Notes from the VisCom Classroom: End of Semester

Fall classes at the University of South Carolina end on Dec. 7, so I want to take this opportunity to discuss what worked well (and what worked less well) in my two visual communication courses — J337, Photovisual Communications, and J537, Advanced Photovisual Communications.

On the “worked well” side, I am constantly amazed and pleased at how much creativity beginning students — with only point-and-shoot cameras — bring to their photography. Perhaps beginning students do not feel restricted by all the so-called rules of good photography, and this frees them to express themselves visually in ways that more advanced students might not attempt.

I was also very happy to see, in both my beginning and advanced courses, how some of the students applied what they had learned from one assignment to the next. In other words, these students approached the course not as a series of isolated assignments, but as a progression of assignments designed to build good visual-communication skills. For example, we spend time in all visual-communication courses learning about composition, using concepts such as perspective, framing, repetition, visual rhythm, etc. Some assignments are designed to reinforce these concepts.

It was especially gratifying when students took some of these concepts and applied them to other course assignments, such as environmental portraiture. Because I design the assignments to build one upon the other, I feel that students are “getting it” when they show me they are developing a growing repertoire of visual-communication skills. Another example of this progression, in the advanced course, is moving students from environmental portraiture to a three-picture photo essay to a multi-image audio slide show.

Another aspect of the advanced course that I thought worked well was to have each student find a photographer whose work he or she admires, and then make a short presentation about that photographer to the rest of the class. I gave very little guidance, except to say that they didn’t necessarily need to present work of “famous” photographers. The students came up with a wonderful selection of creative image-makers, including Patrick Brown, Bruce Davidson, George Fulton, Lewis Hine, Brad Magnin, Mary Ellen Mark, and Peter Menzel.

Many of the students seemed to be particularly attracted to the work of documentary photographers, a group of image makers I especially admire. I hope the students’ interest in this genre means they themselves will carry on the noble and worthy documentary tradition — either as photographers themselves, or as visual-communications professionals working in the fields of publishing, graphic design, or multimedia.

Finally, it is always exciting for me, as a teacher, to realize that you can give students a challenge — create an audio slide show, or work in teams to shoot and edit a short video — and they can figure out how to do it. Sure, I provide the basic instruction, but the magic happens when the students realize that they now have the skills and expertise to become visual storytellers. Call it “confidence” or “empowerment,” but under any name I find it the best reward for the long hours of preparation and teaching.

Now for some things that worked “less well” (how’s that for a euphemism?). Despite all the talk about being “digital natives,” students do not always have enough facility using computers, especially if they are transitioning from Windows to Mac OS. In my courses, I expect students to use Adobe Bridge and Photoshop, so I provide demonstrations and handouts on their use. Even so, some students still had problems getting the most out of their image files, and I will have to address this issue next semester. The same is true for improving students’ knowledge about how to use their camera equipment, whether they have simple point-and-shoot cameras or digital SLRs. We are also incorporating more video into the courses, which presents a new set of challenges.

But more important than the technical and equipment issues, I found it difficult, especially in my advanced course, to get the students to participate in the critique process. Possibly, it was a case of advanced students not wanting to risk being “wrong” about some aspect of photography — a concern perhaps not shared by the beginning students. The advanced course also had more students — 19 versus 11 in the beginning course — so class size could have been a factor.

Finally, because it was an advanced course, perhaps I felt pressured to impart more information — after all, I had only 150 minutes per week to teach them everything I had learned in 30 years — instead of letting the students develop confidence in their own opinions, no matter if there were awkward moments of silence. So, next semester, I’ll talk less, because I think that will help the students learn more.

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