Visual Literacy: The Way We See The World

By Kevin Hodgson

Peephole - Jackie's eye

flickr photo Peephole shared by CVC_2K under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

I’ve been more acutely aware of the world of the hearing impaired this school year, as I have a sixth grade student with significant hearing loss. This student wears high-tech hearing aids and I wear a microphone clipped to my shirt during class. We pass another larger, portable microphone around the room as other students engage in conversations or answer questions. I’ve noticed that I need to be more attuned to my own teaching style this year: to slow down, to make sure everything is accessible as much as possible, to ensure he is actively engaged.

In helping me situate myself with understanding about the world of hearing impairment, I have been thinking about two particular books that I have read that use visual literacy in creative and effective ways and which have helped me to consider my current teaching practice with a hearing impaired student. To be sure, the idea of considering the visual in order to understand audio seems counter-intuitive, but both of these writers/illustrators do just that: they tap into one medium to explain another medium.

Images Help Us Understand

First, there is Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. Now, if you don’t know much about Selznick’s style of writing novels in recent years, you need to realize that he is a master storyteller and a master illustrator, using detailed pencil line drawings. But Selznick views the world of illustration as more than just an add-on or companion to his writing. The pictures don’t complement the story. They are the story. In fact, in a short documentary I show my students, Selznick explains how he considering his sequences of illustrations (which sometimes run 15 to 20 pages or more with no text at all) to be “miniature silent movies” in the format of a book.

Selznick’s images are integral to his stories — and while this is very effective in his other books, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret — in Wonderstruck, the illustrations do something magical all on their own: they tell the tale of a deaf girl through the use of only illustrations and no text at all. We are transported as readers into her audio-less world through Selznick’s artwork. If you want the full effect, go into a quiet room where you won’t be bothered for an hour or two, and read Wonderstruck. The balance between the text story (which tells of one character) and the visual story (which tells of another character), and how those stories come together like a tapestry, is proof of the magic of storytelling.

Second, I recently picked up El Deafo, a graphic autobiographical novel by CeCe Bell, which tells of her own hearing impairment as a child, and uses humor and compassion to show how difficult it can be to be different from other children. I was touched by the insights of young CeCe as she navigated both the world of the hearing impaired and the world of the hearing, and how often misunderstandings left her feeling isolated and alone in the world. The story is superb.

What I noticed most, however, is how Bell effectively utilizes the elements of graphic storytelling to bring the reader into the world of the deaf. In the story, young CeCe starts out with normal hearing, but childhood meningitis causes her to lose much of her hearing. How does she let the reader know that young CeCe is losing her hearing? By softly and slowly removing words from text bubbles … by using the visual of lost and fading speech to show the reader that CeCe’s world is in the midst of a profound shift.

As the book progresses, and CeCe uses a hearing device similar to what my student uses with me, the visual storytelling of speech bubbles gives us an indicate of what it must be like to “hear” when you are hearing impaired — the garbled speech, the reading of lips, the fluctuations of volume, the way that something simple like watching television is an act of concentration most of us never consider. Bell’s story and the use of the visual has given me a much broader comprehension of my own student’s world, and given me more ideas on how to make sure we connect and communicate and learn together.

What We Have In Store This Week

This week, for Digital Writing Month, we are focusing on the conceptual understandings of visual literacies, and digging into the ways in which technology and digital composition utilizes visual media for stories and information and more.

We hope you keep your eyes open. Pay attention to the ways photographs help tell a story. What do you notice when you click the button on your camera or phone, and capture a moment in time? Are you “composing” your shots with angles, and filters, and more?

We want you to be attuned to the way graphics tell the story of data and numbers, and to remind all of us to be wary of ways in which the visual might deliberately, or not-deliberately, inaccurately portray the data. How can we trust our own eyes in the world of graphs and maps and more? And we want you to think about storytelling shifts in a visual age, and how image partners with text, and maybe pushes stories to another level of thinking.

Our Guides On This Visual Adventure

Our guest writers this week, and the source for each post’s Daily Inspiration, include:

  • Kim Douillard, whose weekly call for images and photographs across teaching networks has inspired many of us to think visually about the world around us;
  • Michelle Pacansky-Brock, whose historical photos tell stories of personal and connected experiences;
  • Troy Hicks, whose look at how infographics shape our world of data will allow you to view information as readers and writers of the web;
  • Mahmoud Shaltout, who took a request for a piece of writing and used the experience for a graphic story;
  • And Nick Sousanis, whose work with graphic storytelling and comic literacies has us viewing the world deeper and more complexly connected than ever before, and whose “dissertation as graphic story” pushes the edges of what writing could look like in the world of Academia.

And you. You remain our guest writers each week, too. We invite you to open your eyes to possibilities this week and seek out the “visual” and share your own insights with Digital Writing Month companions.

How do you see the world? Open your eyes, and your lens, and join in. Get inspired.