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The hiatus did not last as long as I anticipated.  Onward!

Maps are rarely useful to me in any practical way.  I navigate by landmarks, not cardinal directions, and I find even maps of my own neighborhood almost unsettling in their foreignness.   There is only one road map in my car: a coffee-stained, mis-folded guide to the Raleigh-Durham area.  Even in my Americorps days, when I traveled throughout the Research Triangle on a daily basis, I used the map not to identify the most effective route from Falls of Neuse Road to I-40 and out to Fuquay-Varina but instead as a means to wedge my travel mug snugly into my car’s too-big drink holder.

But I like maps for many reasons.  While I may not enjoy reading maps in any sort of straightforward manner, I do appreciate maps as products of interpretation and representation.  Creating a map requires translating into color, line, and text the invisible: the boundaries we’ve agreed upon and those we dispute, the ways air and water and stars move and shift, the paths that animals and diseases and ore deposits weave underneath, around, and above us.  I appreciate the early cartographer’s impulses to fill unknown spaces with sea serpents — scaly reminders that we don’t know everything, after all.  And I wonder how we would read a map that represents uncertainty with something a little cheerier.

Look!  A sea of kittens and chocolate bars!  Must be the end of the world.

The sea monsters, of course, are more apt than kittens.  They are emblematic of the violence of maps, which are documents that — like contracts and report cards and lab results — have the power to impose new realities or to make evident something we’ve been trying to ignore.  Just consider how electoral maps call into being new voting districts, or how satellite maps show the ocean encroaching on polar ice caps.

I’ve got maps on the brain because I’m currently designing two assignments for next semester, both asking students to consider the power of maps.  The first will ask them to use Google to annotate a map of their hometown or Rice’s campus, considering how their lived environments are filled with unmarked boundaries, worn paths, and personal landmarks.  It will be a variation on this assignment, developed by a professor at UT-Austin.  My sample map, provided to my eager students as guidance for their own work, will most likely document my hard-won knowledge of the best vending machines on campus — a knowledge I began to appreciate this week after a conversation with a friend about ginger ale.  Mmmmmm.  Ginger ale.

The second assignment is still in the works, but it will most likely ask students to locate a map of Houston and consider how that map frames the city they’re living in.  What does the cartographer leave in and cut out?  What assumptions underlie this map?  Right now, this seems like a very hard assignment, which I’m taking as a sign that it’s worthwhile.

One of the perks of designing a map assignment is stumbling upon so many quirky maps.  I recommend Strange Maps at Big Think, compiled by Frank Jacobs.  Way back in March 2008, Jacobs included a map designed by Stephanie Gray based on the Ludacris rhyme “Area Codes.”

The resulting map: “Area Codes in which Ludacris Claims to Have Hoes.”


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