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Digital Mapping Explores Nowhere

Posted on Tuesday, April 15, 2014

You wouldn't think even a digital map could help you find nowhere. Unless, that is, you were taking Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature Alla Ivanchikova's course, "Geographies of Nowhere." The class examines representations of the frontier, and studies spaces in literature. Students use open-source visualization and mapping tools during their literary inquiries.

"My idea was that by using digital maps in a global literature classroom, students could deepen their understanding of places that seem distant and foreign," Ivanchikova says. "By grounding ourselves in a place through investigating specific locations, we commit ourselves to a certain depth of encounter with a text from another culture."

Ivanchikova received a grant from The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) for her initiative. CTL-funded work is designed to inject creativity into classrooms and labs, build engagement with course content, and improve teaching and learning at HWS.

Her students use Google Tour Builder to create literary maps of places. For example, they made a literary map of Alaska, based on locations in stories and poems they read in class (see map). The project was titled, "Mapping the Last Frontier."

That's the gist of the course-frontiers. "A frontier is usually imagined as a place that is far away from the ‘center,' where civilization meets wilderness, and humans face nature," Ivanchikova says. "The frontier is thus usually a contested space, a place of tension and uncertainty. Frontiers also offer the fantasy of self-reinvention, a second career, a possibility of living our life differently, perhaps more freely."

Ivanchikova has a bit of the frontier spirit herself. Born and raised in Moscow, she received her M.A. from Central European University in Budapest, an M.A. and Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo, and taught at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, before joining the HWS English Department.

"My interest in the topic was influenced by my personal history of travel and migration, and by my experience living in Alaska for three years," she says.

The course focuses on spaces that Ivanchikova calls "global frontiers," among them the High Arctic (Alaska and Northern Canada), the Global South (interior Africa), and the Mysterious East (Afghanistan). Students begin with a simple project exploring the geography of a place, then use digital and traditional tools to map a "literary landscape"-a terrain of meaning, a "life-world" based on the novels or stories they read.

"We're using digital mapping to pin the trajectory of narratives," says Natalia St. Lawrence '16. "I've focused a lot on allegorical representations. I've been crafting maps that are distorted by what narratives choose to highlight, which exacerbates what is left out and unwritten."

Carolyn Schultz '16 also takes a creative tack. "These maps can be literal or figurative," she says. "Personally, I've enjoyed experimenting with how figurative I can make my maps while still portraying a clear trajectory."

This is music to Ivanchikova's ears. "There is a need for new methodologies related to the use of technology, and this is precisely what I am trying to develop as I am teaching this class."

 


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