Davila, Bethany, and Hannah Dickinson. “At a Distance: The Encoding of Place in the University.” Composition Studies 44.2 (2016): 94-115. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.
Bethany Davila and Hannah Dickinson present a case study of the rhetorical effects of references to place in higher education, in particular capital-P Place, which they argue takes on the role of a totalizing marker that sustains racial inequalities.
Their study grows out of other research in which they interviewed students and instructors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor about various aspects of college writing. Two interviews, one with an African American student and one with a white, male adjunct instructor, stood out for the researchers because of their visible use of place and Place to construct student identities (96). Davila and Dickinson analyze these two interviews to understand how the invocation of place can insert oppressive ideologies into discourse, often despite the intentions of the speaker (101).
They cite the relationship between the “prestigious” University of Michigan and the neighboring city of Detroit as an example of the way place functions as Place to influence the understanding of race at the university. Detroit, which is 83% African American, with a poverty rate of 39%, contrasts with UM, where only 4.65% of the students are African American; the poverty rate in Ann Arbor is 22% (95). Davila and Dickinson note that a ban on affirmative action has exacerbated this disparity (95).
Both low-come students and African Americans, they write, “perhaps especially those from Detroit, may see UM as unwelcoming” (95). A campus movement, Being Black at the University of Michigan (#BBUM), works “to increase awareness about racial inequality” on campus; the movement elicits many statements attesting to discomfort among UM African American students (96). The authors find references to Detroit particularly indicative of how place becomes Place and guides narratives of identity.
They cite the collection City Comp: Identities, Spaces, and Practices as an example of scholarship that explores how cities affect relationships, noting that whether the view of the city comes from inside or outside its boundaries affects the type of narrative that results (97). Their analysis draws on Michel de Certeau’s tropes of the “voyeur” and the “walker” as illustrating two types of interaction with urban contexts (97). The voyeur is “situated at a distance” (98); in de Certeau’s words, the view of the voyeur “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text” (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 98). In contrast, the walker is immersed in “the everyday practices of the city” (98), a relationship evoked by a number of scholars in rhetoric and composition who have studied Detroit (98).
Davila and Dickinson argue that talk about Detroit in many public venues, rather than being an accurate representation of the city, in fact works “as coded language, disguising racist ideologies” (99). They find such discourse to be a form of “white talk,” which they define as language that allows Whites to present themselves as talking about something other than race when they are actually making racist claims. Such talk, the authors contend, allows Whites to avoid the consequences of overt racist speech and to ignore the history of racist oppression that acknowledgment of race as an issue would expose (99).
While Place participates in these erasures among Whites, they argue that it functions in the interview with the African American student as well to establish identity and “reinforce racial inequality” (100).
In Davila and Dickinson’s report of their interview with the white male instructor, they note that he makes “a potentially productive teacherly move” (102) in noting that not all African-American students are alike, but his comments characterize students from Detroit based largely on the fact that they are from Detroit. Asked to “describe the students you pictured in your mind while reading these papers” from Davila’s study, “Simon” attributes the work to “Detroit African American” (102). In his elaboration, he characterizes these students as having “puppy dog energy” but being “really far behind. . . . at the bottom of the pack” (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 103). The authors see such depictions as “racist ideologies disguised as commonsense understandings of Detroit” (104). In their view, Detroit becomes a code word for a particular set of assumptions about African Americans.
The authors’ analysis finds Simon attributing the deficiencies he detects in the students’ work to a poor educational system supposedly characteristic of Detroit and to the “culture” of the city, which Davila and Dickinson see as Simon’s attempts to elide the racist implications of his remarks with more acceptable “structural” explanations (103). Such elisions, they argue, provide the city with agency and deny such agency to the residents, who are damaged by what Simon calls “the unique tragedy happening in Detroit” (qtd. In Davila and Dickinson 105). This characterization of the city not only allows Simon to deny that his views have to do with race but also removes agency from residents of Detroit, who are at the mercy of the city (105).
Interviewing “Sean,” the African American UM undergraduate, Davila and Dickinson see him as the “walker” as opposed to Simon, the “voyeur” (107). In Sean’s discourse, the authors find indications that Sean also imparts agency to the city, but considers himself “unique” because he can cite Detroit experiences that set him apart from other African American students (107-08). According to Davila and Dickinson, Sean refuses to surrender his own agency to the city; he describes actions he took to “get out of Detroit” (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 108).
The authors read Sean’s responses as evidence that, in Sean’s mind, relationships with Detroit “can be negotiated” (109; emphasis original); in their view, Sean feels that “to use one’s common sense and to keep one’s cool” are ways to manage the city’s power (109). They note that Sean associates passivity with Ann Arbor, where, they write, students may “adopt the kind of complacency that is possible in a location of privilege” (109). In contrast, Sean describes himself as “open or calm” and imbued with an agentive “aggressiveness” that allows him to function in his unique place (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 109). Unlike Simon, Sean positions Detroit as the “inside” space, and UM and the suburbs as outside, overturning the commonsense definition of Detroiters as “marginal” (110).
Davila and Dickinson argue that like Simon, Sean uses Place as a means of talking about particular kinds of African Americans, potentially shutting down more nuanced discussions of race and oppression (110-11). They further posit that despite Sean’s alternative representations of Detroit, Simon’s are “more powerful . . . in shaping Detroit-as-Place” because of Simon’s location within the “university power structure” (111) and its kinship with “common outsider understandings of Detroit” (111).
The authors urge more awareness of the ways in which knowledge about where students are from drives assumptions about identity in classrooms. They advocate deliberate effort to generate “alternative perspectives” by listening to students rather than to commonsense assertions about place and to be alert to the ideological underpinnings engendered when place becomes Place (112).