Reading Geography Formative Assignment
Course: Orbis Terrarum: The Medieval World was a Globe
Course Type: First-Year Writing Seminar
Semester: Spring 2018
Description: This assignment, several four times during the semester, was intended to assess the development of students’ analytical skills while offering them the opportunity to process course materials through multiple modalities.
At the end of four key sections of primary source readings, I assigned students to review the texts and make an assessment of the global geography that the materials described. I asked them to note major geographic features, and to draw a map or picture based solely on the source materials. For this exercise I required students to pretend that they knew nothing about global geography beyond what they had learned from the readings, and to draw the world accordingly. Finally, I asked them to look at the map that they had drawn and describe what the map might tell a naive reader — in fine, they had to assess what kind of geographic arguments their map posed. I provided students with a worksheet to help them organize their observations and draw the world that they perceived:
Students brought their completed worksheets to the next class period, and I randomly divided students into teams (3-4 students per team). Each team had compare their notes and maps, and come to a consensus about the shape of the world in the text. They then worked together to draw a map or picture on the whiteboard. We then discussed each of the the maps as a class, considering similarities and differences and talking through the ways that the texts’ geographic descriptions make assumptions and claims about the world. I pushed the class to consider what the maps showed as important, what elements disappeared that they would have expected to see, and how map readers could be influenced by the way the world was presented. By the end of the term students were beginning to ask these questions of the literary geographies they encountered, and from there had started to think more broadly about textual argumentation.
After the first iterations of this assignment, teams needed to incorporate geographic knowledge from earlier course readings as well as from their most recent assignments, eventually drawing a map that included ideas from across the semester’s readings.
Learning Objectives: As a result of completing this assignment, students will be able to visualize textual geographies, and analyze those geographies’ implicit and explicit arguments.
Rationale: I set this assignment for five main reasons:
- To give close reading practice. This class was comprised of first-year students, mostly from the pre-engineering program, with little experience in reading primary sources. Asking them to pay attention to the specific geographic features in the texts offered them a loosely structure to aid them in beginning to understand how to read texts closely and critically.
- To provide practice in identifying textual arguments. My students have generally been unaccustomed to the idea that texts — written or visual — can make arguments. Getting them to see the visual arguments present in maps is a useful step in getting them to understand that written sources can also carry arguments. Because they draw these maps from their readings, it becomes easier for learners to make this step.
- To assess student progress in developing the above skills. Student responses to these assignments let me see where I needed to direct time and attention going forward.
- To demonstrate the historical accretion of ideas. The iterative nature of this assignment asks students to consider how knowledge is built, and how later medieval writers worked with competing geographies from Classical and Biblical texts.
- To engage multiple modes of learning. The assignment requires learners to render their textual understanding in visual form. This helps with retention by asking students to reproduce notes in graphic form, and it offers visual learners another means of processing the reading. Further, the in-class elements of the assignment let students present and reproduce the material through discussion and kinetic activities that help kinesthetic and auditory learners to connect with the lesson.
Outcome Examples: I am including here pictures from the first two iterations of this activity, to give a sense for the activity’s process and outcomes.* The first set of images reflect the students’ understanding of the geography presented in the Genesis creation story. The second set show the addition of geography from a series of Classical writers, including Plato, Strabo, and Eratosthenes. Click on any image thumbnail to see each set as a separate gallery.
The World According to Biblical Sources
The World According to Both Classical and Biblical Sources
* I have received permission from all students in these pictures to include their images.