Leading Discussion: Mapping

These are the questions I generated from the readings for class discussion:

1. What is a map? How are maps useful to historians? What is GIS? How is GIS useful to historians?
2. Hitchcock argues that a dialogue must exist between historians and geographers yet it hasn’t fully taken place. What is the purpose of this dialogue? Is there a purpose for this dialogue?
3. Edward Ayers and Scott Nesbit discuss the importance of scale. What is scale and how is it important in history? in geography?
4. ORBIS’ stated goal is “to understand the dynamics of the Roman imperial system as a whole.” In your opinion, did it achieve this? If not, why didn’t they?
5. Elijah Meek’s article on ORBIS points out that people didn’t engage all the tools on the site because the user didn’t know they were there. Did you find it difficult to navigate to all the tools? Is this an issue the author’s need to address?
6. Is transparency a “bigger” issue with maps? Why or Why not?
7. Were the web maps from the readings representing patterns better than the written word?
8. Are their dangers with using maps or GIS in history? If so, how do we mitigate that?

I started developing my questions with the idea of building a foundation first. The readings didn’t really spend any time defining what a map is theoretically. I feel that it is paramount for a consumer of mapping to understand that a map is an imperfect representation of the world. While the question drew a few comments on the definition what a map is, it felt like the question was left hanging in the air. It took some prodding to get the class to warm up and start engaging the questions and each other (This could be from the extended holiday weekend.)I am glad that someone articulated that a map is a two-dimensional representation of a three dimensional object, but there wasn’t much beyond that.

Of all the questions, I felt that questions two and three fostered the most discussion and engagement. They covered the notion of an open dialogue between the fields of geography and history as well as what scale is, how it is used in geography and in historical research. I did like the few comments on how historians address scale in their writing. The comments appeared to be coming from multiple students thus keeping the discussion from becoming dominated by one individual. A few comments went as far as to reference the various example maps from the reading which was very beneficial for the discussion. The discussion led pretty well into critiquing the various maps from the reading.  I am also glad that the critiques of the maps led the discussion towards the idea of using the maps to lead the research rather than the research leading to the map. The last question I asked in discussion (question 7), which I was hoping would help sum up the class’s impressions didn’t seem to achieve that. If I could do this discussion again, I would probably reword the question to better articulate what I was really asking.

The discussion highlighted a couple of issues that stayed with me after class ended. The first is not reading the various supplemental text with the map. This came about when the discussion turned towards ORBIS. I asked if the map had achieved its stated goal (question 4.) A comment was made that the map ignores the complexities of the wars that Rome was constantly engaged in. That ORBIS was not grounded in a specific date but trying to illustrate the travel routes across the centuries of the Roman Empire. In rebuttal, it was found that the authors of ORBIS did state that ORBIS ” broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity.” More effort is needed to read through and understand the supplemental text that explains the map so the end user doesn’t make false assumptions. The second issue, one that Dr. Robertson articulated, was the way in which we read these maps. The class approached the map assuming that the intent and facts would be instantly apparent to the end user. This is to say that after a few moments of looking at the map, the class members didn’t understand what the map was conveying and made a judgement based on their experience. Dr. Robertson asked the poignant question of “How long did you take when you viewed the map? Did you take as much time to view the map as you did to read the article?” My time spent in my undergraduate program learning about and creating maps taught me that a cursory investigation of a map, especially an interactive one, is not enough to glean the breadth of information that the map is conveying.

The discussion helped me to at least begin to approach the field of history as a geographer. As I have mentioned before in other blog posts, I hold a degree in geography and GIS and am very comfortable as a geographer. However, in my time as a historian and engaging the discipline, I feel lost about how to bring my geographic knowledge and skills. The discussion really helped me to at least see how a room of history PhD students react to maps. In this way the discussion has helped me to better craft myself as a geographer and historian.

Leading Discussion: Mapping

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