Making My Narrative Atlas

Obtaining all of the data for my narrative atlas, titled Feats and (De)feats of Association (a play on a quote by Robert Frost), was actually the easiest part of creating it. The Rowan University Writing Center (RUWC) is a relatively small space wherein the subjects are mostly standing still for long periods of time, making their locations easy to chart. It was finding a ‘narrative’ that really challenged me. Hopefully, I pulled it off.

First I started with an introduction:

Being a graduate assistant at the Rowan University Writing Center (RUWC) for the past two years, I spend a lot of time there—taking in the sounds, images, and movements that exist inside it. If you talked to me before I started Visual Rhetoric and Multimodal Composition this semester, I might have told you that I could explain every detail and happening that goes on within that space. And perhaps I could, but there’s a lot more to understanding a place than being able to pick out any detail about it.

Sometimes, you have to isolate things in order to better understand them. To see everything, in a sense, is to see nothing. Meaning cannot be made from an overwhelming blob of information; it can only be made from reaching into that noisy body of numbers, pictures, and words, pulling things out, and throwing them together like chemicals to see what kind of new compound they might make. As Robert Frost wrote, “An idea is a feat of association,” and this was exactly my intention when mapping the RUWC: to pick out different parts of its space and see what other parts conflict, compliment, and add to each other. It can only help me do my job better—seeing things in a different way—along with reinforcing the idea that maps reveal many things about our culture.

Much like other kinds of narratives, my narrative atlas has characters. There are the tutors, who are my coworkers and the tutees that come in for help. There are the tax volunteers, whom I will refer to as “Tax Workers” so that they better correspond to their “Tax Customer” counterparts (though they are taking a free service). Also, much like other narratives, this series of maps presents conflict and tension at times between these characters.

I intended for the first two maps of the atlas to establish the RUWC’s mission for readers who might not be entirely sure what a writing center does. By mapping the populations of regular tutees and literary vs. nonliterary posters, I got to illustrate the purpose of the RUWC while showing its continuously modified methods of outreach. Furthermore, establishing the place acts as a narrative move—showing the reader the ‘setting’ of the place wherein the action of the story will take place.

Once the setting is put in place, I move on to the conflict between us and the Tax Workers and Customers over the RUWC space. I did my best to characterize them, consistently making them blue and us red. What this turned into—perhaps naturally—as a series of maps that looked a lot like war strategy maps. Such maps were fitting for me to appeal to, and allowed me to frame my narrative as just that: a war. Of course, I had to acknowledge that this was a hyperbolic telling of a petty conflict over space, but using war-like maps worked as a strong exercise in finding and understanding meaning in visual rhetoric.

Once the conflict was established and the plot moves forward, I start to filter my interpretations through a Denis Wood-esque cartographic analysis of the rhetorical moves I was making. I think my most astute analysis came in my last map, “Invasion Pt. III: Compromise.” Here, I analyzed my use of color as a means of separating space:

Invasion Pt. III

The division implies a separation of space, as opposed to specific objects. And, much like the maps of North and South Korea or Israel and Palestine, the straight and distinguishable line separating the central space of the RUWC suggests that there is some sort of cooperation (be it stable or unstable) and understanding between both parties.

In other words, I’m exploiting a widely-understood code: state separation. Making one half of the space red and the other blue touches on separation—and perhaps even a post-conflict separation in my case.

I feel good about how my narrative atlas turned out. I’ll probably look at maps a little differently—particularly at who wrote it and what they might want from me as a consumer, voter, reader, worker, etc. And if I persuaded anyone with my map in any way, I apologize, but I guess that’s the nature of maps.

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