Investigating Space: A First Assignment in Basic Writing

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Today's guest blogger is Meghan Kelsey, who is completing the MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University. An experienced teacher and zine artist, she has just finished her first semester of teaching in ASU’s Stretch First-Year Writing Program.


 On beginning my first semester teaching Basic Writing, I created my syllabus by choosing a handful of essays from my textbook and created projects centered on text response and argumentative writing. It was flat and I could feel its depersonalizing effects during the first week of school; I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to really connect with my students because it felt too structured, not even close to approaching learning in a more viable, alive, and humanistic way.


When I got to know my students better, I learned quite a few of them were enrolled in the School of Business with a focus in Sustainability. They began making connections from some of the assigned readings like Gandhi’s On Moral and Economic Progress to conversations about how their own lives fit into the political and economic equation, and how sustainability was factored in. For most of my students, this was their first semester at the university, living in a dorm away from home; we also explored the social and cultural implications of this lifestyle during discussions.


Organically, my projects began to take shape and were re-written into the syllabus. The new accompanying readings were strange and different on purpose, taking after a Surrealist tradition I now know as Ostranenie, or defamiliarization. I gave them poems ranging from contemporary American to Italian Futurist, we looked at photo essays written by young adults from the suburbs of LA, and I made them participate in Autopilot, an activity in which writers deconstruct an automatic movement or thought of their day and become an active participant in changing that routine. My idea was that if I wanted students to arrest their current thought patterns and learned formulaic ways of writing, they needed to be exposed to unique and non-traditional texts and writing activities.


With this idea in mind, for the first writing project of the semester, I invited students to explore space using only primary research (see project description below). This was at first challenging for the students, as they seemed to be more comfortable using outside research to say something about the world instead of drawing on their own experiences. My hope for this project was that once students began seriously deconstructing the physical spaces they embodied in the university, they would become more adept at breaking open the vastly creative interior spaces that perhaps had been stifled or ignored. The French writer Robert Escarpit once said, “Place is an object under the assault of your imagination and little by little, it changes its form, without entirely dissolving, and reveals unknown dimensions.”


As a poet, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of space: cosmological space and its influence on our small world, architectural space and how it dictates our lives, the blank space in poems between words that represent caesuras of the unknown, the possibilities of what could exist on the page, ideograms, languages and their infinite combinations and connections.


Project One: Investigation of Space

What constitutes the memory of a place? Who decides what places hold specific meanings and uses? Often we drift through spaces unconscious of their meaning, purpose, and history. Your goal for this project is to help your audience see a public place differently from how they might otherwise through primary research only (evidence you gather on your own, rather than evidence gathered through books, research articles, or online sources.)  This analysis will offer the reader a cultural observation of a public space in or around ASU that will raise questions of social relevance. For this project, you will write a four page, double-spaced essay examining, by observation, your space. Your goal will be to develop effective primary research methods in order to study and closely examine your chosen space, take careful notes based on your own observations and analysis, and ultimately defend your personal interpretation of this space and its implicit or explicit arguments and values. You might ask:


  • What activities does this space encourage or discourage?
  • Who uses this space—why this group of people, and not another group?
  • What features of this space strike me; how do they make me feel?
  • Why is this space arranged or constructed in this way? What planning might have gone into this arrangement?
  • What are the historical influences of this place/area and how does that affect people today?


The students’ response was enlightening. They seemed to have liked writing from their own experience. They discovered something about themselves, their peers, or the university—both positive and negative. The project gave them the space to explore their own feelings and opinions about their daily lives which often can fall by the wayside with such a large educational institution serving as their backdrop.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.