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Multimodal Mondays: The Mapping Instinct: Orientation and Exploration through “Maps of the Imagination”

posted: 11.10.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Guest blogger Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) Department at Southern Polytechnic State University.  Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things.  She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. This week, Kim shares her multimodal mapping assignment and some student projects. You can reach Kim at or visit her website:

“I map therefore I am.” I read these words in the introduction to Katharine Harmon’s book on mapping, and they helped me realize my lifelong fascination with maps. Although I have always been fascinated by maps, I have always considered myself among the directionally challenged. I have an impressionistic memory and usually remember experiences more than locations. It was actually the connection between these two things—experience and location—that I found most interesting as I read Harmon’s work. She helped me understand mapping as a metaphor that demonstrates our connectedness to larger things, people, places, experiences, and ideas.

It was through this line of inquiry that I started infusing mapping into my composition classes. Mapping, as I have come to see it, is about locating or orienting yourself within some larger framework. It is about the associational nature of thinking and the ways that experience overlays landscapes. It embraces connectivity, association, and exploration—all things important to the teaching of composition.

This assignment focuses on Katharine Harmon’s book, You are Here: Personal Geographies of the Imagination (2003), which contains over 150 maps. Although some of these are traditional maps that attempt to objectively define place, most of the maps in her book are what she calls, “maps of the imagination.” In her words, they use “word and image in a combination to explore psychological and social landscapes” (180). All of the maps included in the book “transcend the norm because of the mapmaker’s personal viewpoint, or sense of humor, ingenuity, or all of the above” (181). Harmon suggests that people have a mapping instinct—a fascination with maps as a way to help “locate themselves and to understand their relation to other people” (181).

 Although we think of maps generally as objective pictures, they actually show perspective: ideas and relations embedded in the design as the mapmaker integrates their experiences into the landscape—whether this landscape is a place or a concept. Some of the maps in Harmon’s book show perspective overtly, such as A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America,in which the city is shown as larger than all the other states including California. Other maps, such as the 1960’s heart-shaped map from McCall’s magazine entitled Geographical Guide to a Man’s Heart, address psychological and social rituals. Some are completely of the imagination, such as A Dog’s Idea of the Ideal Country Estate. Still others provide a more personal perspective, such as the map that labels physical and emotional scars on a body.

Geographical Guide to a Man’s Heart with Obstacles and Entrances: by Jo Lowrey for McCall’s Magazine, 1960; featured in Katharine Harmon’s book You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination; image found on



Above all, mapping initiates associational thinking in which students recognize connections between their ideas and experiences.

 The Assignment: Maps of the Imagination

 Goals of the Assignment

  • To introduce mapping as a tool for critical thinking and associational inquiry
  • To engage with online mapping tools
  • To consider metaphorical and visual representation as acts of composition
  • To demonstrate the ways we overlay landscape and experience

Background Reading for Students and Instructors:

Steps to the Assignment

Preparation: Before I move to the “maps of the imagination” assignment, I explain the concepts of mapping, location, and orientation. I introduce mapping as an intellectual activity in which one idea connects to another. Students can conduct image searches with the terms maps of the imagination and personal geographies to see sample maps. We talk about the ways we live and participate in networked cultures, webs of communication, and discourse communities. We discuss how our life narratives are influenced by these personal, intellectual, physical, and virtual journeys that map and overlap with our experiences and perspectives.

Invent: Teachers have long used invention techniques that draw upon the mapping instinct such as mind mapping, clustering, and brainstorming. Visual representations of this associational thinking are easily incorporated into the writing process as we select subjects, find connected examples, and create opportunities for critical thinking. Students can hand draw these mind maps, use multimedia collage, or use one of the many online tools such as Mindmap, Coggle, Freemind, or Poplet that help them visually generate, connect, and organize ideas. Some applications allow students to insert pictures that represent their associational thinking. Have students conduct an image search for mind map samples.

Create: To demonstrate the relationship between “experience and landscape” I send students to Google Maps. Here they can play around with the mapping tools and see actual places from both aerial and street views. They can choose to look at their neighborhood or the campus community or any other place on Earth. They can also explore with varying perspectives and look closely at particular places or zoom out to see them in a larger context—their house, the neighborhood, the town, the state, the continent, etc. At the street-level view, they can virtually tour their neighborhoods and walk around. I ask them to write about their experiences in relation to these interactive maps.

Next, they create customized maps of their own in which they “overlay landscape and experience.” They use their exploratory writing along with a free map creator application to create visual representations of their ideas. These apps allow users to work with existing maps and customize through the lens of their own experiences. They can use this tool to mark favorite/significant places, draw lines to highlight paths and areas (connecting experiences), add their own text, photos, and videos, and share their map with others. Here is a tutorial on creating customized Google Maps.

Extend: “Maps of the Imagination”: This part of the assignment takes students to higher levels of abstraction as we move from mapping associations to mapping as metaphor. I ask students to visually compose a “map of the imagination” of their own. They might focus on a particular idea or location, such as the neighborhood in which they grew up, or create a psychological or social map, such as the ones described in Harmon’s work. They can incorporate humor, personal perspective, and cultural critique. Their maps should include both textual and visual cues along with a written description that explains their rhetorical choices, metaphors, and meanings. I either have students present their maps individually to the whole class, show them in small groups, or display them gallery style and have students walk around and discuss them.

Reflections on the Activity

This activity gets students to think deeply about connectivity and metaphor and helps them to critically examine and represent their experiences. “Maps of the imagination” encourage them to extend these ideas through visual rhetoric. Once exposed to the concept, students composed maps that spoke to their perspectives, psychological and social rituals, experiences, concepts and cultural topics, and conversations. This activity is easily transferred to other acts of composition, as students can use it to generate ideas, develop their subjects, and analyze the connections between ideas—which is at the center of all good academic writing. It is the connections between subjects and the development of their own informed perspectives that lead to strong thinking and writing.

Check out some of my students’ maps on my Acts of Composition site.

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