our FYW curriculums on concepts of transfer, we should be thinking about pedagogies that inspire transformation. Walking, I believe, is a rhetorical practice that can become central to writing and can ground students in their milieus beyond the university, tracing the paths they have walked and considering their future places. Walking asks students to be self-reflective, to see themselves as a developing identity in their environment. I agree with Michel de Certeau when he claims that walking is a type of enunciation, a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic ‘contracts; in the form of movements (just as verbal enunciation is an ‘allocution,’ ‘posits another opposite’ the speaker and puts contracts between interlocutors into action). (97-98)

Walking, then, creates a relationship with place that allows us to name its landmarks—natural and man-made—and it creates an intimacy and familiarity with place that cannot be achieved through other modes of transportation and being. Walkers create their city, just as it, in turn, influences and shapes their characters—this process is dialectical. Composition scholars have turned to the image of Benjamin’s flâneur in discussing place-based pedagogies. Nedra Reynolds argues that the flâneur is a model for seeing how movement creates a connection between place and identity (71). Intimacy with place is created through meandering.

Benjamin further discusses how, by walking the city streets of Paris, the flâneur is able to transform outside space into the interior, when he writes: “The city splits for him into its dialectical poles. It opens up to him as a landscape, even as it closes around him as a room” (417). Places become familiar as we experience them in motion. The dialectic of the inside/outside folds as place becomes a part of our interior life, and in this way, wandering in place is central to character development (ethos).

Walking, and interacting with the milieu as the flâneur does—through studying people, through gossip—ties the ritual of the walk to a process of knowledge-making. Walking takes time; thus, this form of knowledge-making sees “idleness as a fruit of labor” (453) and requires a slowing-down that—in our contemporary moment—we often cannot afford. Walking is now too often seen as an inconvenience rather than a moment to relish and to learn from.

However, walking is indeed a form of knowledge that is “something experienced and lived through,” and therefore it begs us to give it more attention as teachers of discourse (Benjamin 417). Should academic writing then include elements of the walk? And what would this look like?

Pedagogies dedicated to place and material writing views these acts and reflections as a form of knowledge-production and self-awareness. Julie Drew, in her article on ecocomposition, argues that the script has to be flipped to see that “[t]he pedagogical is not located exclusively within the classroom; rather, the classroom is one location in which pedagogical moments occur”—and that the teacher of composition has to attune students to “the politics that work within and around identifiable spaces, to include the material realities of movement—of travel— and the multiple spaces within which [they] reside and learn” (61). One suggestion that Drew gives is to engage students in a practice of discursive mapping, or one where they would identify the kinds of language spoken in the places where they reside. I am unsure, though, it I want to reify discursive ways of knowing through walking because it is an embedded and embodied practice—one that certainly involves discourse or the word (logos)—but place is also so much more.

Place and the material are not just neutral backdrops for human action, a context for rhetorical activity and discourse but that it greatly influences—maybe even generates—communication acts. In other words, place gives place to all the variables in the rhetorical situation. I follow Rickert’s lead in Ambient Rhetoric in recognizing that the work of rhetoric is beyond human agents engaged in speech acts; rather we need to see many origins for rhetoric. Rhetoric is not central, but distributive, just as many scholars are now envisioning the term “cognition.” As Rickert writes, rhetoric “must diffuse outward to include the material environment, things (including the technological), our own embodiment, and a complex understanding of ecological relationality as participating in rhetorical practices and their theorization” (3). In general, I believe scholars need to continue to acknowledge the material dimension of rhetoric, to see it as “an embodied and embedded practice,” as something that emerges from an environment and situation; rhetoric is comprised of “interactive engagements, redolent of a world that affects us” (Rickert 34).

I have developed many writing assignments on place-based compositions during my tenure in teaching FYW. Students became guides of their places, offering an insider perspective to a more public audience. Fostering student invention was essential to this project as they conducted research on the place’s history, “walked” through their places, and discovered a larger significance, or issue, tied to their place that would interest broader publics.

The creative-nonfiction argumentative papers I encourage through my FYW classes ask students to identify a larger significance for writing about their place, to use descriptive writing to show place as an insider to outsiders, to reflect on their emotions and others emotions in their place, to incorporate research on their place in their writing, to consider any stories (mythical or fantastical elements) in relation to their place, and to include multimedia (pictures and sketches) of their place.

I want students to continue to ask: How do we practice and perform a commodious language in relation to our descriptions on place? How do we get others to listen to us, especially those who have differing life experiences and may not know our places and the communities and issues connected to them?

Students learn how to use the rhetorical tools of storytelling, detailed descriptions, and narrative style in order to communicate their experience in a way that is, hopefully, expansive toward readers—to write to be understood is a powerful thing. This statement, again, serves to form an argument—one based on personal experience as persuasive. The argument or main idea, modeled through the narrative, is inviting and reveals the reflections and lived experience of the author.

One student essay I want to highlight from my time teaching composition at the University of Arizona focused on the geography of the Southwest as she reflected on her identity as a Mexican-American whose family were field workers. Her geographies kept changing as the family was “forced to move from Arizona to California year after year due to the crops and season changes.” The student became very focused on the housing she and her family were provided as they picked crops in California. As part of her invention activity, I encouraged her to “walk” through her community and to describe it to an outsider. The word she kept using in the paper to describe the migrant homes in Gilroy was “sparse.” She further explains: “An apartment was assigned to each family it was a small cubical consisting of three ten by ten bedrooms and a small living room”. Her reflections in this essay bring the reader to understand the long hours that her parents were away to work in the fields and how she and her siblings missed them and often had to care for themselves. This student’s essay, through an analysis of place, makes an argument about the lives of migrant laborers and their material working conditions.

What strikes me in this essay are the class critiques the student makes comparing her farming community in Gilroy to a gated community she visited in San Diego as a child. She adeptly transitions between these two communities, exploring the idea that neighborhoods are sometimes designed to segregate. These observations further reveal to the reader a disparity in neighborhood conditions based on material comparison and analysis. For example, she discusses how her migrant farming community felt exposed to the outside, as the gate the city of Gilroy provided for the migrant families as a protection was always broken. She writes, “There were children out all the time and at all hours of the day anyone could have simply driven in with a van and taken five or six kids and no one would have noticed. Just thinking about this sends chills down my spine because it comes to show how much not only the city, but the government, cared about the working- class Hispanics who lived here.” The student ventured to San Diego the following summer with her mother to clean houses. On this trip she notes the large gates and the security officers in the neighborhood with the “elegant houses.” Her mom told her that this is where the “ricos” (the rich) lived.”

She reflects, “‘Los ricos’ (the rich) I kept repeating to myself. What did that make my family and I? Poor? Then I asked my mom, ‘I have a home, a family, and food, I think I am the richest person in the world, but why do we not have a gate like that in Gilroy?’ My mom simply smiled and said, ‘Entenderas cuando seas grande’ (you will understand when you are older). I am old enough today, but I still do not understand why communities like the one I lived in were and are so poorly equipped . . . while those who live in mansions have security guards roaming their streets. Since I was young, I was taught that we are all equal and we all deserved the same freedom and security, but I guess I am wrong”. The student, through her narrative, is able to leverage an argument about privilege and material conditions in these two communities. Her narrative forces the reader to see this disparity in living conditions and space through the eyes of a child. The critique is founded in lived experience rather in stating some statistics about migrant workers, and I believe this type of argument presentation allows for the opportunity for readers to identity with the student and to become enfolded through her descriptions of place.

The student’s narrative goes further in depth as she describes how her geography, and in this case her race, was read in institutional spaces, such as her school. Many of the in-class activities asked students to comb their memories for childhood experiences related to their sense of identity and place. She writes, “Being a migrant student was difficult because I’d move from school to school, leaving behind old friends and having to make new ones starting again at square one. Migrant students were always looked down upon. We were the children ‘[o]f those filthy humans who did all the dirty work.’ I’ll never forget those words, from a teaching assistant who thought I was not listening to her.” Again, we see how the student interprets her position in society, particularly in relation to the place(s) where she is from. The identity of migrant, for example, is so connected to shifting notion of geography and ties to the land.

We can see too how this writing, with its call to analyze and reflect on places and things, opens a space through narrative so that students can process the traumas they have felt because of their position in the world. Teachers of writing have to continue to make time in our classrooms for place stories because if we “authorize” the telling of these stories in our assignments, then I like to think we are somehow helping create a transformation in education. The narrative this student told was a way for her to “speak back” to that teacher who hurt her sense of identity all those years ago; she writes, “Those words have made me a stronger woman. I have learned to be proud of who I am and where I come from.” Overall in this narrative, the student frames her experience positively. She is aware of the oppressions she faces but can see how they have served to shape her. She concludes her essay with this assertion: “Being Hispanic and part of the working class has been a gift; it is an honor to have field workers as parents. The morals I have been taught, the discriminating experiences I have lived through, and the unbreakable bond I have with my family will always stay with me and guide me today and in the future.”

Embracing Writings on Objects and Place(s)

I do not want to teach and write academic discourse proper anymore—and especially thesis-driven, structured fill-in-the-blank essays. I do not want to teach the kind of writing that transfers into disciplinary knowledge in the academy. I want to write and teach, as Jim W. Corder describes, a scholarly sort of writing that reads in a personal sort of way. I want my students to see writing as a practice of discovering and exploring their identities and the ways they live their lives. I want to write a reflective type of writing we in the academy are not encouraged to publish in our scholarly journals. I want to write using ethos and pathos appeals. The type of writing I am advocating for involves the places we call home, the recipes we make in our kitchens, and the lessons our grandfathers taught us about working the land.

But, perhaps even this pedagogy and scholarship has a larger motive than just mere exchange of stories. There is something important in knowing how you came to stand where you stand and the lessons you learned along the way. And, isn’t there something in knowing where others have stood and have lived and have learned? Perhaps, then, we can show each other our beautiful people and places and lessons. Perhaps, then, we might start loving each other—or at least liking each other, or maybe just coming to a place of a respectful understanding.

I believe assignments and scholarship that focus on place-based and material narratives allow students and scholars to further understand rhetorical identifications. They learn how to appeal to audiences through descriptive writing that invites readers to walk through the world as students inhabit and see it. The everyday revelations walkers make are the origins for their character development, and by relating this process to readers, there is potential for moments of identification as they become consubstantial with the writer’s ways of being. Identification is not as uni-directional as I have framed it here, but new rhetoric(s) sometimes cannot shake the lexicon of the old as they emerge.

One motive for such analysis can be to recognize instances of commonality in the ways we each interact with objects and places. If we can see the things and places that matter to others and the reasons why they matter, this gives us a whole new way that we can identify with the other. When we understand that inhabiting the world is a process that others undertake through their objects in places, then we begin to see others’ values and their characters emerge. We meet the other through engagements with the material and in place. Jim Corder advocates for the expansion of the search for character beyond stylistic technique. He writes:

In remnant rhetoric, a provisional and tentative rhetoric, invention will be slowed, I think, and revealed. We’ll not simply announce our arrivals but will also reveal our routes. We must make time to cut apertures and to open doors in whatever texts are before us, time to look at the evidences of the self left in the texts, so that we may glimpse the remnant author. (Little Sorrows 322)

If we view material and place stories as texts, or as Corder suggests as remnants, we are invited to see how others invent themselves. It is through this process of invention, of interaction with objects and places, where identity is constructed and revealed.

It is only through time, care, and a certain rhetorical practice that we can begin to see and understand the evidence of another’s character. This article ruminates on ways of investigating character through material objects and places and employs us to think of strategies—such as walking—that inspire a kind of self-knowledge that can be used to further express to others. There is still much more to be said about how the material and place reveal and shape character and may be a part of identification(s), but as Corder believed, with time and effort we can create thresholds and “open doors.” Our rhetoric can generate new modes of analysis, thinking, and being that will reveal the other to us and also work to transform ourselves in the process.

About the Author

Rosanne Carlo is an Assistant Professor of rhetoric and composition at College of Staten Island CUNY where she helps direct the Writing Program and WAC program. Her research interests include first-year writing, rhetorical theory, ethos and voice, material rhetorics, and place-based writing. Her research specifically explores the ways people understand and construct their character (ethos) through objects and places. Her other scholarly work can also be found in Rhetoric Review, Composition Forum, The Writing Instructor, Community Literacy Journal, and The Journal for the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Learning.


1. Although my discussion in this chapter is specifically on the positionalities of the finder and the collector, I find Derrida’s concept of messanicity in Archive Fever—or, the idea of gathering materials for the future in the hope of an object or figure emerging that was once unknown—to be generative to a discussion on the ways the material functions rhetorically. For the impulse to shape the understanding and discourse of the past for the future is one that potentially requires the persuasive force of material things. Things, in some ways, serve as evidence of a constructed archival narrative. As Derrida writes, the impulse to archive comes from “the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow” (Derrida, Archive Fever 36).

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