Tuesday, January 8, 2008

J.D. Speaks at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to present "A Historiography of Images" – based on my paper“A Historiographic Analysis of Visual Texts: Reviewing Information Graphic Methodologies as a Means of Historical Argument” – at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in Washington, DC. My presentation was part of a panel series, "Visual Thinking in History" that included Wilson Warren of Western Michigan University, David J. Staley of THE Ohio State University, and Paula Petrik of George Mason University.

My presentation, which was built upon previous talks at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for History and Computing at Brown University (more) and at the 4th International Conference on the Book at Emerson College, Boston, covered much of the material in the original paper. The AHA presentation bypassed my review of time series graphics, however, such as those of William Playfair, Joseph Priestly, and National Geographic's "Century of Death," and focused insetad on methods of analysis with a specific look at the thematic maps of Charles Minard and Élisabeth Carpentier. I also examined Jonathan Riley-Smith's missed opportunity to create a more vivid graphic.

My presentation was well received, and the audience and the panel engaged in a great discussion afterward. I was especially appreciative for Wilson Warren's analysis of my work in his closing comments. To have my own ideas framed in a context alongside David Staley's and Paula Petrik's was extremely rewarding. I may very well hang his comment that my argument "is a tremendously ambitious conception of the role that visual materials might play in conveying historical ideas" over my desk.

But the most interesting part of the presentation, for me, turned out to be the standing debate between visual and textual learning. My colleagues at the AHA have been criticized by a number of academics – particularly Stanford's Sam Wineburg – for contributing to a literacy crisis in American schools by embracising visual media at the expense of the literary. Wineburg and two other authors recently targeted David Staley 's approach to visual thinking in history, writing:

"While we welcome [Staley's] enthusiasm for the role of technology and multimedia productions in the history classrooms, some teachers will be eager to embrace visual media for the simple reason that students have an easier time working with images than with words. We fear that a decreased emphasis on writing and reading will exacerbate the literacy gap between rich and poor – not ameliorate it."

On the contrary, I agree with the chair of our panel, Wilson Warren, who rightly pointed out Wineburg's errant assertion that working with images is easier than working with words. As a writer I agree that the literary competency is difficult to master but altogether invaluable. But as a graphic designer and a former collegiate art instructor, I know that an analogous visual competency is just as difficult to master and equally important. Indeed, if educators find working with images easier than writing, I suggest that this is a failure on the part of the instructor to properly evaluate visual projects at the same standard as writen assignments. In my experience, non-art educators are less-prepared to grade visual work than their students are to create them.

Additionally, I take issue with Wineburg's implicit assertion that it is the role of the history teacher to instruct students in writing. While I don't suggest that the term paper or thesis be replaced, or that writing isn't critical to the practice of history as a discipline, I do hold that the first and lasting concern of the history teacher is to teach history. We should employ written and visual media in this task with effectiveness as our only bias in choosing between them.

It was great to jump back into academia for even just a little. I feared that the months since my May graduation, mired in the workforce, had addled my brain. It was also great to take a solitary vacation for a few days, catch up with some of my old Hampden-Sydney friends, and otherwise relax my way into the new year. My only complaint: I arrived in DC on the same day as a bitter Arctic blast. My plans to see the National World War II Memorial durring my last morning in the capital were dashed by a 8-degree wind chill.

The associated paper was published last year in the International Journal of the Book. The article examines the use of visual texts as a medium for historical argument, emphasizing methods for interpretation and an analysis of successful visualization methods. This essay focuses on two classic visualizations – those of William Playfair and Charles Minard – as benchmarks for the comparison of several modern historical visual texts – including works by Richard Bulliet, Élisabeth Carpentier, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and the National Geographic. The full text of the article can be purchased online for less that $US5.00. Feel free to buy it several times.

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