A Practical Guide to Writing about Place

AHA Session 109
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Louis Moore, Grand Valley State University
Telling Neighborhood Stories
Carlo Rotella, Boston College
A Historian’s Take on Place as Character
Amy Bass, Manhattanville College
Becoming Your Own Gatekeeper
Michael Ezra, Sonoma State University
Louis Moore, Grand Valley State University

Session Abstract

In this craft session, presenters address the twin challenge of writing about place and making one's own place in the academy. Each of the participants responds to some version of the question, "What makes a person fit into a place? How do people make a place for themselves that they can call home?” We consider research and writing challenges like re-creating a social world or relationships, representing a community in its complexity, and striking a balance between the responsibility to do right by your characters' sense of their place and the imperative to deliver rigorous analysis. We also implicitly and explicitly address a different but related kind of place-making: how tackling such questions in our work, and coming up with original ways of responding to them, can also be an integral part of the process of establishing a disciplinary place in an academic field. Our objective is to anticipate and provide practical responses to the kinds of writing problems and professional challenges encountered by scholars across the historical disciplines.

Carlo Rotella considers the challenge of writing about a neighborhood. His new book about South Shore, on Chicago's South Side, argues for the importance of residents' relationship to physical place and uses the built landscape as an active device: reading its expressive form to trace the neighborhood's history; showing how neighbors play out conflict and alliance in shared space; marking the lines dividing robust private lives from a public sphere from which many have retreated. His presentation shows how such conceptual moves generate writing problems: how scene, action, structure, point of view, tone, and word choice can be deployed to both make a place come alive and position one's work in relation to various fields and readerships.

Amy Bass gives us a historian’s perspective on something fiction writers thrive on – bringing a narrative’s landscape front and center, as a character itself. Her new book about a refugee soccer team in Lewiston, Maine, sent her back to the city where she did her undergraduate work, Bates College, with new eyes and a new perspective. Her presentation demonstrates how engaging with place under the auspices of writing narrative nonfiction helped her walk the thin line of telling a critical story for a mainstream audience while holding her disciplinary training, serving as more than a backdrop or a historical grounding, but rather as something that drives the story’s characters.

Michael Ezra analyzes the rewards and pitfalls that come with creating places to carve out an academic space for your work and that of others, through his experiences as the editor of a peer-reviewed journal and several anthologies. In this paper, Ezra reflects on the circumstances that led to his founding the Journal of Civil and Human Rights and will teach scholars relevant strategies to get start-up projects considered by academic presses. He will also talk about how these works have helped him find a personal place in academia.

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