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  • Katie McWain

What We Talk About When We Talk About Orientation

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If you you’ve ever asked me for directions to my apartment, watched me try to pick out the right size Tupperware for leftover food, or noticed the inscrutable diagrams I draw in a theory class, you know that I have trouble orienting myself to anything. I remember feeling a rush of empathy when I first read Sloane Crosley’s “Lost in Space,” a darkly funny essay about the author’s temporal-spatial learning disorder. “You may not be able to read a map,” she writes, “but I get lost in the supermarket, due to my severe spatial disability.” As I read I wondered where I fell on that continuum of lost-ness, where we all fall. But Crosley criticizes our cultural eagerness to identity with her condition—to argue that we, too, are bad with directions or challenged by spatial reasoning. These minor everyday setbacks are not the same as a disability, Crosley argues, and I know she’s right.

What I do understand about myself, then, is that it takes me a long time to figure out positionality: who and where I am in a situation. I struggle to learn what the cardinal directions are and how to move toward them. To figure out where to look, what to pay attention to, how to organize feedback. How to visualize starting points and ending points. How to chart the connections and relationships. How to take in the full panoramic scope of a scene, literally and metaphorically. How to assess possibilities.

(Me trying to orient myself to Agamben, an impossible task.)

About a year ago I started thinking more deliberately about orientation—as a concept, a theoretical term, a cultural and professional commonplace. I study teacher development, so that’s another source of inspiration for me: this idea that new teachers can somehow be “oriented” to a lifelong pedagogical career in a three-day workshop before the semester starts. I decided that there must be a way to map out this personal and scholarly puzzle through some research. So I circled orientation, looked at it every which way. I searched for the term in journals, first noticing how often it follows the word “sexual.” That precise pairing, “sexual orientation,” seems like the only phrase some of us have for talking about sex and identity and gender: as a movement-toward, a spinning compass, a chosen field of vision. Sarah Ahmed studies this tendency, exploring orientation as a rhetorical trope at the intersection of queer studies and phenomenology. Ahmed illuminates how “bodies take shape through tending toward objects that are reachable, which are available within the bodily horizon” (543). Our orientations direct us toward some objects and not others, she notes, and point us toward possible futures. But these futures are not always easy to categorize.

Next I turned to the exhaustive use of “orientation” in professional and academic discourse, often serving as a metonymy for introduction or training. Google turns up page after page of new student orientations and employee orientations. It’s in schedules, handbooks, and human resources literature. So what does it mean, I asked myself, to be oriented to a job? To a profession? To a school? Part of it is spatial: knowing where to go and how to navigate buildings and systems. Some of it is emotional: fitting in and feeling confident in a new place. And some of it is ideological: giving people the tools we think they need to do the jobs we want them to do. Our culture conceptualizes orientation as a hurdle over which any novice must jump before truly belonging in a given environment, and we’ve capitalized on this idea in lots of institutions.

But there are even more valences. In composition theory, we talk about orientation as a way of seeing or or thinking toward, for writers and students and instructors. We talk about how teachers might “orient to disability in the classroom” (Kerschbaum). We talk about the affordances of approaching writing with a “gerund orientation,” rather than thinking of it as a noun or a verb (Williams). (Could this be why so many people assume English scholars sit around debating parts of speech in their spare time?) We talk about “holistic orientations” to writing research (Fleckenstein et al.) and the “geographic turn” in composition, emerging through a growing attention to the discipline’s “politics of space” (Reynolds). We talk about encouraging our students to “value disorientation” (Wilson and Niemczyk), or to imagine what a “pedagogy of disorientation” might look like in practice (Jay). We argue that today’s shifting undergraduate population “must learn a vast array of cartographic skills” in order to “gain a sense of location, a sense of where” in the contemporary university (Mauk 368). Invariably in composition, we also talk about what Lorraine Code calls “rhetorical spaces.” These are “fictive but not fanciful or fixed locations, whose (tacit, rarely spoken) territorial imperatives structure and limit the kinds of utterances that can be voiced within them with a reasonable expectation of uptake” (ix-x). So to orient yourself to a rhetorical space, then, means to figure it out: to discover who can speak in that space, and how and when and why, and the strategies they use. It means mapping the “territorial imperatives.” It means paying attention to the dimensions and registers of the space. It means acknowledging the conventions, carving out paths, entering conversations.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Kenneth Burke. (How do I always end up here?!) I keep returning to Burke’s theory of orientation because there’s this image from Permanence and Change that haunts me, an image of a trout.

(Not a trout, but this will do. Photo credit from

In the introduction, Burke describes for us a trout whose jaw has been torn by a fishing hook. This trout is a critic, he explains, just like all living things. After the trauma of being hooked, the fish starts to sharpen its powers of discrimination. It will consider the difference between bait and food more carefully the next time it encounters an unknown object in the water. Eventually, once the trout can ascribe meaning to a particular behavior, it becomes more skilled at reading the signs of its environment. Burke argues that it doesn’t matter whether this development occurs consciously or not; the outward manifestation of the fish’s judgment is its orientation.

Unlike the trout, though, humans can attend to our own orientations. We can consider the events and influences that led to their development. We can study how they interact with our identities. We can question our orientations, unpack them, seek to sharpen them. We can ask: why the hook? What does it do? Why does it matter? How should we feel about it?

Building on Burke, then, there is still so much more to read and think about in this conversation: critical geography, space theory, educational psychology, identity politics. When we talk about orientation, we’re really talking about all kinds of different things, sometimes at cross purposes. I’m kind of stuck here: I have an “orientation” workshop of my own to plan for new composition teachers in the fall, and I have a dissertation to write that somehow makes sense of this obsession with being oriented. In the end, as so often happens when I try to deal in concepts, I feel like I’m left with nothing but prepositions. So I hope that as we talk around, about, through, beside, under, over, along and from within and outside of our many conflicting orientations, we continually work to pay attention to them—to see the hook. To question what difference it makes. To question whether it makes a difference at all.

(A testament to my preoccupation: As I binge-watched Glee while writing this post, I started to wonder whether the Glee Club's name ("New Directions") and this image could be tied into a post on orientation...)

-------------------------------------- I’d like to thank Clarence Harlan Orsi for inspiring many of my meditations on spatial reasoning and for always being willing to empathize.

Ahmed, Sarah. “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology.” GLQ: A Journal Of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.4 (2006): 543-574. Print. Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Print. Crosley, Sloane. “Lost in Space.” Salon. Salon Media Group. 7 August 2009. Web. 23 January 2016. Fleckenstein, Kristie S., Clay Spinuzzi, Rebecca J. Rickly, and Carole Clark Papper. “The Importance of Harmony: An Ecological Metaphor for Writing Research.” College Composition and Communication 60.2 (2008): 388-419. Print. Jay, Gregory. “Taking Multiculturalism Personally: Ethnos and Ethos in the Classroom.” American Literary History 60.4 (1994): 613-632. Print. Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “Anecdotal Relations: On Orienting to Disability in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Forum 32, (2015). Web. 16 January 2015.

Mauk, Jonathan. “Location, Location, Location: The ‘Real’ (E)states of Being, Writing, and Thinking in Composition.” College English 65.4 (2003): 368-388. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra. “Composition’s Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace.” College Composition and Communication 50.1 (1998): 12-35. Print. Williams, Amy D. “Beyond Pedagogy: Theorizing Without Teachers.” Composition Forum 30 (2015). Web. 23 January 2016. Wilson, Maja and Michael Niemczyk. “Moving to the Center: Disorientation and Intention.” English Journal 97.5 (2008): 34-39. Print.

#katiemcwain #orientation #kennethburke #sarahahmed #composition

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