Those maps at the beginning of books, or, a few words about teaching

by James Somers, March 7, 2009

If you’re out to understand a story that’s really located, as in deeply bound to a particular place, you would do well to have at least a murky mental picture of nearby landmarks, both natural and manmade. For books like Joyce’s Ulysses, where the action so often hinges on spatial minutiae — like which side of the street Bloom’s on — you probably need something more vivid, and of course more accurate.

Now some authors (or more likely, their publishers) will occasionally offer a partial solution to this problem by providing an aerial map of the region. But this rarely turns out to be helpful, if it’s ever even read.

The problem is not that these are bad maps, like that they omit salient details or leave too little to the imagination. It’s just that they’re in the wrong part of the book. Almost always, they’re buried in what book-people call the “front matter”: the edition notice, title page, dedication, table of contents, preface, foreword, prologue, introduction, etc.

Even if you read that stuff (which many people don’t, either because it’s boring or because they’re careful to avoid spoilers), odds are you won’t linger for long on the map. The reason is that it means about as little to you now, when you’ve first picked up the book, as it ever will. Every feature worth caring about — the fact that George Willard’s new house is a two-minute walk to the railroad, or that Hern’s Grocery opens onto the East side of the street (so Kate will see the sun setting on her way out) — is tied in some way to the characters, who haven’t yet arrived.

It is of course possible to flip between the text and the map, but this is only likely to happen (a) if something about the scenery is especially (or really, espatially) confusing, or (b) if you’re forced to. But if the map has proven valueless the first time you’ve looked at it, you probably won’t want to look at it again.

Which suggests the following question: when should it be presented?

I think the end of the book is just as bad as the beginning, because by then it’s too late to start thinking about new scenes in terms of the map, which is how you’d populate it with the kind of rich associational content that makes maps useful.

What you want, then, is to find some place late enough that at least a few locales or landmarks will ring a bell — ideally pushing you to mentally reorganize some of what you’ve just read –, yet also early enough for there to be time for meat to grow on your scaffold.

The best experience I’ve had with this kind of thing was in Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, a must-have for anyone trying to tackle Joyce’s masterpiece.

What Gifford did was print a map at the end of each chapter (or more exactly, at the beginning of each chapter’s endnotes) that was relevant to that chapter alone. What’s more, he’d trace the route that the characters had taken through that particular part of the city. Which meant that as you routinely consulted the guide, you were effectively confronted with your main character’s real-time location — because you had in mind exactly where he was, or what he was looking at, and you could find it on Gifford’s map; and then of course you’d look ahead a little, which helped you anticipate and orient yourself for the character’s next move. By the end of the chapter you effectively had a little movie in your head, because you’d traced the whole thing out as you went along.

Of course, the efficacy here has a lot to do with the fact that you were in fact forced to consult the map. But Gifford made it worth your while, and other books could follow his lead if they thought creatively.

* * *

The reason I wanted to articulate this question of “where to put the map” in detail is that I think it serves as a useful model for learning in general.

That is, when I introspect about content that I’ve retained quickly and understood well, I realize that so much of what made it click had to do with the timing and ordering of my encounters with scaffold-material:

  • terms/definitions
  • theorems
  • maps
  • graphs
  • tables
  • timelines
  • categories/classes
  • nested combinations of the above

versus meat-material:

  • examples
  • proofs
  • problems
  • exercises
  • stories
  • first-hand experiences
  • instantiations
  • etc.

The key for me, again, is to scaffold only after I’ve got some meat, but still early enough to enable ample use of that scaffold.

The idea of “the meta level,” for example, is a lot easier to understand if you tacitly have in mind many examples of it before you finally encounter the “concept”; but there is some pressure to learn it sooner rather than later, because once you do articulate that definition precisely, you’ll be able to “call” it as a kind of cognitive computational module — an especially useful one at that.

This is why I advocate problem-based approaches to computer programming [pdf], because you learn the big ideas from the bottom up: you start by working hard on concrete examples, which are then generalized (often with help from others) into useful principles, honed by more work, and generalized again. The cycle is repeated and before you know it you will really know it.

This is in contrast to the standard (K-12) approach, which if I’m not mistaken starts with “concepts” and has you do exercises as applications of these concepts. It’s backwards. It’s like putting the map at the beginning of the book.