|Picturing Texts© front cover back cover|
|SUMMARY AND STRUCTURE
If you have been searching for a text that will teach persuasive rhetoric in a visually rich manner, then you owe it to yourself to peruse Picturing Texts, a refreshing new addition to writing texts, released by W.W. Norton and authored by Lester Faigley, Diana George, Anna Palchik, and Cynthia Selfe. This book's most important project is employing visuals in such a way that thinking critically about verbal and visual texts and the rhetorical choices inherent in weaving the two together becomes a "habit of mind" (17). The book goes well beyond the cliché "a picture is worth a thousand words" and includes a very intelligent, deliberate layering of visual and verbal texts that goes well beyond any reductionist notion that we want students to "draw a picture to go with your story-" as it remediates what we have defined as "writing" and what we have thought of as "visual" or "image."
The book is bundled, for instructors, with a particularly functional Instructor's Guide to Picturing Texts©, written by Cheryl E. Ball, which provides suggestions for further scholarly reading in visual analysis and new media pedagogy, as well as options for creating syllabi and commentaries on the rhetorical and pedagogical intentions behind the readings and writing prompts. Another useful support tool for students is the book's Web site, www.picturingtexts.com, prepared also by Cheryl Ball. Picturing Texts distinguishes itself from similar textbooks in that it does not merely juxtapose images with writing prompts with the intent of drawing students into critical thinking through writing about what they see. This cross-disciplinary book goes beyond writing about visuals by providing a rhetorical framework that begins with guiding writers through "writing about visuals," and then pushes that principal further through opportunities to write with visuals, and finally to produce visual texts they have been writing about (Ball vii).
This text is easily adaptable into syllabi ranging from a writing/composition course to any other type of undergraduate, writing-intensive course in a discipline such as: cultural anthropology, encounters with or introductions to art, visual layout, visual data display, introduction to photography, visual communication, advertising copywriting, and so on, you may be interested in examining Picturing Texts. This textbook knits together key concepts from rhetoric, graphic design, film studies, cultural anthropology, postmodern philosophy, photographic and art history, scientific data display, history through images, digital composition and design, advertising and marketing, feminist studies, and pop culture studies with the aim of outfitting students with the necessary tools for developing a rhetorical, analytical framework applicable and adaptable to any of these areas of study.
Picturing Texts will be of interest to Computers and Composition Online readers in particular because it provides a cogent framework for a wide range of writing or communication courses, from first-year composition to scientific writing, as well as professional and technical communication writing. Each of the book's seven chapters offers a relevant rhetorical and pedagogical focus, including: "picturing texts," "looking closer," "making lives visible," "representing others," "constructing realities," "picturing argument," and "designing texts."
Each chapter contains approximately four-to-six readings from a variety of culturally relevant authors both in and outside academe. From there, the authors follow each reading with a "focus" and "respond" section containing question for thinking and focused prompts for additional writing about the reading. Chapters also contain "picture this," a more substantial assignment where students generally find additional visual texts to support the chapter's theme, explain links between them and the chapter's content and provide their own analytical reflections in an essay. Chapters two through seven also contain a rich "gallery of images," which provides additional, relevant and lush images to further authenticate the chapter's focus and support writing prompts. The authors have crafted assignments that engage writers in close readings of images in the same ways we may have asked students to closely read an Orwell essay. Responses to the assignments are encouraged in a variety of genres from advertisements to film reviews to posters, brochures, and so on (xiv).
The table of contents is unique in that it establishes continuity by way of each chapter's "cover image" re-printed above the list of the chapter's content. A succinct four-page glossary concludes the entire book, covering potentially unfamiliar concepts and terms such as "ad copy," "intertextuality," "sans serif" and so forth, along with a solid index.
The author's apparatus for writing and producing critically reflective, verbal and visual texts is particularly opportune with the shape of what it means "to be literate" changing from the largely "verbal text" literacy you or I may have encountered as developing writers. Consider how increasingly more universities require freshmen to purchase laptops, are converting to wireless campus computing, gather and teach research by way of Internet or electronic databases, and plan on students having had at least eight or so of their formative years spent instant messaging, e-mailing, designing web pages, and gaming on the Internet. One underlying premise to such changes is the assumption that students are or will become very literate in verbal and visual texts as they pertain to virtual environments. The fact that this book is more production-oriented (asking students to compose visual arguments through image for example) aids writers in enlarging the scope of what is considered "text" to include visuals. It is critical that we, as teachers then, situate the visual as a text to be as carefully studied, composed, and analyzed as the verbal texts on which we have historically concentrated our teaching efforts.
What sets Picturing Texts apart from "visual meets verbal" writing textbooks is that visuals are the material of the text, rather than jumping off points for analyses. That is, there is less of a distinction or jarring transition made in Picturing Texts between image and the verbal in terms of using one to discuss the other. Rather, images in this book are situated as rhetorically-rich stories in and of themselves which serve as models for students designing their own text on the page, often alongside making visual arguments of their own, following the reading of chapters rich in pop cultural and historical, visual arguments. The visual texts contained here illustrate rhetorical concepts built into very engaging activities wherein writers compose and illustrate their own methods, habits, and intentions of representing themselves, others, and the realities of the worlds in which they live.
This book offers a unique platform for developing fluency in multiple literacies as the book is threaded with images, readings, and writing activities that walk writers into critical engagement with all genres of text. The book provides solid scaffolding to help writers think their way toward the critical reflection we often take as a "given" as academics, but nonetheless is a process with which many writers may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable. For example, the book includes early on a two-page spread titled "Engaging Critically With Texts," between the introduction and first chapter: "picturing texts." The document contains pointed questions that provide examples of the kinds of inquiry into rhetorical concepts such as purpose, audience, focus, evidence, style, and genre from the stances of both "reader" and "writer or designer." This table is pedagogically very effective because at a glance, readers can clearly identify key rhetorical terms associated with critically examining texts, and then shift from questions a reader or writer may ask him/herself in analyzing all types of visual and verbal texts (18-19).
The success of this text lies in the fact that Faigley, Selfe, George and Palchik are able to "boil down" some of the key tools needed for critically engaging with texts without "dumbing down" the rhetorical processes for doing so. One way the authors achieve this is by virtue of the fact that they do not shy away from presenting relevant theory from a broad range of disciplines by philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard or Roland Barthes. These authors are utilized to situate the ways in which images are simulations of what is real, and that because we encounter these simulations so often and in so many varying contexts, it is the simulations of the real that become reality for us.
In addition to Barthes and Baudrillard, readers will encounter cultural critics like bell hooks who point to the "visual politics" at work in art and other visuals, who uses a family photograph as to contextualize the way black families have been portrayed overall in the U.S., both presently and historically. Her piece, "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life" is an excellent testament to the power of essay when paired with visuals such as family photographs, because it is from a little-distributed photo of her father that hooks draws conclusions as to the misrepresentations of black families in art, photography and so on, using the different voices of her siblings reacting to the photo as evidence in support of her point that a single image is perceived very differently from person to person. As such, the narrative in hooks' essay aids writers in thinking about situating their work with respect to a variety of audiences, and the historical, cultural, and personal contexts responsible for the many "readings" of one event, person, image, object, etc. Authors encourage readers to consider the verbal and visual both separately and together in their reading of this piece, and to define and interrogate the relationship hooks' verbal text has to the visual text of her family photograph as impetus for the essay (175). From there, the focus and respond prompts offer students the opportunity to probe the contexts of their own family photographs, and construct an essay imagining the reactions to the photo from a variety of audiences; past, present, and future.
OF PICTURING TEXTS' APPARATUS
As teachers, our own historical, "visual logs" of these vapid encounters with visuals have perhaps reinforced the idea that instructors cannot "get away with" allowing visuals into rhetorically sound, controlled persuasive or evaluative writing. Further, instructors are also faced with departmental or university "page requirements" (e.g. 20 typed, double-spaced pages per 15-week semester) for writing courses, which may not or will not qualify visual texts as "text produced" or a "page that counts" toward the end requirement. These factors often frustratingly confound the integration of the visual into the writing classroom, despite much research within rhetoric and composition by Cynthia Selfe, Diana George, Lester Faigley, Charles Hill, and Mary Hocks to name just a few, that points toward the necessity of the visual within writing curriculums as a best practice for holistically approaching the development of cultural, verbal, personal, rhetorical and visual literacies.
Encouraging with Picturing Texts is the sound rhetorical basis established and maintained throughout the book for the interpretation and composition of visual texts. I find it encouraging because I believe it gets students "doing rhetoric" through a pedagogy centered around interesting, accessible, and current texts, beginning with writing stemming from the personal and building into more universally applicable truths and realities to be extrapolated from both analytical writing and design choices in constructing visual arguments.
You may potentially have concern that with all the attention to visual texts that other writing fundamentals like grammar mechanics and usage are neglected. Not the case. Again, the authors direct student's attention toward the rhetorical effects grammatical choices have on readers, in the context of essays such as "Oversimulated Suburbia" by David Brooks (366). In the focus and respond follow up to the reading, writers are asked to examine the construction of tone through the grammatical choices made by Brooks. Mechanics and usage are also touched upon with regard to the design of texts and documents in chapter seven.
As this book aptly points out in its seventh chapter "Designing Texts-" how we read texts has a lot to do with the "body language" related to page design, a dynamic that complicates the "real text" on the page by adding another layer of meaning- whether intentional or unintentional. Simply put- this book is not boring. Why? Much of it is due to its layout.
Picturing Texts also does not look like a "traditional textbook." It is sized along the lines of a landscape photograph or old photo album, rather than the traditional "portrait" style of most textbooks or readers. The book looks different at first glance and that impression delivers. This is a "different" writing textbook precisely because as it encourages students to critically engage with visual and verbal texts as it simultaneously engages students via its page layout. Each page makes purposeful use of white space, font faces, color, typography, text call-outs, and positioning of images with both open and closed forms. (*A note: I am benefiting already from this text as I learned the difference between "open form" and "closed form" with regard to designing image as I read chapter two, "looking closer" pgs. 105-106).
Generally, I find both the content and layout of many composition textbooks boring and often confusing. In this text, there is visual balance between number of images provided and verbal text devoted to readings, author commentaries, and assignment prompts that each page is pleasing to the eye. Never do the authors slip into the "cram and jam" method often employed in more visually focused writing textbooks. Information in Picturing Texts is neatly presented and divided into logical chapters and subsections related to the readings, and "focus" and "respond" prompts are always isolated on their own page with direct instruction on how to go about responding to the prompts. This text does not deluge students with a litany of images in each chapter, but rather engages students from the get-go in close reading of images and their accompanying verbal texts. Picturing Texts spends much less time culling images that may evoke intelligible inquiry, and instead coaches students toward a simultaneous interpretation of the visual with the verbal, and how the two work both separately and together as a package.
The book is also moderately priced as far as composition books go, and I think very reasonably priced given the tremendous number of color photographs, vibrant art re-prints, colored text, and color backgrounds and frames and glossy paper often included throughout the book. I often cringe at asking students to shell out $50.00 or so for a textbook they may not connect with, let alone use as a reference or idea book long after the semester expires. With Picturing Texts, I do not have this concern. I am teaching a writing course focused on "science and technology" and believe the essays are interesting enough, the design features clear enough, and the rhetorical principles so useful that students in future science or design-intensive courses might reference a piece such as "Even Scientific Images Have Trouble Telling the Truth" by Vicki Goldberg (361) or the section in chapter seven on "charts and graphs" (458), or if designing a personal or professional web site, one of the chapters on the ethics inherent in constructing texts and how we choose to represent ourselves and others through verbal or visual texts (chapters four and five). There is little wasted space in the text. If for nothing other, I would keep this book as a visual glossary for my library.
Disappointing for me in Picturing Texts is its lack of content with regard to the World Wide Web or digital writing spaces. The book is situated and contextualized well enough that it would lend itself well as a jumping off point for the discussion of online or digital writing worlds, but there is no explicit section devoted to the effects and design features specific to web page layout and the ways in which visual texts change when positioned in virtual spaces. Students are certainly encouraged to consult and harness the search capabilities of the Internet in order to develop support for their visual arguments.
Overall however, the book does lack attention to digital rhetoric and visual texts with respect to the World Wide Web. I find this fact curious in light of the fact that the book's authors are noted scholars of digital rhetoric and new media. My speculation is that the authors have selected the images and content for the text based on those images best suited to illustrating design, rhetorical, cultural, and philosophical principles that are universal to both "writing in the digital age" as well as writing in more traditional spaces (17). On page 17, the authors specifically reference "writing in the digital age" and the importance of the rhetorical choices we make in placing images and words together, whether on a printed page, canvas, or screen.
The authors make mention of some digital genres in which we compose, including "Web logs, PowerPoint presentations, email" and so on, but only occasionally do assignments call upon students to utilize applications such as Adobe Photoshop or an html editor. I imagine this is wonderful for instructors not yet immersed or comfortable with presentation or web and photo editing applications, and problematic for those who wish to challenge writers to take their writing public through a blog, class Web site, or PowerPoint presentation. The book is easily adaptable to a "paperless" classroom and assignment options versatile enough that their products would fit well into something like a class e-magazine to lead students into writing and editing their work for real (well, "virtual-real") audiences. Several readings included do reference the "online world" or the "Web" but it seems to me that writers would benefit from more explicit instruction and examples of writing as it pertains to the Web and adding dynamics like hypertext into traditional, verbal text.
The pedagogical and curricular impetus behind the creation of this book, shaped through its images, readings, assignments, and other graphics are relevant for a broad, diverse audience. As such, there are many roads into Picturing Texts that will appeal to a wide variety of readers as the themes present are significant in a number of disciplines, and increasingly so in rhetoric and composition, especially with respect to technical and digital writing and design. The case is strong in this book for treating the visual as a text as significant as verbal text as well as for the ways argument alters when juxtaposing the two in one space. The significance of visual texts for rhetoric and composition in particular needs to be sustained as well as fostered by curricula that not only addresses the visual, but also provides opportunity for writing and designing the materials about which students analyze.
Kendra L. Matko is a doctoral student in the department of Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University and teaches composition in the department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures.