“Maps at their core are a representation of the real world,” says Nathan Burtch, GIS specialist at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. This semester he, Assistant Professor Eugenio Arima, and Rob Beutner, instructional technologist, are team-teaching a Reader’s College class about spatial literacy, the concept of being able to understand, interpret, read and think of data in a spatial manner, whether it is data plotted on a map or graph, sketches, or even pictorial directions on how to put together a bookcase.
The course titled “Lying with Maps: Understanding, Interpreting, and Defining Where” focuses on how maps cannot tell the whole truth. “It is impossible to show all the minute complexity of the world on a map,” explains Burtch. “The mapmaker must generalize what is on the map and leave off other data. Our purpose in this course is to teach that you must not only interpret what is being shown, but also what is not being shown on a map.”
“This class is about people interacting with and understanding the communication of spatial information. Spatial literacy is not something that is often considered, but is important to understand,” says Beutner. “As the forms of electronic communication increase and change, it is vital that the users understand what is being displayed and understand what is being communicated.”
Burtch explains the goal of the course is for students to become more spatially literate. Topics discussed in this half-credit course cover the basic elements in a map and how mapmakers distort the real world, through sheer necessity, laziness or some other motive. Sessions on various mapmaking motives, such as advertising and propaganda, are also covered using multiple examples of each.