If I had a single assumption about this course confirmed upon receiving the syllabus, it’s that we are going to be exploring not only content and form, but the relationship between the two as well. After all, English teachers in the year 2015 have to figure out how to convey the time-tested curriculum via new modes of expression, how to encourage digital literacy while steering students away from the pitfalls, and, perhaps, how to jettison those aspects of ELA that are rendered obsolete by the new forms at hand. English teachers, in short, are no longer granted the realm of “Reading and Writing” as a refuge – we have to explore beyond.
Where are we going? Well, Johanna Drucker’s “Image, Interpretation, and Interface” gives us a map for navigating the world of visual forms of knowledge.
Despite describing itself as a mere “overview of approaches to formal principles of visual communication [which] only skims the surface of a rich history,” this chapter is incredibly dense (53). With so much of visual communication’s history being outlined, I sometimes found myself lost while pondering modern implications. So in the hopes of getting a discussion going, this post is going to outline just some of the ideas and questions that came to me while reading – hopefully you can help me make sense of my fragmented thoughts. Moreover, I’d love to see what points – large and small – I’ve missed!
The Visual Bias
Drucker makes great work of describing the biases summoned by visual representation. On the one hand, vision was long privileged as the most trustworthy of the senses, the one most capable of leading to genuine revelation: “What could be seen could be known, and knowledge and sight had a reliable connection even if visual means of representing that knowledge were taken for granted rather than studied in their own right” (21). Perhaps it is when those modes of creating images aren’t scrutinized that they are seen as most authentic – such seems to be the case when Drucker cites Roland Barthes’ believe that photographs are images without codes (22).
With that being said, there is plenty of bias working against visual language.
According to Rene Thom, knowledge could only be communicated via mathematical notation or written language, as “[v]isual codes are notoriously unstable, too imprecise to communicate knowledge with certainty” (23). From one angle, this assertion seems to be tantamount to skepticism against that maxim that “Seeing is believing.” If this is the case, then it is a healthy bit of credulity to brandish, since science is a big fan of letting us know that there’s more than meets the eye.
Heck, the uber-popular INVISIBILIA podcast is dedicated to investigating all of the “invisible things” that influence our lives. (Side-note: I haven’t listened to the newest episode yet, but it might be useful for us since it is about the ways in which human behavior is changing due to computers.)
Anyways, there is also something troubling about Thom’s notion that knowledge has to be confined to math or writing. Perhaps it’s because I’m a child of such hypertextual times, but I’m baffled by this assertion. Knowledge is either math or writing? Not some combination of the two? Or maybe even another medium? What about smashing together a whole bunch of media? What about something as simple as comic books, which combine images and words?
Is Scott McCloud (referenced by Drucker on page 45) not dropping some knowledge here?
The Teacher Bias
As outlined by Drucker, the ubiquity of visual language has not managed to dispel anxieties about it. For instance, the high school students of 2015 are – thanks to digital technologies and social media – absolutely surrounded by screens. As such, these students have come to understand the world, think about themselves, and create in terms of the user interfaces manipulated via the screens. As such, we have to figure out new methods of engagement.
In other words, what does it mean to “teach” a “book” in the year 2015?
Drucker makes a salient point when reminding us that “Web environments force cognitive processing across disparate and often unconnected areas of experience and representation. They frequently require multi-modal processing of varied media” (47). Again, what does this mean for an English teacher trying to guide students through a classic, such as Hamlet? How does said instructor present as many media-forms as possible?
Reading and watching a film adaptation and taking a field to see a live performance? Somehow, it feels like Shakespeare himself would shake his head from beyond the grave, whispering “Shall I direct thee to a student’s blog?”
In my own practice, I’ve tried to ride the techno-wave by using WebQuests and group-annotation sites and Google classroom and blogs. But somehow, perhaps because I know the students are always two steps ahead, even these seem a bit stale.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the visually-based interfaces serve as our students’ sort of status quo for cognition. The question at hand is how to engage them in enough was to make them to first use it and then manipulate it.
Helping Students Understand, Not Just Use
It seems that Drucker’s chapter is invested in the idea that systems are often used before being studied. As such, the user adopts certain behaviors and proclivities without really understanding why. Consequently, what is genuine innovation is hardly noticed at all: “Architectural styles…were imitated over and over, and became so conventional that the initial innovation in graphic presentation came to be taken for granted” (25).
Later in the chapter, Drucker suggests that this same jaded attitude toward architecture can be found across other forms of graphic language. She writes that “These properties come to seem self-evident as a result, and the assumption that they inhere in a graphical object goes unquestioned” (39).
This might be reductive on my part, but this seems to speak to the fact that although many students are proficient bloggers and social media members, they do not truly understand the power at their fingertips. I have had many exchanges with students who can seemingly instantaneously switch between Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram, but are baffled by the prospect of uploading a file. I know this is a bit tangential on my part, but I worry that the students are too tapped into the digital realm, eyes glued to the screen per se, to recognize what they can really do with it!
Well, there’s my attempt to take a few hacks at the redwood at this Drucker’s “Image, Interpretation, and Interface” – any and all feedback will be appreciated!