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Re: [xmca] Fwd: Visual literacy?

I'm not convinced by your critique of the broader use of the term "literacy", Jay (though I've learnt two new words today: adiabatic and agnatic, so I have to thank you for enhancing my literacy nonetheless). Do we want to ban the extension of meaning by metaphor, just because we think the metaphor is not perfect? :) What if you expand semiotics and sign use to artefacts in our maleable definition of literacy?


Jay Lemke wrote:
Well, I just reformatted the subject line to the main topic, I think. But in such a way that the archives will still put it with the earlier posts, I hope.

I was asked to do a talk about how the concept of literacy has changed, and thought it through, but never actually did the talk. It was requested by some progressive people who found themselves in partnership with some more conservative types who thought of literacy as only reading verbal text linguistically (if that), with maybe writing as an afterthought.

I long ago concluded that you can't reasonably define literacy as anything other than the use of semiotic resources in meaning-making. All attempts to narrow, except for historical purposes in matters of usage, just don't wash for me intellectually. So math literacy and visual literacy are, along with text literacy, just different pieces of the same pie, as anyone reading or writing a technical document or scientific article will tell you. Indeed it is often really hard to separate the three semiotic resource systems involved, so much so that I became convinced that (a) they have common historical origins and ontogenetic precursors, and (b) they really form a single functional system, even if you can sometimes tease them apart with formal analytical methods.

That implies of course that TEACHING them separately is not a good strategy. And if we turn to face-to-face communication, then gesture and posture and meaning-communicating movement belong similarly with speech as one functional system, something that some researchers in non-verbal communication more or less realized long ago.

Now "health literacy" as Mike implied, would seem to be a more metaphorical usage. It really means basic knowledge about human health, and it is about content, not means of making meaning. About a particular kind of meaning made. On this model we could have railroad literacy, too.

And that means that terms like text literacy, visual literacy, and math literacy wind up with double meanings. Knowledge of literature and maybe other genres; knowledge of art works and history, knowledge of mathematical theorems, etc. Except that in the semiotics of these literacies, a lot of that knowledge can also be mobilized as intertextual resources, which are a special kind of semiotic resource.

Bodies of knowledge, however, do not form semiotic resource SYSTEMS in themselves. They don't have the characteristic paradigmatic and agnatic organization, nor the realization and instantiation relations, etc. You can't organize them into minimal contrast pairs. You can however deploy their elements as semiotic units, eg. in quotations.

So knowledge literacies can be deployed with and within genuine semiotic literacies, and while there may be only one all-modes Semiotic Literacy, at least in functional terms, there are certainly a large number of rather distinct knowledge literacies, however fuzzy the boundaries. What makes a knowledge literacy useful, or necessary, is just the fact that you can't substitute another one for it in its primary domains of use.

Once upon a time, to be literate or "lettered" meant to be educated or knowledgeable, in general. And the term may just be trying to get back home.


Mike, you write:
"I managed a D+ in my one obligatory art producing class in college (a work later exhibited, by some really odd error, in a show of student art which makes one wonder at the judgments involved on either side of the process!). I am a hopeless plastic arts producer. But not entirely illiterate as a reader, finder of meanings."

It's fair enough to argue that reading and writing are not equivalent forms of literacy. But in this crazy multimodal culture of ours, where reading and writing both require adeptness with design proficiencies (remember that even the text we read on the screen is a digital product--the 'translation' of code into a specifically designed visual format that we can interpret), what we call "visual literacy" is increasingly an essential component of BOTH reading and writing. Visual literacy goes far beyond what we learned in art class--the color wheel and all that.

In fact, it seems a little strange to link visual literacy to museumgoing. I bombed art class right along with the best of them, and success in art class still wouldn't have prepared me to engage in the sorts of communications platforms that have become the most significant message delivery systems. Indeed, design and visual literacy (or whatever you want to call them) skills are so embedded in communication platforms that I find myself making design decisions without a thought (as when I re-formatted the chunk I quoted from the previous email in this thread, because when I pasted it in the line breaks got all funky--distracting for the reader!). I don't know if the fact that visual literacy (or whatever you want to call it) is embedded within reading and writing literacy practices strengthens or weaken the case for calling it a form of literacy; I only know that it's both important and different enough from reading and writing skills to deserve its own label, if only so we know how to talk about it.



Jenna McWilliams
Learning Sciences Program, Indiana University

On Dec 21, 2009, at 7:06 PM, mike cole wrote:

The addition of production to definitions of literacy is always a good move in my view, Jay. Reading is not equivalent to writing. In the case of visual
literacy and museum art, it seems like what is being referred to is the
reading half. At least i hope so. I managed a D+ in my one obligatory art
producing class in college (a work later exhibited, by some really odd
error, in a show of student art which makes one wonder at the judgments
involved on either side of the
process!). I am a hopeless plastic arts producer. But not entirely
illiterate as a reader, finder of meanings.

There is, a few blocks from you apartment, a show at the SD Museum of
Contemporary Art by Tera Donavan. I think you will find it as fascinating as I did. I plan to take the family during their visit. Donovan take everyday objects (tar paper, straws, cups, and more) and creates installations with
thousand of only one object aggregated in the most fantastic ways. She
states her goal as wanting to explore the properties of objects seens as
parts of very large populations rather than as individual objects. The
effects she achieves are mind boggling with the play of light and texture over surface sufficient to reorder our perceptions in ways we could never
anticipate.Again, art as tertiary artifact, re-admired.

Since you have written more on time scales, I'll stay away from the topic in
general; we have agreed too often here to warrant repitition.
But quite specifically, our work in creating the "Fifth Dimension" was to be
able to study changes in a pre-pared system of activity over a long time
period (from inception to death) at several scales of time. The idea was
part of our interest in the failure of "successful" educational innovations to be sustained-- how did they die and why and how did their implementers enter in to and respond to the process. Still wrestling with analysis-- lots of 5thD's were born and died but others keep being born. Some are, today, strikingly like their originals in the 1980's, others have morphed so that
only a few features remain. The children participants, who are almost
impossible to track over time are now adults -- i sometime encounter one at
ucsd. The college participants are parents I sometimes hear from. All
recorded in their fieldnotes written at the time. I have some money salted away so that "when it dies" (or if i can manage to retire before doing so myself) I will have the full range of instances documented and a lot of the
data in digital form,
so that I can look at that object from both ends of its history. A
preliminary report is in the book, *The Fifth Dimension*.

As to LCHC, that is another matter. It seems to me a certainty that it will die. It had a near-death experience a couple of years ago. As a way of at least marking its passing, a number of former and current members of the lab are in the process of creating a book that traces its origins and the many offspring it has generated. THAT collective narrative I hope to live long
enough to see come into being.

Now if Yuan or anyone would like to see LCHC live, proposals for how to
arrange that would of course be seriously entertained, and perhaps maybe
even entertaining! I thought I saw a nibble at collaboration on making XMCA a more powerful medium the other day, but it turned out to be a mirage. So
for now, we keep on keeping on.
On Mon, Dec 21, 2009 at 12:07 PM, Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu> wrote:

Thanks for the link, Mike. Was nice to see someone in the mass media,
affiliated with a newspaper no less, arguing for critical visual literacy to
protect us from advertising!

Of course that is an old idea in visual education circles, and it can build on the widespread folk-skepticism toward advertising. Unfortunately the more pernicious effects in ads are probably at subtler levels than what basic
visual literacy skills can foreground.

"The ability to find meaning in images" is the definition of visual
literacy used. That seems a little too basic. I think everyone finds meaning in images, with or without any literacy education. Maybe there is an implied emphasis on FIND, in the sense of digging below the surface/obvious, which would be better. But more recent ideas in the field put more emphasis on
visual production relative to interpretation, so I'd probably go with a
definition more like "the skills of making meaning with visual resources, for your own purposes", and include in that the meaning-making we do with
others' images by way of interpretation, critique, etc.

Have you ever noticed that when anyone, docent, tourguide, or just me,
speaks authoritatively about a painting in a museum, that many bystanders seem to become interested in listening? People generally seem to believe
that art images, at least, require some professional interpretation or
benefit from having specialist knowledge (esp. historical). People also seem to enjoy visual interpretation more than textual. Textual interpretation is
seen as superfluous, even obstructing to enjoyment of the work. No one
really reads literary criticism, or book reviews beyond the "it's good"
part. But people are fascinated by the exegesis of visual works. The is one
basis for the popularity of the DaVinci Code and similar popular works.

And there is not a word about visual interpretation skills in our standard
curricula (meaning as practiced in schools, there are some nods in the
official standards).


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
www.umich.edu/~jaylemke <http://www.umich.edu/%7Ejaylemke>

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

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