The Mercator Needs No Defense


In last month’s issue of Frankly Speaking, I was disappointed to see a Mercator apologist being given platform to espouse tired rhetoric [1]. Mr. Kunimune’s article, while demonstrably erudite and well-researched, was and is totally unnecessary in a world dominated by the colonialist and abstractionist tyrannies of the Mercator projection.
The distortions inherent in the Mercator projection are by no means insignificant and should be reiterated: Greenland looks the same size as Africa, though Africa is in fact 14 times bigger; Alaska looks the same as Brazil, though Brazil is 5 times bigger, etc. In terms of teaching the size of countries, and, by extension, the relative positions of them, the Mercator is astoundingly bad.
This is not an unimportant issue when it comes to learning geography. The Western geography classroom has for decades been a site of colonialist indoctrination, and the Mercator projection’s continued use in this context serves as an aid to this end. Geography as an academic discipline in the US originated as an imperialist enterprise, and the practice of K-12 geography through the twentieth century emphasized learning about Western nations, colonies, and resources instead of people and places [2]. The use of the Mercator projection draws the eye to the global North: the US, UK, Spain, Germany, etc. while visually de-emphasizing all countries close to the equator (the global South, places historically colonised by the North).
Regardless of if these features of the map are mere “coincidence,” they likely helped it gain traction in geography education. Today, they make that education worse both in fact and in promoted ideology. Though the Mercator may have its redeeming qualities, i.e. for navigation, it should not see use as a general-purpose world map [3]. Surely, we can do better!
There’s one style of world map that can be pretty good, all things considered: a globe. For the unfamiliar, you can find a decent example of one by simply walking uphill from any place at Olin. In lieu of this, I’ve included a pseudo-globe (well, actually, a Dymaxion projection) that you can make yourself [4].
Finally, I’ll leave you with this: maps are mere abstractions (which is not to say that they’re pointless, but that they’re always wrong). As Korzybski once famously said, “The map is not the territory, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness” [5]. As Mr. Kunimune pointed out, all map projections are wrong because it is impossible to flatten a sphere. I will here add: all maps are wrong because they are not themselves the world.

[1] Kunimune, J. (2017). Defense of the Mercator. Frankly Speaking 9(1), 6-9.
[2] Barnes, T. J. (Eds.). (2000). Inventing Anglo-American economic geography, 1889-1960. In Sheppard E. & Barnes, T. J. (Eds.), A companion to economic geography (pp. 11-26). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
[3] Cartographic Notes. (1989). In American Cartographer 16(3), 222–223.
[4] Gaba, E. (2009). Blank map of the world in an unfolded Fuller projection. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
[5] Map–territory relation. In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed 2017-09-26.

Community, Not Class

Can you subtract by four? Could you switch out a single word from your daily discourse? Then you, my friend, are capable of making a language shift that will both change Olin’s culture and better reflect who we are. I’m talking about “Community Identification.”
What is this change? Easy. Stop identifying by graduating year, and instead identify by the year you started being a part of the Olin community. For example, instead of saying that the current first-years are the “Class of 2019,” we would say that they’re “Community 2015.”
Why would we want to do this? Firstly, it breaks the barriers between students and alumni in a way that reflects our Olin community. Graduating class identification separates students and alumni in a very simple way: current students have a date in the future, and alumni have a date in the past. The latter implies that alumni have left Olin completely. But just because somebody has graduated doesn’t imply that they are no longer a part of our family; once an Oliner, always an Oliner. Under Community Identification, were recognize how long alumni have been a part of our larger community.
Second, community identification egitimizes alternative student experiences, such as LOAs and withdrawals. For example, I took a semester off, and no longer will graduate in 2016. Although I will technically receive a degree in 2017, I will stop attending Olin next December. To say that I’m a part of the class of 2017 is socially wrong, but to say I am a part of the class of 2016 is just factually incorrect. Most LOAers resolve this by calling themselves “Class of X.5,” but that separates them from their entering community in a weird way. No longer will delayed graduation cause such a class identify crisis. I’m simply a part of the Community of 2012, and when I graduate doesn’t matter nearly as much as that fact.
Thirdly (and I’m sure some people will find this contentious), it can recognize faculty and staff as Oliners. These people, employees of the college, are also part of our community. Students and faculty/staff who enter Olin in the same year have some shared experience, and that should be recognized in our language.
(Some people have pointed out to me that the linguistic difference between faculty and students is useful. I agree! I’m not proposing that we do away with the faculty/staff/student (or even alumni!) community names, just that we adopt them as a part of the larger Olin community. One could identify as “Staff, community 2010” or “Faculty, community 2006.” Or, in the case of students who work here later, they could say “Alumni and Staff, communities 2008 and 2014, it’s complicated.”)
You may wonder what community identification does to traditional class names, like Senior, Sophomore, etc. I’m not saying that we should necessarily do away with these names altogether, but we could, in time, use community identification to replace them. So when people ask you ” what year are you?” you could simply respond with “Community 2013” instead of “a Junior” and people would know how long you’ve been here (which is way more useful that knowing how much longer you have). The terms would probably co-exist, in practice.
This isn’t a perfect proposal. But it’s totally better than Class Identification. It’s unifying language: it recognizes all of us as Oliners. And although it may be awkward at first, switching our language as a community would speak a lot about what Olin is. We’re not just a college, we’re a collection of people that grow every year and interact in new ways all the time.
So let’s stop measuring by endings (that are honestly pretty arbitrary) and instead by beginnings. Try it for a month, see how you like it. Give me feedback on what it’s like for you to use it, and we can modify this approach to fit us more as a community. This can be a living, growing effort, just like Olin itself.
/Thanks to Greg Marra and Marco Morales, who introduced this idea to me last year at SLACfest./

Carpe & Helpme: A Survey

There are at least 258 public mailing lists serviced by Olin’s Mailman system. Included in this vast number of lists for a student body of under 400 is everything from classes to clubs, politics to Pokémon. Yet, a huge portion of the students’ inboxes are taken by just two mailing lists: carpediem and helpme. Given these lists’ powerful place in our daily lives, a survey was sent out in June to subscribers of these lists in an attempt to define public opinion and guidelines about them, and our email system in general.

The quantitative portion of the survey, where respondants rated their agreement with statements on a scale of 1 to 10, seemed to show that users were dissatisfied with the existing use of carpediem and helpme. Although they sometimes felt like they could not contribute to the lists, almost all users felt invested in the lists’ success. The sheer number of emails was percieved to be too much across the board. Despite these feelings and apparent mood of annoyance, most respondents thought that emails should be sent to the lists that currently receive them.

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