Resistance to visual pedagogy

This visual approach is considered by some to be a radical departure from orthodox means of communicating knowledge to students, and as such it will inevitably encounter resistance, just as any new challenge to a longstanding convention resists its usurpation.

Pawn brings down king, reversing hegemony, overthrowing existing asymmetric (dis)order. Copyright.

These are some initial thoughts I’d like to expand on in an article for publication for the next REF. They stem from a past reading of Freire’s classic work concerned with the idea that how we teach could in some way be considered oppressive. It sounds at first counter-intuitive. But there is clearly a case to be made at many levels, from how learning is imposed to how teaching neglects a student’s tabula rasa – the knowledge they bring with them to learning spaces. Freire’s work finds latter-day expression on writings on matters like active learning, which presents a critique of the passivity permeating pedagogic cultures globally. It also has ramifications for those concerned with commodification and marketisation of education generally, and HE specifically, since the primary goal of ‘efficiency’ determined through quantifiable metrication does not always or readily sit with the idea of education for education’s sake: to stimulate, provoke, entice and evolve a person’s lived world by ‘assisting in their discovery’, to use Mark van Doren famous words.

Mark van Doren, right. Copyright.

In this post, I’ll be looking at paths of resistance to hegemonic practices that have presented themselves as visual teaching and learning enters the pedagogic frame.  By ‘hegemonic’, I refer to the well-noted idea enunciated by Gramsci of ‘domination by consensus’. This is the notion that groups of people can submit themselves voluntarily to a form of absolute control. A useful example is most of humanity’s consensus to be dominated by capitalism, even though it may it be in their best interests. The mass acquiescence to have substantial degrees of our lives dominated by an asymmetrical exchange system can be thought of as submission to hegemony. Others have proposed that Brussels and thew EU are hegemonic forces to which European nation-states subsume themselves voluntarily (or at least elements do, BREXIT notwithstanding). The concept has wide application but I’m thinking here about the idea and place of the large group lecture in HE.


People agreeing to accept the truth as the media represents it. Origin.

Lectures have been with us for millennia, and they have faced a range of critiques based on their suitability for large group learning. These debates are well-rehearsed in the literature and I won’t be going over them in any depth. As a pedagogic method, they are valorized as locations where an expert can pass on his or her wisdom to large numbers of students; but at the same time that notion is challenged because communication is compromised by a variety of factors including but not limited to their exclusionary and homogenizing nature and their unidirectional form. It looks to all intents and purposes as if these debates have been largely rendered moot by the juggernaut of neoliberal determinism of planetary existence. By this I mean that the self-perpetuating, auto-legitimating, monolithic hegemony of neoliberal biopolitics into which HE has been subsumed, prescribes almost exclusively market mechanisms and their alleged efficiencies as the most appropriate means to ensure more people attain degrees in a competitive market setting that will enable them to participate productively in that market context. Where once the ‘end’ or goal of HE was knowledge for its own sake, more recently specific, prescribed knowledges (degree content, degree combinations and so on) reflecting perceived market needs have become the means to the goal of employment, profit and servicing of the market. I’m aware that this is a rather crude reduction. But universities now predominantly advertise their degrees based on metrics like graduate employment success, salary levels and the like. Often, because they have not been prepared for such a consideration, students arrive at universities with no sense that they are part of a greater and deeper ethos of scholarly learning and the search for truth, beauty and justice.  The point is that pedagogic challenges to lecture efficacy have been largely subsumed to market considerations and the economics of teaching an increasing number of students with shrinking and unpredictable revenue streams subject to an array of external economic shocks and political fads.

Universities are faced with expanding and diversifying competition form beyond conventional boundaries whilst governments seek greater oversight and offer less funding in many cases.

This may, however, work in favour of visual learning. MML literature predicts increased student engagement and promotes active learning processes. We are almost certainly stuck with the lecture format, whether we like it or not. But visual learning and teaching seems to hit two of the holy grails of teaching large groups – engaging the audience and creating an active intellectual interrogative process, if the results of testing to date are anything to go by. So, on the one hand, we may be in the process of developing a pedagogic means to the ends of engagement, active learning and large group lecture efficacy.

Two birds, one stone – achieving engagement and active learning in large group lectures using MML. Copyright.

But on the other, experience so far with presenting, publicizing and publishing on visual learning in HE bodies is meeting with various degrees of institutional and ideological resistance, mistrust, disdain, surprise and curiosity, not in equal abundance. I’ll start with the more positive aspects I have experienced.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) has been both interested in and supportive of this visual learning agenda. I’ve presented on MML methods at HEA events and content and argument have been favorably received for the most part. It is clear that scholars with an active interest in pedagogy as well as their own fields of research have for the most part been open and receptive at various talks I have participated in. It is equally clear that there are still many questions attached to this method, from the more usual technical matters of image sourcing, to legal concerns regarding copyright, to more profound questions regarding the ethics of image use, all by way of questions concerned with matters like process codification – how we locate apposite images. The HEA has also supported a Fellow-led initiative that attracted colleagues from across the UK to Loughborough. In addition, visual learning sessions at discipline-specific conferences like the Political Studies Association (PSA) and the British International Studies Association (BISA), while relative poorly-attended, have shown interest in and enthusiasm for the idea of matching how we teach to how we learn through this new-but-old medium. There is, then, what may be called a limited and peripheral interest in a medium of communication that may ultimately come to challenge the hegemony of the written word in teaching and learning.

David and Goliath, by the young Armenian artist Erik Bragalyan. This image is used here to symbolize the challenge of visual imagery to the hegemony of dominant logocentrism. Copyright Erik Bragalyan

Beyond this periphery, in HE institutions in the UK and in government, there is a different, and mixed story. Centres for Academic Practice have disseminated awareness of the concept across the UK, and take-up has been from universities at the upper and lower ends of key metrics rankingss, with sciences and social sciences represented. Universities that have seen the method being demonstrated have overall apportioned value to it, seeking consultation. Some bodies have been willing to pay to have members of their staff exposed to and trained in its rationale and application. This is not to suggest colleagues at other institutions have been forced to absorb this method. Instead, universities to which I have consulted have wisely left decisions about whether to engage with visuality, and the extent to wish they might do so, to the academics. The method has value-added beyond pedagogy: it can form the basis of pedagogic research, especially since it is both under-theorized and has had limited empirical testing; its use can demonstrate engagement with pedagogic literature; it can present as evidence of reflection for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and can serve as evidence for promotion bids.  And in government circles, the method has also found support. The Department for Education has integrated visuality in schools as part of its Inclusive Schooling agenda. So it’s ‘out there’ and it’s novel whilst also being very well-established when we think about it.

Visual learning has been around a very long time. Copyright

Resistance has become evident in efforts to publish on the subject. Most academic journals, especial in the social sciences, are not accustomed to printing and uploading imagery in scholarly articles. Subject areas that use imagery to communicate routinely, like engineering and biology, couple more experience with less reluctance. But my experience in social sciences publishing has been an uphill one, for the most part, with some notable exceptions. In some cases, there has been an extra-ordinary consultation process between editors on the use of imagery that has resulted in an outright rejection of the use of images in an academic article designed to communicate the idea of the use of images in academic communication – even online where it is easier to facilitate. In others, editors have had to consult specialists on the technological implications and then proceeded. Others spotted the irony of excluding imagery from such a topic at the outset and encouraged image use. A final category seems to fall into the ‘old school’ category of people who can’t tolerate a woman breast-feeding in public because part of a ‘sexual organ’ was on display. An image involving a pole dancer around a giant artificial phallus, representing radical, third world, constructivist and other challenges to liberal feminist support for sex work attracted the ire of one reviewer who demanded it be removed as ‘inappropriate’.  It had to be removed. I reproduce it below.

Critique of liberal feminist attitude to sex work. Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2016

Members of editorial teams have sometimes not seen the irony of using text only to discuss a method that advances imagery as the medium of communication. Some have refused outright to accommodate images whilst actively considering the text content of various submissions. Others perhaps more used to diverse communication practices have engaged the use of a limited number of images and have rightly been very concerned with copyright matters. Because this is an emerging and expanding field in pedagogy studies, publishers not in multimedia fields have limited experience with including imagery with articles, unsurprisingly. Indeed, academic publishing mirrors the broader trend in the academy towards logocentrism.

Logocentrism, or the idea that words are the most important form of expression of information and knowledge and understanding, dominates academia and has done for centuries. It is a deeply entrenched logic that has served the academy well in its time. Presently, however, logocentric hegemony operates outside both our students optimal learning capacities, and their lived experiences before and after university. Their worlds before and after university are at odds with their time and space in HE. In this most visual of eras, attendant upon globalization and digitization to name but two phenomena at work at this point in evolution, our students have learned to swipe a screen before they have learned to turn a page. Schooling increasingly acknowledges visuality and visual entertainment has never been more influential. The advertising, marketing and sales they are exposed to before their journey with us has fed them visually. The magazines and newspapers they read are more image-based than at any time in history. Their social media and communications engage visuality at all stages.

The routine demand for employee understanding of visual social media. Copyright.

Their employers are increasingly visually literate and aware, and demand the same from their employees. Their adult entertainment opportunities engage streaming video of all forms. But at university, logocentrism prevails. To be clear at this point, no-one I know of is suggesting an end to text, in any discipline. There is no expectation that adopting visual media means eliminating words. It is to suggest that as learning and teaching providers, we acknowledge our students’ physiological learning capacities and the visual spaces and experiences that have, and will, shape their lives. As long as logocentrism remains as dominant and exclusive of alternative and invaluable learning channels, it will subjugate and repress the pedagogic potency that visual learning, as a parallel medium, presents to engage students and communicate simple and complex understanding to students.

The ancestry of text, made to look dated by use of a largely-extinct technology. Copyright.

Presently, visual learning is unpopular in the academy as a legitimate and equal or parallel medium to text. The evidence in this respect is anecdotal and sketchy. But practice is not. Few teaching academics work with images as anything other than appendages, or occasional breaks in text (unless the subject is heavily visual like in Arts, Graphic Design and so on. In a survey of academics at Loughborough university’s School of Business and Economics, less than 10% of those surveyed claimed to use images for more than half any of their lectures. This data amounts to little more than a small sample; but based on what I’ve seen of colleagues’ teaching at 3 universities, at academic conferences here and in  Europe and the US, and lectures that appear online (discoverable by selecting for filetype in Google), I think it’s safe to suggest the logocentric pattern is consistent.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *