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Visual Media and the Humanities

by Kecia Driver McBride, Editors
The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2004
452 pp., illus. Trade, $44.00
ISBN: 1-57233-321-9.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture, Washington State University Vancouver


With new or remediated technologies–including film, television, online video conferencing, the Internet, and multimedia–increasingly available, many Humanities scholars have turned their attention to questions of pedagogy, asking how such technological resources might be best utilized to help teachers improve their teaching skills and help students increase their critical thinking and writing skills, and become more engaged in the process of active learning. Although critical pedagogy is not new (see Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, and others), "there is not a body of writing that specifically links film and critical pedagogy" according to Kecia Driver McBride, editor of the anthology Visual Media and the Humanities (xii).

Arguing that the proliferation of media presents opportunities for new areas of content learning as well as pedagogical challenges, Visual Media and the Humanities collects 18 essays from teachers in a variety of disciplines to address this intersection of humanities education and technical visual media. The contributors, representing a range of teaching environments from universities to community colleges, focus on the use of film and television to facilitate the teaching and learning of writing, literary criticism, cultural studies, critical thinking, foreign languages, and culture. The book's purpose, according to McBride, is to support the pedagogical goals of those trained within a more "traditional" discipline that wish to incorporate visual media into their classes (xiv).

The collected essays are arranged in six general categories: the impact of visual technology in classrooms, the use of film in English classrooms, the use of television within academic contexts, the use of film to engage issues of culture and ideology, the use of film to teach ideology, and the use of filmmaking to extend student's engagement with film. Within each category, respective essays address either pedagogy or theory.

Representative of the latter is John Zuern's essay, "Diagram, Dialogue, Dialectic: Visual Explanations and Visual Rhetoric in the Teaching of Literary Theory." Zuern argues that a range of visual materials, from simple diagrams to feature films, can be used successfully to spark students' understanding of concepts. The bigger benefit, however, Zuern writes, is the application of this understanding not only in a particular discipline–in his case literary studies–but to philosophical reflection on a student's own social, cultural, and political life.

For Zuern, images are useful for teaching theory but they can also function as catalysts for dialogue and dialectical thinking. "At their best," Zuern concludes, "images that seek to help students understand ideas are able to perform two tasks: providing a clear representation of the concept and offering a way of testing, challenging, critiquing that concept" (70, his emphasis).

Gerald Duchovnay's essay, "The World in a Frame: Introducing Culture through Film," is a solid explanation of pedagogical heuristics for film in interdisciplinary classes designed to introduce concepts of culture and intercultural communication. Duchovnay argues that many of our daily activities, "even listening to popular music," require knowledge of diverse cultures. Through the careful selection and utilization of texts and films, teachers can help students better understand cultural diversity and ways in which communication and culture interact to shape perceptions of reality (261-263).

In addition to watching short segments from particular films, students in Duchovnay's class also produce short writing assignments about some aspect of the target foreign culture drawn from current news articles and their own research. They are also required to give class presentations focusing on a country of their choice. Each student must write a response to these presentations by colleagues. The course also requires three short papers, two focusing on different aspects of foreign culture, the third on a film from the student's chose country of focus. Guest speakers present first-hand knowledge about their countries, thus adding to Duchovnay's students’ knowledge of cultural differences between countries. The course focus, ultimately, is how films communicate particular aspects of particular cultures, "not to say whether a particular culture or country is better than another" (266).

In the end, Duchovnay says, "using film and various readings and presentations, we covered topics such as characteristics of communication, how to understand the complexities of culture, alternative views of reality in cultural diversity, culture and family, religion as a worldview, the importance of language to culture, the problems of translation, verbal and non-verbal communication, and cultural influences on business, health, and education" (272).

Duchovnay's practical discussion of classroom practices and Zuern's theoretical exploration of new technologies and their usefulness to humanities education are indicative of the breadth and depth of essays collected in Visual Media and Humanities. If, as editor McBride says, the influence of the visual media is likely to continue to increase, then this book is a valuable, and unique, resource for scholars wishing to reconceptualize the intersection between the humanities and visual rhetoric.



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