In a world in which many of us navigate via Google Maps, CCV-Springfield instructor Brad Houk has taken a different route, and his students are more than happy follow him.
“I like to create maps that make a difference concerning social issues,” Houk says.
It’s called counter cartography, and in essence it’s about creating maps that challenge currently-accepted beliefs about a place, it’s people or an issue. For Houk, who teaches classes at CCV, half-time at Green Mountain High School in Chester, and half-time at Riverside Middle School in Springfield, it’s about empowering his students to see and approach the world differently, and about teaching them how they can use maps to create positive change.
At CCV Houk has taught numerous courses including Dimensions of Freedom, Paper Arts, Children’s Literature, and for spring 2015, he’s teaching geography. He’s studied design, landscape architecture and education, competed on a nationally ranked wrestling team while at Penn State, has ridden a bicycle across northern China, and mapped the tattoos and piercings of the Occupy protesters while marching from Philadelphia to New York City. In simple terms, Houk has a wealth of experience he brings to his classes, and a passion for getting students fired up and involved in their community.
“Ideally, I want students to gain the confidence to see the world around them in new ways, and to make connections, and to feel empowered to use maps to benefit themselves or an issue they care about,” Houk said. “Initially they don’t see the connections, but that’s the purpose of the maps, to exercise the ability see the connections, to strengthen what your brain is really wired to do.”
Last semester Houk’s paper arts students spent time in the village of Bellows Falls mapping parked cars and foliage. The class produced two large maps, one made up of origami depicting tree color, the other displays block prints of parked cars in various colors. His children’s literature students mapped areas of the village to find subject matter for the books they produced, which are currently available at the town library. According to Houk, he and his students are documenting a slice of time in the village, and when more and more maps depicting various things are made–wind chimes and church bells, pet routes, grafitti–the entire body of work will make up an atlas of sorts.
Students in Houk’s paper arts class mapped foliage in Bellows Falls, and those in his Children’s Literature class mapped the town in search of characters for inclusion in their stories.
“It’s my hope that as we map and put together a series of maps that it will reveal things that might be useful for or needed by the community, but I don’t know what those things might be until we explore the community,” he said. “This is all part of the living experience of Bellows Falls at this very specific point in time, right now, so tomorrow these maps might be out of date, but that’s okay. Any map, once it’s printed is out of date.”
In graduate school Houk worked on mapping projects similar to these under the direction of Dr. Denis Wood, then a professor of design and committee chair at North Carolina State University. Wood’s work, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, has served as an inspiration and a template of sorts for Houk, whose work in Bellows Falls and Chester is based on Wood’s Everything Sings. Ira Glass, who interviewed Wood for the book on This American Life, writes in the introduction:
[The maps] describe human lives without ever showing us any people. Instead, we see the underground structures that humans build for waste and the paths they make for squirrels in the sky. We see which homes have wind chimes and which ones call the cops. We see the route of the letter carrier and the life cycle of the daily paper. Wood is writing a novel where we never meet the main characters, but their stuff is everywhere.”
Houk’s plan is to present similar data from his Vermont communities and with the help of students, his partner, Wood, and many others, produce atlases that will set the wheels in motion for positive change.
“I want to build on Denis’s work by combining these mapping efforts with service-learning and community-engagement,” he said. “I want the maps to work. To bring about positive change. To reveal, show, express, inspire.”
Houk said this semester his students will be choosing their own subjects to map around the village, but that he has ideas for a graffiti map that will tie the village’s street art to that found on the trains across the river and also to the oldest graffiti in the area–the petroglyphs found down by the river.
All of this fits quite nicely into CCV’s service learning mission in which students gain knowledge by giving back to the community through meaningful, community service-oriented projects.
“This is documenting life in Bellows Falls,” Houk said. “Putting together a body of work like this is giving back to Bellows Falls. What the students get out of Bellows Falls is learning more about the community, how to look at a community and the world around them differently, and they learn how to make connections in different ways.”
As for how students respond to the projects, Houk said by and large his CCV students have gotten very excited about the projects, and the maps they’ve created are proof of their commitment to producing valuable documentary material for the community. Nearly half his enrolled students this semester, he said, are former students who’ve worked on projects with him before. Beyond this, Houk recalled two CCV-Rutland students with whom he worked who continued mapping projects in Chester, Vermont, for two Saturdays after the class had ended.
“When that happened, I thought, ‘I’m on to something here, this is something I should pursue in the other classes I’m teaching.’ They really just wanted to come down to finish the project.”
And he’s done just that, incorporating mapping projects into each of his CCV courses over the past few years. Although he admits that the classes are serving as a bit of a laboratory for him–he’s never quite sure what direction the mapping projects will take–Houk says his students jump right in and bring unique vision to each project.
“So much of this evolves in the classroom. I have a general sense of what’s going to happen, but I had no idea that these two things would happen,” Houk said, motioning to the parked car and tree color maps. “It’s very artistic, and it’s from their involvement that it all happened the way it did. It could have turned out very differently. So much of this is the process.”
Now that spring semester is fully underway Houk said he’ll have his students out in the streets of Bellows Falls looking for subject matter to map in the coming weeks. With the days getting longer, he said students will have more time to observe and assess what needs to be documented. And while Houk maintains that he’s not certain where things in his geography class will fall on the map this year, he does have one prediction.
“This semester I’d like to go deeper and get into not just the beautiful things you see on the surface, but also the other things below the surface that are going on,” he said. “I’d like to really find, in a sense, the identity of the community in it’s human fullness.”