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Bringing Internet Mapping to the Humanities Project
Carol A. Keller
San Antonio College
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As an instructor of world history survey courses, I’ve found that maps are essential tools for understanding the human story. Indeed, as Joni Seager, notes in her “Unpacking Evidence” essay, the advantage “of a map is that it conveys non-linear and simultaneous knowledge.” On the other hand, she reminds us, “ . . . a single map is not very effective at showing process. A narrative can move a reader through time very quickly; a map tends to be static and to show a single place at a single moment. A map then . . . can be understood as privileging place over process, contextuality over linearity.”

After years of relying on flat, one dimensional representations delivered first from map stands then as transparencies on an overhead projector or images in PowerPoint presentations, I, along with several others, created the Bringing Internet Mapping to the Humanities project. This project makes it possible for instructors to provide students the flexibility and dynamism of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS consists of a powerful computer software program that stores, analyzes, and displays spatial data from a variety of sources. What makes Web-based GIS mapping useful is the ability of the program to show process while continuing to privilege place. Multiple maps—representing layers of information geo-referenced from historical map sources—may be viewed in a single image, making it possible to map change over space and time.1 Think of this as being able to lay different transparencies on top of one another.

Transparent map layers can be projected on a large classroom screen, or my students may access mapping programs and work on activities from the convenience of home or office. Using the GIS application Arc Internet Map Server (ArcIMS) to create and deliver mapping services to the Web, the project engages students in interactive mapping modules on Globalization, the Maya, Roman and Muslim Spain, Mexico, Palestine, the United States Southwest, and Central and South Asia, among others.2

Each module is designed for individual access or to be entered from the portal web page. All modules consist of four parts: the host page, a companion curriculum guide, map exercises, and the map service. For example, the South Asia curriculum guide explains the unit of analysis, lists learning outcomes and instructional strategies, and provides additional online and print resources. The map exercise offers a series of questions to help students interrogate the map service.

The core of the module is the ArcIMS map service. Depending on the topic, students use the map service to display topographical features, vegetation, trade routes, cities, the diffusion of religion, language, and migrations, or to link photographs or other embedded resources. Module use encourages students to use mapping in dynamic and interactive ways and engages them in understanding spatial relationships and landscapes.

I now use these mapping tools to help my students make sense of maps and the information they contain in my world history course. Early in the semester, I use a simple survey to assess student knowledge of maps. During one class session I present a variety of historical source maps from various regions, and we discuss the roles maps play in representing the world.3 Next, the class views images of different map projections and discusses the attributes and point of view each represents.4 Finally, we return to the historical maps and I ask students to consider them as texts to be decoded as I speculate a bit on cartographic theory.5

My students are intrigued by the deceptions and subjectivity maps reveal—the ways in which cultural bias, power, and historical context are embedded in the process. They are asked to note: (1) what idea(s) the map is intended to communicate, and (2) what argument the map is intended to illustrate. At the end of the session I ask students to write a reflection paragraph listing a minimum of four things they learned about maps and how using maps in the work ahead might help their ability to think like historians.

For the next step, we visit the library computer lab to meet with the Social Science Librarian and complete an orientation to the mapping tools. I allow my students to select their module from a course-appropriate list, guided by the learning outcomes stated in the curriculum guide. Before proceeding to the hands-on portion of the orientation, they view a brief PowerPoint presentation that explains how to use the ArcIMS browser.

During the orientation session in the library lab, the Atlas Librarian brings in atlases and discusses the print resources and online databases available. I ask students to return to the library outside of class time to use an atlas to complete a series of tracings that replicate the layers the software allows them to build on the computer. This helps them better understand the challenge of scale and geo-referencing.6

Although I provide my students with a paper copy of their selected map exercise instructions, I also insist that they create their own digital copy of the instructions by copying and pasting each question from the website to make it easy for me to process their responses when they turn them in. Once these tasks are accomplished, students access the map service and follow instructions to complete the assignment, concluding with a post-module assessment survey.

My intent throughout is to help students think contextually, relating geographic space and landscape with historical processes to illuminate their study of world history. I find that my students are not daunted by the program and are intuitive about its use. They are willing to try the various tools, to work with layers in ways often not intended by the map service designer, and to frame new questions. They are quick to point out less-effective mapping tasks and any system access glitches.

I believe that if instructors experiment with ArcIMS mapping modules, they will discover that using dynamic GIS maps helps world history students think about spatial relationships and the diffusion of ideas across cultural and regional boundaries. For example, I ask my “World History to 1500” students to use the Central Asia module exercises to study, among other things, the development of pastoral societies, state formation, and cross-cultural exchange during the Postclassical Era, 500–1200 CE. By making various layers visible and turning off others, students are able to make connections between place and process. Accessing the Nomadic Belt and Post Classical Steppe States layers, students locate the states founded by Central Asian pastoral groups as Abbasid and Tang power waned after the 9th century, and investigate how it was possible for such pastoral groups to move into these areas. Students also explore the mechanics of cross-cultural diffusion along the Silk Road by mapping the trade routes and using the identify tool to locate historic cities and the Steppe States. At the conclusion of the exercise, my students expressed amazement that so much information was only a mouse click away. Finally, they admitted, they were able to see what it means to map change across space and time.

Whether you use the project map services to develop your own course-specific map exercises or use those developed by the project team, I think you will find the process promotes discussion and opens new ways of thinking about maps. Curricula that incorporate Web-based mapping components of the literary, historical, and cultural landscape reveal that there are more complex and interesting stories to be told.

Are instructors and students ready to explore the world using Web-based GIS? From my experience, the answer is yes. I find that adding Web-GIS activities improves students’ geographic literacy, makes possible the creation of course-specific map resources, and increases students’ comprehension of maps as tools for comprehending the human drama.

1 Geo-referencing is a process that allows a digitized historical map to be registered to a real-world coordinate system such as that used by this project’s ArcIMS software.
2 The San Antonio College Internet Mapping for the Humanities was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Focus Grant, 2003-2004. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project uses Arc Internet Map Server (ArcIMS) software developed by Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Inc.
3 A rich collection of historical map images are available on the Web. See “Maps Online” in “Unpacking Evidence.”
4 Websites with good map projection information and images include: The Geographer’s Craft at the University of Colorado; and An Overview of Geodesy and Geographic Referencing Systems at the Harvard School of Design.
5 See Mark S. Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); John Rennie Short, The World Through Maps (Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2003); and Dennis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992).
6 Anne Kelly Knowles (Middlebury College) suggested this approach at the Newberry Library Conference, History and Geography: Assessing the Role of Geographical Information in Historical Scholarship, March 2004. See also Anne Kelly Knowles, ed., Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History (Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2002).

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