Thoughts on Practical Cartographic Education

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?

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Practical Cartographic Education

  1. Interesting questions! I have some additional questions one might consider alongside the above.

    Are the separation of theory and practice, or of research and practice, entirely necessary? What if it were that being engaged in both could make people better at both? Likewise, what if teaching and learning cartography were to also benefit from this unity, rather than specialization in one or the other? In other words, what if this were less a matter of ‘overlap’ and more a matter of interrelation and synergy?

    I know we have amazing specialists in each of these realms, but what if that specialization weren’t the sole ideal? How might cartography education, research, and practice look?

    (I know what I’m asking here might not be entirely new or interesting, and certainly isn’t as interesting as what is written above, but it’s at least how I think about these questions, for what it’s worth! Thanks for raising the issues.)

  2. I’m a fan of interdisciplinarity (whether within various cartographic branches or otherwise), though I wonder if that ship has sailed. The trend in the last century has been more and more separation of knowledge pursuits. Natural Philosophy departments split into biology, chemistry, physics, etc. So, I don’t know if this separation is necessary, but there’s certainly a force that seems to encourage people to push toward their own corners.

    Someone once told me that I also do research, in my own way. I think that’s true, with my tinkering and experimenting with practical methods. But, I also think that our society, and our universities, have prioritized one type of knowledge production over the others. Most cartography journals, for example, would be hesitant to publish anything of the sort that’s featured at NACIS Practical Cartography Day (Cartographic Perspectives being an exception). I think to bring theory and practice more together might first require a think about the structures that encourage them to separate.

  3. First, I think you have an interesting point worth dissecting and I look forward to (hopefully) discussing it with you soon. I definitely do not take it as an attack, nor – I hope – will my colleagues.

    However, I do want to pick apart your underlying framing: that this distinction is odd and abnormal in higher ed. I don’t think that’s true.

    Computer Science professors are not, by and large, writing production level software. Professors of civil engineering are not, by and large, building bridges in their off hours. I could go on in more detail, but hopefully the point is clear: the separation of theory and praxis is relatively normal within higher ed in a variety of fields such that I’d suggest that art is perhaps the outlier (and not vice versa).

    That doesn’t make that separation correct and it certainly has impacts on pedagogical intent in course design. All of this is worth discussing, and – at least for myself – I am perhaps most interested in how we might bridge such bifurcations in ways meaningful to both practitioners and researchers. But, I think we should be careful in suggesting this distinction is abnormal as, for better or worse, it’s not.

  4. CompSci and Engineering are some great examples — I’d started to think about the latter as I was writing this, but wasn’t quite sure enough about it. Maybe it is more normal, then. I look forward to chatting about it with you soon.

  5. Being an amateur who’s stumbled into having access to more tools than experience with making maps, I’m not even sure that I’m informed enough to have an opinion here. I’ve always had an interest in maps and map design since kindergarten, but ended up diverted into other lines of work because it seemed like I wasn’t supposed to know where to go to learn about it back in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

    I think cross-training is a valuable thing to do and have. And yeah, if you’re going to learn mapmaking at a university, your faculty should be at least in part made up of people who have done the work professionally. I think that’s a fair expectation. Beyond those generalities…?

  6. I noticed the same thing in my forestry education. The professors were knowledgeable, but they were more knowledgeable about theory and research than practice. Not to say that some didn’t put marking paint on trees sometime in the past, but they were not working as foresters. They were forestry research scientists who taught forestry classes. I think my forestry education was as good as I could have gotten at another forestry school, but it was, in many ways, divorced from the reality of practicing private and public foresters, and I quickly learned that there were large gaps in my education.

  7. Great questions. Don’t overlook community colleges and adjunct instructors, who don’t need to seek grant money.

    I was the GIS Manager of a mid-sized city. I worked there a total of 34 years until retiring just recently. For the last 7 years of my GIS career I was also an adjunct instructor at a local community college. There, I taught Cartography, Remote Sensing, and Intro to GIS (not all at the same time!).

    In my case I was asked to teach the Cartography course and then the others by the College’s Geoscience director. He thought that having an instructor who did this work for a living would be better than someone who was an academic. My students’ comments, and the rewarding experiences that I had, proved that this was indeed a good approach.

    I too wish that there was an easy way to hire experienced practitioners to pass on skills to the newcomers.

  8. I’ve wondered about this as well. Some domains are more subject to this sort of disparity (teaching being done by researchers other than practitioners). Physics? Give me a researcher from whom to learn, sure. Electrical engineering? I’d take a practitioner. Cartography, in my mind, lands about 2/3 of the way on the practitioner side.
    This is where I think community colleges shine. Often the courses offered are more pragmatic and hands on and those who teach them tend to be practitioners who are motivated to share what they’ve learned. We need researchers and we need practitioners, but I recommend to most kids to split their educational experience between a local community college and a university.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Daniel! Always a perspective that promotes conversation.

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