29 November, 2010Issue 14.4Technology

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The Image in Academic Practice

Mona Sakr

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Ask most members of the public and they’ll describe literacy as the ability to read and write text. But over the last 30 years, the new literacy studies movement has suggested that a major shift in our conceptions of literacy is needed. They see literacy as a culturally and ideologically situated phenomenon; literacy—or rather literacies—depend on where you are, who you are, and what medium you use to get your message across.

So, contemporary transformations in technology—iPads and iPods, BlackBerrys and broadband—do more than change the way we read and write; they change what it means to be literate and how literacies fit into our everyday lives. Gunther Kress, a professor of semiotics and education at the University of London, has argued that the medium of literacy is rapidly changing from the book to the screen, and since our screens are dominated by visual stimuli and organised according to spatial principles of the eye, we are leaving the written word behind and adopting the image as our primary form of meaning-making.

The image-sensitivity of new technologies and their affordances—what they enable us to do with visual stimuli—are seen by some as responding to a fundamental human desire to make meanings in a range of modalities. Young children play with meanings and symbols through gesture, drawing, sculpting, and eventually writing. When children do enter the realm of writing, they hold on tightly to the potential of the image, offering the reader clues to the meaning of a written word through the size of the word (“caterpillar” will be written much smaller than “dog”) or its colour. The multimodality of children’s early literacy increasingly corresponds, Kress and others argue, to an adult’s digital and online experiences of communication and expression.

But what does a relationship between the intuitive symbolic work of children and the design of contemporary technologies mean for the academic world? If being an intellectual is partly about distancing oneself from the experience of the masses in order to develop an objective stance in relation to an experience, how can the new aspects of literacy—digital and visual—inform practice within universities?

It seems telling (perhaps even concerning) that the arguments for a radical change in the way we make meaning—arguments heralding the age of the image—have all been presented in the form of paperbacks and journal articles, with relatively few deviations from the written word. This leads us to ask several questions. Is the age of the image a reality, or part of the 21st-century hype surrounding the capabilities of new technologies? If it is a reality, is there evidence to suggest that academic practices are changing and catching up with the rest of the world? Or is there a concerted effort within academia to reject, perhaps even deny, contemporary trends in literacy?

The growing prevalence of research using images as sources suggests that though words may continue to act as a means for building arguments and sharing ideas, data collection and the credibility and validity of sources are being thought of in new ways. Images have been increasingly used as a source in history, ethnography, and sociology. Part of the lure of the image in the social sciences seems to be its perceived openness. For researchers who hope to include their participants’ ideas in the research process and thereby empower the communities they study, images can be used as a starting point for discussion and interpretation. The collaborative work of artists such as Wendy Ewald, a photographer who worked with new immigrant communities in Margate to establish voice and presence through public images, has in this regard inspired the work of social researchers.

Academic blogging has been seen as another way to prioritise the accessibility of information and narrow the gap between the public and the university. Academic bloggers Julia Davies and Guy Merchant, however, have shown that their own blogging and online conversations can become as closed as more traditional methods of sharing information, whereby “no attempt is made within the comments to explain to others beyond the group and in this way meanings are kept closed; the group is in some ways exclusive despite the fact that the discussion is taking place online.”

Despite this, Davies and Merchant have maintained a faith in the democratic nature of online academic discussion, and particularly the use of photographic images, which they understand as helping readers to identify an appropriate “reading path” for themselves. They used Flickr to upload photos to their blogging sites, and these photos often sparked discussion and comment in a way that written ideas did not. But how far does the faith of Davies, Merchant, and other digital-inspired researchers go? Does it affect their experiences of other offline responsibilities? Are their lecture slides constructed around images rather than bullet-pointed text? Can students in their classes hand in photo-essays rather than written essays? Do they expect classes to interact in online communities through image-sharing as much as through spoken discussion?

New educational technologies such as WordPress, Moodle, and Elluminate are discussed by Bertram C. Bruce, a researcher exploring the relationship between technology and learning in the past and present day, in his blog (http://chipbruce.wordpress.com/teaching/technologies/). But Bruce warns against understanding technology as a set of capabilities, disassociated from the social needs or fears which drive technological change. The increasing prevalence of the image is not therefore caused by new technologies, but rather by individuals acting on perceived desires—such as the want for increased accessibility and collaboration in research.

We need to trace not just the use of the image within academic settings, but the feelings academics and students have toward activities and events that depend on image-based meaning making, plotting these on a historical trajectory. For example, we could hypothesise that since reading and writing have become commonplace abilities in our society, the need to distinguish the intellectual through their use of the written word has declined, and the disadvantages of using images in academic practice have been reduced. Such social factors, as much as the latest gadget, are determining the presence of images in the academic world. Both literacy and technology are culture-made products, in constant transaction with each other and the social context. Behind the new uses of the image in academic research and practice lie the social factors—roles, attitudes, and interactions—that should constitute the starting point for further exploration of the image in literacy and academic practice.

Mona Sakr is reading for a DPhil in Psychology and Education at Oxford Brookes University.