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Visual Literacy across the Disciplines: From Faculty Engagement to General Education and Beyond
Visual literacy is critical to communication and citizenship in today’s image-saturated global society. Our students live and learn in a world in which creating, manipulating, circulating, locating, and analyzing images are increasingly necessary skills. Images affect every dimension of contemporary life, from social identity to statistical data to geospatial wayfinding. Inspired by this new cultural landscape, Skidmore College faculty have evolved over the past fifteen years by changing pedagogies, course content, and general education requirements in order to promote visual literacy. Faculty and administrators collaborated effectively to obtain grant funding, develop and support new structures on campus, and bring about substantive change in the college’s intellectual culture.
Bringing this work to fruition entailed wrestling with a paradox across Skidmore’s faculty and student populations: while we were committed to enhancing students’ abilities to code and decode images and thus create, interrogate, disseminate, and utilize visual knowledge, we also recognized that many faculty felt unequipped to address visual literacy in their pedagogy. Thus, we committed to facilitating these skills and approaches, catalyzing faculty engagement with visual texts and literacies across departments and disciplines.
Our efforts benefitted from a number of grants, including a significant one from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant fortuitously ran concurrent to discussions about revising the general education curriculum, making the inclusion of a visual literacy requirement a logical development of the work established during the grant period.
Prehistory: Visual Literacy Resources at Skidmore
Several campus resources, including the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, have provided crucial support for Skidmore’s efforts to develop faculty engagement with visual literacy. Opened in 2000, the Tang primarily exhibits contemporary art, but its staff has made a concerted effort to support interdisciplinary and transhistorical efforts in teaching with visual material. The museum has incorporated faculty-curated exhibits on topics ranging from maps to patterns to sugar as a global commodity, and it supports museum-based teaching in departments across the college.
To support faculty from diverse departments to profitably engage with the new museum, in the early 2000s, the college received a three-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to support the Program in Object Exhibition and Knowledge. Under this grant, distinguished visiting fellows shared their creativity and expertise in exhibition design with faculty, exposing museum exhibition neophytes to the processes and challenges of curating shows.
From 2008 to 2013, faculty benefited from a Mellon Foundation challenge grant, “Teaching, Learning, and Museum Exhibitions,” to support interdisciplinary teaching and learning through the exhibitions and collections at the Tang. An ongoing component, “Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning through Museum Exhibitions,” consists of a faculty seminar that travels to museums across the country and a semester-long workshop on the potential of using museums to support teaching. Faculty from most departments on campus have taken advantage of this resource, engaging with modes of object-based teaching that necessitate visual analysis well beyond the traditional disciplinary realms of art and art history.
In addition, Skidmore’s Geographic Information System (GIS) Center for Interdisciplinary Research, founded in 2005, supports faculty whose research and teaching draws on the ability to visually present, analyze, and interact with data that has spatial and geographical dimensions, including work across a wide variety of disciplines. The diversity of pedagogical work sponsored by the Tang and the GIS Center speaks to the potential interdisciplinary reach of visual literacy across the campus.
Prehistory: Cultivating Faculty Engagement in Visual Literacy
A number of initiatives, driven and motivated by energetic faculty and supportive administrators, established the groundwork that ultimately led to a campus-wide commitment to strengthening students’ skills in visual literacy.
In 2009, when the faculty endorsed the college’s Goals for Student Learning and Development, they made one goal—effective communication—intentionally broad. The faculty already had a strong commitment to developing excellent written and oral communication skills but realized that visual communication needed more attention. During the 2010–11 academic year, faculty and administrators, with the support of the Committee on Educational Policies and Planning, launched a multi-year initiative around visual communication, including an assessment project and the exploration of a potential visual literacy requirement.
In a faculty assessment workshop that year, a group of faculty from across the disciplines determined that excellent visual communication skills should include both “reading” images and effectively producing visual texts. The discussion revealed that faculty were teaching visual communication skills with both overlapping and diverging vocabularies and approaches. This realization helped prompt further discussion in the 2011–12 academic year, including a daylong symposium for thirty faculty and staff from a wide range of disciplines to explore establishing common ground on which to teach visual communication. This symposium, which took place at the Tang, included talks on both teaching and research, along with hands-on workshops and demonstrations of specific technologies and their applications.
Building on the momentum from this event, Skidmore faculty began to develop a common vocabulary for visual literacy in venues both on- and off-campus. Also in 2011, a small group of faculty (including one of this article’s coauthors, Katherine Hauser) presented to the board of trustees on visual communication, and the faculty assessment coordinator developed a Blackboard Campus Edition website with resources for faculty teaching with visual components. In 2012, a group of faculty and Tang staff presented on object-based teaching and learning at a Mellon-funded conference, “Visual Learning: Transforming the Visual Arts,” at Carleton College. Two years later, a team from Skidmore presented on “Teaching with the Tang” at the AAC&U annual meeting, in a session that emphasized our students’ need for visual literacy.
Faculty Development and Project VIS
All of these efforts, each of them initiated and sustained through faculty and administrative collaboration, led to the successful application for a major grant to support visual literacy at Skidmore. The college received a three-year, $750,000 matching grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2014 to 2017, with a one-year extension from 2017 to 2018 to spend all remaining funds. Titled “Project VIS: Enhancing Visual Communication and Understanding through Creative Pedagogy and Integrative Learning,” this grant supported strengthening, consolidating, and expanding visual literacy across the college’s curriculum. Project VIS consisted of three main endeavors: the creation of an interdisciplinary minor in Media and Film Studies, the creation of a documentary studies collaborative (the John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative, or MDOCS), and a Visualization Forum/Visual Literacy Forum (VIS Forum). While the VIS Forum ended its work with the completion of the grant, the two other programs created through Project VIS resulted in a visible, widespread, and continuing commitment to visual literacy on campus.
Media and Film Studies. Support from the Mellon grant allowed us to capitalize on interest in the development of a Media and Film Studies program that had been building for more than a decade, leading to the introduction of a minor in the 2015–16 academic year. One key step in this development was the creation of a two-year position for a Mellon fellow with expertise in the critical analysis of visual material. In addition to working with the program director and affiliate faculty to develop the program’s course offerings, the Mellon fellow designed and delivered the first iterations of Introduction to Media Studies, the core course in the minor. Since its inception, the minor has flourished, largely thanks to energetic faculty engagement across the curriculum.
The interdisciplinary nature of the minor means that faculty in all four of Skidmore’s disciplinary divisions—Humanities, Social Sciences, Visual and Performing Arts, and Natural Sciences and Technology—offer courses that count toward minor requirements. To date, faculty have offered more than 150 individual courses counting toward the minor. While many of these existed prior to the development of the minor, Project VIS also offered stipends through the VIS Forum for faculty developing new courses focusing on visual literacy, infusing the program (and the college curriculum as a whole) with new visually focused courses. Thanks in large part to this diverse array of courses focusing on visual literacy, student interest in the minor has developed rapidly, from fifteen graduating minors in 2016 to thirty-one in spring 2020.
The John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative (MDOCS). This program supports faculty and student work in documentary arts and studies both inside and outside the classroom. The collaborative offers a wide range of more than twenty-five classes—all of which count toward the Media and Film Studies minor—on topics ranging from three-dimensional interactive storytelling to documentary film production, enrolling more than one hundred students per semester by the end of the grant’s original three-year term. Another two-year Mellon fellow trained in documentary practice taught a range of these courses as well as directing the DocLab, the collaborative’s dedicated lab space. The DocLab provides workshops to both faculty and students on crucial technical skills of documentary practice, including photo and video editing, camera technique, and film production.
MDOCS staff also work closely with faculty in departments across the college to design and deliver documentary-based assignments, infusing a range of disciplines with rich work in visual literacy. Outside the classroom, MDOCS is a substantive ongoing presence in campus programming, inviting visiting documentarians for short-term residencies, screening documentary films, and hosting the Storytellers Institute, a high-impact summer program in which faculty and students work alongside invited fellows to conceptualize and develop documentary projects.
VIS Forum. While it was more ephemeral than the other two branches of Project VIS, the VIS Forum was crucial in developing needed faculty expertise in issues and skills related to visual literacy in vital and enduring ways. The forum sponsored on-campus lectures addressing a range of topics including visual journalism, comics and visual communication, and more. It supported faculty attending off-campus professional development opportunities on topics ranging from intellectual property and emergent markets to social justice within visual narrative, and it facilitated on-campus workshops on topics including assessing student visual work, using GoPro cameras in the classroom, designing science posters, zine-making, and the politics of data visualization. Through partnerships with departments including anthropology, English, gender studies, psychology, and studio art, these on-campus workshops furthered the grant’s interdisciplinary approach and supported opportunities for interaction among faculty who shared an interest in visual literacy but taught in different disciplines.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of the VIS Forum, in both content and process, was its support for the development of new courses primarily focused on visual matters. Thanks to this support, faculty both within and outside of media and film studies and documentary studies were able to offer visually focused courses, thus supplementing the limited staffing of those still-developing programs with a much more widespread array of involved faculty.
Besides funding faculty proposals for new classes, the VIS Forum further enhanced faculty interaction and engagement by adopting two new structures for supporting course development: in one round of funding, faculty developing or reworking a course with robust visual content were supported to work in “visual pedagogy clusters” of three or four colleagues from across different departments and disciplines, while in a second round, experienced visual literacy teachers were paired with faculty new to visual literacy in a mentor-mentee relationship. These initiatives brought visual literacy into the curriculum in areas including English, sociology, American studies, world languages and literatures, chemistry, classics, Asian studies, health and human physiological sciences, and the college’s interdisciplinary first-year experience. In addition, the pedagogy cluster model developed by Project VIS served as the course development structure for a range of literacies (including, but not limited to, the visual) within our new general education curriculum.
At the conclusion of each academic year, the forum organized a seminar for participants in grant-related activities and any other interested faculty—an overall group of twenty-five to sixty attendees per year—to discuss best practices and future directions for visual literacy at Skidmore. These collaborative moments helped to ensure forward-looking faculty engagement over the life of the grant and beyond.
Visual Literacy Within General Education
As early as 2013, the college’s Committee on Educational Policies and Planning supported assessment projects in visual literacy, exemplifying the mutually inflective (and necessary) collaboration of administrators and faculty as we worked toward a general education requirement in visual literacy. As Skidmore submitted the Mellon grant for Project VIS, the college was simultaneously examining its general education curriculum, paying attention to core competencies and literacies. This concurrence created an unexpected opportunity to consider how to integrate visual literacy into the curriculum. The college passed a new general education curriculum in April 2017. This curriculum requires visual literacy as one of five new competencies to be achieved in the major (alongside information literacy, technology literacy, oral communication, and written communication), solidifying it as a core element of every Skidmore student’s learning.
Although each department can determine how its students will satisfy the visual literacy competency, some general guidelines suggest that a visually literate individual should be able to
- determine the nature and extent of the visual materials needed;
- find and access needed images, objects, and visual media effectively and efficiently;
- interpret and analyze the meanings of images and visual media;
- evaluate images, objects, and their sources;
- use images, objects, and/or visual media effectively;
- design and create meaningful images, objects, and/or visual media; and
- understand many of the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues surrounding the creation and use of images, objects, and visual media, and access and use visual materials ethically (Association of College and Research Libraries 2011).
All of the groundwork established by enthusiastic faculty and administrators during the 2000s and Project VIS in the mid-2010s was crucial in supporting the wide-ranging interest on campus in visual literacy that made this requirement possible. The enthusiasm for visual literacy developed from the ground up through faculty engagement and exchange, rather than by top-down, administrative fiat. While it would be impossible to have all faculty members make substantive changes to incorporate visual literacy in their courses, the genuine enthusiasm we have seen in faculty committed to this work suggests a promising future for visual literacy at Skidmore.
Beyond Project VIS: Rubrics and Assessment
One of the major goals of Project VIS was the creation of rubrics for assessment of student visual literacy, modeled on AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics. Among the sixteen existing VALUE rubrics, none cover visual literacy. Thus, we saw the creation of such a rubric as a valuable contribution to teaching and learning that other institutions could productively adopt.
Faculty worked with our assessment staff to develop two rubrics, one addressing student analysis of visual materials and one addressing student work on visual presentations. In this two-faceted approach, we brought to fruition the understanding of visual literacy first developed in our earliest faculty conversations around the assessment of this skill.
We constructed these rubrics through a recursive, iterative method. In the case of the visual analysis rubric, core faculty in Project VIS first developed a draft version and then offered a stipend to faculty across the college to teach an assignment incorporating analysis of a visual object in a spring 2016 course that would be evaluated with this draft version by a faculty member working with the project. At the conclusion of the semester, faculty from a range of disciplines met to conduct this evaluation, which also conversely served as an opportunity to evaluate and further revise the rubric itself.
Similarly, in the case of the visual presentation rubric, Project VIS faculty drafted a rubric for assessing visual communication in student PowerPoint presentations and then worked with interested faculty to teach a presentation-based assignment in the 2016–17 academic year. At the conclusion of the year, interested faculty met to evaluate this student work and in turn to revise the rubric based on their findings.
Skidmore faculty who developed these rubrics presented them to interested faculty for discussion and adoption in fall 2017, and also successfully presented them at panels at the AAC&U Conference on General Education and Assessment in 2017, 2018, and 2019. With these tools in hand, we hope Skidmore faculty will be more informed and better trained to assess visual analysis and visual communication in their courses and thus be more empowered and encouraged to teach these vital skills. As with all rubrics, these tools also can serve as a basis for conveying the fundamental elements of effective visual communication.
While crafting a rubric on visual analysis seems relatively uncontroversial, we understand the resistance some may have to the apparent sanctioning of PowerPoint usage by establishing a rubric to evaluate its use for visual communication. While this rubric could be used to evaluate other presentation software, PowerPoint dominates presentation software use, and a practical view to helping our students succeed in their classes and beyond college demands attention to the most common construction of visual materials shared by nearly all our students. It also has facilitated a common vocabulary among students and faculty to talk about crafting visual material, whether the presentation makes a data-supported case for using solar panels or explains the meaning of William Blake’s poems and images. Thus, we see visual communication as transcending any particular software or platform to constitute a broader set of aptitudes and awarenesses.
With these rubrics, we hope to achieve our goal of enhancing visual literacy not only at Skidmore but also beyond the campus.
Skidmore is in the enviable position of having a teaching museum and receiving numerous grants dedicated to achieving visual literacy that in part resulted in two new, flourishing programs (media and film studies and MDOCS). Nevertheless, a synergy between faculty and administrators motivated the development of a visual literacy requirement and could be replicated on other campuses. We now see visual teaching and learning taking place at Skidmore within and across departments and disciplinary divisions, inside and outside of the classroom, with both faculty and students studying and creating visual materials. The fact that every major soon will incorporate work on visual literacy is testimony to the transformative impact of both the Tang and our Mellon grants. Moreover, it attests to the dedicated energy of many faculty and staff from diverse departments and areas of the college who persisted over at least fifteen years to make visual literacy a foundational component of undergraduate learning.
We are grateful to our Skidmore colleagues Sarah Goodwin and Jeffrey Segrave for their encouragement and support. A number of Skidmore colleagues contributed to crafting the rubrics. We appreciate their assistance.
Analytical Visual Literacy Rubric: For Assessing Students’ Analyses of Visual Artifacts as Communication (click to expand)
PowerPoint Rubric: For Assessing Students’ Production of Visual Artifacts (click to expand)
Paul Benzon, Assistant Professor, English, and Primary Investigator for Project Vis (2017–18), and Katherine Hauser, Associate Professor, Art History; Director, Media and Film Studies; and Director, Visualization Forum (2016–17)—both of Skidmore College