Tagged: visual thinking

8. A Hypothetical Visual Thinking Assignment

Although I am unable to relate to the pedagogical element of these readings in a first hand way (okay, so I did hold my student’s hand through an ad analysis), I love the idea of privileging (or at least leveling the divide) between verbal and visual thinking in the rhet/comp and professional writing classrooms.

In “Making the Strange Familiar,” Brumberger laments the academic shackles preventing a utopian environment that would emphasize visual thinking: “In the ideal postsecondary environment…we would transcend disciplinary boundaries and turf to work with faculty outside of English in team teaching and developing cross-disciplinary projects, courses and curricula that would help our students learn to think visually as well as verbally” (381). If this were possible, I wonder, if one could gather resources from a university’s art, anthropology, and/or computer science departments, what would make for an ideal assignment to teach visual thinking?

As robust as this week’s articles are, they seem hard-pressed to cite some concrete examples of what this kind of utopian assignment might look like, or even what it might look like when constrained to resources only English instructors might have. George’s “From Analysis to Design” discusses her student’s projects for her Africa in the Popular Imagination class, but these projects are pretty specialized. In defining visual thinking, Brumberger at first puts visual thinking in affected (not the ‘contrived,’ definition, but relating to affect theory) or perhaps phenomenological terms: “As I learn more about design – from a hand-on perspective rather than a more academic one- I find myself looking and seeing more purposefully, supporting the idea that visual thinking is an active problem-solving process” (380). She then goes on to define visual thinking as an “active analytical process” that  puts into play perceiving, interpreting, and producing through seeing, imagining and drawing (381).

I can hardly critique these articles for not addressing what this kind of assignment might look like. I’ve been brainstorming for a while now, and good lord– I can say I truly am having a hard time thinking of one. Perhaps, however, in a style similar to the music video method of approaching ENGL 101’s rhetorical analysis assignment, one could compose a visual argument by presenting a thesis through digital means.Using audio software to play clips of the song (of the lyrics used to make a claim) over footage that relateing to a thesis might force a student to think visually. For example, in ENGL 101, one of the options I gave my students for the rhet analysis was Toby Keith’s “Trailerhood” (for the record, I think Keith  contaminant of popular music). Instead of writing a paper with subheadings, topic sentences, and a predictably located thesis (using verbal thinking), maybe a student could use visual thinking by repeating the audio that emphasizes community over footage of where she grew up (streets, businesses, and homes) along with any other images or additional footage to make a claim about how we think of community (As an aside: the repetition and inevitable non-linearity of the music would be a bit jarring and thus neat).

Though this hypothetical assignment only uses technology from non English departments (software like Logic or Cakewalk through a music department, nice cameras from a journalism department), it is a start, I suppose, that most of us instructors in class could realize in our own classrooms.

Brumberger, E. R. (2007). “Making the strange familiar: A pedagogical exploration of visual thinking.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 21(4), 376–401.

8: The Importance of Thinking Visually

I was intrigued by some of the angles that Brumberger (2007) took in regards to how teachers can better teach students how to think visually, namely the prohibition (at least, at first) of using computers and rearranging classrooms into more “student centered rather than technology centered or teacher centered (p. 397). Neither of these would have necessarily struck me as crucial to enabling a student’s ability to think visually and think outside of the familiarity of verbal thinking. In fact, I feel like many people might argue with Brumberger that recent technologies like the computer have even aided in our ability to design and to think visually. But I actually favor Brumberger’s position—I think creativity is, like a muscle, something that has to be used in order to make it stronger and to increase its functionality, and I think the creativity-muscle is challenged when there is less assistance from things like technology and teachers. So, it would seem, a more student-centered, technology-prohibited classroom might actually increase visual creativity, as Brumberger suggests. I know I fall into the category of non-visual thinkers. If I were assigned a visual project in which it was highly encouraged to use fewer words and more graphics/colors/images, I know I would freeze in my tracks, waiting to be prodded with more guidance, needing more direction as to what exactly the teacher expects (or wants).

I do think there is an importance to what Brumberger and Lauer and Sanchez are all arguing—that learning to think verbally and visually (or visuospatially) can only enhance a student’s ability to create meaning within a text, that the two—verbal and visual—should not be thought of as binaries. It seems like, for example, many students’ use of slideware for the purpose of presenting to an audience would be far more advanced, meaningful, and captivating if, from the get go, we were taught how to convey meaning, like Dick Hardt, through words and images and colors and white space and page design and typography. There’s a lot to be said for pictorial representation—for showing, not telling, as I was so often reminded to do in my creative writing days. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words, right? But the issue Lauer and Sanchez tackle is interesting—what if we aren’t all capable of thinking visually? What if some are just naturally more gifted in visuospatial awareness than others? I think we have to be wary of relying on classroom projects such as those Lauer and Sanchez suggest on page 209: “These activities are decidedly nonprofessional writing activities and therefore may strike some as an impractical use of time, but they are not impractical if they help low-spatial thinkers to develop options other than words to communicate persuasively.” I feel like projects that seem “impractical,” maybe particularly at the college level more so than high school, do risk becoming a waste of time because students don’t engage with the assignment or take it seriously because what’s the point? They only have to do well enough to get a decent grade, they may think—the project’s not going to go anywhere, be seen by anyone other than the teacher, be used for anything. But I think the poster assignments Lauer and Sanchez provide as examples (comparing high-spatially minded student work to low-spatially minded students) are a good example of in-class projects. Obviously, the resulting work illustrates exactly where improvements can be made to help many students think more visually.


Brumberger, E. R. (2007). “Making the strange familiar: A pedagogical exploration of visual thinking.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 21(4), 376–401. doi:10.1177/1050651907304021

Lauer, C. & Sanchez, C. A. (2011). “Visuospatial Thinking in the Professional Writing Classroom.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 25(2), 184–218. doi:10.1177/1050651910389149