How do we build a cartography class?

By Katie Kowalsky | December 1, 2014

Andy Woodruff, of Axis Maps, posted about NACIS the annual Cartography conference and how to build a cartography class here. I had a few thoughts of my own about how to build a cartography class for the 21st century.

Cartography is a weird field as it blends geography, computer programming, and graphic design. There’s not one way to teach a class for it to be successful for every student, but I worry that the current way of having lecture and lab as two separate entities is a bad thing.

Andy Woodruff references Denis Wood’s argument against academic cartography and how it’s about doing rather than learning. Through the myriad of classes I’ve taken for my degree, I’ve learned formal definitions for a map, about projections, UI/UX design, and geographic principles. When I’m not working on my undergraduate degree in Cartography/GIS, I work at the UW Cart Lab. It’s through my job as a production cartographer that I’ve learned the most about cartography. The atmosphere of an academic work place for cartography is what I’ve come to realize is the closest we’ve gotten to a successful blend of the How? and What? Andy mentions.

Through independent client work and our weekly Cart Lab Education Series (CLES), I’ve learned so much about my field. Any class can make you use Adobe Illustrator or ArcGIS, but being in a collaborative community like the Cart Lab has taught me how to actually use it in an efficient and useful way. I think about why I use certain colors, typefaces, and datasets way more than I ever did in lecture. I’ve loved my cartography classes, don’t get me wrong, but the amount of information can be so exhausting and takes a lot more than a semester to fully absorb.

Through doing mapping in a less formal but still academic community may be the key to bridging this gap we face in cartography. The Cart Lab doesn’t exist everywhere unfortunately, but luckily we have these amazing communities called Maptime all around the world that help us do the How? of cartography while also giving brief lessons about What? in a beginner friendly atmosphere. Cartography in school should be accessible and not be so bloated by academia that it becomes a cold and ‘ivory tower’ environment.

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