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Taming the dishevelled beast of visual literacy

Margaret Woodward |  23 May 2008

Elkins, James (ed.). Visual Literacy, Routledge, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-415-95811-0. RRP: $27.95.

Visual Literacy In his preface, editor James Elkins describes 'visual literacy' as a 'dishevelled field'. It is this field — or minefield — that he invites readers to enter via the essays (originally conference papers) presented here.

Given that much university education is dominantly and sometimes entirely text-based, the central issue of whether there can and ought to be a stronger emphasis on the visual is a valuable, challenging, perhaps even threatening one, for denizens of academia.

Contributors come from diverse disciplinary areas, such as law, education, politics, technology, medicine, science, art, visual studies and culture. In the conference context, the writers were able to hear and appreciate different positions, familiarise themselves with each other's ideas, and redraft their papers for publication.

Theirs is a somewhat privileged position because of this, and because of their having begun with a common interest as well as a specialised knowledge and language that not all readers will start with or share.

Nevertheless, Elkins' hope is that those who read the essays will gain at least a provisional sense of what the 'theories, practices, competencies and literacies' associated with 'visual literacy' might mean for tertiary education in general and for their own work in particular.

In addressing this concern, each essayist supplies what is in both senses of the word a 'partial' description of visual literacy, its significance and limits.

Approaches vary. Dallow, for instance, explores the 'interdisciplinary dimensions' of visual literacy, whereas Enquist reports on how recourse to the visual can help to bridge the communicative 'gap' between the focus of clinicians on diagnostic images and the concerns which find expression in patient-created imaging.

Such differences have to do not only with the professional preoccupations of particular contributors but also with the significant question of whether 'visual literacies' belong within or are separate from the concept of 'visual literacy'. (One might also ask what links there are between 'visual literacy' and other forms of literacy.)

What would it mean to affirm the place of the visual within all areas of tertiary education? What kind of university would enable this and what freedoms are involved or need protection? There is no easy or one-dimensional solution, as Simons shows in his comments on the current state of universities and the political shifts required to achieve such a goal.

By adding photographs, the editor has tried to redress what remains a significant imbalance in this book — the dominance of text and sparseness of images.

The understandings of 'visual literacy' evident where images are employed deserve critical consideration. Some images seem to serve solely as adjuncts to the text; some, as illustrations; some, as if it is best that verbal explanation or interpretation precedes the reader's seeing or 'reading' the image.

Do these practices manifest the writer's view of 'visual literacy' and perhaps of the habitually text-oriented? What do they leave out? The quality of the book's images is another concern.

Focus on the academic sphere should not limit the book's readership. For instance, Sherwin's essay on the use of images in legal contexts is informative for lawyers, school teachers, students, or anyone who cares about justice. Ideally, Visual Literacy will spur its readers to approach this 'dishevelled' creature with their own questions about its nature, importance and pertinence, rather than rush to bring it to premature tidiness.

Visual Literacy at Routledge online

Margaret WoodwardMargaret Woodward is a writer presently working on a book concerned with 'education for justice' through a just education. She is a Sister of St Joseph from Lochinvar, NSW.



Margaret Woodward


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