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To Code or Not to Code: One Girl's Digital Mapping Experience

To Code or Not to Code: One Girl's Digital Mapping Experience

Dear HASTAC-ers!

Wow! Its hard to be believe that the spring semester is almost over, and with it, my 2015-2016 HASTAC scholar year. It has gone by way too quickly, if you ask me.

 In thinking about this final post of the year, its been challenging to decide what to post about. I have written quite extensively about the pedagogical value of digital tools, and wanted to take the bit time to blog about another great experience that I’ve had here at Vanderbilt University: being part of the “Geo-spatial tools” working group at the Vanderbilt Center for Second Language Studies.

When I first joined the working group in August 2015, I had no experience with map-making or coding. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what GEOJson was and was seriously worried about being able to keep up and contribute to the group in a meaningful way. Some of the other group members had already spent quite some time with the tools and had even used them for some of their own projects. It was intimidating, but motivating to see what one could create with these tools.

After the first meeting, I started feeling better. We started with simple assignments that were small in size, and the group was very collegial. The members were very open and very helpful, especially our fearless leader, Todd Hughes.  He supplied us with interesting monthly readings by Todd Presner, Franco Moretti, and others, and assignments, and little by little, my knowledge base started to grow. Each month, we would come to the meetings, present our results, and ask questions. Some months the alterations I wanted to make to my map went very well; others, one little comma would prevent the map from showing up entirely. By getting creative and learning to develop an eye for detail, we were able to work together to solve these problems, and I felt that I learned a lot in the process.

I focused on mapping a project that I had begun in my first year of grad school, in which I looked at German writers and artists in World War One. I mapped the work of five writers: Ernst Jünger, Armin T. Wegner, Gustav Sack, Franz Richard Behrens, and Otto Dix. All had seen action during the war, and had produced written or visual works based on these experiences, either during them or immediately afterwards. Ernst Jünger prolifically produced memoirs and novels in the years during and after the war, while the talented expressionist writer and poet Gustav Sack died after only a few months of combat in 1916. Poet Franz Richard Behrens survived the war after capturing its extreme sound in verse, while expressionist writer Armin T. Wegner photographed the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath in the Ottoman Empire. Taken together, the geographic range covered by these writers and poets was immense, and spanned multiple continents.

I thought it would be interesting to map where these works could have been produced by mapping the locations of the writers at a given time during the war. Therein was also the challenge: their exact locations were not always known. Sources indicated that they saw combat “on the Eastern front” or “on the Western front”, but often the exact location on these large fronts was not readily available to me. So, in light of this, I had to improvise, with the idea that it would be fruitful to later delve into personal archives of these authors, and to read letters to determine if there were more clues as to an exact location. By understanding the location of these writers and artists in the war, we might be able to tie their experiences to larger narratives and understandings of the war experience. Additionally, we might uncover patterns in the artistic production that illuminate the connections between physical experience of a place, trauma, and the representation of these experiences. How did artists come to terms with their spatial experiences of the war? How did this manifest itself in their works?

Aside from teaching me how to code and create a lovely map (which you can see as the title pic of this post), this working group has also provided an interesting new way for me to delve into questions that have held my interest: representation of trauma, interpretation of experiences of war, and the connection of these to questions of medium. Indeed, I found that not only did creating these maps allow for a new way of seeing questions and relationships, they also provide a valuable addition to or portion of any larger work. Now that I am moving into the beginning of the dissertation proposal stage, I find myself thinking about the ways in which I can integrate this kind of digital project into the larger ideas I would like to work with in the dissertation. I think my topic—looking at the representation of genocide (through still and moving images) in the contemporary German imaginary—would benefit from this kind of digital approach. Certainly this will be the next summer challenge I undertake.

From those of you who have gone this route, how did you integrate the digital into your dissertations? If you chose to do a multi-modal or entirely digital dissertation, what made you choose this? What do you see as some of the advantages or disadvantages (digital, intellectual, economic)? I would really love to hear your feedback!

In the meantime, thank you for a great HASTAC year! I’ve learned a lot and have been so inspired by the community and the people in it. I will see you all at the HASTAC conference in May :)  And in the meantime, lets keep on experimenting!



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