LEARNING TO SEE IN COMPLEX DOMAINS: UNDERSTANDINGS AND HABITS FOR PRODUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT WITH VISUAL TEXTS

In document DẠY VÀ HỌC NGOẠI NGỮ GẮN VỚI CHUYÊN NGÀNH (Page 90-97)

LEARNING TO SEE IN COMPLEX DOMAINS: UNDERSTANDINGS AND HABITS

“The teacher should add more pictures to the slides instead of using words only.”

My Vietnamese undergraduate students wrote the comments above in their midterm reflections on their experience with the course Intercultural Communication we were having. Majoring in English Language Teacher Education, they have spent many years learning English in order to pass the university entrance exam and then a majority of their undergraduate curriculum further practicing their English skills and taking courses on English language teaching. Intercultural Communication is among a few courses that use English as the medium of instruction to teach contents not directly related to teaching.

The course has a reputation of being difficult because it involves a number of abstract and complex concepts (such as culture, identity, ethics) and theories (such as those regarding identity development, relationship, and cultural adaptation). In their reflections, most students mentioned having difficulty with abstract concepts and, as quoted above, quite a few expressed a desire for “visual aids”, which they believed will help them understand these terms better. While I sympathize with their struggles, I realize their comments point to two common assumptions about visual images and words: that images are easier to understand than words, and that there is a straightforward, uncomplicated, equivalent relationship between words, images and understanding1. These comments also point to the power of visual images: they’re engaging and compelling.

In this paper I aim to consider the use of images in English teaching, then review some possible relationships between seeing and knowing, and, finally, offer some suggestions regarding learning to see. Scholarship dealing with visual materials has been such an incredibly rich and vibrant area in numerous disciplines that in order to speak and write intelligently about it I will have to devote at least my whole career. Therefore, rather than providing a comprehensive overview, my goals are modest: to look carefully at a few interesting instances of image use in order to inspire myself, and maybe my colleagues and students, to participate more thoughtfully in this challenging, necessary process of learning new tools and new insights about the complexity of the social, visual world. The three types of relationship discussed here do not cover all the possibilities but serve as departure points for thinking.

1. VISUAL AIDS IN A VISUAL WORLD

Visual materials, including real objects, drawings, photographs, diagrams and charts are common in the English classroom. Doff (1988), for example, emphasizes that “visuals can be used at any stage of the lesson” (p. 80), to introduce new language or a topic, to practice, or to review; visuals could help keep students’ attention and get them to focus on meaning.

1 Both of these assumptions have been questioned thoroughly by scholars in visual and cultural studies, among others.

92

KỶ YẾU HỘI THẢO KHOA HỌC QUỐC TẾ DẠY VÀ HỌC NGOẠI NGỮ GẮN VỚI CHUYÊN NGÀNH TRONG BỐI CẢNH HỘI NHẬP QUỐC TẾ: LÍ LUẬN VÀ THỰC TIỄN

In my observation, visual aids in the language classroom are often used in three main ways: to decorate the text and stimulate interest; to explain or clarify the written or spoken words and aid comprehension; and as prompts to elicit language use. In all of these uses, visual images have a subservient role to words and are positioned in a relatively straightforward, unproblematic relationship with words. To teach the word “dog”, for example, a teacher may use a drawing or a photograph of a dog; the word “run”, an image of someone running.

It may be important to note that in many cases, a certain degree of socialization and contextual clues are needed for a learner to understand that this image is supposed to correspond to one idea and not another. Abstract concepts and adjectives often prove very difficult to illustrate. In general, however, visuals are there to make things easier, to assist. In addition, since the goal is to study language, the image is often not looked at very carefully.

The visual turn in literacy research and cultural studies and other fields has complicated the way we think about literacy and images. As Fendler (2017) emphasizes

“Images require their own special frameworks and strategies of perception and analysis.

If we read images with the same literacy skills as we use to read words, we will not be able to see what images are and what they do” (p. 751). In the next part of this paper, I will describe three cases where images present interesting, complex issues that demand specific strategies for perception and analysis.

2. WHEN SEEING IS KNOWING, THE CASE OF SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATION

In our learning, reading, and viewing experience we have all encountered scientific illustration. Images from biology or physics textbooks may come to your mind. In scientific illustration, seeing is knowing. An illustration of a fish or a plant tells us what it looks like on the outside. Anatomic illustrations reveal to us what things look like from the inside. Diagrams and charts simplify for us what happens over a long time or across a wide distance. In the early days, many scientists were also artists who could capture the natural world in vivid details. That practice has become less dominant with the advance of photography (Rose, 2016) as the camera is able to capture reality objectively as it is and at a faster speed.

It is important to note that even in this straightforward relationship between seeing and knowing, certain understandings of conventions are necessary, including artistic conventions (such as linear perspective) and domain-specific conventions. One example is the principle of maximizing information. Following it, an illustration of a plant may show that it has both flower, green fruit and ripe fruits. In reality, it may never happen, but we don’t see that image as deceiving; we see it as informative.

Another kind of convention in illustration the use of line work that clearly outlines the boundary of objects. According to Miller (1978, as cited in Mishra, 1999), anatomical illustrations that use bold graphic outline and even a special color for organs may give the false impression that organs in the chest are easily distinguishable.

The unsuspecting student plunges into the laboratory carcass expecting to find these neat arrangements repeated in nature, and the blurred confusion which he actually meets often produces a sense of despair. The heart is not so clearly distinguished from its vessels as the textbook implies, and at first sight, the vessels are practically indistinguishable from one another. (p. 177)

As we can see, in this mode of presentation, images are functional and trustworthy, even though they may be imperfect. Knowledge and image exist in an equal relationship.

3. WHEN SEEING MAY PREVENT KNOWING, THE CASE OF ADVERTISING AND MEDIA LITERACY

In 2014, the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret promoted its new product, a bra called Body, with an online and in-store advertisement that juxtaposed the line “The perfect “body”” with images of a line-up of young, tall, slim, conventionally beautiful supermodels wearing the product.

The advertisement swiftly sparked outrage, including a change org petition requesting the company to apologize and change the “irresponsible”, “unhealthy” and “unrealistic”

marketing (Black, Kountourides & Ferris, 2014., para. 1-2). The petition gathered almost 33,000 signatures before it was closed as the online advertisement retracted. Victoria’s Secret changed the words into “A body for everybody” and put it back online but made no public apology (Bahadur, 2017). Critics found the change encouraging but less than perfect because the visual in the advertisement still features a narrow and unrealistic standard of beauty. Gabriella Kountourides, one of the founders of the petition, was quoted saying “The advert is kind of ironic because it says for ‘every body’ and yet it’s just one kind of body. We would love to see them incorporate more girls and bodies, and have everyone there” (Sanghani, 2014). Some other companies have responded with just that, including fashion retailer JD Williams (Lynch, 2014) and American underwear brand Dear Kate (Sanghani, 2014), with advertisements that feature women of diverse races, shapes, and sizes.

Arguments put forward by Black, Kountourides and Ferris (2014) are familiar to those interested in media literacy in general, and the impact of advertising in particular.

They wrote in their petition:

Every day women are bombarded with advertisements aimed at making them feel insecure about their bodies, in the hope that they will spend money on products that will supposedly make them happier and more beautiful.

94

KỶ YẾU HỘI THẢO KHOA HỌC QUỐC TẾ DẠY VÀ HỌC NGOẠI NGỮ GẮN VỚI CHUYÊN NGÀNH TRONG BỐI CẢNH HỘI NHẬP QUỐC TẾ: LÍ LUẬN VÀ THỰC TIỄN

All this does is perpetuate low self-esteem among women who are made to feel that their bodies are inadequate and unattractive because they do not fit into a narrow standard of beauty. It contributes to a culture that encourages serious health problems such as negative body image and eating disorders. (para 1-2)

In this perspective, images are seen with cynicism. While acknowledging that images are compelling, proponents of this view warn us that images can be deceitful and manipulative. In fact, the thoroughly constructed world of media could even prevent true knowledge of what is really going on in real life. At one level, everything on the screen has been made to appear a certain way and not everyone can find themselves represented.

On the other hand, advertising often constructs certain narratives in which their products are the solution to human problem and unhappiness. Even when we know that these images are artificial, we may still be affected by them. Critical engagement and activism in this vein, therefore, ask us to be analytical and knowledgeable. As we look at images, we also need to ask who is making it, for what purpose, with what techniques and so on.

4. WHEN SEEING IS DISCONNECTED FROM KNOWING, THE CASE OF POSTMODERN MEDIA

On June 12, 2018, photographer John Moore took a picture of a 2-year-old Hoduran girl as she and her mother were stopped by U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the U.S. – Mexico border. In the picture, the girl in a bright red sweater and red shoes was crying in the dark, looking up at what seemed to be her mother being searched by a Border Patrol agent. The adults stood tall over her out of frame. The emotional picture quickly became viral and the face of the new Zero Tolerance policy by the Trump administration. It was used as the cover photo for a Facebook campaign that fundraised over 20 millions USD for legal fees to reunite immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. For its July 2018 cover, Time pulled the crying girl out of the original photo and set her face-to-face with a looming president Trump with the text saying “Welcome to America”. In its cover reveal tweet, Time introduced it as “A reckoning after Trump’s border separation policy: What kind of country are we?” (Time, 2018).

One complication was that the girl was not ultimately separated from her mother as confirmed by her father and a Border Patrol agent (Dwyer, 2018). Many, including press secretary Sarah Sanders, have used this as an example of bias against Trump’s policy.

In its correction to a story containing the image, Time confirmed that the two were not separated but taken away together. However, Edward Felsenthal, Time’s editor-in-chief stood by the decision to use the image on the magazine’s cover, explaining:

The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of

children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment. (as cited in Dwyer, 2018, para. 18)

In the usual paradigm where factual accuracy is valued above anything else, the decision above by Felsenthal could seem problematic. However, this case speaks to another reality of the post-modern media where images circulate, get adapted, changed, remixed and gain a life of their own. The actual truthfulness of its content become separated from its use; the face value of an image becomes its meaning, and the relationship between seeing and knowledge becomes uncertain and unstable.

5. A CRITICAL APPROACH TO LOOKING AT IMAGE

In this section, I rely heavily on Gillian Rose’s (2001, 2016) Visual Methodologies:

An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. She summarizes her critical approach to visual images as one that “thinks about the agency of the image, considers the social practices and effects of its circulation and viewing, and reflects on the specificity of that viewing by various audiences, including the academic critic” (2016, p. 22). She emphasizes that engaging with images does not necessarily mean discovering its truth but engaging in a process of informed interpretation. In addition, while methods are helpful, “the most exciting, startling and perceptive critics of visual images don’t in the end depend entirely on a sound methodology” but they also “depend on the pleasure, thrills, fascination, wonder, fear or revulsion of the person looking at the images and then writing about them. Successful interpretation depends on a passionate engagement with what you see” (2001, p. 4).

In her model, there are four different sites where meanings are made, including production, the image itself, circulation, and audiencing. In each of these four sites, there are three aspects to consider, including technology (any tools or apparatuses that are used to create, transmit, circulate or view images), composition (the specific qualities of an image), and the social (a range of relationships, institutions and practices connected to an image). Where these sites and aspects intersect are specific questions that could guide our interaction with an image. For example, if we are interested in the image itself, we could consider its visual effects, its composition and its meanings. If the focus is on audiencing, it is helpful to ask how and where the image is shown, in what relation with other texts in time or in space, and how it is interpreted differently by whom and for what reasons.

Although Rose’s suggestions focus on research, the same ideas could be beneficial for those of us who interact with complex images when learning and teaching complex contents.

96

KỶ YẾU HỘI THẢO KHOA HỌC QUỐC TẾ DẠY VÀ HỌC NGOẠI NGỮ GẮN VỚI CHUYÊN NGÀNH TRONG BỐI CẢNH HỘI NHẬP QUỐC TẾ: LÍ LUẬN VÀ THỰC TIỄN

REFERENCES

1. Bahadur, N. (2017, December 6). Victoria’s Secret “perfect body” campaign changes slogan after backlash. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/06/

victorias-secret-perfect-body-campaign_n_6115728.html

2. Black, F., Kountourides, G., & Ferris, L. (n.d.). Apologise for, and amend the irresponsible marketing of your new bra range “Body.” Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://

www.change.org/p/victoriassecret-apologise-for-your-damaging-perfect-body-campaign-iamperfect

3. Doff, A. (1988). Teach English trainer’s handbook: A training course for teachers. Cambridge University Press.

4. Dwyer, C. (2018, June 22). Crying toddler on widely shared “Time” cover was not separated from mother. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/622611182/crying-toddler-on-widely-shared-time-cover-was-not-separated-from-mother

5. Fendler, L. (2017). Apertures of documentation: reading images in educational history.

Paedagogica Historica, 53(6), 751–762.

6. Lynch, A. (2014, November 3). JD Williams responds to Victoria’s Secret’s “perfect body”

ads. Metro. Retrieved from https://metro.co.uk/2014/11/03/plus-size-clothing-brand-jd-williams-hits-back-at-victorias-secrets-perfect-body-ad-campaign-4932617/

7. Mishra, P. (1999). The role of abstraction in scientific illustration: Implications for pedagogy. Journal of visual literacy 19(2), 139-158.

8. Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.

9. Rose, G. (2016). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials.

Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Inc.

10. Sanghani, R. (2014, November 6). Victoria’s Secret changes “perfect body” ads after internet outrage. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11213078/

Victorias-Secret-lingerie-advert-changed-from-perfect-body-after-internet-storm.html 11. Time. (2018, June 21). TIME’s new cover: A reckoning after Trump’s border separation

policy: What kind of country are we? https://ti.me/2JVINI1 [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://

twitter.com/TIME/status/1009764707346075649

In document DẠY VÀ HỌC NGOẠI NGỮ GẮN VỚI CHUYÊN NGÀNH (Page 90-97)