Map Club: Reflections on Teaching Self-Teaching in Digital Scholarship

This academic year, through my internship with the Center for Spatial Research and the Digital Social Science Center, I aspired to demystify digital mapping. I formed a series of fast-paced hack sessions focused on play, exploration, and the rapid acquisition of skills. To evoke exploration and inclusivity, I named the series Map Club.

Map Club represents an approach to learning. It seeks to hone the capacity to adapt to change, to encourage fearlessness in the face of new technology, and to nourish the value of experimentation without a specific goal. I color this description with a rhetorical intrepidity because I believe humility, determination, and bravery are the best traits to muster when digging into unfamiliar modes of making. Through Map Club, I wanted to leverage individual autonomy and creativity to teach attendees how to be self-taught. I hoped to achieve this by creating a space for collective, unstructured exploration, within which attendees could teach themselves.

Since its inception this summer, Map Club has met for 14 sessions and has explored 10 different mapping and visualization tools. Attendees have written code in JavaScript, Python, CartoCSS, and a bit of GLSL. We have fostered a space of creativity, collaboration, and digital empowerment, while continuing to grapple with the roadblocks that surface in new, less structured endeavors.

At the same time, this model has been neither unanimously fulfilling nor consistently easy. Map Club has suffered low attendance, mixed feedback, and inconsistent interest. Here, I would like to examine some of the reasons behind its irregular reception, as well as suggest some ideas for mitigating it.


In an effort to combat disorientation, each Map Club session this semester was loosely divided into three sections:

  • (20 minutes) Setup. Downloading a text editor, setting up a local server, and ensuring that example files display properly in the browser.
  • (60 minutes) Self-paced making. Unstructured time for attendees to experiment with the tool or library of the day.
  • (10 minutes) Sharing. Go-around to exhibit screenshots, cool glitches, and creative compositions.

While this schedule does help to divide up session time, it does not supplant the comforting sense of structure provided by a knowledgeable workshop leader. Though some students regularly stayed for entire sessions, others left early and never returned.


Based on attendee feedback, as well as my own observation, I believe the inefficacy of the initial Map Club model has three consistent causes.

  1. Attendees new to code have a harder time adopting it as a medium. Everybody learns differently. In the absence of prior experience, jumping into a new programming language without a guided tutorial can be confusing and disorganized.
  2. Unstructured time is not necessarily productive. Sometimes, the biggest challenge is figuring out what to do. Even for attendees who do have experience with code, determining how to spend the hour can become its own obstacle.
  3. An undefined goal is not the best stimulus. In choosing to attend a scheduled meeting, many attendees hope to avoid the obstacles and glitches that come from figuring out new platforms or libraries on their own. An un-guided workshop seems pointless.

📍Looking forward

Future Map Club sessions can improve by providing certain types of guidance for attendees, without encroaching upon the self-paced nature of learning-by-hacking.

  1. Provide a starter kit for new Map Club members. A bundled tutorial for introducing new attendees to basic digital mapping concepts provides material to help them better spend the session in a valuable way.
  2. Provide basic templates for download (when applicable). Even experienced attendees benefit from the time saved.
  3. Provide a list of tool-specific challenges. To make the session as productive as possible, put together a list of potential ideas, or challenges, for members to independently explore.
  4. Be available for questions. Even though these sessions are self-driven, nobody should be left in the dark. Leverage other attendees’ knowledge, too.
  5. Emphasize the value of mistakes. Some of the coolest visual output this semester came from members who took novel approaches to producing digital maps — Ruoran’s GeoJSON/Cartogram mashup, for instance, or Rachael’s vibrant approach to tiling. Encourage attendees to relish the proverbial journey and focus on editing, manipulating, and experimenting. De-emphasizing an end goal helps to alleviate the impetus to finish something.
  6. Include some guided workshops. To combat fatigue induced by Map Club’s ambiguous structure, I inserted several guided workshops into the series throughout the semester. Aside from keeping the momentum going, certain tools or frameworks (such as D3.js or QGIS) benefit from a step-by-step introduction.

📍Final thoughts

As an alternate workshop model, I believe that Map Club has the capacity to position technology as an ephemeral means to an end rather than a capability to master. By emphasizing what is plaint, inessential, and surprising about digital platforms, instead of what is inaccessible and opaque, my hope is that this series can foreground the process of learning as an end in itself.

To view the full repository of Map Club materials, sessions, and tutorials, click here. For recaps of each session, visit the “map club” tag on the Digital Social Science Center blog.

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