As a high school English teacher, I’m aware that the students I’m teaching live in a primarily visual culture. The texts that I’m asking them to read—whether it’s Richard III or 1984—are in competition with the visual stimuli that glows on their computer screens or smartphones or high-def TV sets. They are bombarded with visuals and visual language every day—and because seeing comes before understanding, these images are incredibly powerful in shaping the way my students (or frankly, many adults) view the world. If perception helps mold that amorphous thing we call reality, then visuals and all the editing and crafting and contextualizing that goes into making them is altering and at times unhinging reality.
Reading, of course, is in part an act of creation where the participant must visualize and internalize the text in hand; viewing images—whether in a YouTube video or a movie or a TV show—can also be an act of creation and interpretation—but very few students understand how to read visual media. They are easily persuaded to believe what they see because they don’t understand it as an art form—that it is, in part, artifice. In terms of news media, it’s clear to see how this is dangerous. The degree to which the news alters the truth and changes our sense of reality is upsetting—but in some ways, that’s old news. Many teachers are already arming their students with the tools to question what they see and hear in journalistic media. But there’s more to it than that …
Fictional visual narratives—from “Realty TV” shows to AMC’s serious dramas like Madmen or Breaking Bad—also have a powerful ability to shape our sense of reality. For instance, I wonder how many of you who are Madmen fans are convinced that the 1960s were just as the show’s creators have portrayed them. The show’s images and characters are so powerful (and so well crafted) that, to a certain extent, I find myself visualizing that decade based on the show’s terms, which if I didn’t question what I saw, could be problematic.
When we read a novel set in the 1960s, we’ve been trained to see as emerging from a particular perspective—the writer’s. However, when we watch a TV show, although we should realize that we are getting a specific point-of-view, we don’t think of it that way because we haven’t been trained to think of it that way. As a culture—and I see this in my students all the time—we give the visual narrative greater authority than the written narrative. It seems to us to be more authentic, more believable, more real. And this really concerns me.
As an English teacher, my ultimate goal in terms of the content of my courses is to help my students understand the craftsmanship behind of what they read. For some time now, to varying degrees of success, I’ve been doing this. It helps the kids to become better readers and better writers. However, now, I’m also feeling the need to teach them how to interpret the craft behind the visual narratives they are confronted with every day. I want them to understand and appreciate a well built film or TV show or photo story, but I also want them to realize these art forms should not have greater authority than the written word—and that if we give them that authority, we can warp our sense of what it real and what isn’t.