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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#44 Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers by Karen Babine

This month’s guest is Karen Babine, the founder and editor of the very fine, online magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies assayjournal.com

Karen’s contribution, Articulation: On Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First-Year Writers, is, as its title suggests, a personal, yet very detailed and meticulously researched piece on/about using the essay to teach “place” to first-year-writers. Although it’s aimed at first-year students and freshman composition teachers, this essay, I believe, will be of great value to just about anyone--both experienced and beginners--who teach and write literary nonfiction.

For those who follow this blog, Karen’s essay is a departure of sorts. For almost four years, I’ve been posting personal/teaching essays on/about matters of genre and craft. I've written some and selected guest writer/teachers have written others. Karen’s piece, an expansive essay--a thoughtful, thought-provoking, personal/critical essay. Not only is it an informed, in-depth, study on/about the teaching of place, but it also re-visits an important conversation about teaching writing, about the relationship between creative writing (in this case, literary nonfiction) and composition, and about the writing process itself--a passionate, transformative, approach to writing that began in the 1970’s. The movement included a host of concerned practitioners, rhetoricians and theorists, and beginning teachers of composition. It thrived for almost three decades before being replaced ,in the late 80’s, by a traditional, heavily prescriptive, outdated, methodology, an approach that’s being taught today in most public schools and in many colleges and universities as well.

This essay is reflective, complex (and very important, I believe), piece. And so, I’ve chosen to post one segment each Wednesday for four consecutive weeks.

The first segment appears below.

Note: In this and in each subsequent post, I'll include the full list of citations.


# 44

Part 1


On 23 August 2011, the day that a 5.9 earthquake rattled the East Coast, toppled spires and cracked walls at the National Cathedral, I walk into my first class of the fall semester to a bright-eyed group of English 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry) students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Quake-free, for now. It is 2011, after all, nearly two hundred years to the day after the New Madrid Earthquakes made the Mississippi run backwards, shaking a land not used to being shaken.

I say: our class will focus on place and location this semester.
“What is place?” they ask me.
I say: location is a spot on a map; place is context, everything you bring to that location.
I say: you’re living in a flyover state—what does that mean?
I say: you’re living on the outer rings of the most active seismic zone outside of California—how does that change your view of Nebraska, given the earthquake on the East Coast today?

Some weeks later, we read Tom Coakley’s essay “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars,” published first in Fourth Genre and listed as a Notable in the 2011 Best American Essays. Coakley had recently moved from Nebraska to Washington, DC, to work at the Pentagon, and as I was preparing to teach this essay I asked him about the earthquake and Hurricane Irene. It hadn’t bothered him much, he said, but while the West Coast was mocking the East Coast’s reaction to the earthquake, the last time the earth had moved like that at the Pentagon, a plane had crashed into the outer rings of the building.
This is place.


It is true that discussions of how the essay can best be used in composition classes is not a new one, but among various critics, the consensus seems to be based in what I consider to be a erroneous definition and use of the term essay and the conversation seems to be the realm of compositionists, not creative writers, who have an equal stake in the discussion. This collapsing of various subgenres of nonfiction is exceptionally problematic for me as a creative writer in a composition classroom, considering that the essay is a form, not a genre, and represents more than the definition of “to try.”


At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the English Department’s Aims and Scopes lay the framework for the three composition classes it offers: 101 (Rhetoric as Reading), 150 (Rhetoric as Inquiry), and 151 (Rhetoric as Argument). Because the Aims and Scopes are broad enough to allow for any pedagogy an instructor chooses, the framework provided by place-conscious pedagogy is an excellent starting point for first-year writers. Additionally, the written requirements are also broad enough to allow exceptionally different interpretations of what can constitute those Writing Projects. The freedom allowed the graduate teaching assistants and lecturers most often assigned these classes results in a very rich body of departmental offerings.

Wendy Bishop, in “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition,” works towards a theory and pedagogy that combines nonfiction and composition, because they share similar goals. Other writers have discussed similar meldings; as I have mentioned, this is not a new discussion. But her questioning looms larger than form: what is important here is that she places the responsibility of creativity, curiosity, and inquiry in the hands of teachers—where it should initially be—and wonders not simply at the forms of the written work, but also at the classrooms that best foster the type of learning teachers want. She wonders,

"How do we teach the pleasures of essay writing and the civic possibilities of prose literatures? How do we create courses that allow writers to define interesting topics of reflection, and how do we create classroom cultures within which the essay needs to be written? We treat the student essayist as we treat ourselves, as essayists and authors of creative nonfiction (271)."

For me, the answer is to combine a pedagogy that requires an active engagement with the students’ own grounded experience with a written form that requires active engagement with the students’ own lived experience. It is through this pedagogical framework, though, that the essay—as a form—functions best, because it provides the opportunity for personal motivation of the student, taking what they know, valuing it, and asking them to take it a step further, back to the place they come from. Robert Root sees this type of motivation as an essential element of nonfiction (and by extension, the writing classroom): “Nonfiction is not simply an option of style or format or attitude; it’s a perspective on the world, and its texts are composed by writers animated by the nonfiction motive” (6) and this distinction is important in a composition classroom, between form and style, purpose and result. He continues,

"Without the nonfiction motive, writers get no internal checks and balances on their own honesty, no incentive to investigate, explore, observe, compare witnesses, and analyze all the evidence, no commitment to comprehend or to extend that comprehension to readers. […] How we approach what we write makes a great difference in what results…a student’s motive in writing is to clear a hurdle or fulfill a requirement or complete an assignment or master a skill rather than to acquire and express knowledge or to share insight and information. The results are often detached, disengaged, insincere. If, among working writers, writing really matters, why wouldn’t “motive” be essential to apprentice writing or novice writing? (7)."

For me, place-conscious pedagogy is a natural choice to facilitate both, and so this particular English 150 course is designed around a theme of Home and Away, a lens through which we develop a way of looking at what surrounds us, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. We explore the ideas of quest, how movement and stasis can lead us to a greater understanding of where we are and who we are—and we use the Essay form to do so.

David A. Gruenewald, one of the leading voices in place-conscious education, writes in “Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Place-Conscious Education,” that “The point of becoming more conscious of place is to extend our notions of pedagogy and accountability outward toward places. Thus extended, pedagogy becomes more relevant to the lived experience of students and teachers, and accountability is reconceptualized so that places matter to educators, students, and citizens in tangible ways” (620). Place-conscious education values starting with the local and moving outward in ever-increasing circles, so in this English 150, we start with an aspect of home in the first Writing Project (WP1), move to an essay that links a specific place with a language spoken in that place (WP2), and conclude with a unit that explores how place shapes humans and how humans shape place (WP3). The essay form, taken from the larger umbrella genre of creative nonfiction, becomes the tangible, textual way that students become conscious of place, making it relevant for themselves and their readers, requiring them to articulate why their subjects—and their places—matter to the larger world. The page is as much a space to be explored as the physical world, a place often left unconsidered, deemed only a medium of delivery rather than a literal location where ideas and experience collide.

Furthermore, the active quality of place studies lends itself well to an introductory English writing classroom, where students are learning and relearning what it means to be a college student, who they are here among these people in this place, and how that fits into everything else they know about themselves and where they come from and where they’re going. In Robert E. Brooke’s 2003 anthology Rural Voices, he quotes the Nebraska Writing Project’s principles of place-conscious education:

"[P]lace conscious education centers schooling in a deep understanding of local place, spiraling outward to include more distant knowledge in all areas of the curriculum. While all people are certainly citizens of the world, place-conscious educators believe people learn to be active citizens by engaging with local issues, which they can actually affect and which directly influence the quality of life in their community (13)."

But the particular challenge of a first-year classroom—especially one in a location like Lincoln, Nebraska—is that somewhere along the line, my rural students have been taught that their places don’t matter (or don’t matter to anyone else) and my urban students have no idea how they’ve been shaped by their environment. And, perhaps most importantly, they have no idea why any of it matters. They’re in transition, most living in a dorm, away from home for the first time, in temporary housing. They understand loss, they understand fear, they understand love, they understand being uprooted. What they don’t understand is what to do about it, how to articulate to themselves—or anyone else—what their world looks like and how they fit—or don’t—in it. As a result, place-consciousness is an ideal lens to view writing and the essay form in this environment: the purpose of both is to look beneath the surface to what is beneath.

The truth is this, as Gruenewald so succinctly observes: “As centers of experiences, places teach us about how the world works and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. Further, places make us: as occupants of particular places with particular attributes, our identity and our possibilities are shaped” (621). Again the active quality of the verbs Gruenewald is choosing is not accidental. Locations exist without context to create place, but place is elusive and will not seek you out. “Local” is not place-specific, obviously, and can refer to rural or urban environments. Place-conscious education can bridge the gap between these students and their experiences, taking what is common between them and ground those experiences in specific, physical places.

My rural students, even the ones who are majoring in agribusiness or agronomy or the like and have every intention of returning to farms that have been in their families for generations, have been systematically taught that important things happen elsewhere. At the very least, they’ve had to leave their communities for college. Teaching students that the local is important, that where they come from has as much value as any other place, that the local plays a large role in the global context, is an essential place to start. But the urban students have more in common with the rural students than they think. To quote Robert E. Brooke in his “Suburban Life and Place-Conscious Education: The Problem of Local Citizenship”:

"To grow up in suburbia is to be surrounded, in social space, by messages that most everyone is “like you,” that you have a right to be separated from and protected from any civic unpleasantness that emerges from difference, and that your place on earth is consumerist and temporary. You’ll soon be moving to another suburb somewhere else, also socially segregated and protected, where your customary franchise shops will be in the local mall, but everything will be just a little cleaner and newer than it is here. In short, imply the critics, suburban settings are the most placeless and transitory places in America."

Functionally, there is little difference between the suburbs of Omaha and Lincoln and the suburbs of any other city in the country. They have the same architecture, the same strip malls, the same chain restaurants. These urban students suffer as much from placelessness as the rural students, because their impressions are that there is nothing unique or special about their place. It could be anywhere, which presents its own set of challenges to establishing the value of a place, trying to find the unique in the ubiquitous. Additionally, that the campus of UNL is in downtown Lincoln is another variety of place—and a place within a place. Brooke continues: “It is in suburbia, therefore, that the simple majority of Americans have lived in the last quarter century. It is in suburbia that most American youth are educated. It is in suburbia where the dominant modes of citizenship for the next century will be created.” And it is in the first-year classroom that awareness is created, distance is established, and students are given new tools to express this new knowledge. To have such divergent groups of students in a classroom provides a unique opportunity to discuss place itself.

Communities don’t just exist in thin air—and that includes the community of the classroom. They are created and they must be fostered. All members of the community must contribute. Places influence who we are—even if we specifically reject that influence, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But it’s valuable to look back to see how we got to where we are—as well as look forward to see where we’re going.


Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. University of Nebraska State Museum. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011
Bishop, Sharon. “The Power of Place” The English Journal 93.6 (2004): 65-69. Jstor. Web. 12 September 2011.
--- “A Sense of Place” Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. Ed. Robert E. Brooke. New York and Berkeley: Teacher’s College Press, 2003. 65-82. Print.
Bishop, Wendy. “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition” College English 65.3 (2003): 257-275. Jstor. 10 June 2010.
Brooke, Robert E., ed. Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. New York and Berkeley: Teacher’s College Press, 2003.
--- “Suburban Life and Place-Conscious Education: The Problem of Local Citizenship”
Coakley, Tom. “How to Speak of the Secret Desert Wars.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 12.1 (2010): 95-108. Print.
Dodd, Elizabeth. “Underground.” A Year in Place. Ed. W. Scott Olsen and Bret Lott. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah UP, 2001
Gruchow, Paul. Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1995.
---Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1997.
Gruenewald, David A. “Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Place-Conscious Education.” American Educational Research Journal 40.3 (2003): 619-654. Jstor. 20 Nov. 2011.
Kitchen, Judith. “Culloden.” In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones. New York: Norton, 1996.
Lopate, Phillip. “What Happened to the Personal Essay?” Against Joie de Vivre. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2008.
Madden, Patrick. “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things.” Quotidiana. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska UP, 2010. 1-10.
Morano, Michele. “In the Subjunctive Mood.” Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. Iowa City, IA: Iowa UP, 2007. 25-38
Olsen, W. Scott. “The Love of Maps.” Weber: The Contemporary West. 14.2 (1997). Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
Robinson, Tim. Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara. Dublin, Ireland: Lilliput Press, 1995.
Root, Robert. “Naming Nonfiction (A Polyptych).” College English 65.3 (2003). Jstor. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.
---“What the Spaces Say.” Home page. Central Michigan University. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.
Smith, Alexander. “On the Writing of Essays.” Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Oct 2006. Web. 29 Nov 2011.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Tredinnick, Mark. The Blue Plateau: An Australian Pastoral. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2009.
--- “The Essential Prose of Things” The Land’s Wild Music. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2005.
UNL Factbook. Office of Institutional Research and Planning. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011
Wilson, Jason. Foreword. Best American Travel Writing 2011. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. ix-xii.

(The next segment, part 2, will run on November 25)

Bio Note:

Karen Babine is the author of the essay collection Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) and the founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, Weber Studies, Ascent, Slag Glass City, and more. She is currently English Faculty at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, MN.

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