Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cartography and Social Justice: Survey of Early English Edition

Last night in class, I walked my students through this thought process:
  • I was watching The West Wing the other day, and it was one of the Big Block of Cheese episodes, the one about cartography and social justice

  • Since we've been in the early modern period in my survey class, and covering travel narratives, this got me thinking about early modern technology, maps, and how this related to the course theme of viewing texts through monsters/travel narratives.
  • We opened with me explaining The West Wing background, a short explanation of social justice in cartography, then we looked at these three maps: 
Nova totius Terrarum Orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula, a map of the world created by Hendrik Hondius in 1630, and published the following year in the atlas Atlantis Maioris Appendix.

Mercator Projection Map

Peters World Map
  •  We talked first about the similarities and differences they noticed, and what this meant
  • We talked about how this related to the idea of erasure, and marginalized voices
  • Then what it says about dominant voices, and who tells the story, through maps. Whose story isn't told?
  • There were good dissenting voices, different point of views about why it's a larger conversation & complicated, & necessary conversation. Many students offered their own anecdotes about social studies, geography (or its absence in their education), their experiences with the Mercator map in a classroom. While this topic hit some sore spots, and forced them to think about some hard things, I was very proud of the how they engaged with each other, and me, on this.
  • We talked about Eurocentricism, and some of the effects of this, how it was reflected in larger issues we saw now, not valuing places not us, what countries or wars we got involved in, how current events could be read as a result of this type of thinking
  • Tangible objects like maps, like literature, are great ways to tie larger ideas, and trace them forward in time
  • We also talked about institutionalized racism a la maps
  • We also covered some of the issues in scholarship with covering marginal voices- the ability to translate source materials, present them to others, what this required
  • I used Cortez and Malinche as an example, highlighting the importance here of translation, who tells the story
  •  I also asked them about Columbus, and how many of them knew the name of the Indian chief he dealt with. Since Albuquerque also just changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day, we also talked about the issue of where Columbus landed, how it was never Northern America, and the oddity of a country he never landed in, celebrating him.
  • We had some debate about how you could have a Mercator map in your room but teach why it was problematic, that it wasn't an either/or issue.
As I wound down this part of class, to pivot towards covering Herbert's travel narratives of Persia, here was my main point:
  •  I asked them to think about how different their educations, and our classrooms, would be- history, literature, science, math, if we told the complete story. If we didn't just cover the dominant narrative. If we made sure all voices were heard
  • I stated that as a teacher, no student should ever have to sit in a classroom where their culture, their history, their story, was erased from history, told it didn't matter
We then pivoted to talking about Herbert, his narrative, why I chose it, how Persia was represented, how these presentations were connected to earlier ones, the the impact moving forward that these presentations had on literature, how people viewed, and justified later English actions.

I know some students did not like this lecture. I could see it in their faces. This type of challenge of basic teachings and experiences can be uncomfortable. Confronting ideas about institutional racism is hard, and some balked. And I understand that. I try to present it the way Loewen does in Lies My Teacher Told Me, and I make explicit reference to his book, that these views are a result of WHERE these books are written, and HOW they are taught. These are hard issues.
And when I plan these tangential lessons, ones that are a modern throughline to current events, rooted in the past, I do pause. Because I know they are hard issues. I know some students will balk at them. And I go back and forth on whether or not to include it.
This is why I do:
  • Teaching is social activism. End of story.
  • Viewing cultural objects and literature as reflective of their historical and cultural moment, this is literary scholarship.
  • Viewing how these texts construct Otherness, and what our creation of monsters and presentation of travel narratives tells us about these texts and time periods, is what I centered this class around.
  • Viewing the long view of these issues is my methodology.
So I'll teach this lesson again.
But next time, I think I'll ask students to write down some experiences with maps, geography, and world history before we have this class. And I'll definitely play The West Wing clip to open, it's a better, more concise (it's Sorkin after all) explanation that I may have fumbled in my excitement.
But I think these issues are important.
So I'll continue the challenge.


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