We will put maps to use in this unit as part of our exploration of Africa and the Scramble for Africa. History is often taught through theory, reading, film, discussion. These are all apt and effective, but there are particular advantages to using maps:
Maps are immersive.
Reading about the colonization of Africa could be effective. However, a lot of history students read about a lot of things. Much more may remain in their memory were they to incorporate graphic elements, as we will do with maps. Students can almost literally jump into the history, following expeditions, battles, even human ambition, down the rivers and across the borders of an effective map. Paired with text, maps offer a way to graphically synthesize concepts and theories for students. This can be helpful for everyone, and especially those who are more visual learners.
Maps tell a story from a different angle.
Maps aren’t simply documents that help get us from one geographic location to another. They also tell stories and are historic, philosophical documentations of human journeys in all their forms. Through maps, we can follow Dante into hell, Frodo into Mordor, and Bill Bryson around England. These stories – The Inferno, The Lord of the Rings, and Notes from a Small Island, respectively – are rooted in and dependent upon prose. However, without the accompanying maps, we might not all have been with the authors, literally and figuratively, on the same page. Maps help us visualize the space and connections in our stories or histories using an entirely different media, thereby expanding our perspective nearly automatically.
Maps promote common understanding.
If we mostly share a common understanding of Mordor, or of England, it’s certainly not because we’ve all been there. England is far away, Mordor is fictional (as far as most of us can tell). And yet when we imagine those places we imagine the same thing because of maps. The graphic and interactive nature of maps, when used in the right way, can limit the effectiveness of those who would seek to hide or whitewash or sugar-coat information. When we can all see it on a map, it makes it harder to misrepresent reality, as important today as ever! It is important to note, however, that maps themselves can (and have at times throughout history) be used to mislead or misrepresent information as well, so another takeaway will be ensuring the source of our information is valid, an important lesson to repeat at every opportunity.
Students will have an overview of maps and map-reading and will work with interactive online maps of both contemporary locales as well as the Scramble for Africa. This is detailed in the “Classroom Activities” section below.