Geographic Literacy: Our Job Isn’t Finished

This week is Geography Awareness Week, a designation that started in 1987 via presidential proclamation to promote geographic literacy in education and in the general public.  Each GAW has a theme; this year’s is freshwater, which isn’t a terribly interesting topic to me personally.  But, as an educator and a geographer, geographic literacy is something I find to be quite important.

Many semesters, in one or more of my teaching affiliations, I am assigned sections of World Regional Geography.  This course, which typically emphasizes helping students achieve a broad familiarity with all areas of the world using the geographic perspective of space and place, is usually a difficult one to teach.  Quite simply, the goal of this course is to provide a baseline of geographic literacy for students as part of a broader university education.   However, there is just too much real estate and too many details to cover, and to do anything or anyplace some form of justice in coverage, the semester moves far too quickly.  Add to this that many students walk in believing that the geography course is nothing but the memorization of maps, and instructors of World Regional Geography have a real challenge on their hands.

Of course, we all know that maps are not the end-all, be-all of geography; far from it, maps are only a small part of what geographers do.  At the same time, though, maps are useful tools that are crucial, especially to beginning students, in helping represent the world and provide a basis for understanding the more interesting aspects of our field.  With all of this in mind, I’m bringing forth an activity that I do on the first day of every World Regional Geography course I teach.  After we go over the syllabus, I hand each student a blank piece of Hammermill copy paper and give them the following instructions:

  1. Draw a map of the world.
  2. Label what’s important.

The open-ended instructions serve several purposes.  First and foremost, it brings a wide variety of responses, displaying the full range of geographic literacies amongst members of the class.  In this way, it’s a proxy, giving me a general idea what hand I’ve been dealt, so to speak, and what knowledges I have in the classroom to build upon.  Of course, as we already said, maps aren’t everything, but letting students draw one from scratch gives us a pretty decent idea what’s in their brains.  Secondly, it gives me a nice segue into an introductory lecture about what geography is, what the course is going to be, and so forth.

Sometimes, I get a few fantastic maps.  Usually, they’re somewhat putrid, as could be expected from a group of folks who’ve (perhaps) never had a class stressing anything approaching geographic literacy.  What’s interesting, though, is to look at these maps and read a bit more into them.

What you’ll see below is a few samples from a composite set of students in my World Regional Geography courses since 2008.  In that time, I’ve taught around 650 students in those courses at three campuses of two universities, all of which were in Northeast Ohio.  From there, I’m keeping all other details moot.  I’ve categorized these maps according to what I think they display, and provided some comments.  Click on any image for a bigger one.

The Really Rough

Sure, I said a lot of these maps are bad.  But there are many different kinds of bad, ranging from having no idea about much of anything on the earth’s surface, to having obviously heard of places before but just having no idea where those places are.  Let’s start with the roughest, and work our way to better ones.

No specificity of any places

Some knowledge of just the United States, identifying Canada, but nothing else

We’ve got continents, but they’re nowhere near the right places.

Lots of places identified, but they’re all a mess.

Africa’s to our south, and Mexico is connected to the US by the Panama Canal.

This person second guessed themselves…

And this one apparently had ice cream cones in mind that day.

Missing Continents Not Named Atlantis –

I think it’s really interesting to look at some of these maps and notice that, apparently, in the minds of some of these folks, a few billion people just don’t exist.

In some cases, we only get North America

In other cases, we only get the western hemisphere

Missing both Africa and Asia was surprisingly common.

In fact, Africa was the most common omission.

Sometimes Africa was joined in its disappearance by Europe, South America and Australia.

Yes, believe it or not, Europe even disappeared… more often than Australia or Antarctica, in fact.

Peculiarities and Oddities –

Sometimes, what shows up on these maps… well, it leaves you scratching your head, or just in wonder.

This one was submitted by a Chinese student.  I found it refreshing the difference of detail, and how fuzzy the Americas were.

We now know how to get to Brandon’s house.  We also have the International Space Station and Mars as points of reference… but no Europe.

This student had already labeled bodies of water as the Atlantic and the Pacific, and hence didn’t exactly know what to call that expanse between Europe and North America.

Ahh, Texas… the testicles of the United States.  And Russia is Dumbo’s geographic incarnation.

One recurring theme with this assignment is the usage of insets for Alaska and Hawaii, common on U.S. maps, even when they’re unnecessary.  Are we doing an adequate job of explaining exactly how maps represent the earth if this kind of confusion runs rampant?

We’ve got another Alaskan inset, but notice the very thick border to separate Mexico from the U.S.?

Intentionally Funny –

Some students try to have a little fun with their maps.  I give them props.

This one provides the location of Viking Land and the Bermuda Triangle

The location of Hogwart’s (complete with a game of quidditch).

Tom Hanks and Wilson, marooned in the southern Atlantic

Some rather blunt descriptions of places, including a patriotic motif for the U.S.

Some Pretty Good Ones! –

Just when you’re about to bang your head into the wall, declaring that there is no reason to bother, you get a few like these that give you a glimmer of hope, and keep you fighting the good fight, preaching the gospel of geography to another semester of young minds.

So, there you have it.  Though some of our students come into our classrooms with a pretty good geographic literacy, we should be AWARE (haha) this week that many more of our students are in need of that exposure.   If some students are capable of constructing decent representations of the earth on the first day of class, then every student in the room is potentially capable of doing the same thing, with a little help.  For the future generations to become productive and contributing citizens of the world, we need to help bring our students to a better familiarity with the world around them…. which coincidentally enough, is what Geography Awareness Week is all about.

Geographic literacy is a so important that we must not lose focus on that objective, we must realize that our job is never finished, but that our job isn’t impossible if we work together all levels of educators to emphasize its importance.  And then, if we keep working at it, I’ll get more students with maps like those at the bottom of this entry than those at the top…. and I’ll be able to bring in far more details to understanding the world than just the basics.

Program Note:

This is going to be my last blog for until at least next week.  I’m defending my dissertation tomorrow morning, and I’ll be taking the weekend off to relax and enjoy (hopefully) being completely finished.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

4 thoughts on “Geographic Literacy: Our Job Isn’t Finished”

  1. My guess is that the maps that are listed last (Some Pretty Good Ones) are done by the older students? There seems to be an age cut off where people just don’t know that much about geography, including labeling the 50 states. Age 28 perhaps?

  2. I finally got around to reading this entry (and I was so looking forward to it!). I love how in that one map Ohio is in between New Hampshire and Connecticut. Apparently Ohio is more east coast than I realized! I did a geographic literacy project when I was in undergrad. I made a survey that mimicked National Geographic’s and administered it to 200 UNH students. It was pretty telling that even though you have some college education, most people still do not know basic geographic facts. Push for geographic education! It’s more important than most of us realize.

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