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The Viz Initiative: A Brief History

The idea for Carleton's visual initiative, Visualizing the Liberal Arts, began in 2004, when Dean of the College Scott Bierman convened a faculty and staff working group from a wide range of disciplines to discuss the role of the visual in a contemporary liberal arts curriculum.

We live in a culture increasingly saturated with images, and our students are great consumers of visual materials. But it was clear that our students did not have the tools they need to understand images effectively and critically; to perceive the work images do in making arguments and swaying opinion; and to create images to serve their needs. Sometimes called visual literacy, or visual thinking, visualization, or visuality, these are skills that faculty in all disciplines want to foster and develop. We saw these as fundamental skills for a liberal arts college to set alongside writing, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning.

The working group developed a set of curricular goals and identified two major areas of focus:

  1. To improve and coordinate staff support for faculty who are increasingly making use of visual materials and designing assignments that encourage students to locate, create, and present images and other visual materials;
  2. To enhance faculty and curricular development to help devise a curriculum that will offer students abundant chances to encounter and to create visual materials in a wide range of contexts and deploying a wide variety of analytical tools.

A separate Mellon planning grant allowed the college to begin work on the first of these issues, under the directorship of Andrea Nixon. Work on staff support continued, along with a vigorous faculty development and exhibits program, under the Visualizing the Liberal Arts Grant, a three year grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2009.