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5 ways I approach visual argument in the classroom

posted: 4.17.08 by Barclay Barrios

Visual argument (or, more generally, visual rhetoric) seems to be an increasingly important part of the composition classroom. I’ve never taught a class devoted to visual argument, but I have given visual argument assignments and I often ask students to consider the role that the visual plays in culture. There are of course whole textbooks on visual argument, but since the visual plays only a supporting role in my course, I tend to use a variety of websites instead. For example:

1. PostSecret
PostSecret is my favorite way to have students think about visual argument. This public art project started when its founder, Frank Warren, invited people to design and submit postcards that revealed secrets their authors had never shared before. Each Sunday, Warren posts a new set of secret-revealing postcards; in the process, he offers a wide-ranging display of visual argument, as each postcard design reflects the secret it contains. I’ve found that students can analyze these visual texts readily, providing them good practice at reading, decoding, and then designing their own visual arguments.

2. Ikea
You may be familiar with this home furnishings company from Sweden if you’re lucky enough to have an Ikea store near you (we’re getting ours here in South Florida this summer—yay!). But even if you’re never heard of Ikea, the company’s website offers a great way to explore cultural assumptions about design. That’s because it has separate sites for countries around the world. Ask students to explore some of these different sites (such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia), taking note of how language and culture influence visual argument and design. Ask them then to view the site for the United States and look for the same sorts of cultural assumptions. This assignment, of course, could be done with the main site of many global corporations. I choose Ikea to help students see that globalization is not purely an American phenomenon.

3. The Ebay Conceptual Art Gallery
Justin Jorgensen turns photographs of items auctioned on Ebay into a kind of found art. Have students explore the site and consider questions of both visual design/arrangement and art. Then have them explore Ebay itself. What’s the relationship between design and sales? What’s the economic impact of a good visual argument?

4. MySpace
Chances are your students are already familiar with MySpace. Many students have pages on this popular social networking site, using it to keep in touch with friends old and new. Yet most the pages on MySpace are designed extremely poorly. But in doing so, they also make important visual arguments about the person making the page. Ask students to locate or bring in examples of overly designed or badly designed pages. How does the design reflect and represent the author of the page? How does effective visual argument diverge from effective visual design?

5. Comeeko
Comeeko allows you to upload photos and add captions to create a web-based comic strip. Students can use this tool to create compositions in the style of graphic novels.

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Categories: Argument, Document Design, Learning Styles, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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