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Maps and Mapping

Something remarkable has happened over the last few years. The practices of mapping have again become a key cultural moment. There are all kinds of reasons for this state of affairs. The rise and key role in modern life of geographical information systems. The rise of easily accessible databases. The rise of locative technologies. The rise of RFIDs. The rise of citizen mapping. Very soon everyone will be able to know where everyone and everything is and that has all manner of social and cultural consequences, many of which we are only just beginning to understand. To the extent that we can comprehend them it is largely because of maps, which act as both the instrument and the means of analysis of this new era. There are many means of marking this new ascendancy.

To begin with, there are now Atlases of almost everything. Look in any publisher’s catalogue and there they are: ancient history, modern history, genetics, money, international politics. You name it and there seems to be an atlas for it.

Then think of all the mapping websites. My favourites include floatingsheep.org and, of course, strange-maps (on the bigthink.com website) as well as visualization websites like flowingdata.com (check out the real time maps of Singapore from MIT) or weeplaces.com (the last for what it signifies of the future).

Again, maps are a key moment in teaching. Representing vast amounts of data is a vital activity and more and more academics are turning to them as pedagogic aids. With current mapping software and data sets it is becoming easier and easier to prepare your own mash-ups with which to represent points to students in, quite literally, the most graphical of forms. In turn, maps have stimulated a renaissance of fieldwork, in disciplines as diverse as performance and history.

Then there is the way in which maps have become a general cultural background. Think only of the artists who have turned to maps for inspiration, artists like Joyce Kozloff, Ingo Gunther, Guillermo Kutica, and Mark Bradford.

So here’s a conundrum. Higher education is a business that spans the world and increasingly thinks in global terms but, as Kris Olds has also pointed out recently, it is surprising how little use is made of maps in representing and analysing its contributions. However, that is beginning to change. I think, in particular, of the remarkably beautiful Atlas of Science edited by Katy Borner which is worth an hour of anyone’s time. Then there is the OECD and UNESCO work on international student flows as well as the ‘Atlas’ of American Higher Education (now sadly out of date).

It is also worth looking at university websites which increasingly use maps to communicate all manner of facts about themselves, from where faculty and students hail to the ecology of the campus (just consider William Cronon’s beautiful ecological maps of the Madison, Wisconsin campus).

And maps can also be used as tools to criticize university policy as in the Counter Cartographies  Collective’s UNC Chapel Hill set of maps of the university and North Carolina more generally.

The age of maps and mapping is upon us, in other words. And higher education is beginning not only to see maps as a core tool but as a way of telling us more about the state of higher education. Maps can summarize, analyse, and provide all manner of new insights. They should be used ever more in higher education.

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