Adam Rothman’s History Students Map the Underground Railroad

In this post, CNDLS Graduate Associate Caitlin O’Leary reports on a mapping project conceptualized by Professor Adam Rothman (History) that deepened engagement in his history class.

Last spring, Professor Adam Rothman, an Associate Professor in Georgetown’s History Department, decided to teach History 286: Slavery in North America a little bit differently than usual. Professor Rothman consulted with Susan Pennestri, an instructional technologist at CNDLS, to bring the nineteenth-century content of his class to life for his twenty-first-century students by using GIS tools: he asked students to translate stories from an 1872 memoir into an interactive storyboard on Google Maps.

Professor Rothman used William Still’s memoir as a primary source in his class to complement secondary source readings. Still, who was a clerk in the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, encountered hundreds of runaway slaves through his work as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Still recorded the stories of the runaway slaves and published his memoir.

Professor Rothman assigned each student a few stories to analyze with the goal of determining the origin of each runaway’s journey. The students then plotted these points on the Google Map and annotated each marker with a summary of the slave’s story, as well as a link to the primary source. After the completion of the class map, students participated in a class discussion and wrote reflections about their findings.

Professor Rothman’s Google Maps project was successful because he relied on the creativity and technological facility of his students to transform a familiar tool into a meaningful, engaging learning experience. Ultimately, the GIS project enhanced students’ learning in many different ways: his students collaborated, refined their research skills, engaged in thoughtful reflection and discourse, and ultimately published their work online for a global audience.

Most significantly, Professor Rothman revivified a remote part of the Underground Railroad and allowed students to deepen their understanding of the ramifications of slavery in modern times. He literally brought slavery home to his students: many runaway slaves, who were the same age as the students in the class, began their journeys in Georgetown.

This project unified Professor Rothman’s students in their pursuit of knowledge and enabled them to see slavery in a new light; a retrospective investigation of slavery was replaced with a new perspective thanks to Google Maps. The final project can be viewed here.

To date, William Still’s Underground Railroad has been viewed over 3,600 times. Professor Rothman intends to continue mapping the Underground Railroad in future classes so that his research can reach his global audience of digital learners, who can continue their self-guided exploration of slavery.