Introduction Antonia DiBona Maps are like art in that they can change not only what we see but how we see it (Turchi,2004). Many times maps are thought of as concrete unchanging modes of representing truth. In reality maps are indexes, signs, and symbols within a context that are extremely subjective and ever changing. Depending on who constructed the map, the entire focus and point behind the map can change. This phenomenon was ever so present in a recent mental mapping exercise I asked of my former students. I asked the art teacher at my former middle school where I taught science, to ask nine students from Brideton Middle School to construct maps of their school from memory. No other directions were given. They were not allowed to see each otherâ€™s maps, so as to not be influenced by them. I also constructed a mental map of the school. What was remarkable was that each map was a slightly different way of presenting the same information. Some symbols varied for the same objects they represented, while other symbols were consistent throughout each map. Although the relationship between the signifier and the signified for the symbols is completely arbitrary, the viewer understands the meaning because he has a common culture with the map maker. The cultural context allows the reader of the map to understand the signified. In analyzing the mental maps of the Bridgeton Middle School I set out to show, like Denis Wood did in The Power of Maps, that there is nothing natural about a map. It can be shown that even these mental maps of school have more than one intention. I set out to compare and contrast each map in terms of their semiotics: signs, index, symbol and icon and sender and receiver, noise and how these relate to the overall concept of truth and falsity. I would like to relate my analysis to Woodâ€™s in terms of myth and how this can alter a mapâ€™s values and ambitions. Overall I strive to show that no map can be taken as the ultimate truth and there is no one view/truth in how the students view the school.
Each of the nine student mental maps plus my mental map covers a one room charter school. It was a public swimming pool that was converted to a school with no actual walls separating each classroom. Instead dividers separate each room. All of the maps are drawn in pencil on 8x11 paper and rectangles delineate each room. Nedra Reynolds (2004) in Geographies in Writing quotes J.B Harley in ”Deconstructing the Map” and points out that all maps “strive to frame their message in the context of an audience”(p. 79). This brings up questions of who is the receiver of the map? Also, how does the receiver determine what are the codes used that must be decoded? Any map falls into three categories of signs: index, symbol, and icon. Hall, in his book This Means This This Means That, A User’s Guide to Semiotics defines these three terms. Index is one code that must be decoded by the receiver. It is when there is a physical relationship between the signifier (the map) and the signified (what the map depicts) (Hall, 2007). These maps are indexical because there is a physical relationship between the distances and points relative to each other on the map. They are indexical in pointing to the location of things like the classrooms. Hall (2007) defines symbol as “any sign where there is an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified”(p. 18) All of these maps are symbolic because they have symbols like the words used to describe each classroom. The relationship between the word (the signifier) and the meaning (the signified) is arbitrary (not natural). For example, the receiver must have knowledge of the culture of the school to even understand what the teacher’s names represent. Some of the students represent the rooms with just numbers (map 2) some of the students use teachers’ names (map 3 and 8), some use subject matter to delineate different classrooms (map 1and7), and some use a combination of these techniques (map 6 and9 and10). Because the receiver was the art teacher this may be the reason not all of the maps use a combination of teacher name and subject matter but rather assume the receiver understands the connection. Other symbols are used in these maps. Some maps have drawings of toilets to symbolize bathrooms (map 5) or rectangles to symbolize the cafeteria tables (map 3 and 4 and5 and9). All of
the maps use the same symbol of a line to show the partition between classrooms. This is similar to when Denis Wood talks about a map of Manhattan where a grid system is used to represent streets. He says it is a purely Western depiction and the same can be said about how the partitions between classrooms are depicted. It is a Western view of a school. Denis Wood talked about the iconicity of maps. Besides index and symbol some of the maps portray the use of icons. Hall (2007) defines icon as containing “some degree of resemblance between the signifier and the signified”(p. 14).My mental map (map 1) consists of drawings to represent the different subject matters and it is interesting that maps 1, 2, 3 and 6 show the same symbol of a stick figures of a boy and a girl to represent girl and boy bathrooms. There is a question of- are these icons meaningful? They are meaningful if we consider two assumptions: 1) that the receiver is not blind and can see the bathroom icon and 2) that the receiver can understand the meaning in the cultural context. Denis Wood (1992) says that “no icon is motivated free of convention because representation without convention is not possible”(p. 108). This is true for the icons of the girls and boys bathrooms. Convention is present because the icon for the girls and boys bathroom is a Western system of representing these themes. The message of each map is different in terms of the signs that were used. Without having interviewed each student it is impossible to point out the overall message of each map. Is the message to show the most important parts of the school? Not all the maps point out the same areas of interest. Some maps have drawings of instruments (map 3,7) or lockers (map 2,3,4,6,7,8,9,10) or the library (map1,2,6,7) while others ignore them completely (map 4). This shows a different message as to what that student thought was important enough to represent in the map. It shows that no one map is the truth but that each map is different, unique and individual.
Another point that can alter whether the map portrays the truth is noise. We can say that different receivers viewing these maps have different conceptions, or thoughts about, the maps. Depending on how much they know about the school, this could very much alter how they conceptualize a map like map 4. These conceptions can be further altered by noise. There is noise in the message of these maps. As Hall points out “over such a long period a message can easily be distorted or altered without this being in any way intended”(Hall, 28) In my mental map (map 1) I view certain classrooms as being in certain locations because the last time I was in the building was 2010. If I were decoding a student’s map that only had room numbers or teacher’s names the message would be distorted because I would think that a certain subject was taught in a certain room when that is not the case. The message I received would not be the true depiction of the school. Turchi says in Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (2004), that “the first lie [of a map] is that it is the truth” (p. 73). In the case with these mental maps it is hard to discern fact from fiction. Is the intent to lie? I think the answer is no but some maps have a modality of being false and do lie. When looking at the truth or falsity of these maps we can ask ourselves are these true representations of the school? The answer is they are subjective representations and drawings of the school; not the school itself. Turchi goes on to say the question has never been whether to make maps but what to select for inclusion and how to represent it (Turchi, 2004). Just like it is true of the world map there are distortions when trying to place a round object like the Earth onto a flat plane. Trying to render a three dimensional school in two dimensions brings about similar problems of what aspects to include in the map and what to leave out. Some students are better a preserving size relations of each classroom to other classrooms while others are better at preserving content in terms of what each classroom’s subject and teacher is. Some of the maps, like map 3, are better at relating the position and size of each classroom. I know from teaching at the school that it is true classroom 1(Mrs. Hogan) extends further out and classroom 3 (Mrs. Walkowitz) is bigger than the other classrooms. Other maps ignore
relative size altogether like map 6 which shows classroom 3 as no bigger than other classrooms. This map however is clear about which teachers teach in which rooms and does not forget to include lockers and library. So as we can see certain maps are true when it comes to certain aspects and false when it comes to others. Dennis Wood explained in “The Power of Maps” that all maps have intrasignificaiton which consists of signs indigenous to the map and which constitute the map as sign and that myth extends to these aspects of intrasignification (Wood, 1992). “As myth [the map] refers to itself and to its makers, and to a world seen quite subjectively through their eyes”(Wood, 1992) What I found interesting in the mental maps of the students is that certain subjects were absent from virtually all of the maps. These subjects were Social Studies, Art, and Physical Education. I remember from my days of teaching at the school that the Social Studies teacher did not actually have a room but “floated” from room to room. This is only depicted in two of the maps (map 6 and 10). I also remember that the art teacher shared a room with me and mine was the only map to mention this (map1). Physical education occurred in the cafeteria and this was not mentioned in any of the maps. I think this subjective view of what classes are important enough to put on the map has been influenced by the culture of the school. Since 2001 and No Child Left Behind, many school have put more influence on subjects that are tested in statewide exams- subjects that do not include art, social studies, or physical education. As Turchi (2004)points out, “maps have inherent bias, and every map intends not simply to serve us but to influence us”(p. 88) So here we have a clear example of how the map acts as myth propagating the doctrine that certain subjects that are tested are more important than other subjects. Turchi also says we must base the accuracy on its intention. Was the student’s intention to show the most important aspects of the school based on No Child Left Behind? Then the maps succeeded and are accurate. However if the maps intention was to depict all subject matters that are taught then the maps are not accurate.
Turchi, Reynolds, and Wood all in their own ways state a similar fact that maps cannot be taken as face value for truth. There are signs that are conventional and in different contexts can mean different things. There are messages that can be altered due to noise. Finally there is the question of accuracy and myth based meaning the intention of the maps are subjective. These maps show that in each studentâ€™s mind there is a different image of the school. Based on these mental maps a conclusion can be drawn that although we view a school as a unified setting, the fact that each map varies in its symbols, icons and message implies that for each student the school is in fact purely individual.
Reference List Hall, Sean.(2007). This Means This This Means That, A Userâ€™s Guide to Semiotics. London. Lawrence King Publishing Reynolds, Nedra. (2004)Geographies of writing: Inhabiting places and encountering difference Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Turchi, Peter.(2004) Maps of the Imagination, the Writer as Cartographer.San Antonia. Trinity Universty Press. Wood, Dennis.(1992) The power of maps . New York: The Guilford Press.
Published on Feb 19, 2012
After asking nine middle school students to draw mental maps of their school I show that maps are subjective and not always the truth.