Blog Post

07. Spatial and Mapping Pedagogy

Thinking about Spatial Pedagogy

 “The spatial turn” has been a trend in scholarship in the humanities and social sciences for a while now. This trend coincides with the development of new digital tools that make it possible to interact with information in new ways. The rising popularity of spatial scholarship is driven by “the impulse to position these new tools against old questions." The spatial turn in research is easy to see, particularly in literary studies and spatial history. Stanford’s “Spatial History Project" for example, works on a number of different applications for spatial research in the humanities.

Benjamin Weber, in his HASTAC post on spatial history, poses a number of vital questions about this trend:

  • (i) What are the similarities and differences between using historic mapping for teaching, for scholarship, for public history, and for political action or social justice?
  • (ii) What sorts of problems are created by the use of digital mapping and what kinds of digital literacy are needed to address them?
  • (iii) To what extent do visual representations of historic trends render more seemingly objective that which is inherently subjective, messy and necessarily complicated?
  • (iv) Who will have the resources and skills to produce and interpret maps in a way that is meaningful in history classrooms and beyond, and what is at stake in terms of identity formation – how “we” understand “ourselves” and people like “us” in the past – and in terms of social and political activism in the present?

The spatial turn is not limited to large institutional research projects: it is also present in coursework. Assignments, or entire courses, are designed around spatial thinking.. Weber’s questions are poignant when specifically applied to pedagogical applications of spatial scholarship, particularly questions about digital literacy (thoughtfully raised again in Amy Tan’s recent post, “Do we give students credit for being more web-literate than they are?”) and the tensions between subjective and objective representations of knowledge. Assignments also might incorporate the students’ work into a single larger project, or engage them in smaller individual exercises. I’ve chosen several write-ups of assignments that I think span across these issues pretty well.

Some Example Assignments

In his syllabus for “Understanding Space through Building Deep Maps," Ryan Cordell includes two different mapping assignments. The first is the assignment to create a “mental map of Boston” drawing on the students’ own experience of Boston as a space – each student is asked to “think about how [their] relationship to the spaces in Boston has been shaped by the particular circumstances of [their] life with(in) the city.” Throughout the course, students visit different places in Boston, both accompanied and un-accompanied. For their final project, students are asked to create “deep maps,” which “bring geographic, historical, textual, social, and other layers into critical conversation with one another” to create “arguments about the interplay between people, the spaces they inhabit, and the spaces they imagine.” This set of assignments directly tackles the tension between “subjective” and “objective” representations of spaces that Weber brought up in his post.           

Erin Sells has an informative post on her “Mapping Mrs. Dalloway” assignment, in which students, divided into groups of seven, use Google Earth to track landmarks and events in the novel. Sells also asked students to produce reflection papers on the assignment, and  notes that student responses would prompt her to, next time, include a writing component in which students produce a thesis about what has been “learned” or “revealed” during the course of mapmaking.

This McGraw Center description of a presentation by Ben Johnston highlights a number of different student-driven projects in which individual student contributions funnel into a larger product. Often the projects involve students traveling to different sites and producing images and/or write-ups of their experiences, which are then combined and mapped.


Here on HASTAC there are a number of great posts/comment threads to read to engage with questions of spatiality and mapping in pedagogy, including Kelsey Brannan’s post “Enhancing Teaching and Learning Practices with Digital Mapping Approaches” and the open forum discussion, “Visualizing Geography: Maps, Place, and Pedagogy."

All of the sources I’ve cited here include a number of resources for thinking about spatial pedagogy. As always, Bamboo DiRT is the go-to for finding tools. Some of the standard ones I’ve found particularly interesting for projects include:

Neatline, a plugin for Omeka that lets you create maps and timelines
Ushahidi, an open source mapping platform
Viewshare, maps drawn from digital collections
GeoCommons, mapping and analysis


No comments