I’m an (aspiring) historian and so the turn in HyperCities to consider topics germane to historical research was a welcome one. I’m also a high school history teacher in a progressive, tech-forward school, and one of the things I try to work with my students on is to treat maps like any other document or source: that is, to identify and scrutinize them as subjective, ideology- and agenda-bearing texts. I’ve been interested in how to incorporate tenets of DH work into my own ongoing research interests as well as my classroom, and since reading HyperCities, things have started to snap into focus.
In particular, Presner’s definition of DH as “help[ing] to expose…epistemologies and world-views, ordering systems and knowledge representations in ways that foreground their incommensurabilities” struck a chord with me in terms of both research and teaching (125). When combined with his assertion that geospatial DH might usher in “an investigation of how modernity is not just a temporal designation (as in Neuzelt but also a practice of cartographic reasoning, spatial representation, and geographic persuasion and control,” there seems to be a newfound urgency to this entire project (64). History is made up of those who have tried to reorder the world in terms of space and time, often violently, and the research potential for thick mapping, geospatial analyses, or otherwise stressing the primacy of geography in one’s work are exciting.
Micki commented in class the other day that space is a place of felt values. This immediately called to mind Timothy Snyder’s incredible book Bloodlands, in which he argues for a geographic interpretation of Soviet and Nazi crimes. In examining mass murder and state destruction in terms of territory, Snyder is able to transcend conventional frameworks (national, political/diplomatic, military, etc.) and focus on what this swath of land meant to the regimes who fought so bitterly over it. To ignore the centrality of geography misses the point entirely: from 1933-1945, about 14 million people were murdered in a very specific location. Why there?
Though Snyder doesn’t take a DH route to get there, there are echoes of Presner’s idea of “geographic persuasion and control” throughout Bloodlands. It helped me think about shifting perspectives and embracing new approaches, since reinforced by HyperCities. Anne Kelly Knowles at Middlebury, and the folks at the Spatial History Project at Stanford, are good examples of researchers and historians working across disciplines to look at old questions in new ways, raise new ones entirely, and keep everything engaging. I’m looking forward to jumping into spatial analyses a bit more, which admittedly has to start with getting up to speed on the programs themselves.
Finally, in terms of my teaching, I’m trying to incorporate some DH tools and methods in line with all of the above. The first step was, during a class on European imperialism in Africa, to show them a pre-colonial map of the continent turned upside-down. That went a pretty long way in terms of helping them think about not accepting geographic representations as objective truths. Next up would be having them mark it up for omissions, biases, and so on. The question becomes: how might I scale thick mapping techniques for the high school classroom? I’m thinking of proposing an elective for next year that might be called “Geography.” It would be a history course, but through the lens of case studies as geographic events: the Great Migration; red-lining in America; the New Deal; colonial African history; the Roman Empire; the World Wars…the list goes on. But they’d all be studied, fundamentally, as events about space.