Blog Post

Language, Knowledge and Identity: Empowering with GIS in the Humanities

Brief Description: A Geographic Information System (GIS) creates an inter-continental collaboration among college and secondary students, researchers and African scholars. Technology draws new students to study Africa, and Africa attracts the uninitiated to cutting-edge technology.  Language is the catalyst for interrogating identity, knowledge, and relationships. Students experience collaboration as problem solving.


Young people in the United States know little about their counterparts on the African continent; Africans are citizens of modern states, or labeled with "tribal" identifiers left over from colonial imaginations. This project builds on the premise that identity—American, African or other—comprise multifarious communities and relationships.  As we connect ourselves to many communities, each tie imparts advantage with obligation, and language carries the evidence.

Students bring their interests, passions and questions to the learning laboratory for exploration.  Mentors introduce language and vocabulary as a historical primary source, illustrating the technology of GIS, and encouraging the growth of new problem-solving paradigms. Experientially, participants discover that they are student and teacher, as they share language evidence, create interpretative maps, compose narratives and respond to the work of others. By design this requires them to discard hierarchical definitions of knowledge. Students are empowered by exploring the materials without a directive. 

In the process of studying the geography of language, collaborators examine knowledge, and the possibilities that emerge when multiple ways of knowing and fields of knowledge intersect. Inherited vocabulary suggests knowledge from an earlier time, and borrowed words are evidence of enduring relationships.  Students learn to see moments of lexical innovation as indicators of times that required a new conceptual approach.

Collaborators work in local peer groups, but on the Internet they contribute to a larger international conversation that is both graphic and verbal.  High school students experiment with layers of demographics presented with Google Maps, exploring language as a source and GIS as a process.  College students test more advanced technology, creating new layers and histories. Graduate researchers add vocabulary, exploring space, place and knowledge through semantics. African scholars add illustrative evidence as digital recordings.  Together they create a new library of templates, bibliographies, media, voices and solutions.



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