Teaching with Images in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Author: Lauren Boasso

The learning activity I describe below was my first attempt at employing visual analysis in my First-Year Writing classroom. I often incorporate a variety of images into my upper-level literature courses (and even taught a course titled “Photography in the Contemporary Novel”), but I have never tried this strategy with my composition students because they need to complete a standard set of writing assignments that focus on academic research writing. I have begun to wonder, though, whether it might be possible (nay, even helpful?) to use images as a way to facilitate academic writing. I hope that my description of this experiment might spark discussion and feedback as I continue to brainstorm ways of incorporating visual analysis more regularly into my composition classes.

During the Summer of 2019, I attended the Yale Center for British Art’s Summer Teacher Institute, where I spent a week with K-12 educators and fellow college professors learning how to better incorporate object-based learning into the classroom. This method requires students to look closely at an object, such as a painting, and describe what they see in exhaustive detail before positing an interpretation.

My original goal for the Institute was to refine the reading list and activity guide for an honors class I am teaching this spring titled “Framing Museum Texts.” However, instead of working on this project during the Institute, I continually found myself wondering how visual analysis and object-based learning might operate in the First-Year Writing classroom. I was particularly struck by a statement made by Patti Darragh, one of the facilitators of the Institute. She described visual analysis as a way to “level the playing field” in the classroom by providing all students a way to participate without worrying about giving a “wrong” answer. This idea struck me because I specialize in remedial writing classes and often work with students who have brilliant ideas, but not the confidence to share them. I wanted to see how visual analysis might be a way to “level the playing field” in my own classroom.

For the activity I developed, I was interested to see how the act of visual analysis might help my students draw connections to the analysis of written texts. I began with the analysis of one photograph that depicts a crowd of people celebrating the birth of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s son Archie. Two figures in the crowd are wearing the Union Jack as a cape, and one of these figures pops an exploding bottle of champagne. Another figure in the middle of the photograph holds aloft a balloon shaped like a baby. This scene takes place in the street in front of a restaurant in Windsor, England. I explained to the class that the process of describing and analyzing an image is similar to the process of summarizing and analyzing a written text; both require close reading. I find that in writing, students often tend to be more adept at summarizing and less adept at analyzing (and often summarize when they should analyze). I have observed the opposite when it comes to images. I see students jumping to an interpretation right away when they need to look more closely. My visual analysis activity forced them to slow down and see that there are many things they overlook when they simply glance at an image and come to an immediate conclusion regarding its meaning.

First, I presented the students with the photograph on the overhead projector (I made sure the caption was not visible). I then asked the students to take five minutes and write down everything they saw in the image. I explained the difference between objective description and subjective description (for example, describing a figure as a woman as opposed to as a mother).

As a class, we then worked together to list as many observations as possible. After a few initial vague responses, the students began to focus on the image in much more detail. It quickly became apparent that no one person noticed everything in the photograph, but together we gained a better understanding of what we were seeing. One sticking point was the balloon that is shaped like a baby. Several students did not see it as a balloon at all, and one thought it was a turkey. This was an amusing demonstration that even if we are all focusing on the exact same image, we still bring our different perspectives; it is easy to take for granted that others see the same way we do. To clarify the discrepancies, I had the students describe the objects as shapes. Rather than a balloon, we could all agree it was a brown oblong shape above the head of the figures).

After describing the photograph in exhaustive detail, I asked the students to tell me what they thought was happening in the photograph. I thought we would arrive at the correct conclusion rather quickly, but this was not the case. Most students concluded that the image showed a birthday celebration or a party after a sports match. In one class, nobody made the connection between the baby balloon, the celebration, and the British paraphernalia.

I showed them another photograph that revealed a bit ore of the scene from a different angle, and they could then make the connection with the birth of Archie. We talked about why it was more difficult for us to come to a consensus regarding an interpretation, which led to a discussion of our particular context in America where we do not have a royal family.

I then transitioned into the second half of the activity, where I transferred the skills the students had just practiced on a visual text to a written text. I handed out a short New York Times “Room for Debate” article and asked the students to read it silently and annotate the text. Their assignment was to read the article closely and then compose a one-sentence summary. I reiterated that just like our description of what was in the royal baby photograph, a summary simply includes what is in the written text with no personal interpretation applied to it. After composing the summary, the students then located one passage that stood out to them and wrote a one-sentence analysis of that passage. Here, they developed their own interpretations of the text.

The student summaries were excellent and did not include any elements of analysis. Additionally, our previous discussion of the image led the students to consider their chosen quotations carefully and they provided more original responses than they had previously. Later in the semester, when students analyzed quotations from their own research, I continually referred back to our visual analysis activity and the way we read the photograph closely before formulating a response. I found that they had reverted to summarizing their chosen quotations, but after referencing the image activity, they read the quotations more carefully and focused more on their personal responses.

A few weeks later at midterm, I gave the students a survey so I could gather feedback on the progress of the class. I asked them about their experience with the visual analysis activity. Many students noted that the activity made them think more carefully about what they see and read, and that it made them question their assumptions. They also noted room for improvement. The students suggested that the activity would be more effective if they had practice analyzing more images and had the chance to work in groups to puzzle out an image’s meaning together. The biggest critique, which was already my main concern, was the fact that this was a one-off activity, and therefore not fully integrated into what they were doing throughout the semester. My hope is to redesign my course so it more consistently incorporates elements of visual analysis. Because analysis is a key learning outcome in composition courses, I think activities such as the one I describe above have the potential to become a consistent feature of a course that focuses on academic writing skills.

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