Narrative Mapping the Global Middle Ages (Mellon Grant Report)

My English 331: Global Middle Ages course incorporated a DH project to help students understand medieval literature as less exclusively European and English and more global and cross-cultural. Story Maps is a DH platform that deploys maps as the nuclei of narratives. Junior and senior English majors selected, researched and mapped out cross-cultural topics like Victorian Medievalism, Monstrous Births, Medieval Folklore, and Medieval Literature and the U.S. Antebellum South. These projects helped highlight visually and narratively for students the international and cross-cultural scope of medieval literature through the interplay of text, image, video, map, and hyperlink.

For the project, students formed groups based on similar interests, set a research schedule, and met several scaffolding deadlines designed to encourage reading and research, familiarization with the Story Maps platform, and collaboration as a group. Groups used ARC-GIS mapping tools to trace out routes that varied between the dissemination of clusters of medieval narratives to slave routes to the paths travelled by authors of medieval travel narratives. At the end of the course, groups presented their findings to the class and talked about how these projects expanded the scope of medieval literature for them.

Part of my proposal involved my wish to frankly express both the successes and failures of this project. As a more ambitious digital project, this first iteration of Story Maps taught me several important things. Maps can certainly aid in students’ understanding of the scope of medieval literature, but many of the students reported most of their learning in the project came from student-directed research and writing rather than the technical aspects of creating the ARC-GIS maps. The largest impediment to the success of the project was creating the interactive map component of the Story Maps platform, and teaching groups how to implement the tools provided by Story Maps was essential. One notable setback was the discovery that progress could not be “saved” on Story Maps if more than one person was editing the map at the same time.

Nonetheless, students completed compelling assignments that helped broaden the scope of medieval literature. Many students re-assessed what they came into the course thinking about the Middle Ages. These projects helped broaden the impact and scope of medieval literature for the English majors who took the course. Diachronic cross-cultural projects like Victorian Medievalism and the impact of medieval literature on U.S. slavery helped students see how and why the Middle Ages have continued to matter, while global projects on monstrous women in medieval literature and medieval travel narratives helped students see the interplay between Christian Europe and the Near East while complicating Orientalist divisions of Christian West from Muslim East (indeed, no clean lines can be drawn between any kind of West or East in the Middle Ages).

Finally, the research conducted in Eng 331 led to the first Humanities poster in the ACSC this year incorporating the Story Maps project. The three participating students were able to situate their project on the impact of medieval literature on American practices of slavery in the fields of postcolonial studies, medieval studies, and digital humanities scholarship (no easy feat!). When I teach this course again, I may offer a curtailed mapping option and a purely narrative option.

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