Friday, July 4, 2014

Thinking Visually in the Humanities Classroom: Constraint and Possibilty

Contact Sheet of the 42 collages.
I. Making

As some of you may know I have been keeping a daily collage journal since the end of May. I've composed 42 collages to date. I created the collages, almost always, in response to reading The New York Times, which is one of our home papers. The practice here was to (re)present meaning through image, word, art elements (texture, value, space, color, shape, and line) and art principles (balance, contrast, movement, unity, emphasis, proportion, & pattern) based on something I read and/or viewed in the paper.

Now that I have a bit of a catalog of images I wanted to review them and see what themes emerged about current affairs and then think about how such a project might be applied to the classroom.

Deconstructing the Collages to Name Current Affairs

The news as reported in The NewYork Times at the midpoint of 2014 has been difficult to read each day. I found myself hunting for something in the paper that was not a report of human cruelty. Usually I found interruption to world drama through stories about food (hamburger 6.25.14, ice cream 7.2.14.), authorship (Reconstructing History, 6.29.14), play (South Bronx on the Map, 6.2.14) or love ("More Love" 5.26.14).   Of the 42 collages 19 focused on issues being played out in the world and 23 collages focused on purely national (U.S.) issues such as: "What Did the Framers Really Mean?" [5.27.14], "It's the Economy, Stupid" [5.29.14], or "Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Freed" [6.1.14].

II. The Themes

There are four dominant themes:

500,000 Flee
  1. Death and displacement represent the largest theme present across 14 of the collages--be it here, in the United States--or at distance: Thailand and the Middle East. "Military Coup in Thailand" [5.25.14], "What Did the Framers Really Mean?" [5.27.14], "The Watchmen's Misdirected Gaze"[6.3.14], "Ireland: Orphanage's Mass Grave" [6.4.14], "Sustaining Genocide" [6.5.14], "Driven Out of Mosul" [6.10.14], "ISIS" [6.1114], "Mission Accomplished?" [6.12.14], "500,000 Flee" [6.13.14], "Brother Kills Brother" [6.15.14], "Displaced People" [6.17.14], "A Gloomy Assessment" [6.23.14], "Two Mothers"[6.30.14], "Bereft: Two Mothers" [6.30.14].
    Justice
  2. Justice (racial, gender economic, political) is a significant theme that is present in 11 collages: "Kids Learn about Social Class through Home visits" [5.30.14], "Stop Holding Us Back" [6.8.14], "Tipped into Poverty" [6.9.14], "Seeking Justice for  George Stinney" [6.16.14],  "Justice" [6.20.14], "Voted to Divest" [6.21.14], "Release Journalist, Now" [6.24.14], "Detroit: A Dream Deferred" [6.27.14], "Christie Vows to Save the 1%" [6.29.14], "Our Divisions are Deep" [6.30.14], "The Boys are Back in Town" [7.1.14]. 
    For Want of a Home
  3. Six collages focus specifically on issues and representation of national identity and immigration: "Leave Afghanistan" [5.28.14], "National Identity in Europe [5.31.14], "The Way North" [6.14.14], "A Message to the World" [6.18.14], "Makeshift Haven?" [6.19.14], and "For Want of a Home" [7.4.14].                                                                                                               
    A New Story at Ground Zero
  4. The practice of memory and remembrance is a theme I found present in four of the collages. These collages focus attention on remembering: "Remembering D-Day" [6.6.14],  "A New Story at Ground Zero" [6.7.14], "Seeking Justice for  George Stinney" [6.16.14], and "Walter Dean Myers" [7/3/14]. 

III. Applying Collage Work to Classroom Learning

"Seeking Justice for  George Stinney"
As I reviewed the work I've done, I wondered how viable a project like this might be as a choice for students at school. Elliot Eisner (2002) explains that representation “[s]tabilizes ideas and images" and "provides for the means for sharing meaning, and creates the occasion for discovery” (p. 239). I found all of that to be true in making collages and recognize that this ongoing work has shaped how I read, the amount I read, and how I anticipate the newspaper and the news of the day. There's an interconnectedness across many of the collages beyond the idea of theme.  For example, stories about children matter greatly and cross barriers of geography, politics, and time. Making each collage creates strong remembrance of the news and stories that informed each work. I am not likely to ever forget George Stinney. The hours I took creating the collage and looking at his young, and in my mind-- innocent face, has embedded his story in my consciousness. 

In thinking about the transfer of this work to classrooms, I think of Eisner (1997) who contends that “different forms of representation develop different cognitive skills” (p. 349).  Collage making can produce the potential for learners to not simply transfer their understanding of world events as they engaged across sign systems, but rather to develop new understandings. It is the idea of not merely reporting the news, but rather developing new understandings that creates so much potential in this work. The myriad of choices that are made while making a collage help to create new understandings as the work emerges.

Cry Down into a Big River (Reilly, 2012)
I wonder how much more I would have benefitted from the humanities courses I took had the arts been more present.  Instead of only reading about the Triangle Factory Fire, listening to a lecture about The Battle of Gettysburg, or viewing a news show about school shootings--what understanding might have been developed had I been invited to make art--not as a filler, but as an important correlate to the work at hand?  By crossing symbol systems, understanding is deepened, complicated.  By embedding choice into the the work we offer, agency is maintained. Eisner reminds us that “the choice of a form of representation and the selection of materials to be used both constrain and offer possibilities we use to represent what we think influences both the processes and products of thinking” (p. 349).

Now imagine a space (physical and virtual) where the work is shared--perhaps a local library or media center and/or an individual or class blog. One of the surprises I encountered while doing this work was when a friend who has been following the daily collage commented to me via social media that she had been anticipating a specific story she thought I would use to create the collage and expressed surprise when I did not.  In thinking about that I began to realize that the work might inform how others anticipate the news.  I also am keenly aware that there is a potential audience who reside across the globe and this knowledge influences how I read the news and create collages. Audience becomes real and (in)forms the work.

I would love to now if this type of work is being done in classrooms and how it's going.

Works Cited

Eisner, E. (2002). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Eisner, E. (1997). Cognition and representation: A way to pursue the American dream? Phi Delta Kappan, 78(5), 348–354.

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