Steve Hanna would peer out the window on road trips with his parents, matching points on the highway to the ones on the paper he held in his hands. Something about all those dots, lines and colors drew him in.
No wonder Hanna, UMW professor of geography, ended up building a career on making – and teaching about – maps. There was no alternative route.
“My brain works by making connections between things,” he said.
Since coming to campus in 1997, Hanna has taken the business of making connections at Mary Washington to heart. He ties the art of cartography to history, political science – even English – and uses maps to tell powerful stories about our world. But perhaps his greatest connections are the ones he makes with his students.
“I’d much rather sit and work on something with students than stand in front of a classroom,” said Hanna, who enlists undergrads to make maps, write articles, do fieldwork, conduct research and contribute to all types of projects.
The public radio show With Good Reason will feature one of them with the Feb. 3 début of “Civil Rights and Civil War Markers.” The show, which airs in Fredericksburg on Radio IQ 88.3 Digital on Sunday at 2 p.m., will highlight Hanna’s research with students on Fredericksburg monuments and markers, and the stories they tell – or don’t tell – about the history of slavery. The appearance is the latest in a string of successes for Hanna. In November alone, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) gave him its Southeastern Division Research Honors Award, a spot among its first fellows and the title of cartography editor for its three publications.
Hanna has logged many miles since he landed his first job making street maps, drawing straight edges and smoothing curves. But even back then his knack for cartography transcended the technical. He had a flair from the start, he said, for “taking a good map and making it into something somebody wanted to look at.”
And learn from.
A human geographer and GIS expert whose work centers around cultural, economic and critical aspects, Hanna’s research focuses on how a map’s meaning can change with each user’s knowledge and background. And he involves colleagues – and especially students – every step of the way.
“Dr. Hanna’s willingness to bring students onboard in his research shows that he’s confident in our abilities,” said Maiah Bartlett ’17. “Knowing this helped build my confidence not just as a student but as a person.”
The research Hanna will share on this weekend’s radio show found that few Fredericksburg monuments and markers mentioned slavery, but it opened the door for something bigger: Hanna’s “Transformation of Racialized American Southern Heritage Landscape.” The three-year endeavor – funded by a $445,000-plus National Science Foundation grant and involving five partner universities and eight UMW undergrads – revealed a similar trend at plantation museums across the U.S. South.
The team documented tours; conducted thousands of interviews on plantations across Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia; transcribed, coded and analyzed the data; and published the results.
“It was my most rewarding experience as a student at UMW,” Christine MacKrell ’17 said of the project, which is changing the way the South tells its story of slavery. “For a professor to bring undergraduates into their own research is a rare opportunity.”
One of the best things about Hanna’s new job as AAG’s cartography editor? Getting to hire a student assistant.
The collaborative professor, who won Mary Washington’s prestigious Waple Faculty Professional Achievement Award in 2016, has used cartography to illustrate voting trends, industry and everything in between. His work is widely published in geography journals and he’s co-edited two books. But some of his proudest accomplishments have happened when he’s brought others along for the ride.
“The most enjoyable parts to me, and I think the most meaningful to UMW students,” Hanna said of the NSF plantation project, “are those when we had to work together to learn to do something new.”