Rhetoric and communication studies professor Tim Barney is a self-described “map nerd.” His obsession began with a children’s atlas he received as a Christmas gift. “I think I was around seven, and it was around the time that the Berlin Wall was falling,” he says. “There was this weird mysterious part of the world that we didn’t know much about, but I could read about it in an atlas. Maps transport you to another place and that is something that has always fascinated me.”

As a graduate student in rhetoric at the University of Maryland, Barney began to take an interest in the idea of visual rhetoric or, as he says, “how pieces of everyday visuals, whether it’s photographs, maps, or other sorts of things, can have political messages and persuade us.”

When the time came to think about his dissertation, Barney sought to combine his childhood passion with his scholarship, and look at cartography as a tool of persuasion. “Cartography has been used as an instrument of power in politics for a long time,” he says.

Barney focused his research on the use of cartography during the Cold War, paying particular attention to America as an emerging international power and how maps reflected and shaped its influence. “Cartography wasn’t only about trying to project America’s image, but seeing what our interests are around the world. To see that spatially laid out in front of you is a pretty powerful thing,” he says. 

He found the Cold War period interesting to examine. After airplanes became commonplace during World War II, the processes for making maps evolved and allowed for a higher level of detail. “From the perspective of an airplane, we have a new way of being able to bring the world together, which is both exciting and scary at the same time; now everything is closer to you,” he says.

Barney admits that in the field of rhetoric, which focuses on verbal and written communication, his choice of a visual topic was unexpected. “This was interdisciplinary, crossing history, geography, and international studies in addition to rhetoric,” he says. “You’re never sure how people are going to react to it, but thankfully, it’s been embraced.”

Barney’s dissertation caught so much attention that he won awards from the National Communication Association and the American Society for the History of Rhetoric. “I got to meet a lot of new people who are now excited about maps,” he says. “We have this weird little community of map nerds now within our discipline.”

He will now spend the summer adapting his dissertation into his first book for the University of North Carolina Press. “I was pleased and overjoyed. I didn’t expect to have a publisher of that stature be interested, especially so early in my career,” he says.

Barney also is finding ways to integrate visual rhetoric and cartography into his teaching at Richmond. “Anything can have a visual message to it. We talked a lot about maps during the election and how they are used politically,” he says.

The variety of cartography-related scholars on campus — from the geography department to the Digital Scholarship Lab—indicates that maps are becoming prevalent in a variety of fields. “There is this sense right now to think spatially about history,” he says. “You don’t feel like an outcast when other people are talking about it at the same time.”