Faculty Spotlight: Christopher Harwood on Integrating the “Locus Tempus” Digital Mapping Platform into his Comparative Literature Course

by | Jul 20, 2021

Christopher Harwood has been a Lecturer in Czech in Columbia’s Department of Slavic Languages since 2001. In addition to Czech language courses at the elementary, intermediate and advanced level, he teaches a series of courses in English on Czech literature and culture.

In the 2021 Summer A term, Christopher Harwood integrated Locus Tempus, a mapping platform, into the instruction of his comparative literature course The Writers of Prague. Through their use of Locus Tempus, students developed a heightened understanding of Prague topography and of the ways that different authors work with existing myths about the city’s history and landmarks and develop new ones.

About Locus Tempus: Locus Tempus is an open-source mapping platform developed by the CTL. It facilitates map-based learning activities across disciplines by engaging students to act as repository builders, researchers, and curators. Locus Tempus features tools for annotating maps, inviting collaborators, and analyzing data spatially and temporally. The platform, supported by an Office of the Provost Teaching and Learning Grant, integrates with CourseWorks, allowing Columbia instructors to easily set up assignments for their courses. Faculty interested in learning more should contact the CTL at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu.

Below, we asked Professor Harwood about his experience using Locus Tempus to enhance student learning in his course:


What were the main challenges of your course? What motivated you to integrate this new technology?

In June 2020 I volunteered to teach my Writers of Prague comparative literature course during the Summer A session in 2021, instead of the Spring 2021 semester for which it was originally scheduled. Shifting the course content from the usual 13- or 14-week semester to the intensive six-week summer course format raised many challenges. I wanted to have some activities for each 3-hour-and-10-minute class session with which I could break up the main routines of lecture on historical context and author biography and discussion of literary texts. At the same time, I was eager to find new ways to help students get to know the city of Prague more thoroughly: its geographic layout, its different neighborhoods, its major landmarks, the historical events that have shaped it, and the specific ways it has been imagined and mythologized in texts by such diverse authors as Guillaume Apollinaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gustav Meyrink, Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Vítězslav Nezval, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Locus Tempus proved to be a valuable tool for achieving both of these goals.


How was the student experience enhanced?

In several class sessions, students spent 45 to 90 minutes with Locus Tempus mapping locations in Prague referenced in one or more literary texts. For each location they mapped, students attached an image, identified the context within the literary work where it is mentioned or alluded to, and in some exercises commented on the mythic, symbolic or emotional associations connected with it. Each student worked individually mapping a set of points, and when they were finished, we reviewed their responses together as a class. This proved to be a good way for students to get to know places in Prague, both by doing their own research and by observing their classmates’ work.

Locus Tempus, an open-source digital mapping tool designed to facilitate map-based learning activities.

What resources did you need to integrate the Locus Tempus application?

Successful implementation of Locus Tempus in my Writers of Prague course was made possible by my early introduction to the tool and frequent consultation with CTL staff who had developed it and explored its application in different modes of instruction. In conversation with CTL professionals, I was able to develop different student activities with Locus Tempus, find ways to integrate them into my lesson plans, troubleshoot, and suggest ways to enhance the effectiveness of Locus Tempus for achieving my pedagogical goals.

Students were very excited about the auto-grading features and were able to use these features effectively to improve their work. In addition, since I have access to all the marked work, I can go over some of the student submissions with the names hidden during whole class discussions. Students were noticeably more engaged when seeing the work from their peers and actively engaging in the learning process from me explaining and correcting common mistakes.


What evidence from your activities showed the effectiveness of this new integration?

There is no doubt that students who used Locus Tempus with me this summer developed a much more specific and accurate sense of Prague geography than had students in previous iterations of the course. They became very aware of the ways characters in literary texts move through different spaces in Prague, and of the associations and connotations that specific locations have in different authors’ works. While my course redesign for the intensive format of the Summer A term forced me to drop several texts from the syllabus that I teach in the full-semester format, students this summer demonstrated unusually intensive personal engagement with course material in their written assignments and contributions to class discussion.


How has the implementation process been? Did you encounter any teaching challenges?

We encountered a couple of technical bugs with the Locus Tempus application, which CTL staff were able to correct. I also encountered some unexpected student responses, as not all students responded to instructions in the same way. The latter experience provided valuable lessons for me in how to introduce in-class activities and assignments in order to generate optimal student responses. 


This is a new way of teaching for you, but also for your students. How did they react to this new approach?

By and large my students responded very positively to the intensive six-week summer term format in general, and to our work with Locus Tempus in particular. It became apparent early on that my students had widely varying degrees of experience and comfort with different kinds of online learning tools, and some of them took to it much more quickly than others. With repetition of similar activities, however, they developed more similar degrees of mastery, and those who were initially a little perplexed seemed to develop a greater degree of comfort and fluency. As in all small-group classes, and especially with online learning, it was important in this course to develop a strong sense of community among the students enrolled, and to encourage everyone not to be shy about contributing to discussions and group activities.


Do you have any advice for other faculty who are considering utilizing a new teaching technology such as Locus Tempus? 

Expect that it will be a big challenge for you as an instructor to make a major change in your teaching modality or to make extensive use of new teaching technology. It will almost certainly put you out of your comfort zone for a while, but it is precisely under such circumstances, when you are off balance, that you can make some breakthroughs to new and more effective ways of teaching, and convince yourself to jettison techniques or habits that may not be as effective as you had thought they were. Having weekly check-ins with CTL staff to review my plans and experiences with Locus Tempus was a great way both to refine my own teaching goals and strategies and to develop more confidence in my ability to apply Locus Tempus.