pencil crayons & police portraits… in the classroom!

Can I get more creative with my assignments? I mean, can I include colour, and images?”

This question comes from a former design student, now registered in a series of engl. lit classes. How might you respond?

I can imagine a number of perfectly reasonable responses that I might have to a question like this. I might be intrigued. On the other hand, my eyes might just glaze over as my mind beats a desperate retreat inward, screaming along the way: “this is an english class, not a fine arts class, and neither is it kindergarten, for that matter!”

It is just as likely that english profs & tas might respond with fear & anxiety. Images can make us literary people anxious. in a field increasingly caught up in the world of cultural studies, however, it’s not exactly clear why this might be so.

Scary Pictures

Let’s consider a suite of theorists and their thoughts on photography. Susan Sontag describes the photographer as a hunter, tracking its prey, and links photography to nostalgia, often a dirty word in the humanities. Roland Barthes argues that those photographs best able to communicate to and with a viewer are those that puncture, or penetrate. pretty nasty sounding, right? He notes, too, that photographs, unlike film & video, lack “protensity,” which is to say that photographs have a tendency to freeze their subjects in time, to make them seem immobile, and unchanging. An ethically murky place to find oneself in, this sounds. Not to mention, of course, all of the possible “might have beens” that the photo cannot capture, that remain unseen. Trauma theory also has an anxious relationship with the photograph: some critics fear that the photo only functions to re-inflict the trauma that it documents, as it assaults new victims unprepared for the violence they see in the film, on the page, or on the screen. And, finally, Allan Sekula reminds his readers that photographs are not neutral; subjects pose or are posed, scenes can be staged, the lens limits the view and the photographer’s eye- both her physical eye, and what you might call the eye of her imagination- limits and frames that view even further. Really, though, what sekula wants us to remember is that photographs are political objects, political objects that yet have a tendency to mask and deny the very relationships of power and contingencies of production that bring them into being.

What most of this criticism points to is the “evidentiary” (to borrow Barthes’ term) function of the photograph. It just looks so damn real. In fact, it often stands in for the real; it is documentary proof of the world beyond our immediate view- beyond the purview of sight, and beyond the reach of the present. This is what can make literary and cultural theorists wary of the photograph: reality and representation blur in the photograph, or, more accurately, the image takes on the role of evidence; it points to its referent unerringly, distracting the eye- or, the critical eye, anyway- from the conditions of its own production, and its circulation in economies of meaning in excess of that which it supposedly represents.

So, does the photograph document, or construct? Does it record, or produce? And why should we not engage with photography and “the cult of the image” in a literature course, where these same questions arise again and again and again?

And again. We can only yammer on about histiographic metafiction for so long, ya know?

My suggestion? Ask your students these questions. And to avoid the dumb stares and rolling eyes when you ask them, all you have to do is bring a box of pencil crayons to tutorial.

Portraiture &  Literature in Tutorial

The Composites was featured in People Magazine this week. Thanks to everyone who contributed and shared ideas. Please continue to send them in and look for new work this weekend, after I’m finished running Joyland’s table at the AWP conference. (And I’ve been busy with this as well!)

The Composites: "images created using law enforcement composite sketch software and descriptions of literary characters."


This tutorial exercise comes from Erin, a former PhD student and TA at Mac, not to mention a fantastic teacher and expert on teaching & learning. Erin divided her students into groups and assigned each a brief character description from the novel they were studying. Based on that description, students were to sketch the character, and then answer the question: does the physical appearance of the character tell us anything about her/his personality?

The benefits of this assignment are multiple. First, students have fun. Even if they think it’s kind of stupid. Which it kind of is, right? It doesn’t feel very scholarly, anyway. But that is precisely the draw– it makes learning a little less formal, it asks students to engage in the text in a new and interesting way, and, finally, it gives students the opportunity to socialize. I firmly believe that university, and tutorials in particular, are a space for learning how to be in relation with others, and yet, students so rarely get a chance to practice this. Drawing childlike portraits in tutorial gives students a bit of a break,or a release, and, talking about movies, parties and family while they do so only enriches that learning experience. Really. I swear.

But i digress. Back to the academic: students practice close reading with this exercise. they begin to see representation as intentional, and representative of more than simple “truth.” They begin to recognize the politics of representation in asking, for example, why an author might choose to dress a female protagonist in a trench coat, or to refrain from mentioning race or noting any ethnic markers.Now to add something to Erin’s original exercise, a variation that might be especially productive to include in your “colouring session:” at the end of tutorial, show your students some slides; bombard them with modern mug shots, passport photos, composite police sketches, and perhaps older instantiations of all three.

The Body & The Archive

Why mug shots? As often happens, teaching choices reflect research interests, and this particular idea was prompted by my reading of Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography, which explores the pictorial framing and type-casting of the social world the novel has historically partaken in and produced, even before the photograph itself began to circulate in abundance in an economy of taste. This, in turn, led to a re-reading of Allan Sekula’s “Body and the Archive,” an analysis of 18th-century police portraits and the “science” of phrenology and physiognomy. both tackle the near-ecstatic transmutation the photograph can undergo from product to evidence and from representation to social reality.

Ezra Pound

So: after surprising your students with a series of scary-looking mug shots (and why not include some hilarious/creepy/kind-of-gross celebrity mug shots while you’re at it, is my thinking on the subject), then you can explicitly ask your students: does the photograph, or a sketch, faithfully reproduce, or does it produce something else altogether? What frames a photograph, or our vision, in general? and, an interesting question to pose to your students is: what happens when you imagine your character sketches as police sketches? What sort of criminal do you see? Is it possible to recognize the criminal in your character sketch at all? And if not, what prevents you from doing so?

In short, this exercise provides another entry point into a discussion of “the frame.” In subsequent tutorials, it might lead to discussions about the function of narrative, the line between fiction and non-fiction, history, historiography and myth, and even the old standby, Linda Hutcheon’s concept of historiographic metafiction. But, further, this exercise ushers the image into the literature classroom. I suddenly feel compelled to type: “we live in the age of the image,” despite my essay-marking-self cringing at the mere thought of such a platitude. It’s true, though. And its beginning to seem increasingly idiotic to ignore that fact when teaching critical reading in the classroom.

Any other ideas on how you might introduce the world of visual representation to your teaching of literature? Or how you might get students to think critically with the likes of pencil crayons, photo-shopping programs, or old-school collages? I would love to hear about them.

And, thank you…

To that design student whose inquiry started this entire train of thought.

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One thought on “pencil crayons & police portraits… in the classroom!

  1. Pingback: Mapping Kinship | Dry-Erase Writings

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