Notes from No Man's Land - Reader's Guide

These questions are intended to direct your attention to themes explored by Eula Biss in Notes from No Man’s Land and the strategies she uses to build her arguments. The form of the questions varies. Some focus on individual essays, others ask you to make connections across a number of essays, and still others ask you to reflect on your own experiences with issues Biss explores in her writing. By thinking about and answering these questions, you will enrich your experience of Biss’s book. Readers are also encouraged to develop and share their own questions that emerge from their reading of Notes from No Man’s Land.

  1. How does Biss define “no man’s land?” How does this concept apply to the book as a whole?
    • Which of the places Biss examines in particular essays qualify as a “no man’s land”? Why?
    • Have you ever been in a situation that felt like being in “no man’s land”? What about that experience led to your feeling that way?
    • Can “no man’s land” become something else?
  2. Notes from No Man’s Land can be understood as a search for or effort to create identity (there are other ways to view the book, of course). What factors influence Biss’s creation of identity through the course of the book?
    • What role does place play in the formation of identity in various essays in the book?
    • In what ways does Biss’s understanding of her identity develop and change over time based on her interactions with others?
    • In what ways do you imagine that being at a new place—the University of Kansas—may influence your sense of identity?
  3. In "Land Mines," Biss describes her experiences in New York City classrooms.  What effect does her perspective on public education have on the way you view education?
    • How closely do Biss's descriptions of education fit your own experiences?  In what ways are they different?
    • What research concerning the history of public education does Biss include in the essay?  What are your reactions to this history?
    • Does Biss resolve her misgivings about education?  What is your reaction to the end of this essay?
  4. Biss writes, “What it means to be white seems to elude no one as fully as it eludes those of us who are white” (page 31) and argues that whiteness is often viewed as the lack of race rather than a racial identity in itself.
    • Where do you see this claim supported in the book?
    • How would you describe your understanding of what whiteness is? How have your experiences influenced your understanding? Is it any easier to know what it means to be nonwhite?
    • Biss presents some discomforting facts about race in American history. Why do you think she examines this history in such detail?
  5. Biss includes both personal responses to experiences and social issues with research about these topics.  What is the relationship between personal information and material from sources in the book?
    • How does Biss use source material to help her understand her own experiences?
    • Can you imagine ways that doing research might help you to better understand some of your own experiences?  What might these be?  What would you want to learn about to help you make clearer sense of your own experiences?
    • What has your understanding of the role of research in writing been?  Does Biss use research in the ways you expected?  Might you reconsider how you can use research to understand yourself and the world?  Why?  How?
  6. The first and final essays are written in a similar style, with short paragraphs that may seem disconnected at times. What are some of the effects of this way of writing these essays?
    • Why might Biss have put these two essays at the start and finish of the book?
    • How does the style of the first essay connect to its interest in unexpected historical connections? Were you surprised at the connections it makes? Why or why not?
    • How does the list-like nature of the final essay influence your reaction to its final apologies? Does this list relate in any way to apologies that you have made in your own life? How might you reconsider apologies that you have made?