These are a few of my favorite maps

I’m putting together an aspirational syllabus for a digital humanities/mapping course, and have been thinking about my favorite maps, and why they work so well.  Here is a very-not-complete list of my current greatest hits:

Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: a cartographic narrative.

This is, by far, my favorite digital mapping project.  I’ve seen Vincent Brown speak on it, and I was quite impressed by his articulation of why we need a map like this to understand enslaved rebellion.  Because records of these uprisings tend to have been produced by ruling elites who were actively opposed to representing enslaved resistance as anything other than barbarous and futile, it would be easy to think that this uprising – and many others like it – were haphazard and poorly planned.  Brown’s map, on the other hand, reads the colonial archives against the grain to show us the strategy that underlay this revolt.  I love that he uses sources in which obscuring enslaved agency is a feature rather than a bug to highlight that agency.

Touring the Fire

A little less high tech, but still a great example of how a geospatial perspective can give us new, or at least different information about an historical event.  One of the persistent fictions about the Chicago fire is the culpability of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, so it’s interesting to see how the fire spread, but also to treat the path of the fire like a walking tour, and to map it onto Chicago’s geography today.

London Soundmap

This is just ridiculously cool (and reminds me of a book I just finished about London’s underground rivers).  It borrows aesthetically from the iconic tube maps, but instead of information about subways gives us the sound of underground waterways.  There are some other great soundmaps on this site, including ambient London noise, the sound of the Thames estuary, and a handy map of the most common sounds in different parts of the city.  The whole thing is worth exploring.

While we’re talking about aural mapping…

Here’s a project which uses immigration data to create a true aural map of changes in American demography over time.

And finally, everything NOAA does, but especially their geospatial services.

Now it’s all about convincing the undergraduates that maps are cool…

Classroom RPGs

As we near the Thanksgiving break, and as my students get increasingly stressed about final papers and exams, I’ve tried to lighten up (mostly Thursday) classes with role playing exercises.  It can be a bit of a gamble, since they rely so much on the students really committing to personifying historical characters, but so far it’s been quite a bit of fun – even if one of my students did call me on the worksheet I gave them as prep being quite close to a D&D character creation sheet!  In the U.S. survey, I used this prompt:

Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams and David Wilmot find themselves snatched out of time and deposited in a bar.  They get to talking about whether it was a good thing to annex Mexico and California.  What do they say?

For 4:00 on a Thursday, my students embraced the roll playing more than I’d expected.  Aspersions were cast against Polk and Wilmot, and Calhoun’s perspective was even delivered in accent.  It’s sometimes hard in larger classes to get group work right – sometimes the groups are too big for everyone to participate fully, and if they’re too small we spend a lot of time at the end letting each one speak – but I’m feeling pretty good about this flavor of activity, even if it does lead to some jokes about dark elves, charisma points and magic missiles.

Mass observation

I was living in Cork for the last inauguration, but came home from the archives early to watch.  Though Twitter existed in 2009, trending hash-tags were not yet a “thing,” and one group tried to track impressions of Obama’s first inauguration using the Mass Observation technique pioneered in Britain in the mid-20th century.  The January the 20th project tracked international impressions of the inauguration, and posted them with little analysis.  The original Mass Observation project is searchable by topic, and includes diaries, surveys and photographs.  The dominant themes include “sexual behavior,” “reading habits” and “bird watching.”  Twitter is something like a perpetual modern-day Mass Observation – there were more than 14,000 tweets per minute during today’s inauguration ceremony.  Trending topics included the musical performances, #inaug2013, #fourmoreyears, and FLOTUS’s bangs.

Donor demography

An item titled “donor demography” is always on my to-do list – I have a database with the names of over 5,000 individuals and groups who gave to famine relief, and there always seems to be something more I could be doing with that data.  I’ve been playing around with a sample of 120 American donors.  Telling a story about these people is tricky.

The easiest, and most bloodless approach is a statistical one:

In a sample of 12o donors, the largest single donation came from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia, who in February of 1847 collected $7,200.  The smallest donation was of $1, and came from a “Friend of Ireland” somewhere in the vicinity of Charleston.  The average donation was $443, but the most commonly donated amount was $5.  The median donation was $50, and the geographic distribution of this sample (drawn from Charleston and New York Newspapers) shows donors scattered across the United States.

Another approach is to break them up into smaller groups, say, professional men (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, judges and military officers); men whose names don’t indicate rank or profession; women;  towns and groups of people, and write a speculative narrative about what might have prompted men or women of a certain type to give.

From February to May of 1847, professional men across the United States contributed to famine relief.  Some, like the Reverend Jas. Dupree of Summerville, South Carolina, gave as little as $3, while others like Dr. Benjamin Waldo, gave as much as $200.  In the 1850s, a skilled laborer could make, at most $300 in a year, so the doctor’s donation certainly, and Reverend Dupree’s donation possibly represented a sizable portion of their household income.  A significant majority of these men worked with a church in some capacity, suggesting that frequent exposure to doctrines of virtue through charity might have effectively encouraged some to give.  These men also would have had access to the dominant newspapers of the day – easily affording penny periodicals like the New York Sun or Charleston Courierand would consequently have been exposed to many of the circulating ideas about Americans’ obligations to the suffering Irish.

Finally, one of these donors from one of these groups, say “Dr. Reynolds” of Camden, SC, might be used to extrapolate the possible charitable motivations of men.

This “Dr. Reynolds” could have been any one of three Reynolds men living in Camden in 1840 (or someone else entirely, who emigrated in the intervening seven years).  All three Reynolds residents of Camden owned slaves.

There, the trail goes cold.  I could, with infinite time and resources, track down all of the donors mentioned in the records of famine charities, and that’s actually something I aspire to do some day, but those people who are recoverable from mid-nineteenth-censuses will likely prove to be remarkable in some way – an uncommon name or profession, or living in an uncommon place – rendering them less than ideal examples of the average or exemplary donor.  Ultimately, I’m not convinced that having the stories of five thousands individuals will tell me more than trying to make sense of the groups they belonged to, or how they identified in their communities, but I’m neither sure what the best way to tell their stories is.