Technology meets literature as students map a classic novel


In a small classroom in the School of Social Work Building, 12 industrious students peered at what looked like a simple schematic of sorts on a large projector screen.

The image consisted of big dots placed in a random fashion connected by lines, forming a simple network. Moments later, another image showed a much more complex network of red and blue blobs all over the place.

As they looked at these diagrams, one of two instructors, Justin Joque, talked about, naturally, “Moby-Dick.”

Wait. What?

Dots and lines and colored blobs may seem to have little to do with one of America’s most famous, albeit most difficult to — well — navigate, novels. But in this class, the two were intricately related.

The dots, or “nodes,” Joque told the students, represent things — people, books, places. The lines indicate relationships between the nodes. In all, these are networks, and “networks can be made up of nodes of different types. Distance doesn’t matter. Only points and connections matter.

“We associate networks as these heavy, computational works,” Joque continued. “A traditional plot summary is very lineal; networks allow you to show the complexity of a novel.”

The class was “Mapping Moby-Dick,” and, true to its name, it was all about using maps to figure out, and then illustrate, what Melville was talking about and where he was going with all of his characters, geographic hop-scotching and symbolism.

That’s right. Maps. Not essays. Not term papers. Not multiple-choice tests.

This was the course followed by Joque, visualization librarian for U-M Libraries, and co-instructor Patrick Tonks, assistant director for programming at the Institute for the Humanities. Tonks designed the concept of the course and recruited Joque to handle the technical aspects.

Students Alissar Langworthy, center right, and Sam Torchio, seated, discuss a mini-course where they are mapping the novel “Moby-Dick.” Also pictured, from left, are Patrick Tonks, assistant director for programming at the Institute for the Humanities, and Justin Joque, visualization librarian for U-M Libraries. (Photo by Roger Hart, Michigan Photography)

The format was relatively simple for this one-credit mini-course. Before each class, students read a few chapters, then during class discussed what they saw or didn’t see, liked and didn’t like. The goal by the end of the term was to create a map to explain any aspect of the novel students chose.

“I loved the open format of the class,” says sophomore Sam Torchio, 19, who is working toward Bachelor of Business Administration and Bachelor of Computer Science degrees. He had not read “Moby-Dick” before. “The course was truly structured for the students to be able to find what aspects of the novel they enjoyed, and spent the semester delving into those sections of the book.”

According to the course description, “there is always more than one way to read a novel,” and one way, apparently, is by making maps. Students’ final map projects, the description says, had to be “visually compelling and communicate something interesting either about the text itself or the context in which the book was written.” What they portrayed, and how, was completely up to students.

“It’s my hope that a class like this provided students who might be more comfortable assembling a data set than writing an essay an opportunity to get invested in the in-depth reading of a work of literature,” Tonks says.  

But before you pull out the Crayolas … there’s a catch: These aren’t ordinary maps, the kind you colored in fifth grade or studied in 11th-grade geography. These “maps” illustrate an increasingly important skill in this digital age called “data visualization.” So this unusual course was essentially rediscovering “Moby-Dick” by redefining maps.

“Increasingly, students, as well as academics and professionals in all fields, are being asked to engage with the world visually and as ‘data,'” Joque says. “In many ways, this way of seeing and representing the world requires an entirely different set of literacies than those required for writing a traditional essay. So our hope was to get the students thinking about different modes of communicating and representing complex ideas.”

To wit, the software tools students used were ArcGIS for mapping; R for charts and graphs; Cytoscape for network diagrams; and Adobe Illustrator for diagrams and cleaning up visualizations, Joque says. Such tools are used to produce maps in the “real world” to show such data as the percentage of land devoted to each crop, by county, across the United States. The class also studied much older multidata maps such as one depicting Napoleon’s march to Moscow, showing places and timing.  

If that sounds as complicated as reading “Moby-Dick,” welcome to the 21st century. But these are 21st-century citizens, these students who “realized very quickly how intimately familiar with maps and diagrams they are from the daily use of Google maps to info graphics in The New York Times to the reporting of sports statistics,” Joque says. They “all seemed to grasp the idea of mapping the novel very quickly.”

Tonks says when he used a similar technique of encouraging using technology in a class he taught where students read “Jane Eyre,” “one student used a video game-building platform to design a three-dimensional model of Thornfield Hall,” the key setting for the novel.

Students say they are loving the voyage into learning literature through data visualization.

“I read ‘Moby-Dick’ before, but I was too young to fully appreciate it,” says sophomore Alissar Langworthy, 20, a philosophy major. This time around, she has concluded that, “I loved reading the book — but it also was very enlightening to learn about data visualization. It’s an area I never really had explored but was really important to learn about. I never realized that an argument could be made with a single image, and the amount of information that can be contained in good visualizations far exceeds what one would expect.”

Shortly before final presentations, Langworthy was working on her final project, which would illustrate both the geographical journey of two characters on another whaling ship, the Town-Ho, and the information transfer between them.

“The geography of the story will be represented as a subway map,” Langworthy said, “with each ‘station’ being an event of the story and each ‘hub’ being an intersection of two ships.” Information transfers were to be shown with “bus routes branching off from the hubs. The lines will travel from the place where the transfer of information happened directly to the next spot that the information is transferred, bypassing any physical journey that happened in between.”

Torchio said he wanted to create with his map “a graphical interpretation of the island of Kokovoko,” a fictional island in the South Pacific.

“The idea is to take the small pieces of information about the island and the character Queequeg,” who hails from Kokovoko, “that are given to the reader, and turn them into some aspect of the island.” He found passages about these topics in the book and organized them into categories. “From there, I will infer certain aspects of the island that must exist in order for those customs and facts to be true.”

There is a lot more to say about both projects, but you get the idea.

Tonks and Joque are pleased with how students interpreted the novel-mapping idea. “A lot of the students have pushed the definition of ‘the map,'” Joque says.

Final presentations will take place Thursday (April 17), with students co-exploring one another’s sensational maps.

They had a whale of a good time.

— Sheryl James is a freelance writer for the University of Michigan.


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