Visual Culture in the History Classroom

May 20th, 2008 § 3 comments § permalink

Is a picture truly worth a thousand words? How does an image (or an opening line) transcend the cliché? A more important question for the History classroom may be just the opposite — how do we find enough to say? Often the image seems to be taken as a simple illustration or, in an even more problematic fashion, as a pure fact on a page.

These concerns have inspired an extended unit on China’s revolutionary posters for one of my upper division seminars as well as a presentation at the recent UMW Faculty Academy. (Many thanks to all for the insightful comments offered at the session.) The seminar course is a broad one that explores the notion of cultural history in the context of the history of the People’s Republic of China. In addition to reading texts related to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), particularly selections from Evans and Donald’s Picturing Power(1999), and exploring the oral accounts offered in the documentary Morning Sun (Longbow Group, 2003), our class also engages in a direct analysis of revolutionary posters. Drawing on the excellent collection presented online by scholars Stefan Landsberger and Marien van der Heijden, our working group is set with a task that offers several basic goals:

  • – introduce the value of a close read of an image…
  • – explore the complexities of meaning an image presents…
  • – work towards a shared construction of analysis…

The emphasis here lies upon a collective exploration of the dynamic of the brainstorm and the value of free-thought insight. The aim is to make the nuts and bolts of early constructions of analysis visible… literally.

With this latter aim in mind, I incorporated a new digital tool (wonderfully introduced by Bryan Alexander at a recent ELI workshop) called VoiceThread. As an open, web-based tool that allows individuals to add voice and text to a selection of images, VoiceThread proves quite useful in encouraging attention to a deeper level of detail within the frame. It also invites analysis across frames, as a device that allows for an assembly of images in a moving sequence. Commentary, observation, and narration all flow around the images as the images are moved in lines of juxtaposition and association, just as set forth by one of our working groups:

As a class plan, our workshop offered three starter VoiceThreads for students working in groups of 4-5 people. Each VoiceThread set forth a first image, chosen by myself, with participants invited to find and add their own, creating that very procession of images amidst their own commentary. In one case, students jumped from an image of domestic scene in a revolutionary 1954 poster to images from genres that seemed, at first, quite distant:

While the commentary was left to the images themselves for these two latter scenes, their assembly presents a reading that invites exploration not only of the unfamiliar (in the form of the Chinese images, Chairman Mao as domestic god?), but also a return gaze back at that which is better known… A very good start.

A question still follows – how best to bring the analysis to the next level?

Further historical contextualization of the images is one necessary task, including detail (where available) on their composers, production and dissemination. A second step would also be to incorporate further readings re: visual culture as a follow-up that helps to weave the process of analysis more closely with analytical commentary and methodological insight. The exploration of image and text (and back to image) invokes everything from the classic work of John Berger to the recent analysis of historical photographs, text, and vision offered by filmmaker Errol Morris in his blog for the New York Times.

And the third step? Suggestions welcome…