Students Can’t Multitask. Or Can They?

Lecture notes on display at the Hamilton Warplane Heritage Museum, uploaded to last Monday.

Lecture notes on display at the Hamilton Warplane Heritage Museum,
uploaded to last Monday.

Two weeks ago I shared part of a post by Maryellen Weimer, titled, “Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t.

Today I’d like to meander in a slightly different direction. A post I came across by blogger and associate professor of psychology, Erica Kleinknecht, suggests otherwise. It seems that students can multitask, in a way, if, as Kleinknecht phrases it, the task they are engaged in is “rich with detail that can serve as cues for later memory retrieval.”

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Show & Tell

Two things I wanna share with you.

First, a colleague of mine, Jocelyn Sakal Froese, tells about her first-tutorial tactics here, on her blog Surviving Till Sunday. This is a TA who won the CUPE 3906 TA award in 2012 (for which she was nominated by her students). This is a TA who is constantly giving me new ideas and insights into teaching & learning. She is a thoughtful, reflective, and intentional teacher. As she half-jokingly puts it in her “First Day Jitters, Redux” post, she “advocate[s] for DOING A THING” in tutorials, because she wants “dynamic” activity and learning in her classrooms.

Second, delightfully snarky Katherine Firth writes a blog called Research Degree Voodoo. She has embarked upon a project she dubs “Writing the Article Series,” in which she live blogs the writing of an academic article. The first post of the series can be found here, but my favourite post so far is the one in which she sums up her “progress” mid-way through the process with:

So this series so far seems to be: and then I made a plan, and then the plan didn’t happen, and then I made a plan and then I did less work than I planned.

Ha! Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?! I love Katherine’s blog for this scathing honesty, and for her incredible ability to write a “scholarly” blog in a non-scholarly style. She writes just as you imagine she might speak; her voice is conversational, witty, and a downright relief amidst all the academic “mumbo-jumbo”–the term she uses to describe academic-speak in her “About” page.

Students Can’t Multitask

From, "Your crotch can kill, claim Alberta ads." Feb. 21, 2013,

From, “Your crotch can kill, claim Alberta ads.” Feb. 21, 2013,

I found myself completely confused, mouth agape, as I stood in line at McMaster’s Wellness Centre this week. I was looking at one ad of what I now know is a series produced by the Alberta government. The ad reads: “Crotches Kill.” I stood there at the Wellness Centre, eyes darting from the bold letters (can we call it a slogan?), to the image of the lady looking really happy about (with?) her crotch; then my eyes dropped a bit, taking in the assortment of free condoms placed just below and to the left of the ad, and then they darted right back to “CROTCHES KILL.” WTF, right? W. T. F.

Okay, so eventually I figured it out. Texting can be a fatal distraction when you’re DRIVING! (I was worried for a minute there, that it might be catching, or something. But no (phew!), texting is not an STI!).

A great post from blogger Maryellen Weimer compels us to ask, however: Can texting be a fatal distraction from LEARNING?

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The Photosponse

Oh joy of joys, today I came across a wondrous thing: a public exhibition showing just how incredibly engaging and productive creative response assignments can be in higher ed. Please, please check out Photosponse, English 365: Photographic Responses to 18th-century Texts. Photosponse, English 365 is a portion of a private class blog made public because, as the “About” page states, the student artwork is “just too good.” I swear, people, the proof is in the pudding, and this pudding is delicious. Creative assignments, especially ones that ask for some sort of critical reflection to accompany them, work.

“With this photo I tried to capture the wonder of discovery that was so apparent in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and in science in the eighteenth century in general. I used my cellphone camera to take this picture with the help of a focussing lens taken out of a laser pointer (picture). Using my camera enhanced with tweezers and elastic bands, I set off about my house taking extremely close-up pictures of whatever I could find. I took pictures of fruit, plants, soap, napkins, and dozens of other things around the house, but my favourite is the one that you see here: salt.” From: Photosponse, English 365

Mapping Kinship

Perhaps you have noticed a trend here at DryErase Writings–a multi-coloured, infantile trend (see previous posts involving colour & drawing here and here). Today I’d like to continue that trend by sharing with you yet another way you might introduce pencil crayons & drawing to your classrooms.

Have you ever considered having your students draw kinship maps?

Kinship maps are interesting from a teaching perspective for many reasons:

1. They can translate textual narratives into visual, spatial ones, and therefore provide another way of knowing a text, concept or history.
2. They can function as time-keeping devices, like a timeline might. But unlike timelines, kinship maps can translate linear time into something more complex. They can translate a linear history into something multi-directional.
3. Like any map, kinship maps are good mnemonic devices. They help you remember sh–, er, I mean stuff. And the relationship between stuff.

Asking students to draw their own kinship maps makes active all of these important processes. Drawing a kinship map in class might facilitate the analysis of a narrative, the recording and interpreting of a particular history, and the memorization and comprehension of how different concepts, moments, people, etc. relate to one another.

Beyond Pretty Colours

Cut and paste your face! It’s easy!!!

But kinship maps are also interesting teaching tools because they represent a particular way of knowing, and a particular methodology. And, both are tied to a particular history: to European history and, as we shall see, especially to European colonial history.

Consider this: the ubiquitous family tree found at the beginning of many a memoir or available to any with the inclination and the money at has its own particularly European family history. In her article, “Family Trees and Their Affinities,” anthropologist Mary Bouquet shows that the genealogical maps with which we are familiar today–picture here a simple graph in the shape of a tree, or perhaps in the shape of an upside-down tree–have their roots in Judeo-Christian family trees that recorded and regulated lineage, reproduction and the inheritance of property. These semi-sacred, semi-regulatory roots later branched in the nineteenth century into the sciences: into philology (the study of the history of languages) and evolutionary theory. From the sacred domain of the Church, then, to the no-less sacred domain of Science, and from a concern with class pedigree to a concern with biological heredity, genealogy carries a lot of baggage. Add to this their more recent use in anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century, when anthropologists relied heavily on the study of kinship in their ethnographic work, and we can begin to see why borrowing the kinship map for a tutorial or a class might involve more than just getting your students to play with a box full of pretty colours.

Bouquet explains that at the turn of the twentieth century, understanding a culture’s kinship system–how a community defines social relationships amongst one another–was deemed of primary importance for the study of any “foreign” culture. This is because how a culture or community defines relationships tells a great deal about that culture, and understanding this can allow an anthropologist to recognize just how large the gap might be between how he or she views the world, and how another culture might. In the West, kinship has historically been defined according to specific, so-called “natural” biological ties. But ethnographic studies of non-European cultures have made any such claim to the “naturalness” of defining kinship in these terms untenable.

This, I think, is the magic of anthropology: it allows you to recognize that systems and ways of living thought natural or intuitive are in fact often constructed and arise out of specific cultural conditions. Despite this, what I find really interesting about kinship maps is that while they might try to capture non-European ways of understanding social relations, the map itself, and its tree-like appearance, reflects a particularly European understanding of kinship and family. The kinship map can easily misrepresent what (or whom) it seeks to describe, and it has historically been tied up with colonial projects to understand, document or assimilate colonized peoples. Bringing kinship maps into your classroom therefore introduces a rich teaching moment to a lesson: it get students actively involved in a meaning-making project, and simultaneously gives instructors the opportunity to draw attention to the ways in which meaning is, indeed, made, framed, or, as it were, mapped.

Back to the Box of Crayons

By way of conclusion, I would like to share with you a possible application of this idea. Last week I drafted a sample lesson plan for a second-year Canadian Literature class. First up on our list of readings for tutorial was one of my favorites of the year: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words,” a re-telling of the Iroquois creation story. Warren Cariou, Professor at the University of Winnipeg, describes it as “an act of living, historical memory” and stresses the importance of “[s]eeing this narrative as a kind of history, rather than as a myth or a legend” (Globe and Mail, Dec. 2004). I love reading and re-reading Maracle’s text. And I love discussing it.

So, I leave my draft lesson plan with you. And along with it, a few questions, too, that jostle around uncomfortably in the back of my mind:

Are exercises like these too juvenile for the adult classroom? Do you think they undermine the seriousness and importance of the subject matter?

Draft Tutorial Lesson Plan: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words”

Materials Needed: pencil crayons and scrap paper.

Intended Learning Outcomes: By the end of this tutorial, students will…

1. Have a clear understanding of the relationships between the personages described in Brian Maracle’s interpretation of the Iroquois creation story.

2. Consider how those relationships are described by Maracle, and the values they might speak to.

3. Recognize and question the assumptions a reader familiar with settler culture and history might bring to their understanding of the relationships in the text.

Explain briefly what kinship maps are: like genealogical trees, they indicate who descends from whom, and what relationships people have with one another. As an example you might draw your own family tree on the board. This could be a traditional family tree, but it could reflect non-biological kinship ties.

Explain to students that they can decide how they will indicate what type of relationship different people in the map share (ie, brother & sister, parents & children, friend, etc). They could colour-code, for example, or simply draw lines connecting people, or they could write captions explaining relationships.

Give students 15 minutes. Then check in:

1. Who is represented in your kinship maps? Is there anyone missing?

2. How did you indicate the relationship between the First Woman and the grandson of the sky woman? Is she like a daughter? Or is their relationship different? How did you represent the relationship between First Woman and First Man? Why?

3. Did you include any animals on your kinship maps? Why/why not?

4. What about the land? Is the land related to some of the people in the story? How so?

Ask students to return to their kinship maps and make any final revisions that they would like. They might want to add/change things after the discussion you just had. If you like, let students know that you are collecting them, and that next week at the beginning of tutorial there will be a contest: the class will vote for the what they think is the best kinship map (most creative, most robust, etc).

Managing Risk in Class Discussions

The words “open” and “secure” don’t often find themselves in the same sentence; in a risk society that organizes itself around projections of financial, biological, environmental, and even moral risk to the lives of individuals, populations, businesses and economies, these two words are diametrically opposed.

Eric Ritskes at Beyond a Degree: Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed, however, has recently posed the question of how instructors might balance the two in classroom discussions, and, I gotta say that I like his approach to the subject. Eric bluntly calls attention to the barriers to creating a truly “open” learning environment, barriers that include not only the instructor’s own politics, but also the power play involved in any group work. Anyone who works with others will be familiar with these power dynamics, yet the clarity with which Eric at Beyond a Degree approaches the subject brought the point home to me in a new way. Eric criticizes any who might claim to offer a truly “open” and objective learning environment and their “naive belief in objectivity,” and he rightly points out that “[w]e all have our agendas and politics.” I would go even further in this regard and suggest that we should all have our agendas and politics in the classroom; we should be aware of them to be sure, and aware of how we want to share them with students.

Eric’s post at Beyond a Degree highlights another important point: power in the classroom can be held disproportionately not only by the teacher, but also by certain students. “[P]articular students,” he notes, can “dominate the air space, choose who gets represented how, and deny space to others.”  This power play may be intentional and aggressive, or it may be unintentional and accidental. But whatever the intent of the students involved, the results can be equally alienating, frustrating and hurtful to students who find themselves without a voice with which to speak or a space in which stand.

So, I thought I’d bring the discussion Beyond a Degree began last week to Dry-Erase Writings, and share with you one strategy for balancing (as best as one can) openness and security in a large group or class discussion. I originally learned of this strategy from a former colleague, Erin Aspenlieder (now an educational consultant at Simon Fraser University) and was more recently reminded of it by Marie Vander Kloet, an educational consultant here at McMaster. Here’s my take on it:

Assigning Roles in Large Group Discussions

I randomly assign students the following roles: facilitator, questioner, & public record-keeper, and these roles then rotate each week. More than one student can take on the same role in a single discussion, as well.

I usually assign one student (or two) the role of facilitator. Another few might be assigned the role of querier (they jot down a few questions as the discussion progresses and are obligated to ask at least one question of another student in the course of the discussion). The role of public reporter (she or he keeps a record of the discussion on the board) is voluntary, which allows shier students to participate more frequently, not to mention take ownership over that participation.

A variation that I haven’t tried, but would like to, is to set up a class blog dedicated to these group discussions. The reporter for the week would then post her/his records on the blog, the queriers would post their questions, and students could respond to those questions as they like.

Keeping it Open

There is one role that does not rotate in this scheme: the role of note-taker. I, as the instructor, usually fill this role.This allows me to step back from the discussion and give students the opportunity to take the floor. For this tactic to be effective, it is important that the instructor make her/his role as note-taker or observer clear to the class. As per Erin’s advice, at the beginning of each role-assigned discussion, I remind the class that as note-taker, my head may be bent to my page quite a bit, that I will only be able to participate sparingly, and that this means that if I do not make eye contact or do not respond to students directly, it is not because I don’t value their input. The result is that students tend to address one another, rather than me. My lowered eyes and passive body language sends a clear message that I am neither the discussion leader nor its critic; this, in turn, solicits openness and participation. It’s like magic. I swear. Well, most of the time, anyway.

There is one more benefit to explicitly acknowledging your role as note-taker to the class. Explaining to students that you will not be an active participant in the discussion doesn’t just remind themthat you do not sit in on the discussion as judge does on a court case; it also reminds you— yes, you, the knowledgeable instructor, so accustomed to instructing–that this is not your role in the discussion.  Yes, I am that type of teacher. At times, I actually need reminding to put away my teacher’s gavel. Or, at least to relax my grip on it a bit. Maybe even to stop waving it around at the head of the classroom like a viking with a mace.

Hey, did vikings even use maces?

What am I even talking about?

Similes are dangerous when you’re an idiot.

Keeping it Safe

So you’ve put away your mace or gavel or whatever imaginary symbol of authority you weild in your mind. (My apologies if you’re actually not a total asshole and don’t think in these terms. I commend your non-violent imaginations). Students are talking with one another relatively freely; there are quiet moments in the discussion, and at times the discussion isn’t as lively as you would like it to be. But, on the whole, students in the class are each taking some level of responsibility for the class environment; they feel in control of things, the feel like they can voice their opinions, like anything goes.

Oh shit. Have we gone too far?

Before I send you to bed with nightmares of a class gone wild, or of calm, quiet students turned poltergeist spewers of hate speech by the heady taste of power and freedom, let me explain how this discussion management system balances the opennes it invites with security.

First, assigning discussion roles helps to balance the spread of who gets to speak and when in the classroom. And not just because, for example, whoever is the facilitator or a questioner for the week cannot avoid speaking. It’s also because student comfort can change based on who has the floor. I’ve seen students who are usually very quiet in “open” class discussions suddenly become much more voluble and relaxed during an assigned-role discussion facilitated by a friend, or by someone they’ve worked with previously in think-pair-share exercises.

Another benefit of this system is that it gives students a clear idea of what is expected of them; as a result, they tend to feel safer. Unclear expectations will keep many students quiet. Unclear expectations can also have the exact opposite effect on others: it can encourage some students to stray off topic into dangerous territory, dominate the floor, talk over others, or simply not listen. Making discussion guidelines and role expectations explicit allows students to self-police one another; it also gives you solid, communally-acknowledged standards to refer to in any case where you feel it necessary to step in to steer a discussion away from disaster, or to address any disruptive behaviours with the class.

And that, of course, is the final safeguard this system offers–you as note-taker are not entirely absent, or passive. You can step in if necessary, or revisit a touchy topic in weeks following if you don’t like how a discussion went. And, if you participate sparingly in these discussions–but still participate–students will not forget your presence. They will recognize that a higher authority does preside, ultimately, over the classroom, someone who will work to keep the classroom a safe, secure and comfortable space.

Now it’s your turn. How do you invite participation in the classroom? How do you try to create a safe, equitable classroom? I would love to hear from you.

sex in the classroom


Who: Me, and students enrolled in a first-year English Lit. course 
What: Discussion of characterization in Mrs. Dalloway 
When: Modernist London…. as pictured by Virginia Woolf
When (like, for real): Last week
Where: Tutorial

twenty minutes in…

Me: “She keeps hitting us over the head with it, doesn’t she? Smacking us in the face with that dick, with that dick-knife / knife-dick symbol, over and over and….”

Sometime later…
Student: “And then I found out she was old. So, she has wrinkles. Right? And you can’t see her breasts, because, like, they would be way down here.”

(I think her hand hits her hipbone here, to indicate the exact level of saggage all the women in the class can look forward to.)

And, a few hours later, in my other tutorial…

Me: “Well, she’s sitting on the floor, cross-legged, isn’t she? She doesn’t cross her ankles demurely, she opens her legs for all the world to see. And she chops flower blooms from their stems– she only wants that feminine opening; she violently removes the phallic part of the plant. And in every way she is described as open, inviting, attractive. Basically, she is a walking vagina.”

Sex in the classroom. We never know quite what to do with it, do we? This past week, I put the portrait-drawing contest that I described in my last post to the test, again. It was a bit of a gamble. Whereas previously I had used this activity to talk about characterization in a highly realist novel–where the author gave a detailed physical description of each character, one that unapologetically aligned outward appearance with each character’s interior life–this week, I chose to use this activity to discuss characterization in Mrs. Dalloway. I chose a few passages, and asked the students to become portraitists, to draw a portrait of the character the assigned passage described– a tricky task when faced with Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style. She is a writer who rarely gives a catalogue of physical traits; instead gestures, symbols, and the inferences and associations that a character excites in another are what define how we, the reader, envision that character.

But holy crap, did we have fun with this activity. And by the end of it, with 25 minutes left in tutorial, we had plenty of time to discuss each portraitist’s “artistic” choices. Students clearly and carefully relayed their interpretations of the text to the class; they explained how they translated text and metaphor into image. Truly fantastic. These were students doing close reading at its best, but with interest, and humour.


Mrs. Dalloway’s take-home message: clock towers are a lot like giant penises.

Sex quickly entered the discussion because, well, it was Woolf’s work we were discussing after all. How funny it was for us all to recognize just how prevalent sexual symbols are in her text. They are everywhere. There is the phallic penknife, opened and closed, opened and closed, by Peter Walsh; there is Big Ben all erect at the centre of the text, penetrating each scene with its ominous noise; there is that orgasmic crowd scene, with every face turned to the sky to watch an airplane reach higher and higher, eagerly awaiting the release of each smoky letter written (you might even say spurted) in the sky above them; there is Sally Seton, castrating a bunch of flowers, divesting each bloom of its stem to display their feminine openings, unaccosted by any hint of masculinity; there is a frothing fountain at the centre of Clarissa’s memory of Peter, and an open vase, a jug, or ewer or whatever attached to her memory of Sally.

But is there a line, an invisible line that I should know about, or perhaps even set, which I am not supposed to trespass? Should I be setting some sort of “tone?” My gut instinct says, no, not really. Short of jokes about sexual violence, I’m pro-sex-in-the-classroom. Sex ain’t sacred–I know because Foucault told me so! Plus, I think Foucault is right to laugh at those who ask us not to laugh at sex, to mock those who admonish us immature gigglers, snorting at the mention of the word “labia” or “balls.” Right? I mean, just try saying “labia”  out loud and not cracking a smile.


What are your thoughts? Balls in the classroom– yay, or nay? And, another few: what about labia? Mons? Vaginas? Clitoruses (clitori???)? Female masturbation!??!!? I ask because weirdly enough, female sexuality is still taboo, no matter how much or how loudly I yell about my vagina when drunk at the pub. The same (female) student who joked about saggy breasts this week also commented one day, during a discussion of gender performance, on how women and men must sit differently. Commented, and demonstrated: sitting slouched, with legs splayed, she asked, “Who would want to sit beside this?”–whilst pointing derisively at her own crotch–“It’s gross, right? I mean, I know it’s not gross, but really, if I saw you sitting like that, I don’t think I could even look at you.” Should we be looking more closely at female sexuality in our classes? And can we open up the discussion to include everyone, even men? Are male students allowed a voice on sex in classrooms? Do you fear what they might say as much as I do? Honestly, what do you think?


Sally Seton. Am I right?

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.