For this week’s readings I’ll be focusing primarily on Gunther Kress’s “Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning.” In exploring his piece, I’ll be circling a few general questions: What do Kress’s “gains,” or the enriching advantages of an increasingly visual culture, (as imagined by Kress) mean for English teachers and students? Relatedly, I wonder what bearing the infinite possibilities of visual meanings, posited by Kress, has on assessment of multimodal “texts” – a topic we’ve covered before but that I’d like to revisit in light of Davis & Yancey’s compelling discussion.
First, a brief synopsis of Kress:
Kress begins by describing a cultural shift “from the centrality of writing to the increasing significance of image” (6). Kress uses semiotic theory as a means of examining the distinct possibilities and limitations of written/spoken language (though he is careful not to conflate these) and visual depictions. Through this examination he hopes to present a clear-headed assessment of what he calls “gains and losses,” untainted by the emotionally charged nostalgia/pessimism or “unwarranted optimism” often invoked in the discussion of changing cultural values regarding representation and communication. Kress compellingly implicates his discussion of the distinct merits/limitations of these separate modes in changing social and cultural attitudes which may begin to account for new kinds of “texts.” To illustrate this, Kress compares the Institute of Education’s prospectus from 1992 to the current (via 2005) version of their webpage. He notes the linearity and rigidity of the 1992 version, which has a single entry-point, seems to presume that “the structure of the institution and of its knowledge were identical with the needs of the life-worlds of the individuals who might come to it as its students” (9). Conversely, the latter webpage has 13 points of entry and follows the “image-based logic of contemporary pages” (9). [He’s describing it a decade ago, here’s the currentpage, still image centric.] For Kress, this stark contrast reveals changing attitudes about authority and authorship, which will become a central tenant of his discussion. In the linearity of the 1992 prospectus “the power of authorship was strictly governed,” as opposed to the later formulation in which, “the author(s) of this page clearly have in mind that visitors will come to this page from different cultural and social spaces […] not necessarily know to or knowable by the maker(s) of this page” (10). Kress comes to associate this uniquely open image-based logic with greater reader/viewer agency and a kind of erosion of the binary between author and reader, which will have important implications for students.
I’d like to briefly outline the stark distinctions he makes between visual depictions and spoken/written language.
Speech/Writing: temporal, narrative
Image: Spatial, display
The question asked by speech: “What were the salient events and in what (temporal) order did they occur? (14)
The question asked by display is: “What were the salient entities in the visually encountered and recollected world, and in what order are they related?” (14)
These delineations lead Kress to make some evaluative observations about the possibilities of these categories. He posits that “because words rely on convention” they are general and vague, while depictions, on the other hand “are full of meaning; they are always specific” (15). He furthers this prizing of visual over word by suggesting that words are limited in their finiteness, we can’t express something we don’t have a word for while images are infinite; “the former tend to occur in […] fixed order […] the latter tend to occur in an open order fixed by the reader and/or viewer’s interest” (Kress 16).
So all of this, I think, begins to lead us back to the classroom. I found the most interesting part of Kress’s discussion to be the way in which he aligns these distinctions with compelling questions about teacher and student subjectivity and agency. Drawing on the “visual geography” image to the left he asks:
“What is the assumed subjectivity of the students to whom not just this aspect of the curriculum but nearly all of science is presented in this manner? And equally, what is the subjectivity of the science teacher who teaches science in this manner? [what are the] implied notions of convention, of competence, of knowledge, and of authority?” (19).
Earlier, Kress posits that when we “read” visual texts we compile information, but have the agency and control to create our own knowledge – but when we read linear, narrative texts, knowledge is presented ready-made (10). Do we agree? Do you think these kind of visual aids more readily allow students to fashion their own “knowledge?”
Kress obliquely answers his own questions by asking more. He ends his piece with a series of questions that read more like statements. In fact, I was a bit puzzled by the title of his piece because this doesn’t seem to boil down to an exploration of gains and losses of each category – but rather, a more straightforward gain loss hierarchy in which images occupy the former category, and words, the latter.
Kress asks, “Would the next generation of children actually be much more attuned to truth through the specificity of depiction rather than the vagueness of word?” (21). Though I think Kress’s framework and assertions about subjectivity are compelling, I have a hard time accepting the word/image binary that seems to be at work in this piece. Are these things really so distinct? And are images really less convention laden or finite than words? Drucker discusses graphic “ideologies” and I’m tempted to think that visual representation is just as socially constrained as language. Finally, if we accept the supremacy and infinite possibilities of the image, what does that mean for English teachers? Further, do we need to teach students how to “read” images, or are they inherently abounding with meaning? If a visually representative culture gives more agency to the viewer (and, also the designer) do we need to teach them how to use it? And if so, how?
Further, the infinity of visual meanings (which are also somehow specific for Kress?) seem to add an interesting dimension to the recurring issue of assessment. I really appreciated Davis and Yancey’s thoughts on this subject, I wonder if others felt similarly?
They write: “assessment is about what dialogue one might have” and speculate that it could potentially be a dialogue “about meaning-making, about how we make meaning and what meaning we make out of that” (14). This focus on meaning making, and secondarily, interpreting that very meaning making, seems apt given Kress’s attitude, which seems to imply that the possibilities of multimodal texts are infinite. If there are infinite meanings, then the assessor has infinite choices leading one to believe that when assessing these things, we have to pay close attention to the choices we make – in other words, to interpret our own interpreting, if you will. For current teachers, what’s are some of your strategies? Did you find Davis and Yancey’s discussion of scrapbooks/e-portfolios helpful?