Diana George on Visual Communication

In her essay From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication, Diana George asks the question: “Why do we use images when we teach writing? Are they strategies to get students to pay attention to detail? Do they mimic the rhetoric of verbal argument? Or are they a dumbing down of writing instruction making visible to nonverbal students what the verbally gifted can conceptualize?” (George, 214)

George teaches at Virginia Tech, and for the last 25 years has focused on public and visual rhetoric and composition pedagogy. Her essay gives a thorough history of the introduction of the visual to composition study, and begins to answer her own questions.

The History of Visual Communication

“From W.J.T. Mitchell’s claim that the second half of the twentieth century was marked by the ‘pictorial turn’ to the New London Group’s call for a pedagogy of ‘multiliteracies,’ we are experiencing yet another push to incorporate visual language into the composition course.”

W.J.T. Mitchell. In case you need a face.

But it’s confusing, George says. What do we mean by visual communication?

Visual and written communication are in tension — but some tension is a good thing, according to George. She seeks to create a “clearer understanding of what can happen when the visual is very consciously brought into the composition classroom as a form of communication worth both examining and producing.” Questions worth considering —

  • what does it mean to ask for a visual argument?
  • are we posing a new relationship between composition and communication or resurrecting an older one?
  • how does the visual both promise and threaten to change the composition course?

Why does this matter?

George answers this questions by stating “if we are ever to move beyond a basic and somewhat vague call for attention to ‘visual literacy’ in the writing class, it is crucial to understand how very complicated and sophisticated is visual communication to students who have grown up in what by all accounts is an aggressively visual culture” (214).

Makes sense.

It seemed to start in 1946, with the Dick and Jane statement: “skill in interpreting pictures is becoming increasingly important”

Over the next 30 years, this statement was repeated in a number of ways, culminating in “Television is what our children are watching. It surrounds them daily. It is their ‘primary source of literary experience’” (214–215).

Therefore —

Our job as English teachers, then, is to foster ‘taste and critical judgment,’ two qualities that lift the schooled above the unschooled.” I get the critical judgment thing, but taste? Who decides the basis of good taste?

In other words, “Teachers of English must help the children qualify their enthusiasm with thoughtful criticism” because “every teacher must, sooner or later, face the fact that television is here to stay” (215).

So lets not just study media in reference to composition — lets use it to develop multi-modal designs. In other words, lets use media to develop a plan — to use media.

Ok, so what the heck is a multi-modal design?

Here is a great website I found to answer that question.

Some more history —

In 1972, the use of visuals were becoming “hand in hand with expressionist pedagogies” (218). For instance —

Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane started showing up in textbooks first as an exercise to support observation and means of gathering material, but by 1984 they were being used to illustrate “three step method of interpretation” and then linked to chapter on planning strategies.

Also in 1972, Joseph Frank’s You text began to be used. The “basic assumption of this text was that each student was an individual who had something to say and could find a voice with which to say it…. (it was) also concerned with perception, for how and what you perceive determines who you are” (220).

(anyone remember this book?)

W. Walker Gibson’s Seeing and Writing: fifteen exercises in composing experience was also getting classroom time.

Overall, there is an “ongoing suspicion that the visual must somehow be important to writing. It just isn’t entirely clear how. Are images strategies for getting students to pay attention to detail? Do they mimic the rhetoric of verbal argument? Are they a dumbing down of writing instruction making visible to nonverbal students what the verbally gifted can conceptualize? Certainly, there is the message in much of this work that images may be useful, even proper stimuli for writing, but they are not substitute for the complexity of language” (220).

In 1972, John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing, radically insisted “on breaking down the barriers that separated high culture (in this case art history) from low (advertising). He led teachers to “ask students to examine images as culturally informed texts” that were “intended to raise as many questions as the verbal essays” (221). His work initially “shook the world of art history” and has since been produced into 4- 30 minute BBC documentaries bearing the same name. You can watch them on YouTube here.

In 1987, David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, in their composition reader, Ways of Reading, “connected the visual arts very directly with the world of language.” They reprinted a portion of Ways of Seeing and named the book after Berger’s.

But “it would be many years before this very conscious attention to design and its relation to meaning would have much impact at all on college composition courses” (221).

“The push in the 80’s was to continue to explore what visuals could teach students about their written compositions.” In 1986, “William Costanzo reported on a project to teach film as composition,” but he later revised his stance to see “film and writing as equal partners traveling along the same road….asking that compositionists pay attention to ‘visual thinking’ as one way of understanding the written word” (221–222).

In 1999, John Trimbur published The Call to Write, described as —

Connecting writing to everyday life, the fifth edition of THE CALL TO WRITE continues its long tradition of breaking new ground in composition. Organized by genres, including letters, memoirs, public documents, profiles, reports, commentaries, proposals, and reviews, this innovative rhetoric gives students the practice they need to write both in college and in the public sphere. An emphasis on public writing promotes civic involvement, while relevant, provocative readings help students understand the concept of being “called to write” in response to a personal, community, or societal need (http://www.amazon.com/The-Call-Write-John-Trimbur/dp/1133311148)

“Perhaps more than any other technology, desktop publishing has moved writing instruction into the world of design, despite, I suspect, our best efforts to contain composition in the essay of the sort familiar in Harper’s or Esquire or The Atlantic. To talk of literacy instruction in terms of design means to ask writers to draw on available knowledge and , at the same time, transform that knowledge/those forms as we redesign” (223).

Anne Wysocki “challenges writing teachers to rethink their notions of what composition means — beyond the word and inclusive of the visual. Wysocki writes, “’When we ask people in our classes to write for the Web we enlarge what we mean by composition. None of us are unaware of the visuality of the Web….but our students are certainly aware…Many already compose for the Web. Many have worked in the realm of the visual (or the virtual) as constitutive of composing texts of all sorts years before they get to their first-year college courses” (223–224).

Incidentally, when I perused Anne Wysocki’s Twitter page, I found this:

We all get a little obsessive.

George begins with visual parody when teaching her students visual argument. “Visual parody, like verbal parody, does make an overt claim, assertion, or proposition that draws particularly on comparison, juxtaposition, and intertextuality to offer the assertion to an audience for acceptance” (226). Something like this?

George states that “visual argument must make its case primarily through the visual” (226). This parody, for example, tells us that American culture has become like the Simpson’s with junk food — junk culture? And our children are unruly with bombs? All this with no words.

George’s student, Dierdre Johns, created a new poster of the Congo Free State flag, one where “her argument was visually powerful and easily read by her target audience” (226).

When her students were “given an opportunity to design evaluation criteria, (they) turned to the same criteria we would find common for written arguments: Does the visual make an argument? How well does the visual communicate that argument? Is the argument relevant to the course and to the assignment? Is it interesting? Is it clear or focused?” (227).

“In other words, these students and others like them took the visual in its broadest sense as a form of communication through which they could make a sophisticated and relevant argument” (227).

“Teachers who have been interested in using the visual in writing classes have generally limited their discussions to analysis because there were few ways of doing otherwise.” There are options for us — the internet and desktop publishing have offered many, but they take time and equipment and training. Where will all this lead us then? We don’t know. But we are seeing a “new configuration of verbal/visual relationships, one that does allow for more than image analysis, image-as-prompt, or image as dumbed-down language” (228).

And “for students who have grown up in a technology-saturated and an image-rich culture, questions of communication and composition absolutely will include the visual, not as attendant to the verbal but as complex communication intricately related to the world around them” (228).

Point in case:

And yet, confusion is still out there —

But at least some of this generation is calling the marriage “perfect” (even though they can’t seem to spell…)

A “visual” from one such class —

And we are combining visual with music as well — hopefully it’s not killing us —

One for gamers —

And the final word —

But in the end —

So does George answer her own questions?

  • what does it mean to ask for a visual argument?

One that produces an argument visually, like the above examples.

  • are we posing a new relationship between composition and communication or resurrecting an older one?

Seems it’s always building, mostly fresh, yet crossing over — a little from here, some from there — like a recipe— wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey?

Sorry, I just could Not. Help. Myself.

Only in this case, people assume that Composition Theory is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it‘s more like a big ball….

Last question —

  • how does the visual both promise and threaten to change the composition course?

It doesn’t seem that George really answered this question. She asserts that the question “is not resolved” (228). But it seems inevitable. (Open war is already upon us….Ok enough with the movie metaphors…) But isn’t this exactly what we’re talking about?

George, Diana. From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing. Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook. Lutkewitte, Claire, ed. Bedford: St. Martin’s, 2014. 211–229, Print.