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2012 Fall Issue 3 (October 5, 2012)

Visual Learning Conference Explores Visual Pedagogy

October 6, 2012
By J.M. Hanley

This past weekend, Carleton hosted the Visual Learning Conference at the Weitz Center for Creativity. The Visuality Initiative Committee oversaw the conference, and offered lectures, exhibitions, and the chance to talk about the importance of visual learning. Over 150 higher education professionals from various disciplines attended the event.

“Putting visual learning at a central point in how we envision our disciplines is quite an important part of teaching, and I think the conference really underscored that,” said Carleton History Professor Victoria Morse, a member of the Visuality Initiative Committee.

The weekend marked the climax of an investigation of visual learning at Carleton eight years in the making.  After introductory remarks by cartoonist Scott McCloud on Friday night, attendees chose from a wide variety of presentations about visual pedagogy on Saturday and Sunday.

According to Steve Richardson ’86, Carleton’s Director of the Arts, visual learning has become an institutional priority in the past decade, as faculty and administration have come to realize the role it will play in the lives of students after Carleton.

“It’s all about adding tools to the liberal arts toolbox that helps students and faculty and any educated person engage with a twenty-first century world,” he explained. “There’s so much visual learning going on in the world and it’s all about learning to analyze it.”

The conference was also intended as an opportunity for Carleton to be publicly recognized as a higher-education pioneer in visual and creative learning.

“One of the goals of the college’s administration was to position Carleton as a leader in this particular pedagogical area among their liberal arts cohort,” said Laurel Bradley, curator of the Perlman Teaching Museum and an organizer of the conference.

According to Carleton English Professor Susan Jaret McKinstry, the chief faculty organizer behind the project, the school’s visual learning initiative began in 2004 with the formation of an informal faculty committee, headed by then-associate dean Scott Bierman.

Those conversations gradually grew more serious. In 2009, Carleton applied for and won a grant of $750,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to be used for advancing visual learning. The conference was intended as a way to conclude the funded initiative.  

“It was the capstone of the project, part of what we had told the Mellon Foundation we would do,” said Morse.

The conference began with an address by Scott McCloud, a cartoonist and self-styled “comic book theorist.”  His address focused on the power of images to communicate independently of words.  He criticized the widespread use of most digital presentations in the classroom because, according to him, such presentations usually emphasize text over images.

“He’s a really engaging speaker and speaks to visual understanding across disciplines.  He gave us serious topics to talk about regarding the impact of visual materials and how we understand them,” said McKinstry.

Grace Sassana ’16, who attended McKinstry’s presentation, agreed.  “He had so many different ideas, especially about coordinating and balancing words and pictures in a presentation,” she observed.

On Saturday and Sunday, conference visitors chose from a wide variety of presentations and panel discussions about visual learning.

In one presentation, representatives from Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum discussed “case studies” of creative, interdisciplinary approaches to teaching.

John Weber, director of the Tang, described one such project in which Skidmore students created an exhibit using large bottles. “It was about objects, trash, and protecting the environment, and it was used by people in many disciplines, even though it was just art,” he explained.

In another presentation across the hall, Robert Smythe, an MFA candidate at Temple University, talked about Pecha Kucha, an accelerated, wordless version of a Powerpoint presentation with “twenty slides in twenty seconds.”

“It’s built out of images that inspire the author. It’s not just a bunch of points,” he said, “each one of them represents something to each one of us, and therefore, I’m forcing you to interpret for yourself what the meaning is.”

The conference concluded at 3:30 on Sunday after the “Sound and Vision” performance.  By that time, according to McKinstry, many participants had remarked that the ideals promoted during the conference already existed at Carleton.

In particular, she said, they were struck by the fact that the quest to enhance visual learning found support in nearly every department of the college.

“Carleton is a leader because we’re bringing together disparate voices because the interest grew from faculty, staff, and students that came together,” she explained.

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