Hypercities, History, and the Classroom

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.

4 thoughts on “Hypercities, History, and the Classroom


    I highlighted the same Presner lines! I really appreciated how he laid out the critical approach to maps, recognizing them as representations of epistemologies and various violences, such as borders. He also puts the same enjoyable critical spin to “modernity” and delivers this approach in the spirit of Walter Benjamin and his flaneur. Presner makes a lot of connections to 19th century visual culture, from panoramas, film, ruins to to rethink how these things can apply in today’s media and to understand our identities as digital dandies.
    It’s really awesome to learn about how you are bringing this type of critical thinking to the class room.
    Your approach to teaching imperialism in Africa is particularly interesting, as you are literally turning the world upside down. This reminded me of when I was in high school, learning about the “scramble for Africa.” Each group had a big outline of the African continent and each member had a different color marker to represent the various colonizers. The group the colored in the continent the fastest and most accurately was the “winner.” Through this exercise, we were to see the violence of borders and how they would come into play during decolonization.
    Your proposal for a geography elective sounds very exciting. I understand your concern on how you would scale such an endeavor for a classroom setting. For each of those events, I assume you can spend months, probably years. Maybe you can leave it up to your students to decide on the various layers of interest. Whatever you decide, keep us posted!

  2. Elissa Myers

    I also appreciate your quoting Micki’s comment about place being a space of felt values. That seems very, very true to me–especially in light of what I was saying about Texas the other day. Texas has become a symbol for both the Republicans who want to claim it for their values, and for many of the women tweeting “come and take it,”in support of reproductive health, thereby reappropriating a famous battle cry of the war for Texas independence. I was at a conference during class the other day, so it is good to hear some of what went on in class.

  3. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

    Thanks for the book recommendation with Bloodlands–like you mentioned, it seems like we often overlook the material and physical presences that are most immediate in acts of violence, choosing instead to focus on the social/cultural/political significance of these events. How does history change when it is situated as local narratives where space is a place of “felt value” (great phrase, Micki!!!), rather than grand narratives where space is a conceptual construct? Your teaching projects sound great, and as everyone else said, I look forward to hearing more!

  4. (Martha) Joy Rose

    Christopher – I’ve been enjoying hearing about your passion for teaching. We’ve had a few moments before and after class to chat about these things. Thanks for this article, and your quote, “not accepting geographic representations as objective truths.” The Laura Klein video posted as online content for the class does a great job of emphasizing this point as well. MJR

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