Remapping a Historical Geography
An Un-Essay to Unsettle Perceptions of the Antebellum North
In the past several years, History instructors have increasingly experimented with assignment or project design that moves beyond the confines of the traditional research essay. The resulting assignments are often referred to as “un-essays”— projects purposefully designed to empower students to take an active role in shaping their own research topics and enable them to present their research in ways other than the more conventional paper format. Requiring students to conduct rigorous research, marshal evidence in support of larger claims, and make intentional decisions about organization and audience, un-essays meet most of the same criteria expected of a research paper, but in ways that help address different learning styles. This article centers on a particular student project I assigned that brought together the growing interest in un-essays with the parallel call for more geospatial instruction in the classroom. In the fall of 2019, students in my seminar “All Over the Map: Cartography and Historical Narrative” took on various research projects to re-map a familiar geography in United States history (the Antebellum North), along with the histories we associate with it. They designed different topics to help answer a shared question: was the Antebellum North truly a place that solely promoted freedom? Yet, instead of submitting a research paper reflecting their findings, students and I worked together to re-map the region by creating a digital, interactive map that plotted the histories they elected to narrate about different regions in the Antebellum North. The resulting map, which we titled “The Free North?,” and which was influenced by the pedagogical impulse behind un-essay design, has become a pedagogical tool of its own.
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Copyright (c) 2022 Jacqueline Reynoso
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