Mapping British Literature

For many years, I have taught the first half of the Survey of British Literature, a standard course in many undergraduate literary studies curricula. This course ends with a unit on eighteenth-century literature. I have always devoted that unit to texts that track eighteenth-century Britons’ growing engagement with the world, even if imaginative, by way of travel, trade, slavery, colonialism, and so forth. However, I have always speculated that students might not be familiar with many of the far-flung places referenced in these literary works, especially places whose names have changed over the centuries. 

This project in digital humanities gave me just the opportunity to enhance this unit. As the final project in my spring 2020 LITR 240 at Ramapo College, I asked each student to select one text from the final unit—a unit that included texts from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko to Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative—and to map all of the place names in that text by using Recogito, a free, open-access mapping program. After I gave them a demonstration, students mapped their chosen texts and presented their maps orally to me as their final exam. During their presentations, they walked me through each mapped place name, provided its literary context, and explained how their maps help us understand the period’s global imagination. Students also submitted short response papers in which they reflected on what they learned—about geography, the period’s literature, the digital humanities, and so forth—from the project. 

All in all, the students exceeded my expectations. Most of the maps were complete and accurate, and many students made exciting connections between map and text. More importantly, students indicated that they learned a lot from the assignment and were eager to complete more projects in the digital humanities. 

Student Perspectives

Emily Brackenbury

For my Spring 2020 semester at Ramapo College, I was enrolled in the course, Survey of British Literature: Anglo-Saxon Period to Eighteenth Century, taught by Dr. Eric Daffron. Over the duration of the course, we studied various texts from early British literature, moving through different centuries as the course progressed. To finish the course, we had to complete a final project centered around an 18th century British text from our syllabus. However, the project itself was somewhat unconventional because rather than being just a traditional essay or presentation, the central task required for the final project incorporated elements of the digital humanities. As part of this final project, Dr. Daffron asked us to use the application, Recogito, to digitally map all of the locations referenced in our selected text.   

Personally, I found the experience of creating the digital map to be extremely helpful in understanding the context of my selected literary work. Having selected Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko as my text, which not only takes place on two different continents, but also references the wide-reaching influence of the triangular trade of the 18th century, the work contained a great number of locations around the globe. Not only did creating a map with Recogito allow me to become familiar with locations that I had previously not known, but it also allowed me to draw connections between all of the places listed and to see how influential the massive international trade systems of the 18th century were, leading to a growing globalization that would influence many aspects of British life during this time, including literature like Behn’s. Overall, I found my experience with this project to be very enlightening. Completing the mapping project allowed me to learn more about the history and geography surrounding the text, provided me with helpful context to my selected work, and ultimately, aided me in drawing more informed and comprehensive conclusions about the text itself.

Erin Schwarz

The mapping project completed in Dr. Daffron’s Survey of British Literature 240 class allowed me to use a previously unfamiliar software to expand my knowledge of both the piece of literature in focus and the digital humanities in general. For my project, I chose to write about The Turkish Embassy Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (some of this information is drawn from my original response paper to this assignment). The assignment asked us to find different locations mentioned throughout the literature and map them on the software Recogito. By focusing on these specific locations, I was able to learn more about the story and the geographical implications that the locations provided. For example, before starting this assignment I never bothered to find the physical locations mentioned in the letters on a map. Having to map these locations showed me just how far Lady Mary Wortley Montagu went in her travels. Seeing the actual distance between these locations allowed me to see how drastically the culture changes she described happened in reference to their distance from each other.

While this physical representation of the story allowed me a greater understanding of the story, I also learned more about digital humanities. I have had experiences with the digital humanities before, so completing this assignment was challenging in a beneficial way. While I have used software’s to analyze stories and pieces of literature before, I have never come in contact with this particular software before. At first the software seemed quite daunting, but after reading the instructions provided by Dr. Daffron and looking around the software I found it to be very innovative and helpful. The project encouraged me to become more comfortable with Recogito and software similar to it. My experience in completing this mapping project was very educationally beneficial.

Emily Melvin 

This past semester, I was given the opportunity to complete a final assignment in a fashion different than ones I have completed in the past. It was a challenge, but it ultimately introduced me to a new method of presentation and research, and it changed my perception of the standard final exam. In Dr. Daffron’s course LITR 240: Survey of British Literature, instead of having a traditional final exam, we were assigned a Mapping Project. In this project, we were asked to map out various locations mentioned in one of the assigned texts from the course in the online application Recogito, then create a six-minute oral presentation, which was delivered via WebEx between only the student and professor. This was a challenging project, as only being able to virtually present the final was an unfamiliar task. Of course, there were technical difficulties and stresses, but it ended up not being too bad. Frankly, I much prefer this method of a final exam than a test or elaborate essay. It was a way the class could become more engaged with the texts we read in class and gain a deeper, cultural understanding of the works. More importantly, it allowed us to expand our knowledge on digital humanities, the most impactful outcome from this project. Digital humanities was a fairly new term for me, but I quickly discovered its benefits as a student and professional in the world of humanities. This project not only challenged me analytically, but it taught me how to use digital applications to enhance and clearly visualize my work within the humanities. I would gladly complete this project again in a future course, and I believe fellow students would appreciate the creative and innovative final project format.