The following began as a set of comments/responses to a post by Holly Pappas at Re: Thinking, Teaching, Writing, part of which was a response to Christine Rosen’s “The Image Culture.”

Holly was musing on what role the analysis of images should play in a composition course, and I replied, slightly revised now, with the following:

In terms of a composition class, I don’t know how much good image analysis in and of itself. In fact, I’d argue that’s not what we should be doing. Jeff Rice’s critique of favoring image analysis over image production is dead on:

In much of today’s pedagogy, the preference is for writing about images, not with images. The preference is still for the word. Thus, we hear Rader using the word interpretation in his review essay of visually oriented textbooks and not the word production. Thus, we hear Handa—despite sporadic references to production in her introduction to the sourcebook—stress the idea of “critical thinking” repeatedly, a concept whose origins are in reading, not in producing texts. True writing can only come from reading images, these positions state, not from making images. (The Rhetoric of Cool 135)

I’d suggest, as Jeff does, that the notion of composition sans image is deeply rooted in and tied to print culture. Cognitively, we think and make meaning through both words and images (Ganley offers one such example of how this can be harnessed in a composition classroom), and this move to banish the image from serious texts is fairly new.

We also need to remember, as Kristie Fleckenstein has pointed out, we, as compositionists, need to engage mental and verbal imagery as well as graphic imagery. It is, again, the making of images, the production of meaning through both words and images (mental, verbal, and graphic) that we should be focusing on rather than the analysis of images. (Or, rather, the production of meaning should be the end goal. There’s nothing wrong with the analysis of texts, verbal, visual, or verbal and visual in a composition classroom as long as its done in the service of producing texts.)

When asked if I thought composition studies’ visual turn was driven by technology and if I thought it helped with the larger aims of a composition course, I replied:

The question is, of course, what one’s personal and institutional goals are for a composition class. If the goal is to write a coherent paragraph or a correct sentence, then the importance of engaging imagery would be much less than in a course in which the goals are to prepare students for the rhetorical acts they’ll engage and engage in their personal, academic, and professional lives.

In part, this is driven by digital technologies, but as you’ll see in my two conference papers, what we now take to be a natural separation between words and images isn’t natural at all. It is, in fact, a condition that has only existed for a few hundred years and came about largely because of the constraints of print technology.

While mental and verbal imagery (as opposed to graphic imagery, what we generally call ‘images’) continue to exist in written discourse, our current understanding of their role in rhetoric is greatly truncated from what it once was. We now regard them as solely issues of style when, in fact, they were once also deeply connected to the canons of invention and memory. This truncation is largely complete by the Nineteenth Century with the breakdown of rhetorical culture and the separation of rational discourse (which we now call rhetoric) and the poetic. While this division begins earlier, I will note that Enlightenment authors had no problem with using imaginative writing, what we’d now call literature or fiction, to make their arguments. Consider, for instance, Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, Pope’s The Dunciad, or Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.

From the Classical period up through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, one learned grammar, which includes the poetic, before one learned rhetoric (Wordsworth and Coleridge were taught this way as were Shakespeare and Milton as were Chaucer and Dante as was Cicero…. In other words, the poetic is essentially a part of rhetoric. This idea that they are two separate and distinct fields rather than two complementary, overlapping, and interacting methods of communication is a new idea even if it is the idea upon which modern composition studies is based. (This too, I’d suggest, basing this idea in the work of Ong, can be traced as an effect of print which brought about the end of the rhetorical age and ushered in the romantic age.)

So, in part, my argument about teaching meanging making with both words and imagery comes from Mary Carruthers work on medieval memory which, in part, focuses on the rhetorical role of imagery in thought and discourse, and in the work of Kristie Fleckenstein, who calls for “a double dialectic, a double vision of literacy as image and word, as imageword.” And to that extent, I’d argue that this isn’t about digital technologies but a return to a fuller understanding of how human thought and communication actually work. In short, it’s an understanding that we communicate and think with both words and images. Sometimes we can express ideas best through words and other times we can express them best through images, and often times we express them best through words and images together — and by images I am once again refering to mental, verbal, and grahic imagery altogether as Fleckenstein does.

Their understanding, both Carruthers and Fleckenstein, of the integral role and interplay of word and image, of an understanding of literacy being rooted in that double dialectic is supported by current research in cognitive science and educational theory. See, for instance Metaphorical Ways of Knowing: The Imaginative Nature of Thought and Expression, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, and Imagery and Text: A Dual Coding Theory of Reading and Writing. (As an NCTE publication, Metaphorical Ways of Knowing is the most accessible.)