Mapping Novels with Google Earth


[This is a guest post by Erin Sells, a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. She writes about modernist literature, the one-day novel, and Anne Enright, and is interested in academic community partnerships and higher education policy. You can follow her on Twitter @erinsells --@jbj].

The use of models and other abstract forms in literary study has recently seen a revival in a digital age that puts data and sophisticated data management systems in the hands of the literary scholar, teacher, and student. Pedagogical applications of these abstract models are rich with possibility for the literary classroom, and offer exciting opportunities for engaging non-English majors and non-traditional learners in the advanced study of literature, as well as challenging students to verbally articulate visual and spatial knowledge.

In an upper-division undergraduate English course in which I taught Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I assigned groups of students to create online, interactive maps for different characters in the novel using Google Earth mapping software. We later layered these individual maps to create a comprehensive map of the novel. The abundant detail in the novel and the diverse digital applications in the Google Earth software allowed students to incorporate pictures, sounds, videos, and the text itself into the map, creating an exciting visual and spatial representation of the novel, and an exciting new path for teaching and understanding the work of Woolf.

Creating maps of novels is obviously not a new venture. The edition of Mrs. Dalloway that I used in my course included a map of the characters’ movements through London in the frontispiece, but by using an online mapping tool to create a digital map, students are able to create a far denser and richer visual representation of the novel that can incorporate a wider diversity of information and media into a consolidated, interactive, and collaborative study tool. This moves the literary map beyond the limits of literary tourism and into the realm of interactive pedagogy and digital scholarship.

My mapping assignment was born out of a graduate seminar on Technology, Literature and Curriculum taught in conjunction with Emory University’s Department of English and ECIT (Emory Center for Interactive Teaching), a technological pedagogy center in the Emory University library. Similar projects have resulted in the Google Lit Trips website , a helpful resource with completed maps and tutorials on how to use the maps in classes of all levels, including K-12. A Duke University student has written up an interesting article on the origins and potential of the Google Lit Trips project. Other resources for similar mapping projects are the Google EarthOutreach YouTube channel, which includes a comprehensive set of tutorials on how to use Google Earth, as well as instructions on how to use Google Docs spreadsheets to assemble Google Earth maps. ProfHacker’s very own Brian Croxall (who was a tremendous help to me as I planned and implemented this assignment) and Jason B. Jones have also designed assignments for creating interactive timelines using Google Docs spreadsheets and Google Maps in conjunction with the Exhibit and Timeline scripts created by MIT’s SIMILE project. Combining a mapping assignment and an interactive timeline assignment would be an interesting way to expand upon both, perhaps assigning different students or groups to complete different parts of the timeline or map and then using them to create a resource for the whole class. In this way the assignments could be made to address several texts studied in the course of a semester.

There is a wide variety of mapping software programs available to scholars today, which brings us to the question: why use Google Earth for this assignment? The most obvious answer is, of course, that it’s free. I also envisioned this mapping project as a group assignment, and wanted to make collaboration between group members as easy as possible. The Google Earth software can be downloaded for free onto each student’s computer and a map can be created in a file that is sharable and editable by each student. Additionally, while there is a learning curve involved in using Google Earth, compared to more sophisticated (and expensive) mapping programs, it’s relatively low. A few small portions of class time devoted to learning how to insert some simple HTML code and demonstrating some of the Google Earth program features (perhaps with the assistance of some of those aforementioned tutorials on the Google EarthOutreach YouTube channel) is all that most students will need to create a pretty spectacular map. If your students are anything like most of mine were, they’ll be able to teach you a thing or two about the program before it’s all over with.

Although I developed this assignment for an upper division English course—Special Topics in the 20th Century English Novel—because the course fulfilled an upper division general education writing requirement, many of my students came to the class from majors outside of the humanities. The idiosyncrasies of Woolf’s prose style can be difficult to parse for even the hardiest English major. For the uninitiated, or for those less familiar with more traditional avenues of literary study, the mapping assignment became a useful tool for first anchoring the prose in geographical detail, and then expanding upon those geographical details with pertinent images, sounds, and historical information. The map itself is just a starting point—as layers of information into the sights and sounds of the city on this summer day in London are added it becomes a multi-dimensional research project and gives students a guide to navigating a difficult novel.

In my assignment, each group of approximately seven students was assigned a character to “follow” and map through the novel—Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Smith, Peter Walsh, and Elizabeth Dalloway. In reflection papers students submitted after completing the assignment several explained that this specific focus on a certain character and certain portions of the novel necessitated narrowing their gaze to the point of close reading. Additionally, placing these characters in a specific spatial context revealed important details related to their characterization. For example, the group mapping Peter Walsh as he followed the young woman wearing a red carnation were shocked to discover that he followed her for several miles across London. The group mapping Elizabeth Dalloway down the Strand investigated the buildings she notes passing and what that particular part of London was like in the 1920s, and discovered that her journey across the city represents a marked deviation from any path (or mode of transportation) her mother would be inclined to take.

The groups were also instructed to note, map, or include:

  • important landmarks that appear —or, as in the case of the many chiming clocks marking the passing of the hours—sound in the novel. Statues, tube stations, shops, and parks—all found a place in the maps and helped shape our sense of the characters in the novel and the spaces they inhabit.
  • any audio files that might be pertinent to a particular landmark or event in the novel. One group found an audio clip of Big Ben tolling and included it in their map so that we could all hear the sound of the “leaden circles dissolving in the air.” Another discovered the sound of a London ambulance bell from the period and placed it in their map so that we could all hear the sound of Septimus’s body being carried away through the city
  • any images that might be relevant to a particular landmark or event in the novel. Some students found and scanned pictures from books on London in the 1920s; others set contemporary pictures of landmarks they found on the web next to historical pictures they had found to provide a comparison. A photograph of a British civil airplane like the one that might have been employed for skywriting, and pictures of the many types of flowers mentioned in the novel were also included.
  • the quotation from the book that led them to map a particular point, so that the text itself would in a sense be a layer of the map.

Here’s a screenshot of the result:

Mrs. Dalloway in Google Earth

Click for full-size

Each group also gave the class a presentation or “tour” of their map using the computer and projector screen in the classroom, explaining different features and pointing out important aspects of the characters’ movements. After each group had presented its map, we combined them into a single map, and discussed what the intersections of the characters’ paths might have to tell us about the novel. The Google Earth maps of the novel were a dynamic presentation tool and created a perfect centerpiece for discussions of spatiality, temporality, and characterization in the novel.

In the students’ reflection papers on the assignment I discovered an interesting trend—the handful of English majors in the class were decidedly less enthusiastic about the mapping assignment than the many more non-English majors in the class. Several times I came across the comment, “I would have much rather just written a paper.” Although I think much of this criticism comes from distaste for group work, presentations, and stepping outside of a comfort zone created by having already written countless essays in English classes, it has caused me to consider how this assignment might become a better tool for writing pedagogy. In future versions of this assignment, I still plan to have the students create their maps in groups and present them, but I will add an additional writing requirement focused on using the maps to create a thesis around what has been learned or revealed—about the city, characterization, spatiality, temporality, flânérie, etc.—from the experience of mapping the novel. It may be possible to have the students map their essays onto the maps they have created, so that their critical analysis of the novel becomes a part of the visual and textual study tool as well.

Photo by Jason Bachman / Creative Commons licensed

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