As the semester comes to a close, and the final polishes are made by our class of cartographers, I find it necessary to reflect on the progress I’ve made as both a scholar and as a human being. My studies in the humanities will continue to reward me as I thoughtfully engage with the human experience, seeking answers to questions that have yet to be answered. In this class, I have found myself engaging with a specific human experience, that of looking at a map. Coming into this class, I had essentially no prior knowledge in geography, I assumed that maps were objective and that there wasn’t anything thought-provoking about them. I knew I loved maps, how they made me grow into a person who was always curious, who always sought out what I had yet to experience, but I didn’t know that maps could lie. I didn’t know that maps were entirely subjective based on what the cartographer wanted to include. I think I stood with the majority of humanity as I never once questioned whether or not a map was an objective resource.
Boy was I wrong. One of our first readings, How to Lie With Maps, by Mark Monmonier1 challenged all of these presuppositions. In his chapter, “Maps for Political Propaganda,” Monmonier shows how political boundaries on maps, especially contested boundaries, are always an attempt to gain power over another. Every single thing that one puts on a map is a conscious choice, whether it be political boundaries or which cities one chooses to display. In this way, maps are entirely subjective, and based on the person who made the maps. No matter how concerted your effort, it is impossible to make an objective map.
From this state of despair, there arose two options. 1. Despair more, or 2. Take the problem and run with it. Clearly, our class chose option 2. After becoming aware of the inability to be objective, we had only to remain aware of the issue and help the reader/user of our maps be aware of the potential conflicts of subjectivity. As we took our setbacks in stride, I found that it was much less despairing to make maps, and it once again became exciting and enjoyable.
All along the way, we have been guided by some incredible individuals. Our Skype calls and class meetings with various academic leaders in the digital humanities. One of the more notable meetings was with Harmony Bench and Kate Elswitt, who, together, worked on mapping movement of bodies through dance touring2. My main takeaway from this meeting was actually something brought up in passing, but something that has stuck with me for quite some time. When discussing data retrieval and entry, Harmony Bench shared this fascinating story about how persons of color were categorized in comparison with their white contemporaries. Even through the way they were archived, Bench remarked that persons of color were constantly oppressed. Through this anecdote, she encouraged us to pursue what she called archival activism. Now, if there’s one thing I would never expect to get excited about, it would be archival methods. Yet Harmony Bench brings up a fine point about the little ways in which we can all be activists. Like I said, it may have been a point said in passing, but it will stick with me as I pursue a career in the future.
Lincoln Mullen is yet another of those incredible individuals we had the amazing opportunity of working with this semester. His visit at the end of the year truly inspired me, both through his criticism and his general pedagogy. I was struck by the way in which he seemed to truly care about us as individuals and saw that come through his criticism of our maps. His criticism of my map, a deep map on Programs of Modern-Music Societies from 1920-1931, was quite the opposite of everything we had been stressing over the course of the semester, being aware of the problems of subjectivity, the benefits of user interactivity, and other ideals of the like. Yet Mullen’s largest criticism of my map was that it was difficult for me to make an argument with this map. Sure, others could go in and play around with it and maybe find some interesting points, but the problem was the map had no direction. His suggestion was to go back and make static maps. I was struck by this, as I had just spent a class on the problematic nature of static maps that try to tell arguments. But his advice was profound and led my mapping project to a destination I can be proud of today.
From all this, I think it’s safe to say that my largest takeaway from this class has been never to take things for what they are, or even what you want them to be. It has taught me to be more open-minded through every step of the research process, even the final ones, as you never know where the next great piece of advice will come from. It’s my hope that future cartographers will read this and feel a bit more at ease when their map isn’t going the way they wanted. It’s probably just the map saying that’s not the direction it wants you to take it. To that, I bid this class good day, and to the next class, good luck!