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Place Matters: Living the Threshold Life
by Pamela Corpron Parker, '81
Professor of English

Each fall during Orientation Weekend, as parents of freshmen lug boxes from cars to dorm rooms, they also carry the knowledge that their children are about to be irrevocably altered. Perhaps because our older son, Danny, will be a freshman at Whitworth next year, this annual rite of passage seems more poignant to me than ever. As we draw closer to releasing Danny into the life before him, I am reminded of what a privilege it is to travel alongside students during this significant threshold season of their lives. For many students (and their parents), the move into a cramped dorm room signals more than a change in location; it symbolizes a door opening into the future and initiates their exodus from childhood to adulthood.

Like the protagonists of so many 19th-century British novels, these freshman students are undergoing their own "coming of age." In doing so, they enter an indeterminate period between the lives their parents gave them and the ones they will create for themselves. Anthropologist Victor Turner has called this transitional space the liminal realm. The word liminal originates from the Latin word limen, meaning "threshold." Turner describes the liminal realm as the time and place of transition inherent to all rites of passage. This in-between period can be vexed with ambiguity or what Turner calls "countless potentialities and shades of grey."

New students’ first week at Whitworth holds a litany of fundamental questions: "Who are you? Where are you from? What’s your major?" These oft-repeated questions sometimes unsettle students, because they are reminders of their outsider status. Students lose their familiar place in their communities and must revise their identities within a different context. They are yet unknown in this place, and hence less recognizable to themselves.

Poet Jane Hirshfield suggests that "The liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of, identity and particularity... Within the separateness of liminality, connectedness is remade." If I fast-forward a year, I can imagine Danny unlocking the door to his dorm room for the first time and taking in that space and all its possibilities. At first, it will look like most other rooms on campus – a limited expanse with the bare provisions of student life: a bed, a desk, a closet, a set of drawers. He may find it looks a bit "lived in," despite a fresh coat of paint. Perhaps there is a coffee stain on the carpet, some initials scratched on the desk, or a smattering of nail holes in the wall. These tell-tale signs reveal that this space has a history, that it is marked by what cultural geographer Tim Cresswell calls "the hauntings of past inhabitation."

One way humans attach themselves to place is to engage in what geographers call place-making activities. Students will hang posters and family pictures, move furniture around, squeeze their belongings into closets, and pile new course books on the desk. They will learn to share that space with a roommate, and they will develop a series of habits and rituals that will turn their space into place.

This fall, as I began my 14th year at Whitworth, I was struck by the ephemeral and evolving nature of university communities. Though I returned to the same office and department, Whitworth welcomed the largest freshman class in its history. A quarter of our faculty has been hired in the past five years. We inaugurated our 18th president, and our new science building will open for classes next fall. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we "dwell in possibility." We are, like every first-year student, entering a liminal place in the history of our institution.

At the midpoint of my career, I am reminded that I, like my university, am still revising my understanding of place and the practices which constitute that place. If we are always already located somewhere, and some-when, in a literal, geographic sense, these locations are contingent, predicated on movement, and dynamic in their meanings. In other words, my place – your place – is always liminal, layered and highly contextualized. Like the students, faculty, and staff who inhabit them, universities are never complete or bounded but always becoming.

This piece is excerpted from a keynote presentation Parker gave at the Lilly Fellows Program National Conference in October. Corpron Parker received the 2010-11 Armstrong Browning Fellowship at Baylor University, where, during Jan Term 2011, she will conduct research on Elizabeth Barrett Browning for a forthcoming book, Literary Tourism and the Victorian Woman of Letters.

 

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