Maps Teaching History

I love maps. I love writing about them. I love rescuing them. I love reading about them on the internet. I love to look at them hanging on walls. I love to touch them, to trace imagined journeys by fingertip — sliding a digit over the Alps to Innsbruck, along the high passes of the Pamirs searching for the Polos, along branches of tributaries of feeders of the Amazon. Maps can be extravagant works of art or a torture device when employed for quizzing geographical knowledge of my students. At some point, I decided that every class I teach will feature a map quiz about three weeks into a typical semester, graded generously but thoroughly. My map quizzes are simple enough, but perhaps unlike what my students have previously experienced or imagined.

Searching for Social Studies Map Quiz produced this collection of “blank” political maps, showing political borders.

The typical map quiz amounts to remembering coordinates on an atypical graph. The students are given a pre-drawn map, sometimes reproduced at a detail they could never recreate themselves — this reinforces the incorrect notion that maps have left the realm of the human for the rarefied air of computers and superhuman accuracy. Maps, like history for these students, is settled, figured out, finished–those who work with them are merely cataloging and describing. I might be completely wrong in my characterization, but it still inspired me to give a different kind of map quiz, with so far pleasing results.

For my map quizzes, the semester begins with a study map provided to the students. Some ignore the study map entirely, naturally. But on the day of the map quiz, my students receive a blank piece of paper. Blank, clean, white, perfect and without blemish. No guiding hand, no prefabricated coastlines or political divisions. Upon that canvas they recreate a specific historical map, without borders, placing rivers, mountains, cities, and certain geographic features central to the topic of that particular class. I do not know if my students are acquiring anything something that can be measured in the dreaded genre of learning outcomes. That was not my goal, but I understand such an exercise could be quantified by others.

Selection from one student’s finished map quiz in a Medieval World History class. I graded the quiz not on the accuracy of shoreline, but by my ability to read the map and their ability to place cities and geographic locations in the correct relative position.

Do you also want to get deeper into maps… without closing your internet browser? I recommend starting an account at David Rumsey’s Map Collection. You might enjoy such sites as Adventures in Mapping or Strange Maps. But the best way to scratch that itch is to try your hand at map-making yourself, either on paper or digitally. The more time you spend with maps, the greater amount of their intrinsic value you can see.

There are things about maps I dislike. As a scholar and a historian, specifically, I dislike that most maps have no scholarly apparatus, meaning that they rarely include a proverbial trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow the academic path taken by the map maker. Which books or accounts were used, which other maps were consulted, how did they come down on one side or the other of the many decisions made? Similarly, few maps include any awareness of the temporal nature of their existence. By this I mean that they usually do not announce what date they pretend to represent or, which is worse, they include a historic date to mark why certain areas have been highlighted without attempting to show how physical features may have changed. For example, most historical study maps of the Crusades or the Mongol Invasion or the Spanish Conquest or the Industrial Revolution simply use modern, up-to-date base maps for the image of the planet. Modern dams have radically changed the courses of rivers, creating and moving large bodies of water. Shorelines, deserts, forests, developed agricultural land; these are not timeless, eternal characteristics of the planet, but dynamic features. They have life-cycles and movement patterns that are both under-studied and under-represented, at least in this historian’s opinion.