Putting Edmonton on the (Google) Map

In this demo, we will describe and analyze English 486, “Producing the City” (taught Fall 2009). An experimental course co-taught between Dr Heather Zwicker, Associate Professor of English, and Dr Maureen Engel, E-Learning Manager for the Faculty of Arts, English 486 is a hands-on, theoretically grounded capstone course in multimedia installations that takes the city of Edmonton, Canada as inspiration and object. Based on principles of collaboration and student-centered learning, the course required students to listen to the city, look at the city, move through the city, and explore the meanings of home. The sensory experiences of sound, sight, and movement were translated through student projects using digital photography, simple mapping, soundscapes, and video. Each of these assignments served as a scaffolding exercise to prepare students for the final collaborative project: a KML-authored installation in Google Earth.

A course like this raises multiple questions about discipline, pedagogy, theory, and technology. Our presentation offers a critical commentary on our successes and shortcomings, and demonstrates the importance – and surprising payoffs – of doing this sort of work with undergraduate students in the traditionally low-tech field of English literature.

Specifically (and depending on the direction of the MLA Roundtable) we would be prepared to talk about/demonstrate:

  • the course’s intellectual aims and technical models, its grounding questions: what is a city, what is a map, how do Geographic Information Systems organize information, how do humanists organize spatial information, and how does the concept of “space” translate into “place”?
  • the pedagogical implications of team-teaching digital media, for both instructors (we had to figure out how to set and evaluate digital assignments and how to let students figure things out on their own to a much greater extent than we were used to) and students (for whom the biggest challenge was not the technology, but rather the collaborative nature of the assignments; students also had to figure out how to translate and adapt rhetorical techniques to the digital realm, and how to exercise critical skills on the visual culture ubiquitous to their personal, if not their academic, experience)
  • sample assignments and grading rubrics for the photo essay, the urban soundscape, the collaborative video, and the multimedia map installation, as well as an analysis of which assignment the students found most challenging (soundscape) and why
  • demos of actual student projects (we secured ethics clearance from our students for academic presentations)
  • a critical analysis of the digital tools we used for representing Edmonton and samples of other creative cartography models, such as Imagining Toronto, City of Memory, Hitotoki, Concrete Dialogues, the London Sound Survey, the Montreal and New York Sound Maps, Christian Nold’s biomapping projects, Open Street Map  and Hypercities.

We are comfortable talking about this material in a range of ways – polished presentation, poster session, demo booth, laptop chat, pecha kucha, to name a few possibilities – but place a priority on dialogue. We would like to engage fellow conference participants in discussions about the aspects of this course that interest them the most, and we are extremely keen to see and hear what our colleagues around the US and Canada are doing in the area of digital pedagogies.

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