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Visual literacy after 9/11.


Both the events of September 11 and the media images now associated with that day underscore the importance of focusing on visual literacy in college writing courses. Students need to be able to examine images critically and to recognize bow representations in any form are constructed or mediated. When dealing with images associated with national crises, however, instructors may need to adjust their expectations of academic discourse by providing opportunities for students to respond personally, as well as critically, to emotionally disturbing events. In the early twenty-first century, visual literacy may require new ways of seeing--for the instructor as well as for the students in the writing classroom.


Many recent textbooks for college writing courses evidence a concern with visual literacy, a trend reflecting efforts in the field of Composition and Rhetoric to rethink pedagogy in light of new technology and multimedia. Advertising images have long served writing courses for analytical practice, but the new breed of textbooks on the market invites students to become critical readers of myriad visual elements of contemporary American culture. Texts such as Robert Atwan's Convergences or Donald and Christine McQuade's Seeing and Writing, for example, are high-production, visually appealing books, their glossy pages replete with images that encourage students to engage actively in decoding the meaning of visual texts. I first used Seeing and Writing a few years ago for my advanced composition class, a first-year course for honors students and English majors, and I was immediately struck by the students' positive response to it. In particular, they liked the "memorable moment" assignment, which asked them to respond to a public image that defined their generation or that spoke to them personally in some significant way. In light of such feedback, I chose to use the text again, feeling confirmed in my belief that visual literacy, particularly media literacy, is an important goal in the contemporary writing course.

The events of September 11 changed everything. When I prepared to teach the same course again in the fall of 2001, I could never have anticipated the huge national tragedy that would occur or the subsequent proliferation of images in the media related to the terrorist attacks. In my innocence, I had even made the "memorable moment" assignment a focal point of the course, the last big project of the semester, hoping to recapture the positive response of the former students. Like teachers everywhere, however, I was suddenly faced with a crisis in the classroom. The images of devastation, shattered families, heart-breaking moments, and flag-waving patriotism became the context for the course almost as soon as the events occurred, some three weeks into our semester. While I am sure that teachers across the country, working with any age student in any kind of classroom, bad to figure out how to teach or respond to students in the midst of such a tragic event, I suspect that those like me, who were engaged in a course focused on visual and media literacy, shared a classic "what do I do now?" moment. For my course, to ignore the daily bombardment of media images would be akin to overlooking the monstrous elephant sitting in the room; however, if part of the difficulty of teaching visual as well as verbal texts has to do with helping students to be critical readers and viewers, what does the instructor do when the predominant images of the times seem to demand anything but an intellectual response?

The process of visual analysis requires a degree of detachment from the viewer; one must be able to look at an image and consider the elements of its composition, its visual fields and focal points, its patterns of color or light, and its possible narratives. The first step of reading an image critically is to make observations about the picture or photograph that one is analyzing. Accordingly, the authors of the textbook I used for my writing course state quite pointedly that "'An observation is, in effect, a neutral, nonjudgmental, and verifiable statement" (McQuade xxxv). While the authors also explain the different lenses through which each person sees, the way that our perception is socially-constructed by our social, economic and cultural backgrounds, their instructions for critical analysis underscore the difficulty of teaching visual literacy in times of crisis. Instructors must find ways to resolve the dilemma for now, more than ever, students need to be able to decode the meaning constructed by the tools of writers, photographers and film-makers. As Janet Alsup and Carrie King Wastal observe in an issue of The Writing Instructor published a few months after September 11, students must be invited to explore the relationship between images and words:
 Literacy, particularly media literacy, has increased in
 significance given recent national and global events that began
 with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
 It now seems even more appropriate that teachers facilitate
 students' interaction with media so that the students can form
 critical responses to what they see and hear in the wake of these
 attacks and the subsequent 'war on terrorism.'

In the days following the initial attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, my students and I spent class-time talking about the events and the news coverage of them, all of us struggling to make sense of the tragedy. The attacks had occurred during a university holiday--all classes had been cancelled due to events associated with the inauguration of our new university president--and as a result, most of our students had been near a television on the morning of September 11. It was the event they woke up to, as many people had. I wrestled most with the question of whether or not to proceed with my course as I had structured it, which meant working our way through a semester toward a paper about a defining image of the times or of the students' generation. Although we discussed doing some other kind of assignment, the students agreed that addressing the images of September 11 would be important in a course such as ours. I proceeded carefully, allowing for anyone too close to the tragedy or too emotionally-overwrought by it to opt out for another assignment. No one chose to, perhaps because the assignment allowed for a variety of responses and approaches. Fortunately, by the time the assignment rolled around, a couple of months had passed, and we had been able to return to some semblance of normalcy in our daily routines. Unfortunately, the passage of time also meant that we had seen the events processed over and over for us in the nightly news, 24-hour cable news shows and everywhere in print journalism.

In writing this narrative account of my advanced composition course, I gained insight into my students' primary difficulties with our 9/11 assignment. It is narration, the act of storytelling, that allows us to voice our most personal responses to difficult or tragic moments in our lives. Critical analysis, in contrast, requires some personal detachment from the thing, event or text being analyzed. Significantly, many of my students' essays began with some variation of the phrase, "When I woke up on the morning of September 11," thus establishing a story-driven narrative, a chronological recounting of their disrupted daily routines and subsequent horror as they learned of the terrorist attacks. After positioning themselves in relation to the events, and after expressing their awareness of how their worlds had changed, they had difficulty sustaining the voice established in their essays, most notably when they turned to an analysis of a particular image or video. At these transitional points in their essays, for example, some students shifted to what Meg Morgan calls "the big voice," the "background voice for all news writing" in which "only the most denotative language is acceptable" (98-99). Not surprisingly, the nonstop television coverage of the terrorist attacks and of our country's military response to them influenced the tone and voice of some of these essays. The banner headlines of 24-hour cable news channels surfaced in student writing whenever they attempted to shift to a more global perspective of the day's events: for example, one student essay began, "In the midst of turmoil, a wounded nation pulls together," while another opened with the line, "On September 11, 2001, the United States of America was attacked by a cowardly force now known to be part of the Al Qaeda network." Two months of media saturation had seemingly infiltrated the students' language, many of them adopting, unconsciously and uncritically, the discourse of slick news shows and the prepackaged sound bite.

In her discussion of the journalistic big voice, Morgan explains how it functions to assuage anxiety because "it is a voice that creates order out of chaos" (109). One can understand the appeal of such a voice, for it lends certainty when there doesn't seem to be any. But critical analysis, particularly the kind associated with media literacy, requires one to raise questions, to probe for inconsistencies, and to consider multiple perspectives instead of singular explanations for complicated events. In preparing my students to write about this memorable moment in their lives, I facilitated regular class discussions of the socio-cultural issues surrounding the events of September 11. The students generated questions about media responsibility and ethics in relation to repeated broadcasts of horrific footage, questions about the appropriation of flag images by advertisers exploiting America's newfound sense of patriotism, and questions about the way that images can influence our perception of public events. We read essays and examined photographs that underscored the power of images in our lives: Isabel Allende's essay in response to a photograph of a young Columbian girl trapped in mud caused by a volcanic eruption; Don DeLillo's story about the searing realness of amateur videotape; Susan Sontag's observations about the ethical issues related to photography--its voyeuristic qualities as well as its ability to memorialize or give shape to experience. We analyzed Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a young girl and her brothers running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, examining his statement that photojournalists look "for the right moment that captures essentially the whole essence of the time and place" (McQuade 162).

Students demonstrated in class their ability to analyze an image, to see it as something constructed by choices made by the photographer, even in the immediate moment the event was occurring. When they wrote about the memorable photographs of September 11, however, they omitted reference to these kinds of conscious choices (or, if not overtly conscious, choices that conveyed the experienced eye of a professional photographer). They had all seen too much raw footage, too much amateur video of collapsing buildings, to believe the images were anything but spontaneous and uncomposed reactions. The panoramic shots of New York City with the Statue of Liberty looming in the foreground, or the by now famous photograph of firefighters raising a flag at ground zero, must have appeared too intimate and immediate for them to believe that such images could be analyzed with any degree of detachment. They made no reference to Nick Ut's photograph in their essays or to his statement about the photojournalist's receptive and critical vision, and they rarely made connection to anything else we had read and discussed together in class.

The difficulty of teaching visual or media literacy in times of crisis or tragedy is one that transcends the obvious challenge of helping students to become active critical readers of visual texts. It has to do as much with the issue of personal writing and its uncomfortable relationship to academic discourse. Like many instructors, I aim to help students navigate a middle course between the potential excesses of self-disclosure and the sometimes stifling restrictions of "school writing." I try to create assignments that acknowledge the power of storytelling, for example, because I believe, as David Schaafsma argues, that "we must seize opportunities to tell our stories, provide opportunities for storytelling to exist in our classrooms, and help those who will become teachers to understand the implications of silencing and storytelling in their own classrooms" (110). At the same time, I am cognizant of the equally important need for students to write, read, think and view critically, most often achieved through activities that transcend--or even challenge--the more accessible personal perspective. My students' seemingly disappointing responses to the "memorable moment" assignment, their often uncritical responses to the images they wrote about, reflects this tension--between the need to narrate and the need to find a position outside of that narration from which to view the big picture.

The immensity of such a task is nowhere more clear to me than in a brief essay written by Toni Morrison, addressed to the dead of September 11 and published in a special supplement to Vanity Fair shortly after the terrorist attacks. Morrison's essay, which I shared with my students, is about the difficulty of finding a voice--or words powerful enough to respond to the tragedy--words that avoid hyperbole and what she calls "an eagerness to rank levels of wickedness." She writes, "To speak to you, the dead of September, I must not claim false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed just in time for a camera" (49). Her implicit critique of media coverage of the terrorist attacks is balanced by her expression of her own difficulty in finding a voice: "I must be steady and I must be clear," she writes, "knowing all the time that I have nothing to say--no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant that the ancient atoms you have become" (49).

Morrison's essay helped me to recognize the merits of my students' work and to read them more generously than I did initially in that memorable fall of 2001. Like Morrison, they searched for language that could comfort or reassure, explain or give witness. Although their need to support their country seemed to override any critical analysis they could make of overtly patriotic images, they still managed to respond creatively and thoughtfully, finding the language that allowed them to engage with an image in ways that I now recognize as perfectly suited to the assignment. For example, one student chose to write about a photograph of a cross, composed of two metal beams from the World Trade Center. She began her essay by using different fonts to illustrate visually the competing voices she was trying to synthesize--that of her own prayers juxtaposed to that of her angry petitions to an unresponsive God. Another student asked permission to write a fictional account of a day in the life of a woman captured in a photograph he had seen. In a cover letter that explained his unusual approach, he noted that fiction allowed him greater access to the emotion invoked and portrayed by the photographer and greater understanding of the limits of "that hundredth of a second when the camera shutters were open." As their papers evidenced, my students did not have Morrison's ability or confidence to address explicitly the rhetorical tension created by the writing task, to articulate it as self-consciously, but they struggled, as she did, to match words to emotions, to speak with authority about something that defied an authoritative voice.

The experience of this course made me more receptive to the work of people such as Charles Anderson and Marion McCurdy, whose book Writing and Healing speaks most directly to the kind of student writing I encountered immediately after the events of September 11. In their introduction, the authors note how the traumatic experiences broadcast everyday on the nightly news have entered our cultural consciousness (they speak specifically of school shootings such as those at Columbine). The saturation coverage of such events, they argue, enters our classrooms in one way or another, affecting the writing that students offer to us. Yet, the authors note,
 the general inclination of our profession has long been to
 marginalize such disturbing texts in favor of safer, more
 controlled discourses of the academy. To do so necessarily
 marginalizes, isolates, and alienates the writers who create those
 texts, valorizing our own illusions of academic sanctuary over
 their invitations to engage in the complex material, cultural, and
 socio-personal worlds of actual and virtual experience that
 dominate the lives of late-twentieth-century human beings. (2-3).

As I reflect on my course, I recognize that my students wrote the essays that they needed to write, if not the essays that I expected them to write. Their words may have disturbed the careful plans I had for the course, but perhaps academic disruption is the appropriate response to crisis and tragedy. In the early twenty-first century, visual literacy may require new ways of seeing--for the instructor as well as for the students in the writing classroom.

Works Cited

Alsup, Janet, and Carrie King Westrup. "Writing Culture: Using Media Literacy and Popular Culture in the Middle and Secondary School." The Writing Instructor. 2001. December 19, 2001. <http://>

Anderson, Charles M., and Marian M. MacCurdy. Introduction. Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice. Urbana: NCTE, 2000. 1-22.

Atwan, Robert. Convergences. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.

McQuade, Donald and Christine. Seeing and Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

Morgan, Meg. "Voices in the News." Voices on Voice. Ed. Kathleen Blake Yancey. Urbana: NCTE, 1994. 97-110.

Morrison, Toni. "The Dead of September 11." Vanity Fair (Special Supplement) Nov. 2001: 48.

Schaafsma, David. "Things We Cannot Say: 'Writing for Your Life' and Stories in English Education." Theory Into Practice 35.2 (1996): 110-116.

Alison Russell, Xavier University

An associate professor in English and a Writing Center Director, Alison Russell teaches and publishes in the areas of composition studies, contemporary American fiction, and travel writing. She is the author of Crossing Boundaries: Postmodern Travel Narratives (Palgrave, 2000).
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Author:Russell, Alison
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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