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Image and Inquiry in Ways of Reading

posted: 11.11.10 by archived

As I read the anonymous student evaluations made from l800px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_021ast spring’s section of Seminar in Composition, one particular comment almost made me laugh out loud. Prompted by the question, “what suggestions do you have to improve this course?” one student wrote that over the course of the semester, we had, it seemed, looked at “too many pictures of naked people.”

How many naked people add up to too many? Just about half of the staff syllabus I used in my second semester as a graduate teaching assistant at Pitt relied on two of Ways of Reading’s most revealing selections. Linda Nochlin’s intellectual romp through eighteenth-century representations of (nude women) bathing and Susan Bordo’s sexier exploration of culturally constructed commercial masculinity at the end of the twentieth each furnish liberal images to complement their scholarship. These texts served as cornerstones for a course aimed at exploring issues of identity through the ways we see, and engaging with images seems key to thinking about sight, both literally and metaphorically.

Two pedagogical threads, then, emerged for me as I reflected on our classroom work in the context of the anonymous student’s final comment. I was interested in the comment’s focus on the images themselves—it wasn’t that we’d read or written too much about naked people, it was that we’d seen too many representations of them. This, to me, is rather one of the strengths Ways of Reading offers as a textbook—eight of the twenty-one excerpts and essays that compose it include paintings, photographs, advertisements, or figures. Authors read culture through the image: photographs from Palestine drive Edward Said’s “States”; prison diagrams punctuate Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism.”  It’s as if the collection emphasizes the intertextuality the editors encourage composition students to explore—when we write, as published authors write, we must take into account what we see around us, the images and objects constituted by our world. And it is through careful attention to representation that critical questions can emerge.

This task, as my student finally remarked, is an uneasy one, and that discomfort leads to what I think might be the second point at stake here. I asked students to confront, through Ways of Reading, a number of commonplace assumptions over the course of the term.

Many freshmen have not yet encountered the rhetorics of gender, race, class, and sexuality that seem ubiquitous to those of us who work within the academy, so it can be difficult for them to enter into critical dialogue with authors who address complex social and cultural problems.

In particular, gender—which we encountered first in Nochlin and then again in Bordo—often appeared to be a new lens for reading. Rather than repeat clichés — “true beauty comes from within,” say — we asked how gendered beauty, whatever it is, is configured through media and representation and bound inextricably up with history.

Seminar in Composition at Pitt describes itself as a course designed to teach writing as critical inquiry, as a process by which students might think through the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Images of naked people, whether they are Renoir’s idealized, voluptuous bathers or Calvin Klein’s lean-muscled underwear models, become part of this project.

Asking students to examine their relationship to images, alongside the texts featured in Ways of Reading, enabled writing that struggled to move beyond facile notions about the relationship between what we see and what we are. This undertaking is a challenge by definition, one that approaches composition as a mode of inquiry, as something more than the mastery of conventional forms.

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WOR4Racheal Forlow is an English PhD student and teaching assistant at the University of Pittsburgh.  Her current work explores the intersection between constructions of eros and sublime aesthetics in nineteenth and twentieth century American literature.

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Categories: Pitt Instructors, Ways of Reading, Working with Sources
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