a big beautiful mess

Story Map

I love maps. I don’t really understand them, and I’m not actually that good at using them, but I think they’re beautiful. They tell a story about how we think about our world, how we want it to look, where we see ourselves in connection with the rest of the world.

This week’s topic for the American Studies class I’m teaching was “Geography and Population.” No big deal. An hour should be enough to cover that, right? Right. Last week’s role-playing of the American government system proved to be enjoyable and successful as a super-condensed lesson plan, so I wanted something simple and interactive for this week as well. So I made a bunch of labels of major geographic features (Rocky Mountains, Lake Erie, Mojave Desert, etc.) and brought in my road map of the US, spread it out on a table, and invited them to gather around and figure out where everything went (with some help from me– one group guessed that the midwest was a forest).

That went well, but did not take nearly as much time as I had anticipated, so I improvised by telling them stories about everything. I told them about how horrible driving in Boston is and about the bells along the Camino Real in California. I talked about migration west and Manifest Destiny by describing the Oregon Trail computer game. I wish I could reproduce for you the gesticulations and sound effects I used to demonstrate the Gold Rush. They got a kick out of Seward’s Folly, because most of them knew that Alaska was bought from Russia. They surprised me by what they didn’t know– and what they did. Some of them had never heard of the Rockies, but one guy had heard of Jesse James, and most of them knew more about Route 66 than I do (though I am prepared to attribute that to the restaurant in Arkhangelsk called Route 66).

When we put down markers for the ten most populous cities in America, I took Los Angeles as a starting point for a story about my family’s geographic history, hopping from Arkansas to Denver to Pittsburgh, back to L.A., and then branching out to Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Mexico. They were really interested to see my family scattered across the map, but I think they were more interested because it was a story about me, a real person, instead of a list of facts about a monolith on the other side of the globe.

And the questions they had! They all wanted to know, had I been to Niagara Falls? The Grand Canyon? New York City? One group asked what my favorite place in the United States was. Another group wanted to know more about the Native American genocide. I am loving this class. On the one hand, I surprised myself with how much history I spontaneously remembered (did not even look up Seward’s Folly on Wikipedia last night). But on the other hand, I am going to learn so much this semester.


  1. 20 February 2012    

    I am so jealous. That sounds like so much fun!

  2. Kait Kait
    20 February 2012    

    You make me proud you remember so much! Bring a tear to the history major’s eye… :'( :)

  3. 22 February 2012    

    Neat. I love your opening paragraph! Thanks Kait for sharing!

    greetings from a map-aficionado who is still lost in the wonderful, enigmatic world of maps for 20 years and still growing strong. Feels like I began studying them only yesterday. Time has a way of freezing when one is studying maps. :)

    Have you heard of Denis Woods? Check out his Power of Maps if you get a chance. It speaks to the fascination that you express, plus he mentions Route 22 :)
    Here is one of my favourite quotes. Right now set to open the introductory chapter of my book on ‘Ways of Seeing Islamic Maps’ You can check out my work at:

    “A cornucopia of images, bewildering in their variety: this is the world of maps. Sticks and stones, parchment and gold leaf, paper and ink…frame an image of the world we live in. Like the birds and bees we have danced them in the gestures of our living; since the birth of language we have sketched them in the sounds of our speech. We have drawn them in the air and traced them in the snow, painted them on rocks and inscribed them on the bones of mammoths. We have baked them in clay and chased them in silver… Most of them are gone now, billions lost in the making…The incoming tide has smoothed the sand… Pigments have faded, the paper has rotted…consumed in flames. Many simply cannot be found. They are crammed into the backs of kitchen drawers and glove compartments or mucked up beneath the seats with the Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes and the paper cups. Where have all the road maps gone: and the worlds they described and the kids we knew, Route 66, and the canyon beneath Lake Powell, and the old Colorado pouring real water into the Gulf of Mexico? And when we talk of the ‘old map of Europe’—which too has disappeared—we are speaking of certainties we grew up with, not a piece of paper. And yet…it is hard, in the end, to separate those certainties from that very piece of paper which not only described the world, but endowed it with a reality we have all accepted.”
    Denis Wood, The Power of Maps, (New York and London: The Guilford Press, 1992), p. 4.

    • 23 February 2012    

      Thanks, Karen! I’ll have to check out Denis Woods. Sounds like he has the same kind of whimsical poetic approach to his work that I aspire to.

  4. 22 February 2012    

    btw I love the rolling pics too! I was in Novgorod last July. Simply loved it.

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