GIS in the Composition Classroom Stephen J. Quigley Clemson University





Why might it be beneficial to teach

rhetorical concepts as inherently

tied to space and place?



We might argue that GIS (Geographic information systems) are simply a way of visualizing tabular data on a map. But if we limit ourselves to such a definition, we’d be missing all that GIS can bring to the rhetoric and composition classroom. This paper details my implementation of Esri Survey 1-2-3 and Esri ARC GIS (a proprietary GIS system offered through the Esri Company) in a FYC (first-year composition classroom), in which we built smart maps and web applications for visualizing and analyzing data. The project offered a challenge to students to collect and analyze geographic data in order to tell stories and formulate arguments connecting people and their movement in space, place, and time.


I argue that GIS does more than mere data visualization; it enables the user to examine human beings’ relationality in space and place over time. We can locate and visualize happy places, sad places, sick places—places in need of attention, all by looking at a GIS powered map. We can even examine how one’s perception of space and place contrasts with the reality of a given space and place in a given time. Using GIS helps my students understand how our knowing—doing—making intricately connects to not only our movement and position in space, but in our treatment of these spaces, our design of these places, and how these places, in turn, design us. Rhetoric is the grammar in all this—the very grammar that governs our relationality.


Most people don’t realize that they use GIS every day. It's that thing in our smart phones that positions us in relation to the satellites and every other GIS device or mapped location. We use this relationality to find ourselves when we are out and about, or to better understand our weather without having to step across our threshold or even get out of bed. Along with locating ourselves, we use GIS as a tool to position ourselves in spaces and places or for moving more effectively across those spaces. In that we can track our location, we are simultaneously being tracked—our location fed through algorithms that  bombard us with location-based content. We must not forget that the military first developed GIS as a tool for surveying and surveilling, and that many of the questions of its ethical application in our own period differ little from this earlier one. GIS’s progression from military to the “free market” has led to applications equally strategic and belligerent in quality. In the age of GIS, consumers not only search for goods and services nearby, they are lured to these nearby goods and services. For the advertiser in the age of ubiquitous computing, GIS governed mobility as accessed through a multi-tool such as a cell phone, allows greater affordances than any preceding advertising medium. One minute a user searches a map for a specific location or good and the next they find themselves negotiating content in other applications and pop-ups that package individualized geographic specific marketing.


Public and private enterprises utilize GIS as a tool for a wide range of applications ranging from criminal justice to agriculture, transportation and urban planning to environmental planning. Esri ARC GIS, the proprietary GIS system that runs on the majority of government, industry, and university computers, has built a massive system of databases and powerful tools for visualizing data. Esri ARC GIS requires licenses which forces the user to maintain a contract rather than a one-off consumer purchase, a model that does not suit all users. There are open source versions of GIS which include Q-GIS, but these programs lack the amenities and the turnkey add-on applications that students can easily utilize to package and communicate data. Google Earth is another proprietary GIS system allowing some functionality that overlaps with Esri ARC GIS, but in industry, Esri ARC GIS remains the standard. As Adobe Software is to design, Esri is to GIS; it is therefore in any university’s interest to build GIS labs that utilize Esri ARC GIS software. The model of “shared community” within Esri ARC GIS platform allows the company to add value to the product through user labor, a shrewd practice replicated throughout digital capitalism via “community forums” whose net effect simultaneously decreases labor and increases corporate profits. In that we utilize and circulate Esri products that bear the Esri logo, we inadvertently supply labor and create capital for the company.


This double-edge to GIS technology extends to how the tool might be used in practice. If we grant GIS too much authority, it becomes another tool to mandate fixedness. In the discourse of cultural geography, scholars warn of the longstanding power dynamics inherent in geography and the implications new technology may have on our thinking and practice. While GIS provides a geographic tool that enables the user to visualize spatial data, it does not supply the requisite theory that might effect change or garner justice. For example, Soja (2010) mentions the role early GIS tools played in the consolidation and desegregation of school districts in the 1950s and 1960s, but regrets that the will to consolidate schools fairly and democratically was lacking. He blames the gap between a more ethical theoretical formulation of communal living and its everyday practice (p. 51). As researchers and teachers, we are ever blazing the clearer route between theory and practice, but if our students can't follow these connections, nor communicate them, then what is the value of the practice? Additionally, scholars like Harley (2001) worry about the authority granted to GIS which he believes brings "a new arrogance in geography about its supposed value as a mode of access to reality" (p. 231). This proves especially concerning when one considers that GIS uses tabular data to generate data spatially, even though such mappings and visuals are only as accurate as the data they extrapolate.


We should also be concerned with the implications of research performed from both remote locations and at great distances as is possible with GIS, especially where sociocultural data is being gathered or analyzed.  As Sibley (1995) notes, “I would suggest that if geography is to represent difference authentically and to challenge exclusionary tendencies, practitioners need to transgress disciplinary and personal boundaries and to come much closer to the people whose problems provide the primary justification for the existence of the subject” (p. 185). Where sociocultural investigations are at play, especially factors that involve marginalized groups, investigations should take place as close to the sites as possible. Sibley also raises ethical questions about who is doing the work—and who is excluded from doing it. To make his point, Sibley profiles the work of W.E.B. Dubois as an example of how knowledge can be systematically excluded. As a result, instructors should take precautions as regards the kinds of projects their students explore, but at the same time, imagine what more we might explore if our university spaces were themselves equitable. As with any tool, GIS’s utilization will only be as thoughtful as the researcher doing the work.


But on the other hand, if there is a technology that has the potential to show the unfixedness of spaces and places, and perhaps the unfixedness of the user within them, then GIS technology may be one. As an education tool, in Papert's constructionist sense, we might consider how GIS can open pathways to learning by creating new opportunities for expression and experimentation (cf. Gargarian, 1996). Constructionist often work from the writings of Vygotsky, who emphasized the mental awareness learners gain through grappling with external activities (Shaw, 1996). GIS as a tool offers new lines of inquiry and exposes students to new data, both of which students must first negotiate and then communicate. When constructionist thinkers like Gargarian consider a revolution in education or a revolution in the thinking of a student, they point to Piaget’s notions of assimilation and accommodation wherein "the learner can assimilate new ideas that are only slightly different from his own, whereas the learner has to change his perspective to accommodate ideas that are very different from his own. Revolution requires support for accommodative thought" (p. 156). In this sense, GIS provides a ready tool to expose our students to new data that can challenge their thinking and facilitate learning.


In the constructionist sense, we need tools that can inform student understanding of location as constituted in socio-spatial terms. Sibley (1995) relates how spaces are constructed in relation to both ideology and power relations. The mapping of those spaces can reveal this difference and shed light on how institutional practices produce geographies of exclusion, but in turn, explain how these geographies reinforce individual’s thinking. As Sibley puts it, “space and society are implicated in the construction of the boundaries of the self but that the self is also projected onto society and onto space” (p. 86). With GIS we have the potential to visualize networks of flowing data and the usability to navigate its complexity. On the other hand, geographers also possess the ability to impose new borders with their data sets. Massey (1993) discusses the complexities of power geometries and the shrinking of space time as it relates to specific individuals and groups, something that is not easily quantified through generalized mappings, snapshots of a world in flux. Instead of seeing maps as lines denoting stagnant borders that divide spaces, places, and people, she challenges the geographer to show how lines connect these elements in complex, changing ways. How might we utilize GIS in the composition to map these very relations?



GIS is as an example of a post-pedagogy tool that might be used to effect a new way of seeing a campus, state, or even problems that many in a given community might tend to overlook.


In recent decades, GIS has gained recognition as a science in its own right (Goodchild, 1992; Rhind, 1992; Abler, 1993; Dobson, 1993; Goodchild, 2004) and has inspired a wide range of writings on the implications of this technology. In 2005, The National Research Council published a text touting the benefits of using GIS in the K-12 classroom explaining that GIS fosters spatial literacy for everyday as well as for professional purposes. Kim & Bednarz (2013) used the report to identify the habits of mind that tend towards the spatial. These subdomains are identified by the authors as “pattern recognition, spatial description, visualization, spatial concept use, and spatial tool use” (p. 165). Kim & Bednarz measured how college-age students new to GIS perceived their own growth in terms of spatial literacy over the course of a unit of study. Their research showed that overall, students participating in GIS coursework believed they had improved their spatial habits of mind (pp. 173-174); however, these same self-reporters did not perceive a substantial improvement in the use of spatial tools.


GIS methods and practice have also expanded into the humanities. Cooper and Gregory (2011) offer an excellent example of a methodology and project that uses GIS to incorporate story maps in literary studies to examine the travels of Burns and Coleridge in the Lakes Region. However, while humanities scholars such as Crang (2015) recognize the shifts tools such as GIS bring in terms of mobilizing texts and archives in the humanities, he is doubtful that the tools themselves will bring conceptual advances. Other humanities scholars (Hawkins et al., 2015) see the benefits of GIS and other digital tools in their ability to aid in developing new types of practices, promoting better public communication, and effecting greater political consequences. In that I am currently teaching a student community that is largely white, privileged, and resistant to change, it is for these generative reasons that Hawkins et al. provide that GIS proves interesting in my research. Due to my own position as a vulnerable teacher in a territorialized classroom, I see the potential for GIS as an example of a post-pedagogy tool that might be used to effect a new way of seeing our campus, state, and the problems that many in our community tend to overlook. The insights my students make can then be packaged and circulated via social media as examples of public rhetoric issuing forth from our classroom space.


For my own classroom practice, I used the model of Zhao et al (2002) as a best practice for implementing technology in the classroom and as a checklist for designing this unit. This model focuses on the dynamics of teacher, the technological project, and the context of its implementation. In preparation for this unit, I enrolled in a semester-long GIS training session and conducted test projects to examine how I might best use these tools in my classroom. When it came time for my students to begin the project, I was prepared with specific learning heuristics as well as design constraints intended to limit our research parameters so as to yield the most significant results. After my students had gathered their data, I implemented another best practice by bringing in a GIS specialist to the classroom to help me walk my students through visualizing data and organizing it into a GIS Story Map. This proved especially important in that the university at which I teach has a GIS center where I could afterwards send my students if they had additional issues. I gratefully thank and fully credit our Clemson GIS center in that they provided me with all of the support to fully realize success in the implementation of this unit.