These are a few of my favorite maps

I’m putting together an aspirational syllabus for a digital humanities/mapping course, and have been thinking about my favorite maps, and why they work so well.  Here is a very-not-complete list of my current greatest hits:

Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: a cartographic narrative.

This is, by far, my favorite digital mapping project.  I’ve seen Vincent Brown speak on it, and I was quite impressed by his articulation of why we need a map like this to understand enslaved rebellion.  Because records of these uprisings tend to have been produced by ruling elites who were actively opposed to representing enslaved resistance as anything other than barbarous and futile, it would be easy to think that this uprising – and many others like it – were haphazard and poorly planned.  Brown’s map, on the other hand, reads the colonial archives against the grain to show us the strategy that underlay this revolt.  I love that he uses sources in which obscuring enslaved agency is a feature rather than a bug to highlight that agency.

Touring the Fire

A little less high tech, but still a great example of how a geospatial perspective can give us new, or at least different information about an historical event.  One of the persistent fictions about the Chicago fire is the culpability of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, so it’s interesting to see how the fire spread, but also to treat the path of the fire like a walking tour, and to map it onto Chicago’s geography today.

London Soundmap

This is just ridiculously cool (and reminds me of a book I just finished about London’s underground rivers).  It borrows aesthetically from the iconic tube maps, but instead of information about subways gives us the sound of underground waterways.  There are some other great soundmaps on this site, including ambient London noise, the sound of the Thames estuary, and a handy map of the most common sounds in different parts of the city.  The whole thing is worth exploring.

While we’re talking about aural mapping…

Here’s a project which uses immigration data to create a true aural map of changes in American demography over time.

And finally, everything NOAA does, but especially their geospatial services.

Now it’s all about convincing the undergraduates that maps are cool…

Alternative assignments

I’ve been talking and thinking a lot recently about the work that written assignments do – especially for students like many of mine this semester, who are in their last semester of college (and possibly their last history course ever).  One of my colleagues structures his upper level seminar around a publishable paper, which is an idea I wish I’d seriously considered before finalizing my syllabi for this semester.  Students who are in his class as well as mine seem much more excited about writing something that others might see than they are in producing yet another term paper that will reside forever (or until hard drive failure) on their professors’ computers, to be seen by no one else.

In some ways, the blogging assignments (I wish I could share the course blogs – they’re really fantastic this semester) straddle that public/private divide in a profitable way.  Students don’t post under their full names, and the blogs aren’t indexed, but they still exist on the internet if you have the url.  I don’t have any hard data on this, but I really do think that the writing in these kinds of forums is better than that posted (often at the last minute) to a Moodle or Blackboard forum.  I’m also really pleased with how well the requirement that students link to or reference something that someone else has written is playing out.  Sometimes these are pretty loose connections – a theme raised by a student last week might resonate with a student writing a response this week – but in both my disasters and survey classes these past weeks, really robust and thoughtful debates have developed on the blogs – it’s great to see the pedagogical aims that have heretofore resided mostly in my head make their way onto the – digital – page.

The final paper for the disasters course is meant to be a project proposal – which is a really useful exercise, doing particular pedagogical work, for underclasspeople.  As they conceptualize senior projects, they’ll have to frame and defend it theoretically, and I feel pretty good about the skills that students learn in this assignment transitioning into other assignments for other classes, and other tasks after college.  But for those few seniors in this class, I’m toying with the idea of offering alternative assignments.  I was thinking, for instance, that they might reach out to digital disaster museums (like the Johnstown Flood or Chicago Fire Museums) to see if they could use additional commentary or articles, to give the students who won’t be going on to craft research proposals a different outlet for their work.

I also love teaching with historical fiction – but that’s probably best left to another day.