As another year at Virginia Tech ends, I am beginning to realize, identify, understand, and critically assess “my place in this place.” I have learned parking on the third floor of the parking deck is the most productive use of my time, the printer will never work and I am developing the skill of writing in cadence with the constant hum of construction in the upper quad. I am becoming familiar with the contours, materiality and textures of this place. That is, I am beginning to feel its geography. As postmodern poet Charles Olson has observed, “Plus this—plus this: / that forever the geography/ which leans in/ on me I compel” (Olson, 1968). The “geography” to which Olson referred is not only physical, but also, as I will contend, is the person-placehood of spaces that allow for the re-imagining of collective and individual identities. New peers, collectives, causes and structural pressures also “lean on” and provoke this place. The interdependent relationship between place and people has been a concern and interest of mine since my undergraduate years and these notions continue to animate and sustain my research and teaching.
As an Appalachian Studies scholar, place-based definitions are of the utmost importance to me. With a background in creative writing, I look to poetry as a way to understand and translate what I experience, see and hear in the landscape and soundscape. Charles Olson offers examples in his work of how to put feelings of knowing a place into words. For him this awareness manifests in the form of “polis.” Olson works (conceptually and as a poet) with the term “space” rather than place: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy,” Olson has written in Call Me Ishmael (1947).
This use of SPACE on the page and as a topic for reflection, questions the relationship between form and content—a connection I felt as I moved my students out of Derring Hall one day recently. We occupied (and I use the term consciously) the picnic tables at Lavery Hall for our class discussion. The mobility of the untethered tables—or form—allowed us to rearrange them, just as we had moved ourselves, creating a smaller cluster of bodies, books and bags, functioning as a different type of seminar. The function of this newly acquired space remained the same: to learn, share, explore, question and critique. Nonetheless, those processes did not proceed as readily in the windowless classroom from which we had moved.
When we had ventured outside (to discuss Appalachia as a “place” in American history), I asked the students how it felt to be beyond the confines of the classroom. That is, I asked the group to consider how the campus “at large” made them feel? “Institutionalized” and “surveyed” appeared on a list of otherwise “positive” feelings, including “open,” “accepted” and “challenged,” that the students shared. Most notably and quite passionately, one individual spoke out against the oppressive feelings the constant construction projects on campus created for him. Others agreed, suggesting that they often have no idea what is physically happening to the environment around them—their space—as Virginia Tech students. While building is necessary to maintain and sustain both endowed and embodied growth and infrastructure, the consistent altering of their physical surroundings caused at least a share of these students to feel “out of place.” While these comments were typically discerning for this group, they were nonetheless also exciting, as such animated discussions had rarely happened in the classroom. By moving to a new space, the students reconstructed their relationships with one another and assumed a renewed sense of authority over their roles and words. Once outside there was no lectern for me to lean on, no tiny desks for twenty-year-olds to sit in and no blackboards on which to focus our individual and collective gaze.
This conversation both treated and embodied what social geographers (notably David Harvey and Ted Bradshaw) have defined as a “social space.” Such theories assert that the ontology of such space is to be found in the feelings one has about oneself in relationship to one’s own experiences regarding a location. Without the assumed constraints of classroom decorum, my students felt empowered to voice their opinions regarding their “place” on campus.
For my part, this experience offered a space for questioning, reflection and hopefully, collaboration and action as it led me to consider ways that educators, educational systems and communities (groups of individuals) can create structural and systemic change through the physical and social components of geography. In his 1981 book, The Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bahktin wrote:
I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another . . . every internal experience ends up on the boundary . . . ‘To be’ means to communicate . . . ‘To be’ means to be for the other; and through him, for oneself. Man has no internal sovereign territory; he is all and always on the boundary (p.287).
Bahktin’s idea of being, communicating and navigating boundaries is exciting. It suggests that alternative relations and voices emerge when individuals move from defined spaces. Gloria Anzuldua has likewise explored the possibilities of occupying “between spaces” or borders in her work, Borderlands/La Frontera, and the question her analysis raises for me is, what would a borderland-based education look like? Sound like? Feel like? If the fringes are where we find ourselves becoming conscious, how can we—students, educators, activists, organizers—continually gravitate towards the edges?
The significance of understanding the place and person relationship—or, the physical location of the borders that define a person—is monumental. Whether we are consciously aware that it is occurring, the geography in which we live is leaning and we are responding. The question is how do we, in such a structured place (in this case, our university, Virginia Tech), create relation-based spaces? How might we alter the landscape of which we are a part to broaden its borderlands, working toward creating spaces of inclusion and polyvocality? I believe the answer lies in willing adoption of a lack of fixity; both physical and conceptual. As language justice poet Jen Hofer has written, “[w]e do not become new selves, we are reminded that to be a self is to be traces of various selves in varied places, to be is to be being—a rolling present tense” (3). Perhaps our first step necessary to realize Hofer’s vision is to acknowledge that we are the borders, we create the spaces.
 A phrase appropriated from Helen Lewis’ response to the question: “Why should you study Appalachia?” http://blog.ung.edu/gasc/?p=222
Anzaldúa, Gloria. La Frontera/Borderlands. San Francisco (1987).
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Hofer, Jen. “Suspension of Belief: Some Thoughts on Translation as Subversive Speech”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. <http://www.joaap.org/5/articles/hofer/webspecial.htm> (N.p.)
Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. San Francisco: City Lights (1947).
Jordan Laney is a writer, photographer, educator, and doctoral student in the ASPECT (Alliance for Social Political Ethical and Cultural Thought) program. Her research interests include: place, Appalachia, identity, music, labor justice, and feminist space. Before joining ASPECT Laney received her M.A. in Appalachian Studies (Music concentration) from Appalachian State University, and her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College.