One of the most common complaints I hear from history educators about our students is that they are so geographically illiterate. What, exactly, is meant by “illiterate” is certainly in the eyes of the beholder, but the point is well taken that our students often display a lower level of geographic literacy than we would like. And how do we try to help them? The standard remedy (which shows no signs of working) is to show them an historical map, talk about it, and then tell them that on Tuesday there will be a map quiz.
To see just how common this tried and true (or not so true) approach is, I did a quick and albeit a little dirty scan of online history syllabi with the Syllabus Finder. The results are very interesting in themselves, inexact though this quick search was. The first thing I did was search the Syllabus Finder’s database using the delimited searches “Western Civilization”, “European History”, “American History” and “World History.” These searches, of course, produced a fair amount of overlap, because it is entirely likely that the phrase “European history” appears in many syllabi for the World History survey, the Western Civlization course (taught only here in the U.S.) and for American history courses. But this isn’t a scientific survey–it’s a quick and dirty one–so I’m okay with that. Then I added the delimited terms “map quiz” to each of these searches. Here’s what I found out. The first number is the total number of syllabi returned by the search term, the second is the subset of syllabi mentioning a map quiz:
European history — 28,000 : 552
Western Civilization — 31,300 : 117
American history — 97,700 : 182
World history — 57,000 : 722
Okay, so even the old stand-by remedy of the map quiz is falling out of practice.
What’s an instructor to do? How can we teach this generation of digital natives what they need to know about geography? One possible solution is suggested by the website Gutenkarte (thanks to Andrew Vande Moere of information aesthetics for the link to this project). Gutenkarte, which is still in the early stages of its development, takes texts from Project Gutenberg, geolocates the geographic references in them by using MetaCarta’s GeoParser API, and then serves the locations back up on map. The plan is to offer citations to the relevant pages in the text and eventually to allow users to annotate and correct the database, making the entire project more interactive.
Gutenkarte is focused on the great works of literature. But what about history? I can imagine a variety of different uses for this project in the history classroom. The one that I think holds the most promise for teaching and for helping our students to develop the kinds of geographic literacy that we want is an application where an instructor–me, for instance–feeds the corpus of primary sources he assigns to his students into the database. Immediately, an interactive map is produced for them that shows where these sources exist in geographical space as well as in time. Students could then use the map as their collaborative interface, annotating the sources, creating conversations around issues they raised, all the while visualizing these sources as existing in a defined geographic space.
So, for instance, in my most recent iteration of Western Civ, I gave my students a half dozen or so primary sources each week. Imagine what it would be like for them to be able to plot out these sources on a map of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (the three big places they were drawn from) as the semester unfolded. Right away I expect that they would begin to see interesting connections between different sources from different centuries–connections that are often completely opaque to them now.
Because Gutenkarte is being developed as an open-source project, the possibility of such a mash-up seems like something well worth pursuing. Don’t like the Gutenkarte display of information (which is still very clunky), then go lose yourself in the Google Map Mashup blog, which offers quite the range of other ideas. My hope is that the Gutenkarte folks will get a cleaner display of their data, because of the possibility of collaborative endeavor among students in their approach.