Some Final Thoughts on Maps

After thinking about and studying their maps for the entire semester, students produced some really interesting “Biography of a Map” projects. What started as a short assignment intended to introduce students to the advantages and limits of scientific claims, see “Biography of a Map—Further Experiments in Pedagogy,” quickly grew into a term-long research project. Their initial efforts show considerable promise while also highlighting some challenges. Students were able quickly to see maps as more than neutral reflections of the natural world, see Marketing a Colony—William Penn’s Maps of Pennsylvania. At the same time, students had to confront some unfamiliar challenges, see Mapping Our Way Forward—More Experiments in Pedagogy. Here I want to reflect on how I tried to help students identify, articulate, and confront those challenges. Along the way I will highlight some of their successes. I will also try to indicate where I could adjust the project to make it more successful.

Lines on topography maps were traced over to make a face (Source: Author’s photograph from display in Magill Library, Haverford College)

I started by circulating an expanded set of questions and asked students to think about how their “Biography” did or did not address these questions. Then, they formulated 4 or 5 questions that arose from what they had already produced and what they wanted to accomplish in their final draft. We met to discuss these questions and to agree on a broad, framing question that would guide their subsequent research.

I also made all the projects available to students by uploading anonymous copies to the course webpage. As a number of students working on related or the same map, I wanted all the students to be able to benefit from their colleagues’ research. I asked that students read a couple other projects to see how their peers crafted their papers. Further, I asked them to identify what questions structured those other papers and how they could modify their own project in light of those questions? I put all this into a handout. Finally, e met to discuss their analysis of the other essays and how they would now refine and formulate a question for their final draft.

I remain convinced that we too often ask students to respond to questions rather than ask them to frame their own questions and to devise their own approaches to answering them (see my previous concerns and efforts here, here, here, and here). My core pedagogical goal is to give students the opportunities to pose questions and the tools to evaluate and answer those questions. I have come to appreciate that my focus on questions is unusual. Students are most comfortable offering incredibly detailed descriptions. Ideally in their minds the perfect description is perfectly complete. They arrived in my office telling me they knew what they did wrong in their first draft and how they would solve the problem in their next draft. Invariably, their solution was to layer on yet more description, identifying details of the map they had not discussed but promised to in the next draft. Usually these details were at best incidental. I found myself stopping them mid-sentence and asking: “What does that detail have to do with your thesis? With the question you hope to address in your paper?” I spent considerable time explaining to students why we were focusing on crafting questions. At this point, the maps became a useful metaphor.

The ideal of complete description is problematic on two levels: First, a pragmatic difficulty makes it an impossible goal. I tried to explain how no description can ever be complete. There will always be some alternate way of describing the map. Second, and more importantly, an essay has to persuade somebody of a point or a claim. Description is not, per se, persuasive. Instead, an essay must make a judicious selection of possible descriptions and deploy these in an argument or in the answer to a question. An essay, it turns out, is much like a map. Both are created to address a particular task. Neither can offer complete descriptions of the object or space under study. Both can be judged effective or ineffective only after determining the question or problem they were meant to answer. At this point I invoked the maps they were studying. I encouraged students to think about their essay analogous to how they were thinking about maps. Whereas with the maps they had to try to uncover the question that had produced the map, in their essays they got to formulate the question that would structure their essays. Further, just as we cannot draw a map until we decide what we want that map to do, we cannot start an essay until we determine what that essay will accomplish.

Armed with a question, students returned to the library and their maps. Over the closing weeks of the semester they produced a complete draft of their “Biography of a Map” and then had another chance to revise it before turning in their final paper. They turned in a portfolio that included their final draft and all earlier drafts and completed worksheets. In the end, their efforts paid rich dividends. Many of them were able to pose interesting, sophisticated questions and crafted arguments to address those questions. Some were able to integrate the visual details of the map with textual and contextual information. Some drew on material details such as hand coloring, size, or the inclusion in a book or letter. Most considered the map in a specific context, seeing the map as advancing a particular political, social, or economic agenda.

An early map of Pennsylvania along with a student’s caption is displayed in Magill Library (Source: Author’s photograph)

One student considered Viconte di Maiollo’s early world map as both a luxury item intended largely for an aristocratic audience and as a mechanism for reasserting a political hierarchy. A group of students saw John Ogilby’s 1669 map of Asia as promoting the trading interests of the East India Company over those of the Dutch trading efforts and supporting Charles II’s imperial agenda. William Dugdale’s maps in his The Antiquities of Warwickshire were seen as an effort to persuade the gentry of Warwickshire to think of history in terms of an evolution of the land. Penn’s maps of Pennsylvania were a popular subject. Most analyzed them for how they reflected Penn’s Quaker ideals and sought to attract investors and settlers. One student considered the world map that introduces William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World, arguing that this map conveyed the enormity of Dampier’s journey and reinforced Dampier’s image as a buccaneer.

Some aspects of this experiment worked really well. Students seemed to benefit from reading their peers’ essays. In every case students were able to determine whether or not a question had guided the essay they read and how well the essay addressed the question. Further, they gleaned ways to nuance their own work. By the end, students had largely given up on description as a desideratum. They ignored details that did not seem to fit their argument but enlisted those details that seemed relevant. In each case, the student explained how certain details on the map—e.g., language, color, the inclusion or exclusion of details—demonstrated that the map was serving a particular function.

Despite these successes, there is still room for improvement. In the first instance, students would benefit from front-loading more of the discussion about the importance of questions. I need to convey to them sooner the importance of formulating good questions as an early and necessary step to producing a good essay. Beyond this broad challenge, two other aspects seemed to cause difficulties for students:

  • They bifurcated their essays into background and substance—biography, political and economic context, financial needs, etc. too often were separated out into an introductory section and never mentioned again.
  • They seem to have a difficulty integrating visual/material sources—students could make the case that a map served a set of goals but did not explain how the details of this particular map served or revealed those goals. Details were added almost as an afterthought rather than an integral part of their argument.

The challenge for me is to get students more comfortable analyzing visual and material sources, starting from those sources and enlisting textual details to support what we see on the map or the image or the object. Students have been given more opportunity to work with texts. The bifurcation problem also stems, I think, from comfort and experience. Students regularly describe the introductory sections of an essay as the “background” or the “context”, as if cordoning off the context from the substance of the essay. I’m not entirely sure how to overcome these hurdles, besides simply working closely with students. And maybe that is the only answer.

Judging by the increase in sophistication and nuance in student papers, it seems that this experiment in pedagogy enjoyed at least some success. Unfortunately, unlike many experiments that might seem to offer immediate results, I may never know the ultimate success or failure of this experiment. I, at least, enjoyed the process enough and students seemed to like working with old maps enough to merit using maps again the next time I teach my Introduction to the History of Science.