Author Bio

The Grammar of Visual Communication

posted: 9.19.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Browsing in a bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont (love those independent bookstores!), I spotted a book in the “media” section with a title that grabbed my attention:  The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, by Stephen Apkon (and in small caps next to the author’s name, “foreword by Martin Scorsese”). 

The text is hardback, with a half slipcover in paper with a black and white photo of a lovely flower blossom.  Underneath the slipcover, on the hard cover, this black and white photo is replaced with a color photo of evergreen trees surrounding a yellow satellite dish.  The move between the two images is mesmerizing:  I kept flipping back and forth until the flower blossom and the dish seemed somehow to merge into one.  I knew I was fascinated by these images but couldn’t exactly put my finger on why that was so.

Apkon’s book addresses the problem I faced in trying to articulate my engagement with these images.  In it, he argues that most ordinary folks today are “not properly cognizant of or conversant with the grammar of visual communication, the coded messages of its style, and the practical components of its production.  We are largely, in a word, illiterate.”  Apkon’s charge—which he is at pains to illustrate with dozens of rich examples—strikes me not only as accurate but also as one reason for the focus within rhetoric and writing studies on visual rhetoric and the many articles and books our field has produced on this subject over the last ten years or so (such as Carolyn Handa’s Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World).  In this sense, our field has risen to the challenge Apkon lays down more thoroughly and resourcefully than many others.

Yet most teachers of writing today  have had little or no education in visual rhetoric or visual literacy, and we’re having to teach ourselves how to engage and analyze the grammar Apkon speaks of—and then figure out how to help our students be more critically aware of the screen culture we all now inhabit.

As Scorsese puts it in his foreword,

For someone of my generation, the most astonishing aspect of this development [of  moving images everywhere around us] is that many of these images were created by nonprofessionals, shot with smartphones and cameras of all shapes, sizes, and levels of expense.  The need for visual literacy has only become more urgent. In fact, it has become necessary.  This wonderful book, written from the unique perspective of someone who loves cinema and who is passionate about education, helps put this need in perspective. Steve Apkon starts with the cave paintings and takes us all the way to YouTube and beyond, by way of Gutenberg and Edison and Hitchcock, and in so doing he helps us to clearly understand the continuity between word and image, as opposed to the divide.  In the process he redefines the word literacy to include all the means by which we communicate today.

Apkon’s book makes a cogent case for our need to be literate in the primary communicative modes of our society—and today that means being literate in moving images, film, video, and other digital tools.  At a minimum, Apkon argues, every high school student today should be a master of five key abilities:

  • Producing a short video script
  • Shooting a film narrative with the “correct literate elements of expression”
  • Editing a raw video footage into a cogent argument
  • Accessing available channels of information distribution
  • Understanding, analyzing and interpreting visual media

Apkon cites some work by National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association on visual literacy, but his focus is not on telling teachers of writing and reading how to achieve these goals.  Rather, he seems intent on alerting us to the urgency that we take up the goals, recognize their importance, and then figure out how to accomplish them.  Along the way he gives examples of teachers who have done so, but again, with little concrete, nitty-gritty advice.  Luckily for those of us who want to heed Apkon’s call, many in our field are providing that guidance.  I will post soon on some of these efforts, but in the meantime I would be very grateful to hear from others about how you are responding to the challenges of teaching writing and reading when, as Apkon puts it in one chapter, “All the world’s a screen.”

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