While teaching a class theorizing people, place and space at the Pratt Institute in New York City, Dr. Jen Jack Gieseking realized that she and her colleague, William Mangold, were rewriting the same, overdone syllabus that so many people had taught before them. So they decided to do something about it. 

That something evolved into “The People, Place, and Space Reader,” a new anthology dedicated to scholars writing about the ways in which people inhabit the space around them. 

Though it initially seemed an arduous task, Gieseking was excited by the idea of compiling all of her favorite works into one accessible reader.

“This is really great, fun material, and people think about it all the time,” explained Gieseking. 

Mangold and Gieseking, along with renowned researchers and scholars Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert, dove to work set on assembling the best texts from geography, sociology, design, and other fields.

“Space is everywhere we go,” noted Gieseking. “We wanted to take this very unique interdisciplinary approach and get it out to the world.”

Gieseking approaches “space” in a broad sense.

“I mean the environment; I mean the landscape: I mean buildings, neighborhoods, cities. The global, the intimate, the body, the street. Everything from the Cartesian coordinates on a Google map to the experience of where your head is at. That sort of relative and relational space, all those kinds of spaces.”

Whether students are aware of it or not, space affects everything in their worlds, all of the time, Gieseking asserts. 

“How does the campus design affect how you feel about yourself? Here, we have these ‘teched-out’ classrooms and this beautiful view, and it really changes who we are and how we feel about ourselves,” Gieseking said as she gestured. “I’ve been obsessed with this since I was a child.” 

For years scholars have been experimenting with compiling readings in the discipline. “The People, Place, and Space Reader” contains texts from geography, anthropology, psychology, architecture, urban studies and even a piece by Virginia Woolf about not being allowed entrance to the Oxford Library. 

“It’s exciting. It’s compelling. There’s something for everyone,” she said. 

For her, this project has a special draw: “It’s a lot about power and empowerment,” she noted, “It’s a lot about examining limited access to space.” 

A huge part of this project was universal accessibility. Their website, peopleplacespace.org, provides the written introductions for each reading and a complete list of texts. 

According to Gieseking, a group of people in Colombia who do not have enough money to buy the “The People, Place, and Space Reader” have been using the website to read the introductions, locate the PDFs online, and then hold local reading groups about the material. 

“That is exactly what I want,” said Gieseking. “[The website] is an entry point that you can just jump into. You can do this on your own.”

Additionally, young scholars can add to the People Place Space website with recommendations of their own.

Added Gieseking, “I don’t want the book to end.” 

Studying geography as anundergraduate student and “making a lot of maps,” Gieseking has always loved space. Her own sexuality also played a role in her long-lasting obsession with space. Having gone to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, Gieseking has thought quite a bit about women’s education and women’s spaces.

“I’m a lesbian, and trans, which wasn’t even a word until 1996. All of this led to a lot of thinking about women’s spaces and gay spaces. When people talk about LGBTQ spaces, they talk about neighborhoods, bars, and cities. I don’t know of a city of women; I don’t know of a neighborhood of women; and there are two lesbian bars in Manhattan for women, and 58 for men. So if that’s what LGBTQ spaces are, it doesn’t represent women’s experiences,” Giesking said. 

She is also working on an interactive online map of New York City. Gieseking has compiled 2,400 lesbian/queer places and events thus far, and visitors to the site can click on the marker dots and read about the stories that transpired at those locations. She is also expanding this project to be nation-wide, considering there is a queer mapping initiative in almost every city that could be incorporated into one large survey. 

For Gieseking, all of her projects this year have come to revolve around one concept.

“There needs to be access to knowledge,” she said. “That is key.”

“Just like a late-night conversation that you would have with friends—you know, when you have those life talks. Let’s just model that on stage,” said Tyrelle Johnson ’15.
Thus began the task of writing and directing “Perspectives,” a play performed during Orientation that portrays the diversity of experiences and backgrounds in the first year class. The show is based on short essays first years write before entering Bowdoin, describing their life experiences through challenges.
Taking on “Perspectives,” a Bowdoin Orientation tradition, was a new endeavor for Johnson. He has not been heavily involved in theater groups since high school and the job was one of many that Johnson applied for on campus this summer. Luckily, he said, the experience was a positive one.
 Johnson said that condensing the life experiences of 505 individual students into one play with only six actors was not an easy task. It was a balancing act of representing everyone and avoiding repetition of similar stories.
 “They were pretty much similar in that they asked the same questions to all the students. I had to be really creative to figure out ways to not make it so monotonous.”
Johnson wanted to highlight not only the similarities between students but also the differences.
“I was very serious about having it about class issues. The only way to do that is to pull out things that would signify what social-economic status people come from,” said Johnson. “I would look for things about trips that people who are poor couldn’t afford—things of that nature.”
These anecdotes were harder for Johnson to find than stories from the other end of the spectrum.
“It was much easier to find stories based on poverty than those of privilege,” he said. “Nobody who has a lot of money is going to sit there and talk about how much money they have, especially in a college essay.”
Choosing quotes was a process of digging below the surface.
“I had to really examine what these people were talking about and if that took money, and what resources it took to do that,” he said. “I had to really question certain stories.”
Johnson said he was more nervous presenting his own writing than he was performing.
“I had such a huge stake in it. I didn’t want anyone to feel like their story was represented in the wrong way. I hoped that people would laugh at the parts that I meant to be funny—which wound up happening. It worked.”
The goal of the production was to give an accurate overview of all the backgrounds that make up a typical class at Bowdoin. Johnson hopes the show made first years more aware of the other students they will be spending the next four years with.
“The show is really about developing a foundation—sort of a commonality among people—so they can actually discuss issues,” he said. “I hope that the show impacted them enough so that they might actually want to learn about their peers and figure out things that they may not have thought of. I want people to be connected.”
Outside of this project, Johnson’s main artistic outlet is singing in the Meddiebempsters and his band, The Jboard. But it was performing in theater productions in high school that gave Johnson the confidence on stage he has now.
“Over time I just developed natural ways of being on stage. It just works for me. I just try to use my natural self-taught methods in this process—which has actually worked out because singing on stage is not that different from acting on stage.”
Johnson feels that his main contribution to the Meddiebempsters is bringing character to the performances.
“When I get on stage, I just know how to interact with people. I just get really goofy,” he said.
Like many students, Johnson’s artistic pursuits have been a part of his education, but ultimately Johnson would like to use his Government and Legal Studies major to become a judge. For now, singing is just a hobby.
“It just makes life around here a little nicer,” he said. “That’s all.”