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Author: Philip Brown
Title: Exploring Historical Space and Environments in the History/Social Studies Classroom: A Guest Editorial and Introduction
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2008

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Source: Exploring Historical Space and Environments in the History/Social Studies Classroom: A Guest Editorial and Introduction
Philip Brown

vol. 11, no. 2, August 2008
Article Type: Article

Exploring Historical Space and Environments in the History/Social Studies Classroom: A Guest Editorial and Introduction

Philip Brown

Associate Professor of History
The Ohio State University

Historians and teachers of history at multiple levels are re-discovering the role of space and place. The geographical turn is sometimes metaphorical (for example, in my field of Japanese history, we have Greg Pflugfelder’s Cartographies of Desire, an exploration of male-male sexual relationships in Japan, but the examples populate other fields as well), however, they appear increasingly in research and pedagogic contexts that employ maps and mapping to either illustrate relationships over space, analyze them or entice students into their own explorations of the impact of space and environment on broad historical processes and particular historical places. The field of historical research reveals the most dramatic shift toward re-integrating geographic perspectives: At interdisciplinary venues like the Social Science History Association, the Historical Geography network has become one of the largest and most robust in the society. Within Geography, the Historical Geography special interest group has likewise experienced a notable revival. However, as the essays in this and the next issue of JAHC demonstrate, the trend is appearing in the history classroom as well.

The emergence of computer technologies that support mapping and free researchers and teachers from reliance on professional cartographers and their commercially available products has directly paved the way for re-emphasizing space and place in history: Geographic Information Systems technologies or GIS for short. The term GIS covers an extraordinary array of approaches, from quite simple to intricately complex software products. [1] Some products that allow flexible use of images and were not designed as GIS products can be used to illustrate spatial relationships, e.g., Adobe Photoshop, and thus may be products with which many readers are already be acquainted. GIS approaches can be relatively straight-forward, as in importing a digital map image and representing one’s own data on the map—as one of our Ohio State University graduate students did in placing more than a dozen pre-civil war military arsenals on a map of the United States to graphically illustrate the limitations of arms production in the Confederacy for his doctoral thesis. Or they can be complex, employing satellite imagery, sophisticated statistical interpolations and other tools one of our post-doctoral fellows has used to detect structural patterns of settlements in West Africa or Australian scholars have used to explore the place of Angkor Wat among Cambodian settlements.

On the whole, however, the skills needed to employ mapping, explore spatial relationships, and detect the distinctive characteristics of a place have become easier to use and more widely available. The software products are no longer the sole realm of computer code writers. They are much more affordable, often available at special rates for educators and/or educational institutions or in some cases, even available free.

Increasing access to GIS-compatible products not only facilitated their use in research, but also in the classroom. My personal journeys with GIS began in the realm of research, but as I learned the basics of spatial analysis, I increasingly saw the potential value of introducing my own students to elements of spatial perspectives, developing my own maps to introduce them to Asia, East Asia and Japan—places almost completely unfamiliar to them. In some cases, introduction of a spatial dimension meant simply introducing students to the ways in which different projections or positionings of the globe change the perceptions of the relative sizes of countries and continents. (Fig. 1 a, b and c).

Figure 1a
Figure 1b

Figures 1a and b show a world map and Western Hemisphere map with south at the top. I use these to introduce students to the idea that there is nothing particularly “natural” about the orientation and symbols of maps as most students know them, and to make the point that in the past, there was no fixed directional orientation to maps. (My main point concerns East Asia, but the observation applies in the West, too.) Students can also sense some of the impact of centering the main subject differently, as in this map reversing the dictum of portrait photography that the center of attention should focus about one/third to one-quarter down from the image top—assuming our center of interest is the land mass not the water!

Figure 1c is a bit more technical, but conveys to students the different effects that can be achieved by using different projections. I also use these images to convey to students that map images are always compromises: one can have relatively high accuracy in one element of the map, but there will be some other element that is less well represented or even poorly represented, and one must link a projection to the specific purpose that underlies creation of the map.

Figure 1c

In other instances, I constructed relief maps with GIS software to demonstrate for students that what appeared on most map images they see is, in fact, a gross oversimplification, a distortion. This is especially important for introducing mid-Western students used to endless stretches of wheat and corn to the fact that a “plain” in Japan, a very mountainous country, has a very different meaning than it does for the plains region of the United States. (Fig. 2a and b)

Figure 2a
Figure 2b

Figures 2 a and b show central Japan in a fairly typical projection of relatively high detail—relative to topographical maps most students see in atlases and textbooks. The Kanto Plain and Tokyo area are the large, flat region in the lower right quadrant of the two images. Figure 2a represents the Tokyo area as a plain in terms that most of my Midwestern students understand it. Figure 2b uses a more refined topographical sampling method (elevation points taken about every 250 meters as opposed to about every kilometer in Figure 2a). Students can appreciate that in many ways the Tokyo area is more like San Francisco than it is like the plains of central Ohio. It is only “flat” relative to the 12,000-foot high Mt. Fuji and the Japan Alps.

Figures 3a and b take this same point a bit further, zooming in on the second largest plain in Japan, the Echigo Plain on the opposite coast and slightly north of Tokyo. Using the same sampling method as in Figure 2b, Figure 3a suggests a relatively flat or gently sloping region. Yet when we zoom in on the Iwate region and use elevation samplings taken about every 50 meters, students can appreciate that there is considerable variation in elevation even within this area of a few square miles and no high mountains (the greatest elevation is 700 meters).

Figure 3a
Figure 3b

To date, my pedagogical use of mapping issues and GIS-generated maps has been limited to generating illustrations to familiarize my students with a part of the world that if very unfamiliar to them. As a secondary, but still very important result, students learn that maps, like essays, are interpretive expressions of the world they portray. I have not yet ventured into having students use GIS themselves. [2]

There are, however, a number of ways in which GIS can be structured to involve students actively in its uses, and that is the focus of the projects described in the essays that follow in this and the next issue of JAHC. This collection of papers had its origins in two workshops I put together for the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association/Meeting of the American Association for History and Computing in Atlanta, Georgia (January 4-7, 2007) based on a lecture series I initiated at The Humanities Institute of The Ohio State University. The first session, “Exploring Historical Space and Environments in the History/Social Studies Classroom I: Exemplary Approaches,” showcased a variety of ways in which GIS had been employed by teachers in their classrooms. Barry Robinson (Samford University), James S. Brown (Samford University), Martha Jones (University of Michigan), Laura Woodworth-Ney (Idaho State University) and Ruth Mostern (University of California at Merced) employed examples focused on Native American History, South African History, Mexican History, African-American History, US Women’s History and Chinese History. Presentations for the second session, “Exploring Historical Space and Environments in the History/Social Studies Classroom II: Getting Started, from Low Tech to High Tech,” explored some of the array of tools available for using GIS in the classroom and issues associated with setting up an appropriate environment in which to employ GIS. Presenters included Wendy Plotkin (Arizona State University), Geoff Cunfer (University of Saskatchewan) and Max Baber (then at Samford University, now at the University of California - Redlands).

Audience response at the AHA was extremely enthusiastic, with comments expressing interest in the broad array of different approaches, technologies, and pedagogical possibilities that presenters offered. The premise that underlay my organizing these panels—that historians would respond positively if they saw examples of GIS in problem contexts that were important to them—was well born out. In combination with the excitement generated as we discussed the projects among ourselves and with the audience, both panelists and audience quickly moved to discussions of how to present our work to an even broader audience through publication. Given the variety of images and volume of materials that authors want to share with readers, I have been especially pleased that David Staley, my colleague at The Ohio State University and Chair of the American Association for History and Computing, has been energetic and very helpful at all stages of this project. I have been very gratified that JAHC, and especially its editors, Deborah Andersen and Michelle Harper, have been enthusiastic in working with us to make our essays, lesson plans, and discussions available on-line, a format uniquely suited to the publishing challenges our materials present.

The essays that now comprise our collection retain the overall emphases of the two workshop panels—providing a broad historical/geographical array of real classroom examples of how GIS can contribute to the teaching of history and discussing issues in creating the environment that supports pedagogical use of GIS in the history classroom—but the specific essays draw on a somewhat different array of participants. On the one hand, schedules of some of the original participants did not permit them to develop their presentations into formal essays. On the other hand, publication gave me an opportunity to try to extend the reach of the essays. I was particularly interested in including participants who had used GIS in pre-collegiate social studies/history classrooms, community college programs, and graduate level programs. I am very pleased that I was able to make additions in each of these fields.

We begin with two examples of how GIS has been used in the classroom in college and university contexts. Wendy Plotkin, Stephanie Stegman, and Christopher Miller present a multimedia unit that employs GIS (and digital newspapers) to explore political, social, and cultural aspects of the migration to the Sunbelt in the U.S. after World War II. This particular unit has been tested at Arizona State University and taught at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and modified based on those experiences. In the course of their essay readers are introduced to ESRI's ArcExplorer. ArcExplorer is distinctive in being a freely-available tool—thus freeing the teacher from the question of cost—that allows limited manipulation of pre-created maps rather than the creation of new maps. Using ArcExplorer is thus part of an incremental approach that allows the students to become familiar with the GIS environment before they are asked to move to the more challenging task of creating their own maps. In practice, ArcExplorer does for GIS what Adobe Acrobat Reader has done for document transmission—provide a base tool for manipulation of the major file formats that more fully-featured software employs.

James Brown (no blood relationship between us of which either of us are aware—although the recent genetic linking of Barak Obama to Dick Cheney and other luminaries suggests this particular case may not yet be closed!) has been experimenting with ways to introduce college students to issues of space and place in historical study from the early stages of his career as a history professor. In an exercise that actually used physical map layers to introduce students to spatial relationships he anticipated one of the key features of GIS—the organization of data in map layers. Among other elements, his essay discusses application of Google Earth to some facets of the world history course that lies at the heart of his essay. He includes exemplary materials from the course unit on the Veracruz transportation corridor in Mexican history and the Durban to Johannesburg corridor from South African history.

The two remaining articles primarily address questions of implementing GIS for the classroom. Joshua Radinsky, Ben Loh and Jason Lukasik argue for a classroom-centered strategy for introducing GIS into a teaching environment. They base their work on the construction of their own historical GIS web site, GIS for History ( and generalize from that experience. Their work grows out of efforts to employ GIS in both collegiate and pre-collegiate U.S. History classes. One of the distinctive features of this project is its delivery of data and tools via the internet. The units available through GIS for History have all been classroom-tested and their observations are grounded in that extensive classroom contact.

Steven Branting, a consultant for gifted and innovative programs and a curriculum designer in Lewiston, Idaho, brings decades of on-the-ground experience to the use of GIS in pre-collegiate environments. He focuses on the relative benefits and costs of using two specific GIS software packages, ARCG is a fully-featured commercial GIS package, and MyWorld, a package developed at Northwestern University. Although methodologically focused, his essay provides samples of the kinds of lesson plans that have worked well in the past.

Throughout these four articles readers will find the traditional historian’s emphasis on careful documentation, exploration of historical context, and similar analytical skills. The projects they describe are all problem-based, asking students to resolve historical issues, reach conclusions, and develop meaningful interpretations of the data presented in the GIS and related environments of each project. There is a heavy emphasis on analyzing space and place, but in order to illuminate key elements of history as it unfolded in each of the contexts in which the authors have worked. While our discussions at the AHA and via e-mail over the past months note the value of GIS in advancing student presentation skills or its value in improving our own classroom presentations, the authors are less concerned with GIS “eye candy” and are fully focused on what GIS can bring to improving student analytical skills in historical study.


1. This statement greatly oversimplifies a diverse, and sometimes technical field. An array of specialties developed that now claim to a part of a broad, GIS-related effort known as Geographic Information Science (sometimes abbreviated GISc). For the purposes of this essay and this collection of essays, however, these more intricate matters are of little direct import. Recommendations for introductory readings in this and related fields will be included along with the second set of our JAHC essays.

2. I have introduced an honors research course that introduces students to the history of cartography, and some students have explored the development of GIS in their research papers for the class.