On Photo Essays and the Sharing of Knowledge: In Praise of New Assignments

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Opening image for the photo essay created by Trey Cullins (BS ’20, English Education) and Jake Anderson (BS ’20, English Education) for Lisa Tatonetti’s ENGL 730 class in Fall 2019.

In summer 2019, I was reading a myriad of folks on Twitter talking syllabi and assignments. The conversations were invigorating, and I was especially attracted to a syllabus that Dave Gaertner, a brilliant assistant professor in First Nations and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, put together for a course on digital literacies.

Dave is a vocal advocate for providing students opportunities to expand their audience beyond the university. He’s part of a growing number of instructors who privilege what are often called “outward facing” assignments — projects aimed toward and shared with those beyond the teacher, beyond the classroom — rather than limiting assignments to papers for which the instructor is the sole reader. (See Dave talk a bit about this approach in a great interview.)

After exchanging a few direct messages, emails, and eventually having a Zoom session with Dave, who I know from conferences and a visit to UBC, I decided to try a new assignment for my Fall 2019 English 730 course, “U.S. Literatures 1965 to the Present”: the photo essay.

It was a productive and intellectually stimulating experience for my students and me, and was, as well, a site of new learning for all of us.

My Photo Essay assignment was as follows:

This project can be completed individually or collaboratively — your choice. In your photo essay, you’ll construct a series of photographs of K-State and/or Manhattan that are intended to make a critical argument about a topic related to the course readings. The essay will be accompanied by a brief critical discussion of your intent, experience, and outcomes.

Based on Dave’s advice, the assignment was limited to ten photos and students could use short captions. I emphasized the fact that, though a critical analysis was required to be turned in alongside the photo essay, the photo essay should be able to stand alone as a visual critical argument.

In presenting the assignment, I was frank about the fact that we were in this together — neither they nor I had ever completed or taught a photo essay before. Thus we turned to and collectively discussed design educator and professor Natalie Delgado’s excellent slideshare, which gave us a “how-to” and also offered examples of photo essays. One piece of advice that Delgado gives that would be crucial in our class context was that there should be a “clincher” final photograph since the essay is intended to make an argument — a fact I repeatedly emphasized.

As the assignment notes, the focus of the essay should be “a topic related to course readings.” In terms of that parameter, the photo essay was introduced just before the mid-semester moment. At that point, the class had completed two short papers and honed their skills of argument and support, had read U.S. Civil Rights literature and selections from the Black Arts Movement, had puzzled over postmodern literature and theory, had encountered the creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry of the Vietnam era, and, importantly, had spent two weeks with Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s landmark 1981 collection of essay, theory, and poetry, This Bridge Called My Back. It was the latter’s focus on identity construction, gender, sexuality, race, and, relatedly, racism, homophobia, structural inequity, and intersectionality that sparked the interest of most of the students when it came time to choose topics for the photo essay.

I share comments and essays from several students here to offer a taste of the intellectual work the class undertook:

Trey Cullins (BS ’20, English Education), who collaborated with fellow undergraduate English Education major and friend Jake Anderson (BS ’20, English Education), had this to say:

The photo essay was a unique, challenging assignment that pushed me out of my comfort zone and directly into a form of expression of which I had little to no experience. Although I felt worried about producing quality content, I knew that my partner, Jake, and I would throw ourselves into the assignment and problem-solve until we were content. Our initial goals were more based in the assignment itself, as we worked to find an issue that deserved more attention — something that we would have plenty of opportunities to photograph and write about. The goal of quantity and ensuring the project turned out well quickly evolved into a journey to learn more about the Manhattan community, its needs, and the urgency we should feel in addressing those needs. Alongside this goal, I wanted to work hard to improve my ability to express myself visually. There were shots that involved lying on the concrete outside a church, or sporadically traveling to a location we had never been in order to find new information. Ultimately, I’m proud of our focus on food insufficiency in the Manhattan area, and I believe Jake and I grew in our calls for both advocacy for struggling individuals and curiosity that prompts looking behind the community “curtain.”

Trey and Jake’s Photo Essay, “Food Insecurity in Manhattan,” can be viewed here.

Ramsey Deheck (BS ’20, English Education) and Ashley Evans (BS ’20, English Education), who, like Trey and Jake, are also in the final year of their work towards their English Education degree, produced a timely piece on the challenges of finding support for those struggling with depression and anxiety. Both Ramsey and Ashley are married to service people and live on base, thus their work references resources at Fort Riley, as well as Kansas State.

Of her experience with the photo essay assignment, Ramsey comments:

The simple suggestion of group work is usually enough to make any typical college student’s eyes roll to the back of their heads. While we know collaboration is a skill that is extremely beneficial to harness, it doesn’t always go the way that educators intend for it to. Luckily for the students of ENGL 730, this wasn’t the case last Fall when Dr. Tatonetti assigned the Photo Essay. This assignment gave people who had strong feelings about different topics, such as feminism or mental health, to find each other in the classroom and come together to create a product about something that they actually enjoyed discussing. For many of us, our passions rolled out into our work on this project. Being able to bounce ideas off of a peer who was also passionate about the same topic made the process of working together so much more enjoyable then it has been in other forced collaboration experiments. Being someone from the English Education track, this project really proved to me how productive it can be to have students work together on something they are fully invested in, instead of forced collaboration that may be less authentic. This assignment also showed me the importance of pausing the direct content instruction and making room for more creative outlets for my future students. All of us in the classroom took different learning away from this assignment, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t directly related to our syllabus. I think that is an extremely valuable lesson, not only for pre- or in-service educators, but for any field. Sometimes you have to stop and process the world around you fully instead of keeping your nose to the grindstone.

Ramsey and Ashley’s photo essay, “Mental Health Support (?)” can be seen here.

Finally, English graduate students Jimmy Gilligan (MA ’20) and Courtney Thompson (MA ’20) considered the ramifications and realities of the current settler populations on Kaw and Osage land in Manhattan, KS. Of their work, Jimmy comments:

In my experience with this project, translating a textual argument to a series of images really forces you to fully understand what you’re trying to say. Unlike when analyzing a text, our subject was constantly changing as I drove around Manhattan taking photos. I quickly realized that the topic was so expansive and almost everything around me could be a subject for my essay. I ended up with almost a hundred photos — over ten times what I needed for my part of the essay. The abundance of potential critical avenues forced me to think about my argument on the fly, and allow it to change throughout the process. Thinking through all of the numerous possibilities helped my partner and I hone in on the strongest argument for the photo essay. So when it came time to write the photo captions that framed the photo essay in my critical argument, it was much easier. Overall, the photo essay made me think differently about how I formulate arguments for my academic work. Equally as valuable, however, the assignment made me view the community in a different light.

View Jimmy and Courtney’s Photo Essay, “Native American Exploitation and Commodification” here.

Across the board the Photo Essay pushed students to think deeper and look harder at issues that arose in our reading for “U.S. Literatures 1965 to the Present.” Notably, their essays are not focused on the craft of the course text—on character or simile or metaphor, for example—and are not aimed at me, as would be the case in a traditional student essay. Instead, they are asked to take the academic writing skills that they’ve learned in their English classes, transfer them to visual media, and adapt the resulting project for a wider audience.

Overall, students are challenged to grow as creators and critical thinkers and, in the process, are encouraged to become an active part — a maker rather than just an observer — of the arguments and explorations that undergird literature from its earliest inception to the twenty-first century.

Lisa Tatonetti, Professor

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