Biography of a Map—Further Experiments in Pedagogy

Last fall while teaching a course on the history of the scientific revolution I chronicled my efforts to teach students to be curious. I tried modeling curiosity, showing them how to formulate questions, and explaining good questions (at some point in the near future I will polish off the posts that conclude that particular experiment in pedagogy, which seemed to enjoy mixed results). This fall, in my Introduction to the History of Science course, which spans Greek antiquity through the 14th century with forays into the Islamic and the Byzantine worlds, I am again adjusting my approach in order to get students to struggle with primary sources—old things—much sooner and in a more open-ended way. Moreover, this time I want to use that source material to persuade students to see science, its power to organize reality, and its history in a more nuanced and problematic way.

To accomplish these goals, I jettisoned my course’s typical chronological framework, which structured the first half of the semester. Instead, I opened with a couple weeks on maps and mapping. We began simply enough by looking at some Google maps of the local area, comparing the satellite versions with the schematic map.

Composite of two Google maps of Haverford College and neighborhood—the schematic map and the satellite version with labels

I wanted students to think about how both were maps and accurate, but accurate and useful for different activities—to my surprise, they all chose the satellite map with street names as the best way to walk from Haverford to Bryn Mawr. At the same time, they realized that both maps distorted the area in various ways. The satellite map was accurate for a particular time of the year, and as long as buildings weren’t destroyed or built—they all pointed out that where a parking lot is pictured there is now a construction site. The schematic road map was useful for driving but at the expense of physical representation—the college is represented as a largely undifferentiated tan block. It didn’t take long to come up with information that neither map represented, e.g., structure and space usage—education, single-family homes, apartments, businesses, recreation; ethnographic information; elevation; topography.

Map of Chicago’s 19th precinct showing different types of business, from If Christ Came to Chicago (Laird & Lee, 1894)

In thinking about how to represent usage, we looked at a particular 19th-century map of Chicago’s 19th precinct. Even before learning that it illustrated William Stead’s If Christ came to Chicago, they discerned a particular moral agenda—one student asked if brothels had actually been painted red, as indicated on the map. Stead described the precinct as reflecting in “an aggravated form most of the evils which are palpably not in accord with the mind of Christ.”(1) Stead pointed out that

In the nineteenth precinct there are 46 saloons, 37 houses of ill-fame and 11 pawnbrokers. This is an underestimate of the place which are commonly regarded as the moral sore spots of the body politic. Several houses described as stores or offices are more or less haunted by immoral women. The map which is printed in the first part of this volume does not overestimate, but rather gives an unduly favorable impression as to the influences in the midst of which the inhabitants of the precinct grow up.(2)

Students were able to see the map as useful for representing certain information about the precinct. Further, they realized that maps often present information that is not, in any simple, physical sense, found in the space being mapped.

Through other examples we were able to think about other forms of information that can be mapped—migrations, histories, ethnography, religions, imaginary spaces, ideals and prejudices.(3) Using medieval world maps, we thought about the perils of assessing maps by our questions rather than those that motivated the map maker. In particular, it becomes easy to see how scholars have concluded that medieval map makers knew little or nothing about geography, that they all suffered from an irrational fear of monsters, and that they thought Columbus was going to sail off the edge of the world when he headed west across the Atlantic. Every single student in my class had been taught that everybody in the medieval period believed the earth was flat and that Columbus proved it wasn’t. Every single student.(4)

When we adjusted the questions we forced the maps to answer, when we tried to think about the questions that had motivated the map makers, the maps began to make more sense. At the risk of sounding old fashioned here, I was trying to get students to see that we will only understand the maps and how they were functioning when we recover the questions for which a particular map was an answer, my effort to instill R.G. Collingwood’s “Question and Answer” from his An Autobiography. More broadly, I wanted students to see that the relationships maps have to their makers and to the real world they represent is similar to the relationship that all knowledge claims have to their makers and to reality. Maps/knowledge claims capture a slice of reality, they order and structure that reality in ways that we often can’t see simply by confronting it. Maps/knowledge claims also answer the questions posed by their makers, questions that are inseparable from the makers’ motivations and goals. To understand maps/knowledge claims, we have to seek to recover the contexts that gave them meaning, the forms they took, the audiences for which they were meant to be meaningful.

In order to prompt students to think seriously about these issues, I had them create a “Biography of a Map” (that link points to a copy of the instructions). They had to select one of the historical maps from Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections, any map printed before 1700. They were then to analyze it, paying attention to such questions as:

  • What does the map represent, e.g., a geographic location, demographic information, land or space usage, political boundaries?
  • How does it convey that information?
  • Who was the mapmaker and what were his goals?
  • For whom was the map made? Who commissioned it?
  • For what purposes was the map drawn?
  • How was the map intended to be viewed, e.g., stand alone map, globe, part of a book, piece of political propaganda, illustrating a letter or official document?
  • Who was the audience?

In a short report they should address these questions, moving beyond simple description and hazarding some conclusions about why the map took the shape it did, why it presented the information it did, why the mapmaker bothered to make this particular map rather than any of the infinite other maps he could have made, why this slice of reality was important to the mapmaker and his patron.

My goals extended beyond the maps themselves to the larger goals of the course:

  • Introduce you to working with primary sources in a particular context.
  • Persuade you that maps are not unproblematic reflections of some natural reality. Moreover, they don’t (and perhaps can’t) correspond to what is out there, what you encounter in the real world.
  • Convince you that claims about the natural world are always incomplete and skewed by the hopes/dreams/goals/prejudices of the person who makes those claims. Such claims are never neutral facts, but always efforts to convince you of something.

This project coincides with an exhibition, “You are Here: Exploring the Contours of our Academic Community through Maps”. Some of the students’ research and work will be used to create signage for the exhibition. Students selected a nice range of maps, from Penn’s propagandistic maps of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia to Ortelius’s map of the Holy Land to an early modern map of Jamaica. The next post will try to assess how well the project accomplished my goals by looking at a few of the students’ cartographic biographies.

(1)W. Stead, If Christ came to Chicago (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1894), 124.
(2)Ibid., 129.
(3)For a nice example of mapping ideals and prejudices, see A Map of a Woman’s Heart.
(4)See J. Russel’s “Inventing the Flat Earth” in History Today 41 (1991) or, more recently, L. Cormack, “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge: HUP, 2009), 28–34.