Geographical Information Systems and the Exploration of French Culture and Society

  1. 1. Joel Goldfield

    Fairfield University

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This presentation describes the principal humanities
application of a recent grant project that used
Geographical Information Systems (GIS). It explores the
institutional context in which the project took place, curricular
and survey results, implications for faculty development using
a GIS tool in the humanities, and a glimpse at where the project
is leading in the study of language, literature and culture. A
GIS methodology we used allowed us to map statistical
information to make visible what might otherwise have been
merely a matrix of numeric data. It allowed us to distinguish
meaningful patterns. We have found that when the data come
to bear upon historical, political or sociological situations, they
can have an impact upon the study of language, culture and
even literature, thus the humanities. Such was the premise of
our project, the International Studies/Language Technology
Initiative, funded by three American philanthropic foundations
from 1999-2002, the Culpeper Foundation, the Archbold
Charitable Trust, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.1
Our GIS initiative focused on International Studies, Sociology,
and Modern Languages and Literatures. We sought to improve
our own analytical skills across disciplinary divisions as a model
for our students and to promote foreign languages across the
curriculum (FLAC).2 For French and Spanish, we introduced
maps into the curriculum, combined maps with data sets, and
encouraged students to answer questions in the foreign language
using these materials, which involved relatively simple but
relevant statistics that usually had an historical or a sociological
The first level consisted of faculty development, followed by
the creation and pilot application of interactive maps to help
students fill significant gaps in their knowledge of geography,
where they could work in pairs or small groups to discuss clues
about a country’s characteristics or location, then click on the
area within the borders to reveal the name and see if they were
correct. This approach eventually led to the creation of
multimedia GIS maps where the name of the country, capital
city or other regions would be pronounced and where other
multimedia materials such as digital video with subtitles or
captioning would appear to assist language learners (Figures 1 and 2, originally in color).3 The multimedia tagging of maps
using a proprietary GIS tool, MapInfo, allowed us to experiment
with a kind of hypertext and hypermedia suggested by Vannevar
Bush’s article “As We May Think” (Atlantic Monthly, July
1945, 101-108) and which have been explored by countless
other researchers for a host of applications. We are currently
investigating the viability of non- proprietary GIS tools such
as QGIS and Google Earth applications.
In our project, we created some maps that showed change in
demographic or other features over time, others that showed
local, regional, national, and transnational patterns in trade, use
of resources, socio-demographics and politics. Several of these
custom-designed GIS maps will be shown at the presentation.
Faculty anecdotally concluded that this work enhanced students’
ability to read tables, recognize spatial data, read maps, and use
the computer as an analytical tool, not just a word processor,
e-mailing device, or means to browse the Internet.
When applied to studies and classes in modern languages and
literatures, we developed pedagogies to encourage analytical
and critical thinking. One successful application was to pair
this author’s French Translation class (FR 265) with a class in
Urban/Suburban Sociology (SO 163) on several occasions,
where the latter’s students were charged with a task that is far
from trivial, one that Martyn Jessop in the 2006 ADHO
conference identified: “The number of digital datasets is
growing rapidly and these are often of interest to researchers
in fields other than the often highly specialised one that the
data was originally derived for but how does one locate them?”
(Digital Humanities 2006, p. 101). The task in our case was a
“mapquest” activity to find French census data that would allow
both the French Translation and anglophone Sociology classes
to analyze patterns of North African demographics in France.
These results were applied to the discussion in another French
class reading short selections from francophone North African
literature and about the political situation in France. The
presentation will more fully describe the survey results, partially
illustrated in Figure 4, based on the students’ responses to
questions concerning the team activity and their learning.
Applications of these maps to the study of French language and
culture and francophone literature come into focus when one
“zooms” into a region, city, Parisian arrondissement (district)
and neighborhood and how it actually looks, much as Stendhal
zoomed in on the little town of Verrières in the first chapter of
Le rouge et le noir (1830). Our project constantly strove to put
a human face on what might otherwise have simply been an
aerial photo or a map showing colorful patterns. Zooming in
on the La Glacière métro stop in Paris through French census
data yields one sense of the community. Another one emerges
when one views the neighborhood from street level and watches
a documentary clip on street basketball (Figure 1).4
An historical example includes a GIS map of the population
density in the Paris region which surprised us as an illustration
compatible with the Concentric Zone Theory proposed by the
Chicago School of Ernest Burgess, Robert Parks and others in
the 1920’s.5 The results of the French policy of centralization
start to become clear from this perspective by using a map that
shows contrasts in population (Figure 3, originally in color).
This map and similar ones have sparked student discussions of
the differences in schooling between the United States and
France, of the relative sizes of cities, and other conversations
that have yielded a good number of “aha” moments. The
complexity of these thoughts and their expression depend upon
the students’ language level. However, students starting with
the second year of university French study have been able to
grasp and discuss the implications of “L’Etat, c’est moi” for
the general French population under Louis XIV, a statement
that presaged the migratory movement that would lead
approximately one quarter of the entire French population to
live within a forty-four-mile (seventy-one-kilometer) radius
starting from the center of Paris (Figure 3).
GIS tools have allowed us to create maps that help answer
sociodemographic and other questions that might never have
been asked. These new products have made visible certain
patterns that would otherwise have been hidden in census and
other data (Figure 4, originally in color). This presentation
shares the background, materials and procedures by which the
project was created and has been sustained in several disciplines
since 1999. To our knowledge, no creation of similar materials
for French and Sociology had been created.6
Further work will involve the collection of authentic materials
by U.S. students on study abroad in France and by faculty
members. The new materials will include interviews with
residents whose lives may already span various generations,
photographs linked to GPS coordinates, historical documents,
and current realia. These authentic materials will be integrated
into language acquisition curricula as well as higher-level
courses by faculty in our French program in the proof of concept
phase. One prospective benefit is the encouragement of study
abroad as students become much more familiar with the people,
sounds, sights, arts, thoughts and sociological fabric of various
towns and cities in France. Quantitative and qualitative aspects
will provide students with a fuller ability to appreciate French
culture and civilization as well as give them the chance to work
with peers who do not have the linguistic background to access
the materials first hand. The results of a small-scale study of
such interaction (Figure 5, originally in color) suggest that
helping speakers of a foreign language add a GIS analytical
ability at the university level and in a career is an easier task
than the obverse, training users of GIS sufficiently in the foreign
language to allow them first-hand access to the foreign language
materials. 1. See results reported on the Modern Languages, Literatures and
Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Web page at <http:
MLL-GISprojects.htm> and <http://www.facu
0201.htm> (Feb. 28, 2007). Dr. Kurt Schlichting, Chair and
Professor Sociology and Anthropology at Fairfield University
directed the ISLT Initiative and, together with Mr. Chris Calienes,
assisted the author in the preparation of the GIS maps.
2. See information on successes of FLAC in the liberal arts and
professional schools, such as at the University of Rhode Island
and the University of Connecticut, at: <http://press.uc
National_conference.html> (Feb. 28, 2007). An
important report on FLAC from the American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages appears at: <http://www.a
pdf> (Feb. 28 2007)
3. The digital annotation tool was obtained from Tandberg
Educational, Inc., and Divace Oy (now known as Sanako, Inc.), Divace Solo, v. 4.0 (Turku, Finland: Divace Oy, 1997-2003). The
product is now known as Media Assistant Solo, CD-ROM,
published by Sanako, Inc. (Turku, Finland). The sample scene of
inner-city basketball in Paris was part of instruction materials
created by the author for French courses of various levels,
necessitating varying types of linguistic assistance, such as the
English subtitles pictured here. Other versions of the same
audio-video materials included French captions or no linguistic
support materials.
4. Thompson, Chantal P. and Bette G. Hirsch. Videotape to
accompany Ensuite: Cours intermédiaire de franc􀀀ais. 4th ed.
Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
5. Burgess, Ernest. The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a
Research Project. Eds. Robert Park, Ernest Burgess and R. D.
McKenzie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925.
6. Since March 1, 2000, a monumental integration of GIS, historical,
cultural, linguistic, artistic and other materials for the study of
Asian cultures has been carried out by Professor David Germano
and colleagues for the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library at
the University of Virginia: <
dex.php> (Feb. 28, 2007).

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None