I did not know I was a maphead until halfway through college. While double majoring in music performance, I took an elective course in “Human Geography.” The course brushed the surface of the “where” of history; geopolitical studies paired with a few brief hands-on assignments using GIS software. I was hooked. I aced everything in that class and devoured every reading and assignment. The professor was the kind of person whose enjoyment of his subject was infectious. He also didn’t care if you didn’t care. What you got out of the class was up to you. I still remember the cozy room where the class was held and the giant wall decal map that challenged all my map experiences up until that point. The Dymaxion map from floor to ceiling was mesmerizing.
It was that semester that I decided I wanted to wrap myself up in the world of maps forever. I consulted the professor to see how to change my degree. Money ultimately prevented me from switching majors. I would have needed to stay a 5th year at a very expensive private collage without my scholarships in the final year. It was too daunting for me to consider that much debt.
My academic dreams came true when I enrolled in a masters program at Arizona State University a few years after graduating. I completed the masters program and now hold a MAS in Geographical Information Science. I received the Balling fellowship endowment for my final project during my studies. I worked for awhile in the field before finding my current calling caring for my children. It is a field that I am eager to wrap up in again when the time is right.
Hidden Map Love
That accidental course in Human Geography made me realize that I was always a maphead. My interest was not really developed or explored. As a child I remember drawing maps of my neighborhood, the roads I biked, and the places I went frequently. I adored those “Where’s Waldo” books. It was fun to find Waldo, though I spent most of my time looking at every detail of the “maps” with wonder. My parents would take the family on road trips and I remember loving the big road atlas they used for navigation when we would drive half the day or more. I would look at them closely with the different shades of color and the thick pink or yellow borders between state lines.
I was always confused by people who find it difficult to memorize the roads and landmarks around them. When I find myself in an unfamiliar city, I love consulting maps and committing to memory all necessary information to my immediate location. There always was a map lover in me, I just found it late.
Ken Jennings’ book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, let me nerd out and understand what makes a map lover tick. So much of what he said was relatable.
Ken also brought to my attention the dire situation of map literacy. Most people don’t know where major landmarks (like London, California) are on a map. The majority of people do not know how to read a map. Map literacy has taken such a back seat in the passing on of information to our kids. In the United States, a sharp decline in map literacy and interest in mapping has resulted disappearing mapping departments at colleges. Mapping is every subject combined into a wonderful, visual format. Mapping is the “where” of history. Maps convey history, geography, politics, environment, population, and so much more.
It’s misleading to think of geography as a single discipline at all. Instead it’s the ultimate interdisciplinary study, because it’s made up of every other discipline viewed spatially, through the lens of place. Language, history, biology, public health, paleontology, urban planning — there are geographers studying all these subjects and aspects of geography taught in all of them. – Maphead, p.46
My oldest child has taken a strong interest in maps. A friend bought us a wonderful atlas for kids as a parting gift when we left for Hawaii. It is drawn to look a bit old-timey, while capturing a child’s visual interest with pictures of animals, people, and wonders found in the areas on the map. Each page covers a piece of the globe in detail. We learn not just about geography and place names while reading, but about the things you can find if you visited there.
Map reading is incredibly eye opening and door opening. For my children, I wish to encourage the reading of maps, not just of books. Especially for them at their pre-reading age, pictures are everything. The information that is imparted through the enjoyment of a map is profoundly more than I could ever explain in words. Because of this, I have decided to grow our map library and read maps with my kids. We will explore, answer their questions, look up answers when we get stumped, and grow their map literacy from a young seedling.
In a future post, I will share some resources for encouraging map literacy and enjoyment in children (and adults). Maps, books, activities, and how to read maps with your child.