Mark Koch on Maps & Critical Cartography

Mark Koch, Lecturer for the Institute for Writing & Rhetoric, employs a fascinating medium for reading and writing in his Writing 2 classroom: maps. Rooting his approach in the critical cartography that arose in the 1990s among scholars in geography and in the humanities, Koch takes the position that maps are never value-free images. Like all texts—they inscribe power relations. Accordingly, he not only teaches his students to read maps rhetorically, for their encoded messages, he also teaches them to think and to make discoveries by composing their own maps.

Early on in the course, Koch's students visit the college Map Room. Together with librarian Lucinda Hall, Koch asks students to explore the maps they find and to consider questions like: How should we read a map? What are maps telling you? How do they speak? Koch demonstrates to his students that these maps all contain deeper meanings and unseen arguments. Among the maps that are read analytically in Koch's course is a Victorian map of the world, a map that might appear neutral if stripped of the more obvious ornamentations extolling the British Empire. What would remain, however, still distorts the land masses. Also problematic is the less discernible tendency known as subliminal geometry, a mapping practice which on this map situates London in the middle of the world. Other more clearly biased maps, such as war propaganda maps, are analyzed for their graphic meanings, as are ski trail maps and maps of local business districts.

Once students have learned to see maps as making arguments, Koch demonstrates to his students how the process of mapping can help us make discoveries that we might not have otherwise seen. Consider, for instance, the famous incident of the 1854 London cholera epidemic, in which mapping helped researchers to locate the source of the disease. Similarly, mapping becomes valuable to students' critical thinking and discovery processes.   Accordingly, students pose a question that they might answer via mapping—for instance, do laws against bullying have an effect on fatal school shootings? Mapping the shootings alongside state laws against bullying encourages students to consider whether any sort of relationship can be established. Another student project maps the countries where the most cocoa is produced and those where the most chocolate is consumed. Yet another map charts the colleges that U.S. senators attended. The class then discusses whether or not evidence permits readers to draw a correlation, or to establish causation—a valuable lesson for students as they begin to work with and interpret data.

In terms of composition: students work collaboratively to draft their maps, presenting early drafts to their classmates in a workshop for peer review. In addition to the map, students must also write an explanation of their research methods and works cited page, as well as an abstract that details the map's argument and its implications. Finally, they present their maps to their classmates, taking questions and defending their work.

What do students learn from this assignment? Koch believes that working with maps encourages students to read, think, and write multimodally. In many of our writing classrooms, instructors are making use of other kinds of multimodal texts—photographs, for instance, or video. As Koch points out, "We've been reading books for centuries and film for decades. Maps haven't yet received that kind of attention. But maps are extraordinarily useful to writing instruction, in that they teach students how to read such images for the arguments they make, as well as how to use them to make arguments."