Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bradley University: Teaching Visual Rhetoric

Welcome to the workshop resource page. I'll place links and other items here.

If you have questions after the workshop, feel free t drop me an email at ncarbone at bedfordstmartins dot com. Sorry that's not an active link, but I'm trying to cut down my spam intake.

I should begin by confessing. I'm not really all that good with image technology. I can figure out Photoshop when I have to, but I don't use it a lot. I've done some movie editing, but don't make it a habit. Ok, I did it once. I've built ebooks that used mulitmedia --images, audio, video, linking-- but not recently. Why am I pointing this out? Because it's important to understand that you don't have to be an expert in the latest technology in order to teach visual rhetoric. You don't have to know Photoshop in order to have your students do something along the lines this Salon article describes, where people are using Photoshop to do homemade political satire and commentary. Here's the URL for the story:

You need to sit through a short slide show ad to see it, but it's worth a look if you're thinking about using the elections or civic literacy, or pop culture or multimedia composing or technology in your courses this summer or fall. Here's a link to one of the most famous Photoshop satires: (It's from Mad Magazine.). For something less professional, follow this link to Google Image that uses the search words photoshop and satire.

See also, which runs regular Photoshop contests for more examples, such as this one that takes off on Renoir:

But still, what's a teacher to do?

You can assign students to do a photoshop assignment using the tools you have, including something as humble as Microsoft's Paint. I used Paint to make the Bradley University graphic you see at the top of this entry.

But more importantly, I think there are two broad approaches you can take in the classroom when teaching visual rhetoric: reading and writing.

Reading visual rhetoric is simply the process of treating images and video the way we treat essays and literature. You look at them with a critical eye. The trick is, that most of us grew up as literary scholars. We were taught how to discern such formal elements as an introduction, a thesis statement, a paragraph. We know about plot, character development, dramatic triangles, prosody, rhyme, stanzas, and so much more. We have handbooks on writing, a language to talk about language, and vocabularies for discussing poetry, fiction, drama, and other literary forms.

Remarkably, a lot of that language can be adapted to the reading of images. One of my first forays into reading an image took place from a writing textbook that was first written, I believe, in the early sixties--P.J. Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. The introduction of this book began with a rhetorical analysis of an advertisement. When I first used the book, it was an ad, I think, for an IBM Selectric typewriter. That tradition of reading visuals is carried on today in all kinds of textbooks from all publishers. Here are two sets of visual analysis activities from Bedford/St. Martin's books, Seeing and Writing and Writing in a Visual Age:

As you can see if you peruse these activities, the McQuades (in Seeing and Writing) ask students to begin with observations, and then use guided questions to call out qualities and features of the images that will help students view it both critically and constructively.

In Writing in a Visual Age activities (free registration required), Odell and Katz ask students to focus on visuals in context and at the play of images mixed with words. Their book is meant to guide students toward smartly using images in their own essays; the book began as a response the authors had to students who were handing in papers with images in them. The found that students would just plunk images down without much thought as to what role they played in a larger argument.

In both books, the authors carry on the work of Corbett in others in giving students heuristics by which to read visuals.

But you'll notice that those heuristics are more or less adopted from the rhetorical tradition (Odell and Katz) or from the literary tradition (some of the McQuade's questions are inspired by this approach).

So what about teaching the elements of visual composition? How do we begin to do that? afterall, if you're going to ask students to read an image, shouldn't they be able to read it on the formal terms of visual composition? And couldn't those terms provide a good basis for assessing and responding to the visuals students might use (whether you assign them to use visuals or they choose to use them on their own)?

Of course, the answer is yes, there is a way to begin, and there are useful guides. Here are some that Bedford/St. Martin's offers:

Getting the Picture, by Marcia Muth and Karla Saari Kitalong
IX Visual Tutorials, by Cheryl Ball and Kristin Arola
I*Claim, Visual Arguments, by Patrick Clauss
Designing Writing, by Mike Palmquist

We'll look at IX in the onsite workshop today.

I really find these kinds of tools invaluable for providing a groundwork for myself as an instructor to get a purchase on the kinds of vocabularies and understandings I'm used to availing myself of when I teach fiction, poetry, or essay writing. I also find these resources useful as well:

Anne Wysocki's visual resources list (best place to start)

David Blakesley's List (another best place)

A Glossary of Art from Nancy Doyle Fine Art

Beyond Words in Powerpoint by Ellen Finkelstein How (and when) to present using just images and graphs, not bulleted lists

You can assign students to read visuals and then to write about them. Seeing and Writing and other visual readers do this. It's what we do when we assign students to see a play performed or to watch a movie of Shakespeare's Henry V. Those are visual experiences. We can assign students to go to art shows on campus, or at local museums. We can have students deconstruct ads, analyze pop cultural symbolies and images, and so on.

But what about using visuals? I guess the real question now-a-days is how can you deal with the fact that more and more students are simply using visuals in their academic work. At its heart, even simple essay assignments rely on visual rhetoric -- rules about headers, title pages, line spacing, the use of italics, margins, and so on, create a visual look. We tell students to use a reasonably sized font. For example, take a look at this Strongbad cartoon on writing an English Paper to see what I mean:

The paper's a good resource for introducing academic honesty as a discussion topic, but also for talking about the use of visuals, about layout and design. Everytime you give an assignment and give parameters on spacing, margins, and other visual elements of the page, you're giving visual rhetoric requirements.

Taking a simple next step, and giving students guidance on the use of images in that paper is easy to do.

Asking students to create an effective Powerpoint (or other presentation) using images effectively is easy to do. Students have these tools at hand. They know how to paste an image into their word processors and their presentation software. You won't have teach them that. You will want to teach them how to choose the right images for the rhetorical situation. And as writing instructors you're experts in understanding rhetorical situations. Does the image support the argument? Will your audience understand it? Where is the image from? Have you cited it? You know how to teach that.

Yes, but what about asking students to do something where the image is primary? What about asking them to make a photoshop satire or a video mashup like this: Or, what would be an appropriate video mashup for your course? Students playing Archie and Edith (or how about archy and mehitabel) only changing the lyrics to fit current events or culture?

Maybe that seems silly, but take a look at some of the things, for example, that Todd Taylor's students have done using visual composing:

The joy of it all is that there are more possibilities. More ways to communicate what we're thinking and learning. The tools are at hand for writers to use words and images, both still and moving images, and sound, together. Now maybe, in a first year writing course where the primary requirement is helping students to be better wordsmiths, there won't be time to do all that is possible, but you do have options.

And oddly enough, the more complex the use of visuals and multimedia, the more writing plays a role in making sure things work. Story outlining, scripting, written analysis of choices before commiting to their making, descriptions of what's planned, storyboarding --all become more important the more complex the visual elements in hand. If students make a photoshop satire, they can also be assigned to write about the satire. Why did they make? Who is its audience? What effect is meant to have? How does it achieve its goals?

In other words, assigning students to use visuals in conjunction with writing so that they can learn how to do that is one step. A next is to assign students to creating visuals that stand on their own, but then to use writing to describe how they composed those pieces, what their thinking was. In either case, writing and thinking play key roles.

The big issue, as always, however, is time and comfort. What do you feel comfortable doing? If you add something new to your course, what do you shift or drop to make room for it?

Not easy questions, but also not questions you have to figure out in one semester. Start small, do something as a first step that you think will succeed (nothing like success to buck up the nerve). Choose something low stakes to start. Enlist students to help you pull it off --let them teach each other the technology if needs be; you focus on teaching rhetoric.

And oh, yeah, when you have some spare time, play. Try out somethings by tweaking an image. Plug a microphone into your laptop and record a note to your students. Grab your cellphone or digital camera and record a few seconds of movie magic. Then edit it. Just for fun. Nothing serious. Don't think about teaching it. Just play and see where that gets you. Ideas will come in their own time if you're having fun.