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my thoughts

An Exercise in Critical Cartography

Sometimes it's worth it to take a step back and rethink how you want to represent or share information. I returned to my love of art to try and tell a story of the place I call home while still exploring the intersections of language, race, and education. I am trying out a method referred to as "critical cartography." Here's an excerpt and link to the wikipedia page on critical cartography:


"Critical cartography is a set of mapping practices and methods of analysis grounded in critical theory, specifically the thesis that maps reflect and perpetuate relations of power, typically in favor of a society's dominant group.[1] Critical cartographers aim to reveal the “‘hidden agendas of cartography’ as tools of socio-spatial power”.[2] While the term "critical cartography" often refers to a body of theoretical literature, critical cartographers also call for practical applications of critical cartographic theory, such as counter-mapping, participatory mapping and neogeography"


My introduction to this approach included the example of W.E.B. DuBois' collection of hand-rendered data portraits, photographs, and infographics for the Paris World Fair in 1900. Hopefully it is obvious that his work was the inspiration here with the medium, typography, and color scheme. The subject matter of course is different; I'm focusing on my home county and bringing in connections to my work in language education. This is what I came up with:


Image 1: My idea was to create a map of Prince George's County (Maryland) high schools with a list of languages that are taught in their World/Foreign Languages Departments. Eleven schools had that information publicly available. I wasn't sure what I would end up with when I started but I wonder if you see the same pattern that I do. Scattered around the map are questions that I started to consider as I was filling in this map. For instance, every school offers Spanish but I wonder what variety is privileged in the classroom? Something else of note is that every one of these schools also offered "English to Speakers of Other Languages" but this was always a department separate from World or Foreign Languages.

Image 2: Because I was representing my home county I knew that the lists I generated above would not have the same impact for outside viewers without some important context specific to PG county. On the second page I decided to bring together some statistics and historical background to make this context a little clearer but to also generate more questions. The top half contains some immigration data-- this might tell us a little bit more about PG's multilingual community-- and when I think about my own experiences, this checks out. Given for instance that there is a large Salvadorian community in PG I wonder if the Spanish taught in the local high schools validates and facilitates the development of the specific varieties of Spanish that some students might bring with them to the classroom. Further, if I want to think about the Asian languages that were represented in the map, I might ask why Japanese and Korean are included but Tagalog or Hindi or Urdu are not. On the map and again on the second page I ask "What is missing?" and as I move down on the second page I start to put together some linguistic background that feels absent. The bottom right highlights the problematic ways in which indigenous languages are described (I've included a link to resources that demonstrate how Piscataway language is not "dead" or "extinct") compared to Latin which also has no native speakers but is still taught in the some of the schools marked on the map. On the bottom left I make references to African American English (AAE)/Black English but specifically the variety that is spoken in PG County. Quick searches on social media platforms will show you that there are a lot of ideas about what it means to sound like you are from PG county and much of that refers to the language of the large Black community that lives there. There's also some great scholarly work being done to document this variety-- see for instance work being done by Minnie Quartey Annan at Georgetown or by Dr. Jessi Grieser at University of Tennessee.

Finally, at the bottom I have a phrase that summarizes all of my feelings about the disjointedness between the languages represented on the first and second pages. "I am a bad ___ because I don't speak ___" -- this is the internalized belief that I had growing up and that I've read about over and over and it drives my research / teaching goals. Why do we believe that we are bad students, members of our language communities, or citizens because we don't speak the language associated with that identity/category? Especially when the systems around us make it so difficult to cherish and cultivate our own languages or multilingualism in general. Is this why, despite the linguistic richness represented there, 75% percent of PG county residents are represented as monolingual English speakers? What work needs to be done for the language education in our schools to represent the language of our communities?


Overall, I found the return to visual arts far more difficult than I had originally imagined. It is time consuming and it turns out I am just as critical of my artistic *aesthetic* as I am of my writing. All in all though, it was a good learning experience and I left with many other ideas for the future. I can imagine a project that is entirely digital and uses google earth images or perhaps some more drawing/painting overlaid on a physical map. What would you do? As usual I'm open to any critique / feedback. I hope you can also give this a try and share your finished products~


NOTE: The QR codes don't seem to work from the screen so here are the links I used:

Bottom left: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjQ1ggMGsOU (notice how Wikipedia describes the language as "extinct" but in the first few seconds of this video we get a lesson in Piscataway language)

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