What is “A Space?”

This post isn’t going to be about writing, so much, as about language. Which we use for writing (YAY Alex figured out words!). More specifically, the language we use at the University of Michigan.

Of course, there is the obvious language, like “The Cube,” “The Diag,” and “Angell,”  not to mention the endless acronyms like CCRB, MLB, ITCS, OSCR and SOAS. It must be really odd for out of town people to listen to U of M people talk; I barely have an idea what I’m talking about half the time.  But the language of this university goes beyond our buildings, administrations, and freaky art installations.

I took a class last year, in which the GSI (another one of our Michigan-specific terms, most people have TAs)  liked to use really abstract language. This really frustrated me; I’m a concrete person, and I wasn’t always sure what she meant. She would say things like “negotiate” in this special way that meant “figure out” but in an inexplicably more meaningful way, like to “negotiate one’s identity in a patriarchal society” or “negotiate the power dynamic of one’s relationship.” My least favorite word was “space.” Space meant just about anything to this GSI, from physical space, to emotional space, to the space of the classroom we were in. It was an almost metaphysical concept which she used frequently and interchangeably. My favorite part of the class was when she’d inevitably combine the two and talk about how to “negotiate this space.” Oh, how she loved negotiating those spaces, whatever that meant.


Another professor, one I had last semester, was in love with the phrase “the way in which,” instead of just “how.” Every few minutes, it was “the way in which.” If the GSI ever procreated with this professor, their children would probably talk about “the way in which he or she negotiates this space” endlessly.

The worst part is, that this is not specific to this professor, or this GSI. People I work with at SAPAC talk quite about about negotiation and space, and more and more professors enjoy using “the way in which” as I take more classes. And I have definitely caught it. When giving people advice, I’ve started saying things like “I know it is difficult to negotiate these parts of your identity,” and in a conflict with my parents, I asked for “a space to understand things on my own terms.” “The Way In Which” has worked its way into many of my papers lately as well.

What do I mean by these words? It is different every time. Sometimes, though, they are the only words that make sense for a certain concept. There are many other words as well that carry a specific meaning in the language of this university, like “identity,” “triggering,” and my absolute favorite, “intersectionality.” Saying any of these things makes immediate sense to anyone who goes here, but take it outside of this context, and the specific way you mean the words can get lost.

Does anyone have any thoughts on why U of M has so many words that carry a different weight than they usually do? Any other examples of words that took on a new meaning after you started going there? Does anyone know what “negotiating a space” looks like?

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