MAT Presentation, Nov. 3 2018

Micah Myers presented a paper co-authored with Joseph M. Murphy, titled “Teaching Roman Mobility: Digital Visualization in the Classroom and in Undergraduate Research” at the conference “Digital Cartography: New Maps, Ancient History” co-sponsored by the Ancient World Mapping Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Duke University’s Departments of Classical Studies and of Art, Art History & Visual Studies. Below is an abstract for the paper.

Teaching Roman Mobility:
Digital Visualization in the Classroom and in Undergraduate Research
Micah Myers & Joseph M. Murphy  (Kenyon College)

This paper looks at pedagogical applications of our web-based digital visualization project, Mapping Ancient Texts (MAT). We discuss: (1) a course in which students use the web application Carto to create visualizations from geo-spatial information in Cicero’s Letters; and (2) a student-researcher developing a digital visualization of Hannibal’s movements during the Second Punic War. This paper explores how these projects teach important technical skills and engage students in detailed analysis of Roman mobility and history. We also discuss the challenges of using evolving technologies in the liberal arts setting.

The “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” project approaches epistles as travel texts, in so far as they move from author to addressee and frequently make reference to the journeys that Cicero and his correspondents undertook. The data for “Mapping Cicero’s Letters” was created by Kenyon students enrolled in “The Ends of the Earth in the Ancient Imagination” in 2016 and 2018. The project was taught collaboratively by Assistant Professor of Classics, Micah Myers; director of the Kenyon College Center for Innovative Pedagogy, Joseph M. Murphy; and, in 2016, a student-researcher. Students, working in pairs, created their own digital visualizations as well as contributing to a collective dataset. To make visualizations, students learned to use the web application Carto, to analyze Cicero’s letters for information related to travel and geography, to find geographical coordinates using the Pleiades gazetteer, to create properly formatted tabular data, and to use SQL and CSS to manipulate their data and style their visualization. Students also wrote brief reports and gave presentations of their work.

All the groups succeeded in creating visualizations, although they faced challenges. In particular, students’ baseline experience with technology varied greatly, and Carto, like many apps, has bugs that occasionally present issues. Moreover, Carto released a new version of its application between the first and second iterations of the project, which required the instructors to learn new methods and adapt instruction. These challenges, however, encouraged students and instructors alike to develop resiliency, troubleshoot problems, and refine their work until the visualizations were completed.

In addition to bringing digital visualizations into the classroom, Myers also is advising a student, already contributing to the research side of MAT, as he develops his own related project, “Mapping Hannibal”, a geo-spatial narrative based on the Second Punic War, funded by a Kenyon Digital Summer Scholarship. “Mapping Hannibal” uses Carto, Leaflet, JSON Objects, and GIFs to visualize Hannibal’s movements around the Mediterranean. It employs digital technology to make Hannibal accessible in a new medium to college and advanced high school students. The project is an example of the exciting innovations that an engaged student with technical skills can bring to digital visualization. It also demonstrates some of the challenges of undergraduate research that involves proficiency in both classics and technology.

The paper concludes by discussing possible future pedagogical applications of digital visualization in the classics classroom.

Mapping Hannibal

Map of Hannibal During Second Punic War

“Mapping Hannibal” represents a new type of digital visualization for the Mapping Ancient Texts project. MAT student-researcher Daniel Olivieri (Kenyon ‘19) won a 2018 Kenyon Summer Digital Scholarship award to develop the project. Mapping Hannibal is a geo-referenced digital visualization about the major events in the life of Hannibal Barca, with a particular focus on the Second Punic War. The final product maps Hannibal’s movements during his lifetime, following him from his childhood in Carthage to his years of leadership in Spain, through his momentous victories in Italy, and finishing with his defeat at the battle of Zama and eventual exile from Carthage.

Visualizing a geo-referenced narrative presented new and exciting challenges for MAT. After researching Hannibal and the Second Punic War, Daniel used Leaflet to create Info-boxes that are geo-referenced on a Carto map layer. The info-boxes contain a summary of the relevant events that occurred in a given location (e.g., a battle), as well as links to primary and secondary sources. Presented with the challenge of narrating a long and complex story succinctly, Daniel added a glossary that would allow readers to learn more about different historical figures and events without leaving the website. The resulting glossary, made using modal boxes, features over twenty entries covering important individuals, groups, and major battles. The latter are visualized with GIFs created by Daniel that animate reconstructions of the conflicts. Daniel used the Semantic UI library to establish an attractive and consistent style throughout the site. He used JSON objects to hold the data for each point and for each entry in the glossary. In order to show the approximate extent of Roman and Carthaginian territory, he used Carto’s polygon feature. Through a progress bar at the bottom of the map, the site gives users a sense of how far along they are in the narrative.
In its completed form, Mapping Hannibal makes a famous event in Roman history available in a novel way through a digital medium. Mapping Hannibal emphasizes space and place; incorporates maps as well as other types of visualization, especially GIFs; and relates the narrative in a manner that is approachable, but that also provides links to primary sources, such as Polybius and Livy, and fundamental secondary sources, like the Oxford Classical Dictionary. We hope that Mapping Hannibal will be of interest to students and enthusiasts at all levels as well as to other working on digital mapping and data visualization.