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Composition Forum 15, Spring 2006

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale, Southern Illinois UP, 2004. 207 pp.

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Michael Dean Benton

Nedra Reynolds’ Geographies of Writing can be approached on two different levels with completely different results. From one perspective we have an accounting of Reynolds’ interest in the study of cultural geography, her attempt to unpack such questions as

How do people experience space, and what might that tell us about how they experience other forms of the social world? How do students, writers, or learners experience spaces and places in the everyday, and how might this inform cultural and material theories of discourse? What do "sense of place," pathways, habits, or dwelling have to do learning? [sic] (2)

Using a research methodology consisting of urban walkabouts, "mental mapping," and reflections upon dwelling influenced by Soja’s theory of thirdspace, Reynolds seeks to explore "geographic rhetorics informed by the material, the visual, and the everyday" (2). Her research takes her to the School of Geography at the University of Leeds where Reynolds worked with geography students to better understand "geography as a lived event…how our experiences in spaces of the everyday impact upon our identities, our confidence, our senses of self" (10). Her study concludes with the conviction that it is the " where of writing" (176)—composition as a spatial practice—that offers a rich source of research and future inquiry: "we should investigate encounters with place and space and reconsider the kinds of movement (and stillness) that characterize acts of writing and places for learning" (176). Because the act of writing is to a degree a construction of identity borne of experiences within a sociospatial world, Reynolds looks forward to further research in composition offering insight "into the social production of space, embodied in the moves a writer makes and the products of a writer’s work" (177).

As far as it goes, Reynolds’ project succeeds as a basic introduction to the importance of the languages and practices of cultural geography, especially as a body of work that helps provide extensive material evidence of literacy and discourse practices in everyday life. This is an important book in the sense that it opens up a discussion about the increasing importance of cultural geography as a field that has much to offer composition. It is in the first chapter that Reynolds’ book carries a tremendous surge of promise as she provides an introduction to some of the more recognized names and concepts in cultural geography, and then uses them to respond to some of the important spatial metaphors employed in composition theory, such as frontier, cyberspace, borderlands, and travel. Most importantly she argues for the importance of cultural geography as a method for exposing “ideological foundations” through the study of “competing notions of public space” (25). The basic historical development of cultural geography as a specialization within the broader parent discipline of geography is further outlined in chapter two, the first half of which, with its historical overview and discussion of the materiality of discourses, serves as a good introduction for writing instructors looking for new methods and practices for critical place-based and communal writing.

If however we approach Geographies of Writing as writing faculty seeking ways to link the theory and praxis of critical geography to our teaching, the book might leave one feeling somewhat cheated. There are few if any direct examples of how one might apply or integrate her insights regarding cultural geography to the writing workspace. Most of Reynolds’ observations are drawn from observations of the wanderings of geography students. Despite the fact that I fully support the introduction of the languages and practices of cultural geography into my own writing courses, I left the book feeling that connections were never made to its importance for “imagining writing” differently or how cultural geography could help instructors of writing “think outside the box” (6). In the final instance it seems that the book adds little to the important initial essays that serve as its inspiration: “The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace” ( CCC : 1998), “Who’s Going to Cross This Border? Travel Metaphors, Material Conditions, and Contested Places” ( JAC : 2000), and “Activism and Service Learning” (with Donna M. Bickford, Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture : 2002).

I found myself frustrated as the promise of the first two chapters gave way to what is in my mind a problematic attempt to connect cultural geography to composition theories via the material realities of cyberspace, and in particular by emphasizing the importance of the flaneur. Because the materiality of new technologies is usefully outlined in the first chapter through an explanation of the effect of cell phones in altering our public spaces, the discussion of cyberspace in the second chapter reminding readers that “we can no longer afford to ignore visual and material elements to communication” is a bit redundant; most writing instructors are likely aware of this need. And the discussion of the flanuer neglects to acknowledge that the trope of the wandering observer leisurely gazing upon the landscape with desire operates from a position of privilege. The flaneur might well be a poor critical model for those of us who are “as much ‘at home’ in screen culture as on familiar streets” (74): how might the metaphor of the wandering observer provide screen-based learners with a critical method for moving back to material engagement? I kept hoping for some engagement with cultural provocateurs like the Situationist dérive, or a discussion of a place-based theorist (say, Terry Tempest Williams’ Open Spaces of Democracy ), or a direct connection to urban studies scholars like Dolores Hayden, whose work intersects with the critical studies of cultural geographers through her emphasis on urban landscapes as public history and her recognition that “place” is one of the trickiest words in the English language ( The Power of Place: Urban Landscape as Public History 1997 ; A Field Guide to Sprawl 2004).

The third chapter returns to the strength of chapter one, opening with a good introduction to the importance of mapping as a metaphor for education. Reynolds recognizes the rhetorical power of maps in constructing our reality and provides examples of their role in shaping the broader knowledge of those who never leave the confines of their neighborhood (or suburb, city, or nation for that matter). While recognizing the problems of mapping in the construction of our everyday sense of the world, Reynolds is careful to acknowledge mapping as necessary literacy skill:

Despite the wealth of persuasive arguments that maps are everything from inaccurate to instruments of oppression, I don’t want to dismiss something that we depend on so much in the everyday. (81)

The development of a “spatial sense” and the ability to decipher maps is, after all, an essential visual literacy skill. It is not enough, however, for students to simply learn how to read maps, and Reynolds emphasizes how we ought to have access to understanding ways in which “mapping can tell us a great deal about how people perceive the world, and how ideology … is reproduced in images” (83-84).

It is in the fourth and fifth chapters that the promise of these theoretical introductions is most glaring. Reynolds continues her observations of the geography students in the fourth chapter and uses these insights to discuss “streetwork” practices and to provide warnings about the hazards of critical lessons devolving into cultural tourism—a noteworthy perspective, but at this point the book suffers by offering no direct examples of writing projects or exercises designed to bridge the lessons and practices of cultural geography with the needs and requirements of composition courses. While perhaps apropos in that the narrative begins to take on a sense of loose wandering and casual observation much like that of the flaneur, I found myself frustrated in that the book never really returned to the praxis of the composition classroom.

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