Mapping as Storytelling: Occupy and Beyond

You can view my slides here.

Before this semester, when I thought of fostering the digital humanities in the classroom, I imagined mostly how I could create the conditions in which my students could build a critical thinking skillset. Paul Fyfe has written elegantly, in “Digital Humanities Unplugged,” about “How can we incorporate the opportunities of digital pedagogy without presuming its discontinuity with nondigital tools and methods.” This approach seems exactly right to me, with its emphasis on the shifts in thinking–about design, audience, problem-solving, and collaboration–that working with tools can occasion.

This digital show-and-tell will display two gmaps and one failed Yahoo Pipes experiment to spark discussion of key pedagogical outcomes I learned from these experiences:

1. A map is a storytelling device. Without a clear conflict or problem to narrate, its geospatial precision loses meaning.

2. Finding an audience for a map is more important than I thought it would be in students’ apprehension of its value. Mapping’s role in the panoply of Web 2.0 tools we studied became apparent when student work found an audience.

3. My vision of what collaboration on a map would look like and how it actually played out are starkly different, not because of the tool’s affordances but because of how students invested time and emotion into the project.

When I designed Fall 2011 assignments, I intended that students would build gmaps as cultural histories of a place. But then I shuffled elements of the syllabus so that my students had the cognitive and digital tools to track Occupy pretty much from its inception. We’re an advanced social media class, and I could tell from the first stirrings on Twitter that Zuccotti Park was going to be an important instantiation of social-media-fueled civic participation. I didn’t know then it would also be a watershed moment for citizen journalism.

Two of my students built an Occupy gmap that was one of the first to track the diasporic spread across the United States (and later, across the world). About eight other students contributed content to the build, but it was just Nicole and Mark who actually dropped pins on the map. They posted the map at 9PM on Sept. 27. Overnight it attracted 187 hits. Three days later that number skyrocketed into the thousands. Within two weeks, the map had over 25,000 hits.

My talk will also feature two other student works: a failed Yahoo Pipes RSS aggregator, and the robust gmap students created to promote MLA 2012′s Electronic Literature Exhibit. I will also briefly discuss why I jettisoned my original assignment–to map a cultural history of a place–even though students loved the assigned readings and initially were enthusiastic about its possibilities. We ended up going for a more conventional close reading. These points of contrast will show that story, more even than ease-of-use and distribution, ought to be the key consideration when crafting map-based student assignments.

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