Friday, February 21, 2014

Teaching the History of Media, Part 1: Photography and Race

As discussed in an earlier post, my second half survey this spring focuses on changes in media. In three assignments, I am asking the students to evaluate the relative impacts of commercial photography, radio, and television.   

The survey at Rice divides at 1848, a great luxury for the first half, but a considerable strain on the second.  The great advantage of this structure, however, is that it enables a longer discussion of the impact of the Civil War and emancipation.  For their first media analysis, the students evaluated the role of commercial photography on understandings of race, slavery, and emancipation in the nineteenth century.  

I originally planned to assign Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer's Envisioning Emancipation. I ended up opting to use John Stauffer's "Creating an Image in Black: The Power of Abolition Pictures," a chapter in Prophets of Protest. For those interested in the history of race, slaver, and/or visual culture, it's a must read. Along with this article, I then asked the students to view at least two hundred photographs from the New York Public Library's Digital Schomburg Images of 19th century African Americans collection. I also paired this with cartoons from the Currier and Ives "Darktown" series and E. W. Clay's Life in Philadelphia to illustrate the visual stereotypes that photographs sought to contest. 

After reading the Stauffer piece and viewing at least 200 images, I asked the students to evaluate the role of commercial photography in shaping understandings of race in the 19th century. 

While the assignment was certainly worthwhile, I made several errors.  

1. Assigning only John Stauffer's piece left my students with only one single historical interpretation. As a result, nearly all of the papers received simply parroted Stauffer's argument that photography enabled African Americans to contest racist stereotypes by objectifying themselves for the white gaze.  Students did well to connect the images to this argument, but I'm not sure how much original thought went into the assignment.  

2.  I failed to give the students sufficient guidance in evaluating the images.  A few students proved remarkably sophisticated in the skills of image analysis, while others faltered.  

3.  The volume of images proved excessive.  Two hundred was simply too many.  Their time would have been better served reading more about race and/or photography in the era.  

I plan to make several changes the next time I teach this assignment: 

1. Instead of assigning Stauffer, I plan to use primary sources and invite the students to craft their own arguments.  Possible sources would include Frederick Douglass's "Pictures and Progress" speech from 1863, W. E. B. Du Bois's October 1923 article "Photography" in The Crisis, and excerpts from several Sojourner Truth speeches where she comments on her own agency in the commondification of her image. 

2. I am committed to spending at least half of a class discussing how historians read images.  Whitney Stewart's experience with her students offers a valuable example of how this can be done and what the benefits are.  

3. I want the students to balance their time more evenly between reading about photography and evaluating images.  

I would welcome suggestions on how I might improve the assignment and look forward to discussing the results of our radio analysis.  Stay tuned for that! 


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