One of my colleagues doodles maps. During a long day of meetings he will create an entire city on an 8.5×11-inch piece of paper. Sometimes tight urban areas, other times a coastal town or a community perched on a mountainside. They are incredible and fascinating.
Maybe I like them because I’m intrigued by maps. GPS is certainly handy and I was glad to have it when I drove through Houston to an unfamiliar location. Still, I miss paper maps. For one thing, paper maps never go wonky when you are in the middle of downtown and the buildings mess up the signals sending you to some random spot in the opposite direction from where you were trying to go. And, while it’s hard to believe and getting harder to find, there are places where you can’t get a GPS signal.
Paper maps help us orient ourselves in the physical world. We can understand distances and connections. They can help us imagine the wider world around us. Maps can help us figure out how to get from here to there. We can choose the most direct route or one that wanders a bit so we can see some new sights.
There are other kinds of maps as well. A college curriculum is a kind of map. It sets up a route through the complex and confusing world of course selections. The achievement groups of the Burnt Orange Society are a way of mapping the many involvement opportunities available to students. A syllabus is a map through a particular course.
But no matter what kind of map, “a single map… is not a self-contained document but a compilation of what ‘others have seen or found out or discovered’” (Denis Woods as quoted in The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime by Miles Harvey). What makes maps so important is that they make it possible for those who have gone before to share what they have learned with others.
As we start a new academic year, we once again have the chance to share our knowledge with others. We may share our mental maps to help a new student who hasn’t learned their way around campus. We may guide students through the many activities and programs available to them. We have maps, knowledge about ways to be successful at our university and once again, we have the chance to share the information we have gathered with our students and with each other.
GPS systems are handy, but they can’t tell us everything we need to know and they certainly can’t tell students how to succeed. All students have to find their own way through the world of the college experience, but our prior exploration and understanding of this world will help. We do it every day, but especially this month, it’s important that we go out of our way to help students find their way. Thank you for helping our students figure out how to get from here to there as we start another new year!
*Written for UT Austin Division of Student Affairs Staff Newsletter.