Using Media Theory to Appeal to Students With Different Learning Styles

Image Credit: Mario Tama for "Lens Blog" New York Times

“Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

― John Dewey, Democracy and Education

By Sarah Sussman

Perhaps like many of my students, it was my art and photography classes that taught me how to close read. How does one draw a chain link fence?  Slowly creating each gray line allowed me to think about the fence abstractly. Trying to photograph that same fence from different vantage points similarly changed the whole look of the fence, reinforcing that fences could be metaphors; that photos were constructed and had meaning. The time and attention to detail that art requires pairs naturally well with the kind of microcosmic thinking that close reading and analysis calls for. As instructors, we frequently bank on this dual power that visual media has: to make lessons memorable, and to help students to think about problems more abstractly.

More and more, instructors opt for multi-media lesson plans because they offer an experiential, and thus more impressive example to hold onto. As instructors, we are also frequently telling our students to see things at a remove, to “go meta,” or to remember to pay attention to the meaning of form and the construction of the argument in whatever it is we’re studying. In this post, I’m going to talk about how we as instructors can enhance our use of multi-media tools in the classroom while reinforcing that edict -- to “go meta”-- by using techniques from basic media theory.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to find the same argument across multiple forms of media.  Though you could use this technique to teach many aspects of rhetoric, the example I’m sharing in this post is one that I use primarily for teaching ethos in my class, “Rhetoric of Photography.” In class, I show students three different photographers who have published large bodies of work about one topic. In this instance, I focused on three different photographers’ documentation of Hurricane Katrina. The disaster is particularly compelling for discussion because it connects conversations about good citizenship and democracy with visual media, satisfying the Chicago School of media studies’ invocation to use communication and mass media for the good of democracy. It’s also useful because it follows in the edict of the Rhetoric 306 model (the basic introduction course to rhetoric at UT Austin) to teach civic discourse.

The tragic incident is particularly noteworthy when teaching ethos through multiple forms of media because, aside from 9/11, Hurricane Katrina was arguably the most photographed event in U.S. history, and because disaster relief efforts usually raise questions about ethos and ethical behavior for volunteers.  In New Orleans, a city where new coming artists are constantly vying for some connection to the organic strength of the local culture, this anxiety to build credibility also becomes evident in the way photographers justify their purpose for working there.  This same argument can be traced in the photographer’s interviews, artist’s statements, and finally, the pictures taken of the event.

I begin the lesson by examining the photographer’s personal website where we, as a class, pay attention to fonts used, formatting, and the biography or artist’s statement. I ask the students to draw some conclusions about the photographer’s ethos based on that small sampling and to guess what we’ll see in their interview. Then, we watch an actual interview. After watching the interview, we discuss the form of the interview. We pay attention to the credibility of the station, the location, the interviewer, body language, background music, and other aspects. Finally, we see if we can identify the ethos and throughline expressed in the interview in their body of work.

The three photographers whose work, biographies, and interviews we analyze are Lewis Watts, a professor at UC Santa Cruz whose life work has largely been dedicated to documenting African American culture. Though he lives in California, New Orleans is like a second home and his photos of New Orleans after Katrina mark a continuation of an already sustained presence. Then, we look at Magnum photographer Richard Misrach, whose work focuses on post-apocalyptic landscapes and seeks, in postmodern fashion, to let graffiti speak for his subjects. In his book about Katrina, Destroy this Memory, the only narration is the one created by the graffiti. In the interest of space, I’ll only share a play-by-play of my student’s this semester’s analysis of our final photographer, photojournalist Mario Tama.

Tama’s work on New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is called Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent. As a class, students were impressed by minimalist style of Tama’s webpage, which they interpreted as a sign of professionalism. They also appreciated that in his description of his book he says part of the proceeds go to charity, but were curious about the exact amount. Noting in his bio that Tama is from New York, students were inquisitive as to how Tama would explain his connection to New Orleans in the interview. Then, we watched a CBS interview with him. We thought about the ethos of CBS as a network, and the outdoor, rainy setting. Overall, the class was skeptical of some clichéd language like “people picked themselves up by their boot straps” and saw his repeated invocation of phrases like “my own people abandoned by my own government” as a way of building the imperative for his presence as an artist and journalist. As a class, the students decided that he tried to establish ethos by proving that his work performed a cathartic, unifying function on a national level, and a humanitarian level. The class identified his throughline as a religiously ambiguous tale of human redemption and resilience, as well as an effort at building his New Orleans ethos through that same sense of national unity. 

Then, we looked to the photos to find support for the throughline that we had identified in the interview via attention to visual and compositional elements. I try to pause for as long as possible on each photo to truly exhaust all possibilities for close reading so as to show students just how much they can do and hopefully build up their confidence by showing that a wide array of interpretations can be useful and insightful. Below is our close reading of one photo which we read with the aid of a guide on compositional elements of photography:

The first compositional element we looked at is vantage point. Tama captured the photo (see above) from the same vantage point as the group of men who are victims of the hurricane. Here, we see Tama as a man of the people, belonging, and easily being able to slip into conversation with the people in the photo.

Next, we looked at setting. The setting in this same photo is a coliseum for sporting events, which is something that we associate with the leisure and excess of a prosperous nation. The place for sporting events, also a sign for national unity (i.e. the Olympics) is starkly contrasted against the scene of post-apocalyptic rubble and displaced people. 

After that, we pay attention to pattern. The repetitious and orderly pattern of the stadium seats highlights Tama’s point – that a prosperous nation has abandoned its people, as they come into shocking contrast with the organic shapes of crumpled paper, and miscellaneous supplies or debris are strewn everywhere. 

Finally, we are free to examine balance. Horizontally, the image is divided into thirds. There are the people on the ground, the empty bleachers, and the more abstract acoustical ceiling. What is most interesting is the way that the slant of light diagonally bisects all of these planes shooting from the upper right-hand corner, stopping at the sleeping man. This beam of light is a sign of the “resilience” Tama talks about. It comes off as a secular or religiously ambiguous symbol of regeneration and hope. In this light, the national space of the coliseum registers as a sacred space, viewers might consider the architectural affinity that this space has with a mega-church, or note the American flag in the upper-right hand corner, again, affirming unity, which Tama used to build his ethos. 

For those who are curious, my students’ final takeaway was that Lewis Watts presented a successful ethos through offering gracious credit to his friends (in his bio he mentions his indebtedness to more established New Orleans artists) and repeatedly used words like “humble," and did not focusing exclusively on Katrina, but on the city and people as a whole. His images showed that he had been a part of New Olrean’s culture for some time, and he didn’t make any effort to hide that it wasn’t his birth place but was very up front about the fact that it was a locale he enjoyed visiting. Misrach’s ethos was also ultimately successful for my students because his project was humble in scope. They said they liked Misrach’s ethos because “he didn’t try to do too much” and “didn’t pretend to belong to New Orleans” or to try to play a self-important “savior” to the people of New Orleans, but rather, tried to find an artful way to package graffiti from the people of New Orleans in a way that they still found uplifting. A few students did note that it may have been the cheerful jazz music playing during Misrach’s interview that made us like him so much.  

Overall, I think this was a successful lesson plan because it drove the concepts of situated and invented ethos home, and additionally offered a nice bolster of what I mean when I talk about "going meta" by paying attention to not only venue and context when assessing a source’s credibility, but formal and compositional visual elements as well. Ultimately, I think this instilled a new sense of confidence in that students were able to rehearse their knowledge of the interlinking between form and content in a way that they might not have thought about before.

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