Discovery in the English Classroom – Visual Cultures and Ways of Seeing

The time is now to support the role of learning in the pursuit of discovery and to embrace the powerful agency of culture. – David Edwards

In a recent article in Wired magazine, David Edwards discusses what he sees as the failings of a contemporary education system that teaches students to “learn” first, and asks them to “do” later. He argues that in a world facing an imminent food crisis, political crises, alongside the mass movements of populations, we need to learn how to discover.

Moss O’Flaherty-Chan, 2017. Photomontage of representations of Asian women from 1922 to 2016, overlaid with digital drawing.

English 705: Studies in Visual Cultures at Ryerson University sought to bring discovery into the English classroom by introducing students to the mode of scholarship known as critical-making.

The overall goal of the course was to encourage students’ deep critical thinking about visuality, visual cultures, and our ways of seeing. Critical thinking focuses our attention. It sheds light on aspects of what Hannah Arendt calls our world-in-common that might otherwise remain in obscurity. It changes our perspectives, and frames the reasons why these changes are urgently needed.

Critical thinking is not engaged when we are asked to answer pre-fabricated sets of questions in predictable ways. A critical thinker must discover his or her own questions about ideas, objects, relations, and/or cultural practices. Their questions need to be compelling enough to warrant sustained attention, and robust enough to shed light on their subjects’ full complexity. Scholars know that the methods they use to explore or answer such critical questions must be responsive so as to be able to accommodate unforeseen insights. Research-creators, those who learn while doing, know that creative experimentation can be generative. Critical making can yield new insights, but also create entirely new frameworks for thinking about and through problems.

Students were asked explore ways of seeing critically in two interrelated digital exhibits. In “How to Use Your Eyes,” students practice close-seeing, defamiliarizing an aspect of the everyday world through careful attention. In “Seeing Critically,” they engage in critique using either standard research methods, or research-creation methods. Some students chose to write research essays. Others chose to experiment with other modalities of critical response that circumvented traditional modes of argument such as film-essays, photo-essays, collage, podcasts, cut-ups, painted and photographed and digital images, dance performances, and even diy workshops.

The digital exhibit represents a form of publishing particularly well suited to the study of Visual Culture because it allows authors to show, and not just tell. By exhibiting their works here, these students skillfully direct our gaze to what they consider to be important, and model a range of ways for us pose new questions.

Monique Tschofen, Dan Browne, and Alison Aird. Department of English, Ryerson University (c) 2017, 2018.

With thanks to Paul Moore and Jeremy Shtern, directors of the Joint York-Ryerson Program in Communications and Culture, for their support of our Tis, Reginald Beatty, and Lorraine Janzen, for their support of the concept and execution of our digital exhibits.

Works Cited

Edwards, David. “American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist.” Wired 10 (2014).

Images in this online exhibition are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education. 
–banner photo “Image Arts” by jonathantoddrollins, Ryerson University