Learning ArcGIS

Decades ago when I was still taking math classes, I got appallingly accustomed to the moment when I stopped being able to keep up. Math pedagogy at that time focused on modeling how to work through problems, practice working through problems as homework, and finding out how well you were doing by going over problems in the next class meeting. Frustratingly, I often found myself unable to reproduce for my homework problems the logic that had seemed so easy to follow as the model problems were solved during class meetings.

I was thinking about these experiences a little over a week ago because I was taking a course in ArcGIS, a suite of applications that has been around since the 1970s and can be used to create maps out of quantitative data gathered at some point in the past. The whole process is most interesting when the mapping leads to the development of new questions, ones we hadn’t considered before we started looking at events with an eye to spatial and geographical relationships.

On about Wednesday morning of a week-long course, I hit the wall that felt familiar to me from those math classes I had taken long ago. We had gotten to an exercise that asked us to reproduce a process the book had walked us through before, and I kept hitting glitches. Things got better when I resolved to return to the exercise at some future point and move on to the next thing for the moment.

I don’t think any of this means that I should stop trying to learn how geographic information systems can help me as I continue to dig into historical research and how digital tools and methodologies can advance historical thinking in general and the research I’m doing with the Wheaton College Digital History Project in particular. But I am interested in this particular wall and what my hitting it means for teaching my students to ask geographical questions as they approach the study of the past.

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