Using mapping to help students understand the racial dimension of their world

A sociologist describes a mapping project that helps students connect their everyday experiences to larger racial patterns:

Theresa Suarez, an associate professor of sociology at San Marcos, has taught partially online courses on racial and ethnic identity for years. But Suarez found it was difficult to enable her students, many of whom are people of color, to connect the theoretical material she taught in class and their own narratives, she explained during a session here on Tuesday at the Emerging Technologies in Online Learning conference, hosted by MERLOT and the Sloan Consortium…

Suarez, who describes herself as late-adopter (her presentation here was a rare foray for her into teaching with PowerPoint) and an occasional techno-skeptic, resolved to find a technological solution that would not require a lot of complexity or jargon. So she turned to online software that uses geographic information systems to let students superimpose demographic data about race and ethnicity onto maps of their local communities.

Suarez instructed her students to place digital pushpins on places that shape their own experiences of where they live. “Where do you shop?” she said, by way of example. “Where do you surf? Where does your girlfriend or boyfriend live? What schools did you attend? Where do you work? Where don’t you go?”

The students then had to reflect, in essay form, on the points of reference marked by the pushpins, describing how each of those places plays a role in their identities — particularly in light of what they learned by seeing demographic data mapped on to their communities.

Perhaps this project is not all that innovative but I like it for several reasons:

1. This seems to be a microcosm of a sociological perspective: providing a structural context for our individual actions. This project would help students see how their daily activities and identities are shaped by demographic patterns, even if they hadn’t noticed them before. Instead of seeing these activities as individual choices, students can see how racial patterns influence their behavior.

2. Students can use their personal experiences as “data” and then work to provide sociological explanations.

3. These mapping abilities and software are fairly easy to obtain and they would be useful for future work.

4. I’ve always liked maps as they provide an overhead view of the world (just like sociology).

I’ve thought about doing some sort of mapping project in my Introduction to Sociology class and this may just be a good springboard.

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