Teaching Visual Literacy

Preparation time in class with students: 15-30 minutes
Student homework exercises: 1 hour or more

These exercises improve critical thinking by teaching visual literacy. Students will learn to:

  • describe what they see
  • look for and find common patterns within a series of images
  • analyze those patterns for what they reveal about the civilization that created the images
  • evaluate the absent or "unspoken" assumptions that also animated the images and which, too, reveal insight into the creating civilization

Neither instructor nor student need necessarily have any art history background, and for the purposes of these exercises, what is most important is that students develop their own ways of talking about images. (Instructors with art history backgrounds, of course, might well use these exercises to teach both standard terms of art and to help students challenge those standards by developing their own readings of and vocabulary for describing the images.)

By instructing students on the same sort of close reading we typically teach with textual primary sources (for help with preparing students with textual sources see Comparing Visual with Textual Primary Sources), students will gain added practice with the habits of close reading, learn to look for and analyze visual images with greater sophistication and will begin to problematize visual images in the same way they learn to do with textual primary sources.

Although students can be instructed to follow these exercises on their own, it works best to review the goals of the exercises and to model how to proceed with them in class first. (For reference to how I incorporated these exercises into a world history class, see History 110B Syllabus and scroll down to the exercises in the section "Schedule of Lectures and Assignments".) Step-by-step instructions are below.

  1. Instructors might begin with asking students to run off and bring to class for next time the Web page How to Prepare Visual Primary Sources.

  2. In class, review the guide with students in detail. This guide directs student activities, thinking and note taking.

  3. Instructors with classroom internet access might well want to take time to access the exercises site (Islamic Pictures or European Pictures, whichever is appropriate) and model the process of looking at the images and note taking using the first image. If students also can access the internet in class, a quick lesson on surfing protocols (how to type in URLs, use back buttons and the scroll bar, e.g.) is useful and, in my case, was necessary.

  4. Students may play with the keyword links at the bottom of each image at this point (to practice their skills with browsing), but they and instructors should note that the keyword link pages are not civilization specific. That is, keyword pages linked, for example, to Islamic images are appropriate for the concepts raised there but they do not necessarily lead to other Islamic images to illustrate the keyword concept. A detailed example might help. From Islamic Pictures, one can access Leaf from a Qur'an Manuscript.

    At the bottom of that page are three keyword links, among which is the keyword link for Nonfigurative Art. Although nonfigurative art is an important concept for understanding medieval Islamic art and the descriptor text applies to Leaf from a Qur'an Manuscript, the image on the keyword page itself is not from the Islamic world at all but a picture of an Anglo-Saxon brooch. This lack of civilization specificity in the keyword referencing will be important for subsequent exercises, but could lead to confusion at this stage. If the goal is to have students review images only from a particular civilization, confine their preparation at this point to the links on Islamic Pictures or European Pictures and have them ignore the keyword links.

  5. After having prepared their notes, students might be asked to compare their findings for a classroom discussion. Instructors might want to develop a set of questions to direct discussion and especially for the finding of patterns or for helping students to draw informed conclusions about what these images reveal about the civilization that created them. Questions like the following are appropriate:

    • on how many images do you find Arabic writing?
    • what do you suppose the presence of Arabic script meant to medieval Muslims? to Arabic-speaking Muslims? to Muslims whose native language was something else?
    • what color seems to dominate these images?
    • how many people will have these images? what sorts of people? on what sorts of occasions?
    • what topics or themes appear most frequently in medieval European art?
    • why does there seem to be so little writing on medieval European art?
    • what color or color-combinations dominate these images?

    This type of analysis, especially once reviewed in class, is readily incorporated into a short, think-piece essay.

  6. For comments on how this worked in practice and padagogical considerations see my Reflective Essay.