2002 Winner: Douglas Reichert-Powell

Rhetorics of Place

My work as a Mellon Fellow has centered on developing a methodology I call "critical regionalism," a set of principles and values for cultural critique and production that engages with the problems and priorities of specific places. In my scholarship, I contend that the concept of place is best seen as a generative and rhetorical process, the evolving outcome of whatever broader set of discussions, debates, definitions, conflicts and struggles converge on a particular location. Landscape--with its literal meaning suggesting not the land itself but the shaping of it by representational practices--is the point where place and representation converge as inextricably interrelated matters.

"Language and Landscape: Rhetorics of Place" is thus about understanding and participating in landscape as cultural process. The course enacts what I term in my research a "cultural ecology," the pedagogical expression of "critical regionalism": a set of assignments that move through concerns of progressively wider geographical scope to develop a sense of how a particular site becomes the locus of collective concern, controversy or debate, and thus to understand how out of these site-specific debates, the construction of texts links local matters to broader patterns of history, politics and culture.

Place, then, is not the content and writing the subject of this course; rather, place is crucially, centrally about writing, and vice versa. I suggest to students that places come to them not fully formed but continually forming, and that the process of formation can be affected by the work of representation. Critical writing skills can equip them to envision the landscapes they inhabit in more ethical, more just ways.

Academic writing is therefore a single, if particularly powerful, strand of place construction. My hope is students might see themselves as cultural producers whose work envisions places in particular ways, and takes specific positions in relation to important conflicts and struggles; and they see their writing as interconnected with a complex skein of other representational practices, discourses, and texts, about whose influence upon them they must be circumspect, but which they might influence as well.  

Course text selection presented an important site to establish these interconnections. I made use of five books that develop sustained but varied and often formally or intellectually experimental arguments about place, supplying students with a sense of what this authorial practice might look like. Just as importantly, however, these authors all cite each other, so that, once students began citing these authors as well, it was much more clear to students that the writing and the thinking they were doing "locally" in the course was part of a larger discussion and debate.

Assignment design and sequencing also attempts not only to encourage but also to embody the course's emphasis on interconnectedness. The first essay assignment, for example, asked students to deal briefly with what would prove to be the themes of the subsequent essays. However, this assignment served not to establish facts or begin arguments but instead to define a line of inquiry, and it provided students with a reserve of unanswered questions, so that with each new essay assignment, they could refer back to this initial work and use any relevant questions they found there as a starting point for the latest installment of their essay. Since that first piece included all the various phases of the course, it also provided a kind of sketch of how the pieces of the lengthy essay that would develop over the course of the term might fit together.