Assignment Ideas: Maps

Making maps is an exercise in pattern recognition. In order for students to build a successful map they must make rhetorically savvy choices in response to audience demands, and interrogate assumptions about themselves and the communities in which they live. Cartography projects are networked and recursive, enabling students to work both independently and collaboratively to plot the geography of literary and fictional spaces. Furthermore, because digital maps often live well beyond the boundaries of the classroom, students may experience feedback/revision loops via analytics through these projects.


Google Map Maker. Google mapmaker is the standard digital tool used for digital cartography.

Google Lit Trips provides a project archive, project suggestions, a list of current literary-geography events, and tech help services.


Moretti, Franco. "Graphs, Maps, Trees."

What do literary maps do . . . First, they are a good way to prepare a text for analysis. You choose a unit — walks, lawsuits, luxury goods, whatever — find its occurrences, place them in space . . . or in other words: you reduce the text to a few elements, and abstract them, and construct a new, artificial object. A model. And at this point you start working at a ‘secondary’ level, removed from the text: a map, after all, is always a look from afar — or is useless, like Borges’s map of the empire. Distant reading, I have called this work elsewhere; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns.

Mapping House of Leaves. Mark Sample's House of Leaves project assignment is a useful model for a potential sequence, as well as the role visualization/digital rhetoric plays in cartographic projects.

A “map” does not necessarily have to be a cartographic map; in fact, the last thing I want is a faithful map of all the “places” in the novel. Rather, by “map” I mean a model: an abstract visual representation of some element of the novel that captures its complexity and reveals a pattern or set of relations that a straightforward reading might overlook. The concentric circles we might draw circumscribing the hierarchy of narrative voices in House of Leaves is one example of a “map,” although for the purposes of this inquiry, that map oversimplifies narrative relations.

David Morgen adapted this assignment for his ENG101 class at Emory in Fall 2012 and had his students map the graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Students created maps like this one:

In his "Intro to Digital Humanities" course at Emory, Fall 2012, Brian Croxall asked his students to map the movements of characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Each group produced a map with the following:

  • 10-12 “points of interest.” Each point of interest should be marked by relevant quotations from the text, including page numbers for reference. A point of interest could include (but is not limited to):
    • an exact location given in the narrative
    • pictures of an exact or approximate location
    • pictures of historical figures mentioned in the text at that exact or approximate location
    • links to relevant audio files, video, or other websites relevant to an exact or approximate location or a particular portion of text
  • At least one path following the movements of the assigned character.
  • The location of any public clocks heard or noted by the assigned character.

Brian provides an archive of student map projects created in his Emory classrooms, as well as the assignment sequence for the group digital map project. The site also includes project specific assessment guidelines, and links to other mapping activities, including a similar assignment designed by Erin Sells that Brian adapted for his class.

In her post at The Arcades, Kathryn Crowther provides links to her presentation at MLA about her digital mapping assignment sequence in her FYC course at Georgia Tech: “Literary London.” She asks her students to 

zoom in on an element of the literary text and develop a project that communicates an “argument” in a primarily visual fashion.  It is okay to incorporate other methods of communication (accompanying text, voice-over, digital medium) but the central mode should be visual communication. Think about your project as a “resource” that could be used to teach the text you are mapping – you might consider embedding your map(s) in a larger stand alone resource such as a website. 

Sometimes maps look like land maps but actually represent connections (and disconnections) between ideas. Here is one example from xkcd:

Other examples of conceptual maps from xkcd: Movie Narrative Charts, a cancer treatment map, radiation dose chart, the partisan and ideological makeup of Congress over time, and Subways of North America.

Here are "The Best Movies of All Time" illustrated in the form of a subway map. And here is the history of Rock and Roll visualized as a metro map.

Mapping Choose Your Own Adventure Texts is not an assignment, but the site provides links to a variety of different visualizations of Choose Your Own Adventure texts that might serve as useful models for such assignments.

The Map of Early Modern London. In this large-scale project, students played a role in writing the entries for the map. The site includes a page with links to graduate seminars that use the maps, as well as a graduate level assignment. This project is a great example of ways map projects integrate primary evidence and enable collaborative/crowdsourced work beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

Derek Bruff's teaching and technology blog includes a category of posts on teaching with maps. Also, concept maps, debate maps, or flow charts. His Prezi on Teaching with Visual Engagement Techniques recommends that we ask students to map relationships among data and among ideas.

Further Reading

“The New Media Writer as Cartographer.” C&C 28(2011): 303-14. In his article Christopher Schmidt outlines the theoretical discussion surrounding maps in the FYC, and discusses a digital cartography sequence he taught at the University of Michigan. The article has some helpful sources such as “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” a map/story project written in Google maps. Furthermore, Schmidt discusses ways maps and map projects help showcase and integrate primary research materials into the writing classroom.