starting points

Starting Points

There are numerous possibilities to discuss when the students bring in maps -- from cultural assumptions of Europeans and North Americans about "North" being "Up" to the inclusion or omission of certain departments, residences, or buildings from maps for "reasons of space." My primary intention is to get the students to think about the ways in which mapmaking is the selective arrangement of information.

In most cases, we cannot label one map as more correct than another; there are merely differences in focus. But far from making mapmaking a nihilistic affair, discussions in class should try to bring out the ethical and political considerations that are vital communication -- when there are a nearly infinite number of arranging information, choices about that arrangement must be made critically and carefully.

Most people begin the project with the general assumption that mapping is the portrayal of reality in as objective manner as possible. Denis Wood argues that this is why maps are successful -- they work. But in order to think about how and why these maps work, I ask students to begin comparing the variations among all of the maps, accounting for the effects of those variations and attempting to think about the social and political contexts in which those variations came about. Variations among the maps include which buildings are shown and/or labeled; the scale of the map; illustration of streets, bus routes (and stops), bike paths, and walkways; dormitories, coloring (including spot color); property ownership; directions of one-way-traffic streets; stores; off-campus buildings; and more. Each element on the map represents a decision -- conscious or haphazard -- to live and think in the world in a certain way with certain effects. Illustrating street directions but not bike paths or bus stops, for example, encourages individual automobile use but not walking or mass transit.

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