Mapping the Early Modern World

Overview: In Fall 2015, students enrolled in my HIS 306N: Global Early Modern Europe course built their digital literacy through the creation of a collaborative map of the early modern world. Using Google Maps and Google Docs, students charted the transmission and exchange of goods, people, ideologies, and cultures across the globe from 1400 to 1800.

The Map in Real Time:

Instructions: Every student is responsible for at least four entries, each at around 200 words, throughout the semester. Much like identification terms on examinations, these entries explain the historical significance of the subject, the date(s), and connections to the historical narrative and other entries in the map. Students are encouraged to check each other’s work and make revisions as necessary. Entries are added to the map as well as to an Excel file in Google Docs. Students can use this Excel file as a study guide of sorts, helping them review important key terms and ideas. This exercise not only fosters digital literacy of mapping software, Microsoft Excel, and the Google Drive, it also teaches them about collaborative projects, organization, and verification of online text. Furthermore, for visual learners, this map serves as a visual representation of how interconnected Europe was with the rest of the world in the early modern era. At the end of the semester, students will reflect on the assignment in a two-page report (5%), demonstrating how this map acted as a supplemental learning tool.

The Rationale: The idea to assign a mapping project came when I decided to name my course “Global Early Modern Europe.”  Throughout the course, I emphasized that Europe between 1500 and 1800 was not an isolated continent.  Instead, it was economically, politically, religiously, and ideologically connected to the wider early modern world.  In particular, we studied the ways in which European states and people not only influenced the wider world but how indigenous populations in the Americas, rulers in Asia and Southeast Asia, slave traders in Africa, and merchants in the Middle East influenced Europe.  To provide a visual representation of this, students plotted the transmission of goods, people, ideologies, and cultural inventions across the early modern globe.

Over the course of the semester, students were responsible for four entries to the map.  Each entry was about 200 words in length.  Much like an identification on an examination, these entries not only defined the subject and provided chronological dates, but provided historical significance. Entries could either be a person, place, idea, commodity, or “thing” (which was up for them to further define such as a piece of art or a battle).  Students were encouraged to draw lines between their entries that were connected or visually demonstrate how their entry connected to the larger early modern world.  You can see that on the screen with the various lines that are drawn across the map.  Now complete, the map is a striking visual of how connected Europe was with the rest of the world.  The accompanying database proved to be a treasure trove for students who had intelligently and accurately crowd-sourced information in preparation for their midterm and final exams.

From my standpoint as an instructor, the mapping project addressed a number of challenges I had teaching a survey. Most instructors of survey courses like “Western Civ” or “European History since 1500” often complain that their students lack a number of different competencies that preclude their full understanding of the course’s content.  I was determined to: 1) Address their lack of geographic knowledge; 2) Challenge their aversion to historical research projects; and 3) Build their digital literacy.  A digital mapping project seemed to address all three of these issues in a way that was accessible, maybe even exciting to students.

First, and probably one of the most basic problems my students had was a lack of geographic knowledge.  Many generally knew where Europe was, but where exactly was the Holy Roman Empire? Or where was the Ottoman Empire? Although the Google Maps platform uses modern-day political boundaries, you can easily change that from being the default setting.  Although none of my students did it, in future mapping projects, I fully intend to encourage students to draw in the changing political boundaries of various kingdoms and empires to further emphasize the visual change over time and the ebb and flow of various European powers.  So by assigning students the responsibility of presenting historical information in a visual context on a map, they became more familiar with early modern geography, but they also started to see how that geography was essential or a causal factor.  For instance, they fully understood the important roles that oceans played both as conduits of exchange and as barriers.  For many students, the enormity and danger of a voyage like, say, Magellean’s took on a whole new meaning and understanding because they were able to chart it for themselves on the map.  They could zoom in, zoom out, and manipulate the map with different filters, showing the places, people, or things independently or together.  This totally changed their understanding of the course. They began to understand just how fundamental, difficult, and wide early globalization was.

Aside from simply demonstrating a geographic understanding, this mapping project allowed students to become research collaborators. On the first day of class when I mentioned there would be a research project, many students droned or rolled their eyes.  Of course there was going to be a boring research assignment.  But when I explained to them it was going to be a digital mapping project their spirits lifted.  About 75% of my students were non-humanities majors and by the very nature of many of their majors, the students were more visual and kinetic learners than auditory learners.  With the functionality, presentation, and autonomy students had in this project, it spoke very clearly to their desire to create. Although all the same components of a research paper were involved – such as presenting a solid thesis, supporting that thesis with primary source evidence, and writing in clear and concise manner, the early modern map, for the lack of a better word, tricked students into believing they were doing a different kind of research.  They saw their map as a collaborative exhibit of sorts that was intended to present information to each other in a way that was accessible, content-driven, and precise.

At the same time they were honing their research skills, they were learning important skills about digital and media literacy.  As a digital project, I encouraged students to use digital sources, but taught them much about source evaluation, bias, and legitimacy.  They developed skills and strategies to filter out incorrect or biased information and prioritize scholarly information.  As we have recently seen, this skill is fundamental to the 21st century citizen.  Although this can be built in almost every research project now, it was a real skill that students walked away with from the project.

Similarly, the mapping project afforded students a number of skills including the ability to work collaboratively and digitally on projects.  They were able to master the Google suite of services which sounds like a small thing but it was astonishing how many students were unable to use Google Docs, Google Excel, and Google Maps.  Although small skills, these students now have that in their digital toolbox to access when appropriate.