I teach American Studies, which means (amongst other things) that I use a lot of different media in my classroom – – novels, movies, poetry, non-fiction prose, photographs, and graphic novels.  For a long time, I was frustrated with students’ ability and disposition to “read” images.  A lot of students were eager to do careful readings of poems or novels, but this kind of reading seemed pretty alien when it came to understanding images.  Maybe because we are so surrounded by images that we see them as simpler and more natural; or maybe because we mistake the “iconic” status of images for the thing itself.

In any case, in an effort to encourage maximum attention to images, I’ve been slowly working Flickr into my course, more particularly the “add note” feature of Flickr.  This started in a course I taught on the “revolutionary imagination.”  One of our concerns in this class was figuring out how the “masses” were represented in representations of revolution.  I won’t go into detail about the design of the assignment or its seriously, laddered structure.  But, one important stage was annotating “The Sabine Women” by David, a highly allegorical image of revolution and popular power.  Students uploaded the image to Flickr and then started visually commenting on the painting.  Thanks to the social dimensions of Flickr, they were able to read each others’ annotations and  comment on them.  Here’s a sample from the David assignment:

This semester, I’m teaching The Sandman, a very complex example of visual-textual narrative.  The class had some great discussions about the themes of the comic, but we started to stall when it came to really digging into the relationship between text and image.  Time to try some visual annotation.

Again, I’ll skip some of the introductory work.  Eventually, I asked students to annotate two pages from the comic.  I also asked them to think about the “visual language” of comics by supplying them with some brief excerpts from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (on abstraction versus concreteness), some great introductions to the gutter and panel-to-panel transitions, to layout, and to composition.  Armed with this rudimentary lexicon, the students went to town.  Here are a couple of examples:

The students really enjoyed this annotating exercise – – in part, I think, because it allowed them to get their hands on the art of The Sandman and because they “saw” so much more in the art than they had initially thought they could.

Two major reasons I like the flickr’ing assigment are:

1) time.  Technology is often presented as something that speeds up and makes things more efficient.  But, the Flickr annotation uses technology to slow down the reading process and encourage students to linger, to reflect, to hunt, to discover.  This new temporality surrounding the image helps to de-naturalize the image – – helping students to see the many decisions involved in each pen stroke and each color, so helping them to see the image as constructed and art-ful.

2) the black box problem.  For many years, I’d throw a text at students, give them some ideas or ways of reading the text, ask them to engage with the text, and then to represent their engagement (typically through a written representation).   I assumed that the ways of reading I modelled for the students were the ways of reading they would deploy.

And, for years, I was constantly mystified at the huge gap between my expectations and the results tendered by my students.  Some teachers blame the students for this gap: they don’t know how to “read”; they aren’t “prepared” for the difficulties, sophistication, expertise, etc. required by the course; they’re so busy texting, they’ve been rewired to avoid analysis, etc. etc.  In fact, that frustrating gap was the “black box” of learning.  I feed in ideas and texts; students produce knowledge.  But, what happens (or doesn’t happen) in between?

Sam Wineburg, among others, has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happens in that black box.  He calls these operations, usually veiled from teachers’ understanding, “intermediate processes of cognition.”  For teachers interested in learning, this is where the action is.  But how do we make these processes visible? And, hence, open to reflection, understanding, and change?

The Flickr assignment takes me a little further down the road of understanding student learning because it allows students to “make visible” what happens as they read the image.  The annotations enable student to “think out loud” and so to make learning into something less intuitive and mystical.  (Theorists of “horizontalidad” have a nice phrase for this process, which they’ve borrowed from the Zapatistas: “preguntando caminamos” –  – “asking we walk.” ) That’s a good starting point for thinking about teaching.  Let’s keep walking . . .