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College Writing: The Geography of Writing

Place is, in many ways, inherent to writing, both literally and figuratively.  For example, the act of writing occupies a physical space; the body sits and types and the final product occupies a screen or actual paper.  Yet writing also implies metaphorical images of place—the space the writer uses to mull over ideas, or the space between writer and reader.

Shifting Landscapes:The Geography of Writing will use concepts of place, location, and movement to guide first-year students into the genre of academic writing.  The theme is not only fitting for a writing course, but it also emphasizes the unique mission of the University College program: providing students with a distinctive living and learning place within the university.

UC students’ living space will set the stage for in my course—we will create a community of writers.  This will establish yet another space, one that serves to model academic dialogue on a small scale and with a manageable and real group of readers. Taking the concept of community past the classroom and campus, I see the theme of place as means of pushing students into a more public space: D.C. The course will use D.C. as a foundation for assignments given earlier in the semester. 


These assignments will encourage students to conduct interviews, document observations (written, recorded, filmed, photographed), and gather other primary sources; my aim is to get students actively engaged in the research process, rather than cherry-picking facts and stats that lack a personal connection.  Later in the semester, students will be assigned scholarly texts and make use of them for their final projects; at this point, my goal is to connect their hands-on research with others’ research in order to model academia’s ongoing dialogues on place and space.  Some critical theory, both on geography and on writing, will be incorporated to demonstrate and encourage seeing familiar concepts in new and unusual ways. 


Labs will underscore how people mutually affect and are affected by their surroundings.  Possible labs and essay assignments could include:

·     Personal narratives exploring what constitutes “home”

·         Analyses of local “places within places,” such as Rock Creek Park’s wilderness amidst the urban landscape, a successful school within the failing DCPS, etc.

·         Research projects examining a symbolic artifact of a location

·         Profiles of community members in different D.C. neighborhoods, such as small business owners, ANC members, activists, etc.

·         Analysis of a constructed space’s relationship with its environment, such as the UC dorms and the rest of campus, a planned community in a rural area, strip malls in suburbia, etc.

·         A class blog (representing a virtual community or another extension of the classroom) where students document their surroundings within the lens of course texts and ongoing discussions, using photographs, links to articles, thematically related blogs, etc. 


Possible texts could include:

  • They Say/I Say
  • Writing with Style
  • Country of Exiles
  • Writing Places
  • Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience
  • Zeitoun
  • Fun Home
  • Farm City: Education of an Urban Farmer
  • Travels with Charley

This seminar is Fall semester only


Heather McDonald

 Heather McDonald earned her MFA from American University and her BA from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Prior to teaching, she was a web writer and editor. Her academic interests include the intersections between creative writing and composition and the genre of food-themed literature. Off campus, she bikes, cooks, reads, and writes (but rarely all at once). On and off campus, she will most likely have coffee in hand. She is currently at work on several essays and a novel.  Her essay, "How to Fix Everything," was named Creative Nonfiction magazine's Best Food Essay.  It appeared in the Spring 2011 issue.
  • Degrees

    BA, English and Print Journalism, Washington and Lee University; MFA, American University
  • Favorite Place in Washington DC:

    The Spanish Steps