Maps and Space in an Untextbook

Over the past month or so, I’ve been putting together some material – partly a proposal and partly some content – for a guide to producing an untextbook. I’ve struggled a bit with how I should voice it. My section on sources for the textbook, for example, spoke to students directly. My section on time, however, spoke to the issues of time in teaching survey-level history courses more broadly. The book would be designed for active learning and scale-up style classrooms like where I teach my Western Civilization I class at the University of North Dakota.

Last week, I suggested that time is a challenge for students who retain a century-old phobia about names and dates and for whom periodization schemes too often appear to be self-evident and lack clear connection to historical arguments. Space and maps are also vexing for students who are not always as familiar with European geography as we could hope. Traditional textbooks offer maps usually with each chapter, and these maps are useful guides to events and places from a particular period, but are less successful in conveying change through time or connecting ancient places to the modern geography. The goal for this exercise is for students to build maps rather than to simply memorize or study them. The process of building maps also allow students to think actively about how to present spatial relationships through time.  

Fortunately, we have a number of new tools that make producing, sharing, and using maps easier for students. First, Wikipedia provides a massive quantity of geographic data that can be used in any number of free mapping programs. Here’s the coordinates in various mapping formats for Ancient Corinth in Greece. For ancient sites, like Pompeii or Olynthus, the plans of the cities are clearly visible. Major sites, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Athenian Agora, are visible and loosely understandable on Google Earth as well. The key for students, however, is not just to locate famous places but to recognize that the map serves as evidence for making historical arguments.

Google Earth

The easiest and perhaps most familiar mapping application to students is Google Earth. It is easy to create maps of ancient and Medieval places in Google Earth, and because Google Earth is a composite of contemporary satellite images and includes a significant amount of modern geographical data (i.e. national borders, cities, modern roads, et c.), these ancient places are set in relation to the modern world. Students can easily build maps of places, regions, and even individual monuments in Google Earth and share them as super portable KML files with their peers. Each chapter, then, in the untextbook would have a KML file that contains places and spaces for each chapter. These files can be loaded into Google Earth and made visible or invisible to create new maps and new relationships.

None of this technology is new and that should make the practice of constructing maps and marking places and regions easy for students. The practice of creating maps pushes students to think about how they represent spatial relationships and how these spatial relationships and locations support historical arguments.

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