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June 15, 2007



I don't buy Christine Rosen's argument. When I first read it, what really struck me was this passage from her introduction:

"What will art, literature, and music look like in the age of the image? And will we, in the age of the image, become too easily accustomed to verisimilar rather than true things, preferring appearance to reality and in the process rejecting the demands of discipline and patience that true things often require of us if we are to understand their meaning and describe it with precision?"

Her whole essay is based on the assumption that language is itself a true thing rather than a representation, that precise enough language can transcend interpretation and misunderstanding.

Likewise, her argument is based on the assumption that verbal language use will go into decline if we turn towards images, as if we'll all stop talking. Even if we assume that film becomes the only form of writing (something I doubt), film uses language as well as images to get its meaning across, and the writing of film involves language use (scripts, discussion, etc.).

While I agree we need to think about what it means to involve images in our composition classrooms, I think Barbara Ganley takes a much better approach to the subject. We, as humans, think with both words and images, and we always have. Our visual turn isn't a turn to a visual age but a return to the use of images as well as words.

Thanks for the link to Ganley. :)


Thanks for the comments, John! First of all, let me say I think Barbara Ganley's approach sounds wonderfully stimulating, creatively inspiring, a class I would love to take myself. I'm especially fascinated by her methods of getting students to think about what words can and can't do.

But I guess I am ruminating on some questions about this turn towards the visual. What does it reveal about our aims in composition classes? Why does visual analysis belong in a composition class rather than an art class or a media course of some kind? (We could do historical analysis, sociological analysis, scientific analysis in a comp. class as well, but should we?) How useful is image analysis for our students in the context of the mostly text-based work they will do in other classes?

That connects, I guess, to my most serious reservation: my sense of how desperately most of my students need to learn how to read text of the old-fashioned verbal variety. (Maybe the fact I teach at a community college is a factor here??) I see a place for images in the comp. class, but I'm not sure how large a role they should take when I have so many other (more pressing maybe?) concerns to cover in a fifteen-week semester.


Holly, in terms of a composition class, I don't know how much good image analysis in and of itself. In fact, I'd argue that's not what we should be doing. Jeff Rice's critique of favoring image analysis over image production is dead on: In much of today’s pedagogy, the preference is for writing about images, not with images. The preference is still for the word. Thus, we hear Rader using the word interpretation in his review essay of visually oriented textbooks and not the word production. Thus, we hear Handa—despite sporadic references to production in her introduction to the sourcebook—stress the idea of “critical thinking” repeatedly, a concept whose origins are in reading, not in producing texts. True writing can only come from reading images, these positions state, not from making images. (The Rhetoric of Cool 135)
I'd suggest, as Jeff does, that the notion of composition sans image is deeply rooted in and tied to print culture. Cognitively, we think and make meaning through both words and images (Ganley offers one such example of how this can be harnessed in a composition classroom), and this move to banish the image from serious texts is fairly new.

We also need to remember, as Kristie Fleckenstein has pointed out, we, as compositionists, need to engage mental and verbal imagery as well as graphic imagery. It is, again, the making of images, the production of meaning through both words and images (mental, verbal, and graphic) that we should be focusing on rather than the analysis of images. (Or, rather, that should be the end goal. There's nothing wrong with the analysis of texts, verbal, visual, or verbal and visual in a composition classroom as long as its done in the service of producing texts.

I'd offer to send you a draft of my dissertation chapter on memory and imagery, which is really about memoria as a compositional art, but I'm in the middle of revising it and it's become a sprawling, out of control mess at the moment. I could send you two recent conference papers which deal with aspects of this topic.


John, it's taken me a little time to mull over what you're saying. I come at most of these issues as a writer, not a scholar, but I appreciate very much yr refs. Is this a fair nutshell version: in a comp class we may or may not choose to write about images, but we should be composing with both words and images? A few questions come to mind. How closely is this incorporation of image into composition driven by digital technologies? What is our rationale in having freshman students engage in this sort of multimodal composition (because it deepens their thinking, because it releases their creativity, because it broadens something or other--what does it help them do or do better)? Does it help them somehow to be able to write a coherent paragragh (or is our goal something different or more)? How does this relate to discipline-specific writing they will be doing later in their academic careers? (Thanks for the offer to share some of yr work! I'd love to read yr conference papers. My email address is [email protected] need to get contact info posted here...)



That's a fair summary of my position. The question is, of course, what one's personal and institutional goals are for a composition class. If the goal is to write a coherent paragraph or a correct sentence, then the importance of engaging imagery would be much less than in a course in which the goals are to prepare students for the rhetorical acts they'll engage and engage in their personal, academic, and professional lives.

In part, this is driven by digital technologies, but as you'll see in my two conference papers, what we now take to be a natural separation between words and images isn't natural at all. It is, in fact, a condition that has only existed for a few hundred years and came about because of the constraints of print technology.

While mental and verbal imagery (as opposed to graphic imagery, what we generally call 'images') continue to exist in written discourse, our current understanding of their role in rhetoric is greatly truncated from what it once was. We now regard them as solely issues of style when, in fact, they were once also deeply connected to the canons of invention and memory. This truncation is largely complete by the Nineteenth Century with the breakdown of rhetorical culture and the separation of rational discourse (which we now call rhetoric) and the poetic. While this division begins earlier, I will note that Enlightenment authors had no problem with using imaginative writing, what we'd now call literature or fiction, to make their arguments. Consider, for instance, Swift's A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels, Pope's The Dunciad, or Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.

From the Classical period up through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, one learned grammar, which includes the poetic, before one learned rhetoric (Wordsworth and Coleridge were taught this way as were Shakespeare and Milton as were Chaucer and Dante as were Cicero.... In other words, the poetic was part of rhetoric. This idea that they are two separate and distinct fields rather than two complementary, overlapping, and interacting methods of communication -- is a new idea even if it is the idea upon which modern composition studies is based. (This too, I'd suggest, basing this idea in the work of Ong, we can trace to an effect of print which brought about the end of the rhetorical age and ushered in the romantic age.)

So, in part, my argument comes from Mary Carruthers work on medieval memory which, in part, focuses on the rhetorical role of imagery in thought and discourse, and in the work of Kristie Fleckenstein in which she calls for "a double dialectic, a double vision of literacy as image and word, as imageword." And to that extent I'd argue that this isn't about digital technologies but a return to a fuller understanding of how human thought and communication actually works. In short, it's an understanding that we communicate (and think) with words and images. Sometimes we can express ideas best through words and other times we can express them best through images, and often times we express them best through words and images together -- and by images I am once again refering to mental, verbal, and grahic imagery altogether as Fleckenstein does.

Their understanding, both Carruthers and Fleckenstein, of the integral role and interplay of word and image, of an understanding of literacy being rooted in that double dialectic as Fleckenstein calls it, is supported by current research in cognitive science and educational theory. See, for instance Metaphorical Ways of Knowing: The Imaginative Nature of Thought and Expression, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities, and Imagery and Text: A Dual Coding Theory of Reading and Writing -- as an NCTE publication, Metaphorical Ways of Knowing is the most accessible.)

I'll send those conference presentations.

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