Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lincoln Meets Imagery.

Today was an interesting day. I read a great deal about the use of imagery in history, and spent some time reflecting on the importance of sound.

First, the imagery. Wow. My wife and I had a lengthy conversation about D.J. Staley's ideas of imagery, and I took part of Staley's statement and used it to understand what the article was talking about. I said, "Imagine if history were told like Spiderman or Dick Tracy. You don't read about how Spiderman defeats Dr. Octopus with a left hook, you see the left-hook!" She said, "Oh! I understand what you're saying about images in education... I think I would have learned more if I could have seen what was taking place..."

This forces me to reflect also on the use of imagery in general. When we see a picture, we don't just look at it, we interpret it. There is the stylized B for my accounts. There is the stylized G for Google. Mac has the apple, Linux has the Penguin. All of these images tell me a lot about those companies. Mac is the stylish, usually grey image. Linux's penguin (Tux, by name) is usually portrayed doing something cool or just being cool itself. These images bring forth a myriad of ideas, but with the current approach to social studies, we're generally ignoring them!

In an effort to conduct a (rather lame) experiment, I will now stand up from my laptop, walk over to one of my bookshelves, and at random, select a book of history. Wait a second, here it comes.

Was it worth the wait? Here we go. "The Middle East: A Brief History of The last 2,000 Years," by Bernard Lewis. I hope there are some images of marauders taking their religion across the landscape. Page 199 contains no such images... Another random page. Page 213 has an image. Constantine the great looking stoic with a caption explaining who he was... (Good, now I don't have to read pages 1-37...) Many captioned images later, I know what these people looked like, and I'm given many captions, but I'm not left to understand anything greater based on these images. All exploration of the imagery has been taken away from me with these captions, which is exactly what Werner referenced in his article.

Why is it that we know so much about what helps student's to learn, but we completely ignore it when it comes to the study of history? Odd.

I find it very interesting that when I was reading Werner's article, I kept thinking about what New York does to train their students. The students are required to learn how to interpret images (it's part of their regent's test, their version of our EOC). The students are graded on their knowledge of the context of the image as well as the message the image is portraying. They are not graded on the exactitude of dates, they are graded on whether they could identify the events being described (and sometimes mocked) in the images.

Which brings me to my exploration of 21st Century Abe and the Library of Congress selection of Lincoln pictures. There is a particular video (which you can find here) that I found to be pretty interesting. It progresses through a series of photos, and they really show some great images of Lincoln. A biography I am reading refers to Lincoln's good sense of humor. Many of the images selected by that video show Lincoln almost smiling. If you have seen many pictures from the Lincoln era, you will know that few of the images from that era show good nature or humor. It was simply not the culture that surrounded imagery that accepted smiling.

I am happy that I have been avoiding this tendency with my AVID class. My students are engaged in asking questions of the pictures they see. They are currently asking the George Howard collection, "Where is this building located?" They are asking images of Somerset Plantation artifacts, "How would a slave utilize you?" They are engaging in historical enquiry in such a way that will (hopefully) leave a meaningful impact on their lives and encourage them to move beyond their immediate understanding of the world.

Overall, I think that by the exploration of this week's materials I have become much more aware of what is going on around me and how I can influence my students to increase their understanding of historical topics through the use of images.


  1. Its an interesting coincidence that you grabbed a book by Bernard Lewis. Werner's article draws heavily from Edward Said, whose work is in direct opposition to Lewis's approach to the Middle East. Your phrase, "Many captioned images later, I know what these people looked like...." is exactly the type of "knowing" that Said and Werner are reacting against. If like you say, you grabbed Lewis at random, it was a great choice. -Cliff Haley

  2. Yeah, I did totally grab the Lewis work at random. Which is interesting because MOST of my history books on the shelf are exactly like the Lewis Book.