GIS in the Composition Classroom Stephen J. Quigley Clemson University




"To what place have we come?"

Oedipus asks of Antigone in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus


qtd. in E.V. Walter’s Placeways



The ancient Greeks understood the rhetorical power of space and place. Our rhetorical terminology is even rooted in terms that denote place and geography: topospolis, and chōra—locations one might have found on an ancient Greek map. These maps or gēs periodos, translated as “circuit of the earth,” would have guided the great theōros (tourist) Solon in his efforts “to see the world,” what the Greeks referred to in the infinitive as “theōriēs” (McEwan, 1993, p. 30).


It is not just our rhetorical terms that are grounded in space and place. In Metaphors we live by (2003), Lakoff and Johnson, take a cultural linguistic approach to examining our metaphors arguing that it only follows that our language for being derives from our experiences in spaces and places. Spatialization metaphors are rooted in physical and cultural experience; they are not randomly assigned. A metaphor can serve as a vehicle for understanding a concept only by virtue of its experiential basis. As the authors put it, "We are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation. We project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces" (p. 29). In adhering to the container theory, we can discuss language as grammar for that relationality. A grammar for our being in relation to other beings, places, and things. We move forward in life or fall behind. We are looking up or feeling down.


These metaphors for space and place have implications for how we see and move through the world in our current period and how we locate ourselves in the overlapping networks of the local and global. In Placeways: a theory of the human environment (1988), Walter discusses the Greek word theoria to great lengths. For the Greeks, theoria meant something more than seeing sights or touring ancient realm, it meant un-concealing the full meaning of a place (p. 2). Walter, working from Emmet, describes theoria as “…a complex but organic mode of active observation—a perceptual system that included asking questions, listening to stories and local myths, and feeling as well as hearing and seeing. It encouraged an open reception to to every kind of emotional, cognitive, symbolic, imaginative, and sensory experience—a holistic practice of thoughtful awareness that engaged all senses and feelings” (p. 19). Theoria, in this sense, is thus more akin to practice than episteme. Walter also relates that theoria, this practice of seeing, closely relates to another word of the same root "thea" (to see), that word being “therapy” (p. 20). Therapy derives from therapia, meaning in “close attendance” when applied to places. But, as with many Greek words, its meaning ebbs, flows, flourishes in its application, even in its very ambiguity. For theoria is a supple word, meaning cultivation when we think of farming, acting as a parent in the case of children, a courtship in the case of lovers, an act of flattery in the case of when one interacts with another of a higher status, or an act of worship when used in relation to the gods. Walter would refer to such research of place as "topistics," that is, a study of placeways, an interpretation of the “experience and meaning of a place” (p. 5). Through the visualization of the data, the researcher can explore and express the nomos, the ways of being in a place, the character of a place.


Rhetoric is the grammar in all this—the very grammar that governs our relationality.

Weisser and Dobrin (2012) define this experience of writing in a place as “ecocomposition”: “the relationships between writers, writing and all places, spaces, sites, and locations.” (p. 13) Though the term “ecocomposition” never really caught on in composition, we can see its value in that it offers a term for the languaging of networks and the rhetorics that govern these networks in the writing of ecologies. Reynolds (2004) continues this line of research into our relationship with others in spaces and places by formulating a writing pedagogy situated in cultural geography:


           “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?” (p. 2)


Reynolds asks us to question why it might it be beneficial to teach rhetoric as conceptually tied to space and place? She also offers some final thoughts about how geographical literacy impacts students, explaining that:


           “[h]uman geography can give students and researchers a richer understanding of

           place and its role in the formation of identity and the production of ideology.

           Critical attention to maps, what they show and what they leave out, as well as

           comparisons between maps and “actual” places can help students to understand

           the difficulties of representation as well as the complexities of fieldwork” (p. 50).


A better understanding of geography, Reynolds argues, “complicates our thinking about places in that we are able to realize difference” (p. 51). In this paper, I am arguing that GIS is an apt tool for helping students realize this difference. This visualization tool offers us an ingress into spaces, places, and society’s workings within them and details the complications in the juxtaposition of our habitusdoxa, and nomos.