July 5, 2005
Visual culture class helps develop new ways of seeing
BY Katherine Baust
In between her shifts at the Carlos Museum, Leigh Miller, ’98C, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA), is spending her summer teaching the interdisciplinary course Visual Culture (IDS 216) in Emory College.
“Visual culture involves the recognition that what we see is largely a product of what we know or believe,” Miller said. “Rather than a biological function, ways of seeing are culturally constructed.”
Miller’s doctoral research is focused on contemporary artists in modern Tibet and how they are creating a visual culture. Consequently, teaching her students to become aware of the bombardment of images in day-to-day life and developing critical ways of looking and thinking, which examines the impact of images on individuals and society, is second nature.
Miller has asked her students to apply a critical eye to a range of issues this semester, challenging assumptions about art, exploring the nature and uses of photographs, and becoming aware of ubiquitous branding in public spaces.
“What we notice and pay attention to, how we talk about and how we create images, various aesthetic criteria and the meanings subtly encoded in images —all of these things can tell us a great deal about society,” Miller said.
In teaching the class, Miller combines Theory, Practice and Learning pedagogy through assignments, field trips and presentations to encourage the integration of course materials into students’ own experiences and current events.
Class usually begins with three students giving a summary, analysis and application of a reading assignment. Included in the extensive reading list are French social and literary critic Roland Barthes, whose writings on semiotics made structuralism one of the leading intellectual movements of the 20th century; and American essayist, fiction writer and cultural commentator Susan Sontag.
“Students benefit from hearing each other’s voices, and it helps me gauge at the start of class what places were of particular interest or confusion, or which points were missed altogether,” Miller said. “It also enables me to take the class from there, rather than come in with a preset lecture every day. I find that students feel less pressured and are more likely to instigate conversation, as they feel free to respond to each other’s presentations.”
For each of their assignments, students choose their own topics, from experimenting with different writing styles and creative exercises in their portfolio, to the mid-semester project where they closely analyze images. For example, one could choose to examine an advertisement, or perhaps a photograph.
Miller said some students initially are resistant to such an open format, but they end up submitting original and often fascinating work, she said. The flexibility also keeps her from having to read 15 papers about the same assigned topic.
One (short) field trip they took this summer was to the Asian gallery at the Carlos Museum, to consider the differences between images in their original or intended contexts versus the museum. They also discussed the common aesthetics for Asian religious imagery—what’s “good” in one culture is not necessarily good in another.
The Carlos is a place with which Miller is quite familiar. In the mornings before class, which meets daily from 11:30 a.m.–12:50 p.m., she works in the museum’s conservation department, handling ancient artifacts from the classical world. After class, she works in its education department, writing education guides designed for sixth-graders. She joked that, after years of writing scholarly papers heavy on theory, writing for an audience of sixth graders is not as easy as it sounds.
Miller’s class also has experimented with “kinesthetic learning,” which is another way of perceiving an image. The students sat like Buddha in meditation, or balanced in a Hindu dance posture, the point being to show them that indigenous viewers would already have a bodily knowledge of the states of relaxation or contentment those postures induce or express. In order to see another culture through its own eyes, students must try things that put them in another time and place.
In addition to their final project, students will submit their portfolios, which they have kept all semester, building upon the skills they have developed and situating the reading and images within broader social contexts.
“The students are making important connections between images and issues of concern to politics, race, gender, religion and globalization,” Miller said. In her previous class she received a multitude of topics for the final project.
“I love when students tell me they are surprised at how differently they have begun to really ‘see’ the world around them,” Miller said.