Month: May 2014

The Map as the Original Infographic

Harrison's Map Europe from the Southwest

If ideologies are world views, then maps are, quite literally, ideological since they depict different visions of the world. As frequent users of GPS who take maps for granted as a means of getting from here to there, we probably do not stop to think much about cartography in this way. And if we were to stop and think about cartography, as children of the Enlightenment, many of us would probably argue reflexively that maps are objective representations of the world around us.

But in many ways, maps are subjective because they depend on decisions made by cartographers. Most obviously, mapmakers are confronted by the problem of what to leave in and what to leave out. In the same way that no history can represent the past in its entirety, no map can fully depict a given piece of territory. The decision about what to leave in, of course, is influenced by the use to which the map will be put–but the times and context within which the map is produced also play a role. Since all of these factors constantly mutate, maps change regularly. These changes do not necessarily have anything to do with new knowledge (e.g. the discovery of the New World). To use the analogy with history again, most important changes do not occur because of new knowledge; rather, they occur because existing information is reinterpreted or represented in new ways. This constant change in mapmaking points to the fact that maps—like just about everything else—have a history.

All of these ruminations are a long introduction to the following interesting article that recently appeared in the New Republic:

This article about Richard Edes Harrison’s work highlights the extent to which World War II created a demand among the American public for a new representation of the globe. As the article states, Harrison rejected traditional Mercator projection in favor of representations that restored the “spherical dimension to the map.” Harrison’s maps “emphasized relationships between cities, nations, and continents at the heart of war.” “National borders,” the article continues, “were secondary to regional configurations, and the viewer was forced to reckon strategically with the complex terrain.”

If Harrison’s maps are fascinating, equally fascinating are his critics who charged that his work “was more propagandistic than pictorial and reliable, governed by caricatures of the globe rather than fidelity to latitude and longitude.”  For sure, Harrison’s maps were not “accurate,” and they were subjective in their way. Clearly, his maps were political. The angles he chose and the way in which he represented geography had important political consequences. To take one example, look at the map of “Europe from the Southwest.” It represents, in a way that Mercator projection cannot, the rugged nature of  Southern European geography and graphically explains the difficulties of invading Hitler’s empire from the Mediterranean (a project with which the British were enamored). Moreover, by representing all the theaters of war in his maps as knowable, he maps appeared to promise limitless imperial possibilities to the American public. As the New Republic points out, “in redrawing the map of the world, Harrison contributed to a reconsideration of America’s role in that world.” Before we condemn Harrison (who considered himself an “artist” rather than a mapmaker) as some kind of propagandist, we ought to remember that his way of seeing the world conveyed “an understanding of perspective and direction” that a traditional “two-dimensional sense of geography” could not.

It is in this context that we ought to return to the idea that by leaving some things in and some things out, maps tell a story and push a particular point of view. In many ways, Harry Beck’s iconic map of the London Underground, which first appeared in 1933 (six years before Harrison started making his maps), is immediately relevant.

Beck's Tube Map 1933

If Harrison’s training as a designer led him to portray the world as he did, Beck’s training as an engineering draftsman surely played a role in the conception of his map which resembled an electrical circuit diagram. Beck’s model, which has become the basis for every London Underground map since, did not bother to render distances and geography accurately (the only surface feature retained was the Thames River). In fact, it was utterly useless for navigating London above ground. Rather, the map was supposed to help people navigate the Underground with a minimum of bother, and it served that purpose admirably. Beck’s famous map (like Harrison’s) also worked as propaganda. Its sleekness and simplicity promised easy and efficient travel. It made the Underground, which at this point was about 70 years old, seem modern and elegant. In much the same way that Harrison sought to highlight significant geographical relationships, Beck stressed crucial rail connections. To accomplish their ends, both played fast and loose with a naturalistic or realistic view of the world. In so doing, both pressed home the extent to which maps are nothing more than infographics by a different name.

Such a point may seem obvious, but it is worth stressing because the “infographic” is still something of a new word that has only recently escaped from being considered a neologism (One Thing after Another‘s spellchecker still does not recognize it). As we move through the information technology revolution, we often think that we have produced unprecedented tools to deal with unprecedented difficulties in sorting information. Indeed, we believe that much these days is new or cutting-edge. Yet people have been trying to separate the signal from the noise in graphically striking ways (which is what infographics do) for centuries. Maps have participated heavily in that process. To take one example, Charles Minard (1781-1870), a French civil engineer, made extremely important contributions to this development with a series of maps about economic activity and historical events. His famous Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813 (1869) is widely considered a classic of the genre.

Minard Retreat from Russia

Edward Tufte’s famous work, The Visual Displays of Quantitative Information (1983), claims that Minard’s map “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” It simultaneously captures six different variables: the diminishing size of Napoleon’s army; the longitude of the army; the latitude of the army; the direction in which the army traveled; the location of the army at certain times; and the temperature at certain times and places during its retreat. Contemporaries were most struck by the graphic depiction of the Grande Armée’s destruction in Russia’s frozen wastes. Étienne-Jules Marey claimed the map “defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence.”

Or why not look at this map of Civil War-era Louisiana, recently featured in the New York Times‘ Opinionator:

Louisiana Map

The accompanying article does a wonderful job of analyzing and contextualizing this map, used by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commander of the Department of the Gulf:

Only a few rivers and railways were included, while roads as well as any geographical information were entirely omitted. Instead, only parish boundaries, along with statistics about population and agricultural resources were included. Why did the Federal government produce such a map? Because it was determined to exploit Louisiana’s full manpower and economic potential as it “reconstructed” the state in the midst of war.

Infographics, then, are nothing new. If this meandering discussion about maps has any broader significance, it lies in the fact that much of what we see as novel is anything but. Indeed, as Harry Truman once claimed, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

Eckilson Wins Chancellor’s Award, Off to Teach for PACT

Justin Eckilson Chancellor's Medal 3

Justin Eckilson ’14 (Woonsocket, RI), a History major and French minor, was honored repeatedly at year’s end. Graduating summa cum laude, Eckilson won the History Department Award, the Fr. Stephen E. Parent, OSB Award, Delta Epsilon Sigma, Tau Chapter, and the Chancellor’s Award for the highest GPA in the graduating class. One Thing after Another was tempted to entitle this post “Eckilson Cleans House” or “Eckilson Hits Home Run,” but doing so would not be in keeping with Eckilson’s essential modesty. One Thing after Another caught up with this remarkable, newly minted alum shortly after graduation and let him tell his own story.

Q: What brought you to Saint Anselm College? When and why did you decide to become a history major?

I went to a small, Catholic high school and wanted a similar environment in college. I was drawn to Saint Anselm College because of its vibrant sense of community, close student-faculty relationships, and, most important, its strong academic reputation. My four years at Saint A’s have exceeded my expectations in these regards. I cannot speak highly enough of the students, faculty, staff, and overall education I found at Saint A’s. I have become a better student because of the rigorous academic coursework and the dedicated faculty and staff. I initially entered college as an undeclared major, unsure of what I wanted to do. I always liked history in high school, so I signed up for history courses my freshman year. I liked the classes and the professors so much that I became a history major at the beginning of my sophomore year and have never looked back. For me, studying history is extremely important because no event, no person, no place develops in a vacuum. Everything happens within a context, and in history, we are able to study, understand, and analyze those contexts. Not only does studying history give us the tools to understand the past, it helps us to understand the present. Current events, like historical events, exist within a context, and we need historical thinking and awareness to make sense of these current events. In a broad sense, history allows us to understand what was, what is, and what will be.

Q: You did a number of history-related internships during your time here. What were they, and what were your responsibilities?

During my time at Saint A’s, I had history-related internships with the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a unit of the National Park Service in southern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island; the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, RI, a museum that covers the industrial and Franco-American heritage of the city; and the Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Art Center, the art gallery right on campus. At the Heritage Corridor, I worked on a nation-wide NPS program that sought to tell local Civil War stories through the use of Civil War Trading War. The Corridor created five trading cards of important Civil War figures from the Blackstone River Valley, which included abolitionist, reformer, and suffragist Abby Kelley Foster and soldier Elisha Hunt Rhodes, best known for his diary used extensively in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. I researched the Blackstone Valley’s Civil War history and helped develop public programming to incorporate the trading cards and Civil War history into walking tours, lectures, and other events. At the Museum of Work Culture, I did archival and collections management work and compiled a permanent collection database for the museum. Finally, I spent two semesters with the Chapel Art Center working on conservation, management, and research of its permanent art collection that includes paintings, works on paper, and objects. This past Spring, I helped with the Chapel Art Center’s exhibitions, as one of three student who curated the Student Selects exhibitions that allowed Saint A’s students to respond to works from the permanent collection. I also did research at the College Archives on Fr. Raphael Pfisterer and the Studio of Christian Art for the upcoming exhibitions relating to art at Saint A’s. All of these internships have given me experiences that will be extremely valuable moving forward and allowed me to explore a wide variety of historically based careers.

Q: What is the Father Stephen E. Parent OSB Award?

The Father Stephen E. Parent OSB Award is an award given by the campus Tau Chapter of Delta Epsilon Sigma to a member of the honors society who displays excellence of mind and concern for others, attributes of Father Stephen Parent. I was inducted into Delta Epsilon Sigma my junior year and am very honored to have received this award!

Q: You are now heading off to serve in the Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers (PACT). How did you get interested in teaching? What is this program and how does it work? Where will you be teaching?

For the majority college career, I wanted to be a museum curator. My goal trajectory changed at the end of my junior year because of a Winter Break Alternative trip, where I had the opportunity to work with poor and vulnerable populations, especially children, in Camden, NJ. During our week in Camden, we volunteered in a daycare for children whose families were struggling financially. While here, I came to realize that those who need the enrichment that a museum can provide—these children—cannot access the museum because of their socioeconomic circumstances. As a curator, I would only be reaching those who have the abilities and resources to be reached. As a teacher, however, I could bring the museum to children like those I encountered in Camden. I decided that teaching history—sharing my love of history and all the lessons it provides—was the best way I could continue to serve others and reach those who need it most. The PACT Program at Providence College provided me with the perfect opportunity to do just that.

The PACT Program is a two-year graduate program at Providence College built on the concept of service through teaching. PACT is an initial teacher licensure program and is especially designed for college graduates like me who didn’t major or minor in education but are interested in making the shift to teaching. During the summers, I will be completing coursework toward a Masters of Education, and during the academic year, I will be serving as a full-time teacher in a Catholic school in southern New England. At the end of the two years, I will have a Masters of Education from Providence College and two years teaching experience, which is really amazing. I will be teaching middle school social studies (grades 5–8) at St. Michael School in Fall River, MA for the next two years. I will begin my graduate coursework on June 4 and then teaching at the end of August, so I will be hitting the ground running again, but I am excited to start!

Q: One Thing after Another was surprised to learn that Woonsocket refers to itself as “La ville la plus française aux États-Unis” and was impressed to see that it was Nap Lajoie’s hometown. What do you like most about Woonsocket?

Woonsocket has a rich industrial and cultural history which can be seen everywhere in the city. Textile mills line the Blackstone River, and French-Canadian last names and vestiges of the Franco-American past abound. Woonsocket was a manufacturing center and has a powerful Franco-American identity due to immigration to work in the textile mills of the city—two things in which the city takes pride. My dad is something of an amateur Woonsocket historian, so my sisters and I have always been aware of the city’s history, heritage, and legacy. For my entire life, I have been surrounded by the city’s industrial heritage and Franco-American identity. I guess living in Woonsocket has been formative in my decision to study history and French.

The Importance of the Hole in Phineas Gage’s Head

Phineas Gage

On September 18, 1848, near Cavendish, Vermont, Phineas Gage, a construction foreman working for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, was badly injured in a freak accident. As his crew attempted to form a railroad cut through some hard rock, Gage packed gunpowder in a blasting hole with an iron rod (known in the trade as a “tamping iron”). Somehow, a spark set off an explosion that drove the tamping iron (3 feet, 7 inches long and 1 ¼ inches in diameter) into Gage’s open mouth, through the left frontal lobe of his brain, and out the roof of his skull. The metal rod landed 80 feet away, smeared with Gage’s blood and brains. Although he suffered much and almost died, the hardy Gage made a miraculous recovery and, to quote this fascinating article in Slate, passed into history as “neuroscience’s most famous patient.”

This article, which focuses on the history of science, reveals much about the weaknesses of both historians and scientists. The image of the real, post-accident Gage was distorted by two, interacting forces. First, in an attempt to peddle his own pet theories about the way the brain worked, the doctor who treated Gage proved rather cavalier with the facts when it came time to assess the impact of the accident on Gage’s mental state. Second, in later years, historians and psychologists carelessly accepted the testimony of this doctor and proved too lazy to look at all of the available evidence. They merely passed on received wisdom about Gage without interrogating it because it fit their preconceptions. Supposedly, the accident turned Gage from a hard-working, conscientious foreman into a dangerous, drunken wanderer. From this perspective, Gage “was no longer Gage.” Gage literally became a textbook example of what happens when somebody’s frontal lobe is traumatized. Neuroscientists and psychologists have come to believe that the frontal lobes are associated with impulse control and planning (among other things), so they were all too willing to accept that damage to this part of the brain could lead to a fundamental and irreversible transformation of one’s personality. Eventually, the lesson they perpetuated was that “the frontal lobes house our highest faculties; they’re the essence of our humanity, the physical incarnation of our highest cognitive powers.” When this part of our brain is damaged, so the argument goes, a part of our humanity disappears.

As one scholar, Malcolm Macmillan, points out in the article, “once you have a myth of any kind . . . it’s damn near impossible to get it destroyed.” This dictum is especially true for textbooks because “textbook writers are a lazy lot.” Perhaps a more charitable explanation is that textbook writers cannot be experts in all they survey, but Macmillan’s main point still stands. Macmillan’s recent research seems to indicate that Gage “resumed something like a normal life,” carried out “highly skilled” tasks, and “recovered some of his lost mental functions.” Recently discovered photographs of Gage (one found in 2009, the other in 2010–the latter is shown above) taken in 1849 reveal a disfigured but handsome, confident, and well-dressed man. In other words, Gage was not fundamentally transformed for the worse by his unfortunate accident.

The most significant point about this story is not that Phineas Gage was slandered (although it is surely worth contemplating how hard it can be on an individual to serve as a symbol or case study for others). Even more important, scholars’ inattention and lack of curiosity have imprisoned them in paradigms about the brain that might not be altogether true. Their preconceptions shaped the evidence, and the evidence reinforced their preconceptions. These understandings of the brain might very well have prevented suffering people from obtaining the help they need. If Gage could bounce back without rehabilitation or therapy, his story provides a “powerful message of hope” for others who have suffered damage to their frontal lobes (e.g., stroke victims, those plagued by Alzheimer’s, and veterans who have undergone brain trauma). As Macmillan has pointed out elsewhere, if Gage could achieve such improvement without medical supervision, “what are the limits for those in formal rehabilitation programs?”

The strange case of Phineas Gage (who, incidentally, was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire) teaches us something important about history. Historians and scientists, like all other people, are inclined to see what they want to see. Seeing what they are inclined to see often means accepting the conventional wisdom in their fields. This kind of mental laziness, however, is in constant tension with the dynamic nature of both fields, which demand and often witness perpetual re-investigation of familiar arguments and data. Our natural inertia, then, conflicts with our curiosity and our ambition to say something new and interesting. It took over 160 years for a historian to recreate and rescue Phineas Gage. In some cases, the wheels of history grind onward slowly, but the nature of the discipline is such that they always grind onward.

Salerno is Now a Full Professor

Beth Korea headshot (2)

Associate Professor Beth Salerno has received word that she has been promoted to full Professor effective  Fall 2014.  One Thing After Another found her grading final exams and asked a few questions.

Q: Congratulations on the promotion!  What does it mean to be a full Professor?

A: Thanks! Academic  titles are a bit of a hold-over from the middle ages when teaching was governed by guilds. One moves through the ranks of Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and full Professor (though students generally call anyone teaching in a college classroom “Professor”). There isn’t any difference in terms of workload – for instance I’ll teach the same number of classes after promotion as before. But promotion is an acknowledgement that a person has made a significant contribution to their field in teaching, research and service.  And there is usually a nice raise!

Q: Was it a complicated process?

A: It is not complicated, though it does take a surprisingly long time. I applied in November after making sure I had the support of the other members of the history department. Then I had to collect letters of recommendation. First, I needed three historians off-campus to write an evaluation of my scholarship and research. Then five colleagues on campus outside the history department agreed to write letters of support stressing that I had been a good campus citizen (serving on committees, mentoring younger faculty, or performing other service). Finally ten alumni agreed to write evaluations of my teaching and interactions with students.

Q: That must be a bit of a turn around – having former students write letters of recommendation?

A: I think it is one of the best parts of the process. I really enjoyed catching up with these alumni from 2006-2013. Students really count on faculty members to know them well and write letters of recommendation that are thoughtful, honest, and highlight their best characteristics and skills. The promotion process asks faculty to rely on alumni to do the same thing for us. I was really honored that the ten former students I asked stepped up. Of course I did not get to read any of the letters, but they must have done a good job!

Q: So what happens from here?

A: Critics joke that once a faculty member achieves full professor, they simply sit back and do nothing since there are no more promotion committees to go through!  There are people like that, but most professors I know just keep setting goals and reaching for them. For me, the immediate goal is writing, giving and grading final exams! After the semester ends, I’ll be working on a research project that will keep me busy all next year – a biography of Mary Clark (1791-1841), a New Hampshire abolitionist and textbook writer. I will be on sabbatical, which means I’ll be away from the College on a grant that lets me focus on writing. After that, I’ll be back to teach some old favorites like New England History and some new courses for the new curriculum. I’m delighted to have been given a stamp of approval by my colleagues, the President, and Board of Trustees at the College. But in the end the excitement of making history real for a group of students or the readers of my books is what really keeps me going.

If You Want to Be a Dentist, Major in History

eric ricci photo

It happens in the classroom, in office hours, in advising, at Open Houses, at Admissions events, before job interviews, in letters of recommendation, and in public conversation. . . . In all these places we talk with students, parents, and employers about the value of a liberal arts education.

While we stress the crucial personal, civic, and employment values of critical thinking, clear writing, data analysis, and information literacy, students often want to know: will it get me a job? Shouldn’t I pick something my parents will value?

If your parents want you to be happy, and they want you to make money, it turns out the liberal arts are a very good choice.

A 2011 study of liberal arts college graduates found that they rated their education more highly than any other group of students in three areas:  preparing them for their first job, gaining admission to graduate school, and readying them for life’s challenges. You can find a summary of the results here:

This year the American Association of Colleges and Universities explored career incomes and once again found the value of the liberal arts confirmed. The study looked at the incomes of humanities and social science majors, science and engineering majors and pre-professional majors (business and education primarily). It found that while earnings at a first job were higher for those in science and pre-professional fields, the income disparity got smaller and smaller over time, such that only engineering majors were likely to have significantly higher “prime-year” incomes than other majors.  A summary of the results is here:

Finally we often tell students that while there are some obvious jobs you can get with a history major, all kinds of employers value the skills, the breadth, and the passion you can develop in a history major.  Eric Ricci ’10 is a great example.  But we’ll let him tell you that story.  Eric wrote us:

“I am fairly certain that I am the only history major from Saint Anselm to ever become a dentist! After St. A’s, I completed a Master’s degree in Biology at Rhode Island College and am now a dental student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston.

Despite choosing such a different career path, being a history major at Saint Anselm has helped me in both getting accepted to dental school and subsequently succeeding academically. Terms like ‘Phi Alpha Theta’ and ‘Bachelor of Arts in History’ helped me stand out as a unique applicant when applying to dental schools. The acceptance rate for Tufts Dental is approximately 5%; in my interview they told me they were looking for well-rounded applicants and that being a history major was one of the reasons I received an interview. After admission, the next hurdle was being able to complete the academic work for the next four years. Being a history major made this part slightly easier for a few reasons. The majority of any medical or dental program contains a lot of reading, being able to quickly decipher important information, and finally, being able to memorize that information. In this sense, my Saint Anselm education helped tremendously. My highest section on the DAT (Dental Admission Test) exam was the reading comprehension. This skill that I learned while reading historical texts at St. Anselm has made ‘surviving’ in dental school just that much more manageable.”

Eric has offered to be of help to any history student who might want a career in dentistry or medicine.  If you post a comment, we’ll be happy to connect you.

If you are interested in any other kind of work, keep an eye on the blog.  We might well have a history alum who does that job!