Friday, 7 December 2012

Comeback Kid

Geography Becomes Cool

Confession is good for the soul, we are told.  So first up we need to confess that throughout our schooling years, geography was always a bit of a mystery.  Tacked on to the subject of history as part of "social studies", geography was always a strange subject, hard to nail down.

It appeared to have no cohesive unifying principles, reflected by the following universal dinner party experience: when you ask someone next to you, "What do you do for a job," and he or she replies, "Oh, I am a geographer," you nod sagely but really have no idea what they do.  Admit it.  We have all experienced this.  Actually, come to think of it, we have never met anyone who professes to be a geographer, which says a great deal. 

But we may need to rethink our prejudices.
  At last we are beginning to understand that geography can greatly enhance our understanding of--you guessed it--history.  Now, history as a subject has also come in for a bit of stick--usually at the hands of those superficial idiots who major in "business studies" or "hospitality".  We well remember the old saw that used to circulate around exam time involving an indignant mother who, when asked how her son had found his history exam, complained that the exam was totally unfair.  The examiner has asked questions about things that happened before her son was alive.

Nevertheless some really good stuff is being done in a specialist branch of geography (historical geography) that is, as they say, way cool.  It is enabling students to live through events in the past.  This from the Smithsonian:

Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes

Anne Kelly Knowles, the winner of Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards, uses GIS technology to change our view of history 

Anne Kelly Knowles loves places where history happened. She traces this passion to family trips she took as a girl in the 1960s, when her father would pile his wife and four children into a rented RV for odysseys from their home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to iconic sites from America’s past.

“We’d study the road atlas and plot trips around places like the Little Bighorn and Mount Rushmore,” Knowles recalls. “Historical landmarks were our pins in the map.” Between scheduled stops, she and her father would leap out of the RV to take pictures of historical markers. “I was the only one of the kids who was really jazzed about history. It was my strongest connection with my dad.”

Decades later, Knowles’ childhood journeys have translated into a pathbreaking career in historical geography. Using innovative cartographic tools, she has cast fresh light on hoary historical debates—What was Robert E. Lee thinking at Gettysburg?—and navigated new and difficult terrain, such as mapping the mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe by Nazi death squads during World War II.

Knowles’ research, and her strong advocacy of new geographic approaches, have also helped revitalize a discipline that declined in the late 20th century as many leading universities closed their geography departments. “She’s a pioneer,” says Edward Muller, a histor- ical geographer at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s an ingenuity in the way she uses spatial imagination to see things and ask questions that others haven’t.” Adds Peter Bol, a historian at Harvard and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis: “Anne thinks not just about new technology but how mapping can be applied across disciplines, to all aspects of human society.” . . .

Her principal tool is geographic information systems, or GIS, a name for computer programs that incorporate such data as satellite imagery, paper maps and statistics. Knowles makes GIS sound simple: “It’s a computer software that allows you to map and analyze any information that has a location attached.” But watching her navigate GIS and other applications, it quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t your father’s geography.  First, a modern topographical map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, appears on her screen. “Not enough detail,” she says, going next to a contour map of the same landscape made in 1874, which she has traced and scanned. “Here’s where the carto-geek in me comes out,” she says, running her finger lovingly across the map and noting how it distinguishes between hardwood forest, pine woods and orchards—the kind of fine-grained detail that is crucial to her work.

Then, deploying software used in the defense industry, she taps functions such as “triangulated irregular network” and “viewshed analysis” and something that “determines the raster surface locations visible to a set of observer features.” I’m simplifying here. Imagine pixels and grids swimming across the screen in response to keystroke commands that are about as easy to follow as the badly translated instructions that came with your last electronic device. “There’s a steep learning curve to GIS,” Knowles acknowledges.

What emerges, in the end, is a “map” that’s not just color-coded and crammed with data, but dynamic rather than static—a layered re-creation that Knowles likens to looking at the past through 3-D glasses. The image shifts, changing with a few keystrokes to answer the questions Knowles asks. In this instance, she wants to know what commanders could see of the battlefield on the second day at Gettysburg. A red dot denotes General Lee’s vantage point from the top of the Lutheran Seminary. His field of vision shows as clear ground, with blind spots shaded in deep indigo. Knowles has even factored in the extra inches of sightline afforded by Lee’s boots. “We can’t account for the haze and smoke of battle in GIS, though in theory you could with gaming software,” she says.

Scholars have long debated Lee’s decision to press a frontal assault at Gettysburg. How could such an exceptional commander, expert in reading terrain, fail to recognize the attack would be a disaster? The traditional explanation, favored in particular by Lee admirers, is that his underling, Gen. James Longstreet, failed to properly execute Lee’s orders and marched his men sideways while Union forces massed to repel a major Confederate assault. “Lee’s wondering, ‘Where is Longstreet and why is he dithering?’” Knowles says.

Her careful translation of contours into a digital representation of the battlefield gives new context to both men’s behavior. The sight lines show Lee couldn’t see what Longstreet was doing. Nor did he have a clear view of Union maneuvers. Longstreet, meanwhile, saw what Lee couldn’t: Union troops massed in clear sight of open terrain he’d been ordered to march across.

Rather than expose his men, Long- street led them on a much longer but more shielded march before launching the planned assault. By the time he did, late on July 2, Union officers—who, as Knowles’ mapping shows, had a much better view of the field from elevated ground—had positioned their troops to fend off the Confederate advance.

Knowles feels this research helps vindicate the long-reviled Longstreet and demonstrates the difficulties Lee faced in overseeing the battle. But she adds that her Gettysburg work “raises questions rather than providing definitive answers.” For instance: Lee, despite his blind spots, was able to witness the bloody repulse of Longstreet’s men that afternoon. “What was the psychological effect on Lee of seeing all that carnage? He’s been cool in command before, but he seems a bit unhinged on the night of the second day of battle, and the next day he orders Pickett’s Charge. Mapping what he could see helps us ask questions that haven’t been asked much before.” . . .

“The old school, in history and geography, dug up records and maps, but did not pay much attention to the spatial aspect of history,” says Guntram Herb, a colleague of Knowles’ in Middlebury’s geography department. “And there’s this lingering image of geography as boring and pointless—what’s the capital of Burkina Faso, that sort of thing.”

Knowles’ work has helped reshape this outdated image. To students who now arrive at college with computer savvy and familiarity with Google Earth and GPS, geography seems cool and relevant in a way it didn’t in my long-ago social studies class. Knowles has also brought GIS, once a fringe methodology mainly used by planners to plot transportation routes and land-use surveys, into the historical mainstream. And she’s done so by creating teams of scholars from different areas of expertise, which is common in the sciences but less so among historians. “Technical expertise, archival expertise, geographic imagination—no one has it all,” Knowles says. “You have to work together.”
Maybe geography is going to make a come-back--at least historical geography.  That would be way cool. Good for dinner parties, too.


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