June 1997



A Plea for Visual Literacy

by Kevin Hunt

For the past year I've been teaching a 200-level college course called "Writing to the World Wide Web." At the beginning of each semester, I launch the course by explaining to my students that the Web is exploding our traditional notions of what "writing" is; that is, the Web forces us to give up the idea that writing involves only producing and manipulating alphanumeric characters to form various sorts of texts. In its place, I explain, we're now faced with a much broader conceptualization of writing, a conceptualization that includes such considerations as how to use icons and other graphic devices for rhetorical effect; how to provide visual cues that help facilitate how the reader will navigate through the "pages;" how to assess the effect that different background colors will have, not only on different types of monitors but also in different cultural contexts; and so on.

In short, the Web is predominantly a visual experience these days, and will continue to become even more intensely so with the increasing integration of video and animation sequences into web sites. What this means for those of us involved in teaching is that the advent of the Web requires the teaching of writing as a process that involves imparting skills of visual as well as written communication to our students. It involves an invigoration of visual literacy in our students.

Unfortunately, this is a tall order, due to the fact that most public schools in the U.S. have a bias against imparting to students the "artistic" skills of creating and critically analyzing visual media. It is simply not seen as a necessary part of what students need to learn. Rudolf Arnheim, a psychologist who has studied the connection of visual imagery to thought, has traced the bias against the study of the visual arts back to the ancient Greece and Plato, who in The Republic cautioned that the arts "strengthened man's dependence on illusory images."

This bias has continued in the education system here in the United States, grounded as it is in the manipulation of written and mathematical symbols. As students progress through most American public school systems, any aptitude or interest they might have for visual communication slowly withers and eventually is abandoned because of the notion that such skills are based on processes that require no thought. By the time most students reach high school age, the visual arts are treated more and more as entertainment and mental release for all except those who show extraordinary talent as "artists." As a result, the three Rs reading writing, and 'rithmetic (the "thinking" skills) assume a position of dominance.

Perhaps your school days experience paralleled mine: I have memories of starting first grade with drawing and finger-painting and sculpting with clay. As I moved upward, those activities were bestowed with less and less importance, and reading, writing, and algebra become more important. Then my training in the visual arts ceased all together.

I believe most students I've had in my web writing course have had the same experiences. Most come into the class believing they have at least rudimentary writing skills, as well as skills in reading, interpreting, and analyzing written communication, all gained through years of sitting in English classrooms. Yet few if any believe they have similar skills when it comes to visual communication. The result is that at the end of the course many students produce Web sites that contain well-crafted prose appropriate for the reading patterns of the audiences they hope to capture, but the visual appearance of the pages they create doesn't quite mesh rhetorically with the messages they're trying to convey in their writing. They create Web sites that visually resemble ransom notes hodgepodges of colors, background images, icons, etc., all competing and drowning each other out.

The inadequate education students are receiving in the visual arts is an even more pressing problem, given the current calls to bring technology into the classroom. With the current rush to wire all the schools in America to the Internet, there seems to be a belief that this increased access to information will magically democratize education, as school children all over the world will have open access the sum of human knowledge. Putting aside many of the fallacies of this utopian outlook, let me just suggest that if the Internet is to become a democratizing force, it will require students to create as well as consume information on the Web. And to become information creators requires an understanding of how to think, create, and communicate visually.

My suggestion for school districts that are now anticipating or finding themselves wired to the Web is this: To take full advantage of the Web's potential in the classroom, the Web should be utilzed as a tool for knowledge dissemination as well as reception. This in turn requires that the visual arts be integrated with the other traditional arts of writing and reading. Instead of being relegated to the periphery, the visual arts drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, and later, computer graphics, computer animation, and indeed Web design itself should assume the same importance as subjects such as math and science. For that matter, these arts should be integrated into other subject areas. In this way, term papers about volcanoes along the Pacific Rim and essays about What I Did On My Summer Vacation soon will be replaced by Web sites that allow others to more fully participate in communication process via animation sequences, video clips, and yes, even written descriptions.

My hope is that one day I will not have to explain how our ideas of what "writing" is are being transformed as a means of launching a course called "Writing to the World Wide Web." Indeed, I hope one day the course called "Writing to the World Wide Web" is not an elective that freshman college students take in place of First Year Composition. Instead, it will be an ongoing communication action--visual, aural, written--in which students participate from the moment they first set foot in a classroom.

Kevin Hunt ( is the book review editor for CMC Magazine. and a PhD Candidate in Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.

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