While I have not conducted a formal survey, I think I have the right impression when I say that most university cartography courses, at least in the United States, are taught by people whose primary job (when they are not teaching) is not the regular production of maps. These courses are often taught instead by researchers of some sort — people who study map perception, GIS methods, or other geospatial topics. They might make maps on occasion, especially as part of their research work, but they are not generally production cartographers (I’m sure there are exceptions, of course).
Now, this is not to say that what they do isn’t valuable. Cartographic research leads to new tools and techniques that day-to-day mapmakers can make use of. Theory and practice are deeply intertwined. But, I believe that being an academic researcher of cartography is a different job, requiring different skills, than a production cartographer working at a federal agency or a magazine. Studying maps is an allied discipline to making them.
I didn’t think much about this until a couple of years ago, when it was pointed out to me that this situation is a little odd. The person who pointed this out to me had gone to art school. She was taught sculpture by people who regularly made sculptures, for example. She found it strange that I was taught mapmaking by someone who rarely made maps (though he was certainly capable). She found it stranger still that this situation was normal in cartographic higher education. And increasingly I do, too. I wonder sometimes if there are other disciplines in which this happens.
I can’t immediately think of any, though I’m sure there are a few. (Edit: many examples have now been provided to me in both the comments below, and Twitter; thanks!).
Now, it’s not like there’s no overlap in skills between a production cartographer and a research cartographer. To research cartography, you certainly have to know a thing or two about map production. And, to be a successful production cartographer, you need to know some cartography theory. I don’t propose that researchers are grossly unqualified to teach a mapmaking course. But I do think we should not overlook the fact that there are differences between these two intertwined sub-professions, nor consider an expert in one to be an expert in the other. They are most assuredly not, and I think that has an effect in the classroom.
I was fortunate enough to teach introductory cartography for several years at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, while also being a practicing freelance mapmaker. At first, I simply taught the course in the way that I initially experienced it as a student. But as my mapmaking experience grew, I revised my course more and more, in ways both subtle and significant, to reflect the realities and priorities of a career spent on map production. The topics I discussed, the assignments I gave, and the examples that I showed, all drew from my experiences with day-to-day mapmaking. Even though they have an overlap in skills, a production cartographer and a research cartographer will teach an introductory course differently (at least in the experience of my example). You might assert that the differences in their skills and experiences are insignificant when it comes to covering the basic material of an introductory course (especially since most students will never make a map again). That’s not an unfair point to bring up. But I have spoken many times with students and colleagues about their experiences with different educators and lecture contents, and have come to understand that an instructor’s viewpoint on the material, practical vs. theoretical, can have a significant impact on what the student takes away, even in an introductory course.
I do not suggest that we fire cartography professors or bar them from teaching mapmaking. I simply point out that we’ve set up a very unusual system, and one that bears some consideration. But, unless there is a radical change in higher education, I expect this situation to persist. Formal secondary education outside universities is rare in the US, so if cartography is going to be taught anywhere, it’s going to be at a university. And that means you’ll need a professor, and professors need to bring in grant money. Research work is what does that, not making small maps to illustrate the books written by your colleagues in the history department. I doubt there’s enough demand out there to sustain a cartography program that’s not university-based (though Tanya Andersen and I did used to joke about starting a private map school together).
Maybe I’m wrong about all this; maybe regular map publication experience is the norm, not the exception, for university cartography instructors. You may also fairly disagree with my assumption about what the goal of an introductory cartography course should be: to begin to prepare students for a career in map production. It would not be unfair to establish a course instead with the explicit aim of training people to be map researchers (of course, all this overlooks the reality that most students won’t end up doing either). And, again, there would be a fair overlap between those two courses, because there’s an overlap between those two skillsets. But I do think the conduct and outcomes of those two courses would ideally look different.
In the grand scheme, this is a small thing. But it’s something that’s been at the back of my mind for a couple of years. I’ve been slow to write about it, though. As you can see above, my thoughts are still sort of scattered. There’s no thesis, no proposed course of action, etc. But I’m putting it out here now in hopes that maybe it will prompt a little discussion during NACIS 2022. So if you have some thoughts to share, come say hello to me and maybe you can help me hash this out into something more interesting.
I have hesitated to bring my thoughts and observations up because I fear that my academic colleagues will consider this an attack on their profession (though, so far I’ve thankfully received support from those that I’ve shared these thoughts privately with). It’s not intended as such. I don’t intend to tear anyone down, and I’m certainly not in a position to threaten anyone’s job security even if I wanted to. I just note that our current education setup is odd, and it strikes me as less than ideal. I’m not sure how it could be fixed, or if I’m just wrong and that it doesn’t need correction. If that’s the case, I look forward to learning more about the things I’ve overlooked.
I’ll leave you with two questions: (1) What level and type of experience (both prior experience and ongoing experience) should we ideally expect from a person who teaches mapmaking to students? (2) Given the world as it stands, is it fair or practical to expect that?