A new rhetoric and composition course offered this summer at The American University in Cairo (AUC) gave students the opportunity to learn about culture and history through photographic collections in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library and Archives, as well as selected visual databases including advertisements, posters and Orientalist artwork. Titled Interpreting Visual Culture: The Rhetoric of Image, the course aimed to critically engage students in the analysis and interpretation of a mass-mediated visual culture.
“The course helped students understand what visual literacy and culture mean, and enabled them to interpret the visual for purposes of understanding their own culture, religion, family dynamics and sense of power,” explained Doris Jones, course instructor. “By examining collections that represent historical periods throughout the world, students understood that images can transcend space because as much as they represent the past, they also represent the present.”
The curriculum of the course tackled cultural, postcolonial thought and autobiographical narratives, connecting them with visuals. Students examined images from the Underwood Stereo views Collection, which were taken during the time of the British colonial occupation of Egypt. “The collection, which contains more than 3,000 images representing culture in Egypt, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th century and early 20th century, has as its framework a postcolonial viewpoint,” explained Jones. “So the images may not necessarily represent the sense of national identity that many Egyptians would see for themselves today.”
To enhance students’ learning experience, Jones established collaborations with educational institutions abroad. Students had the opportunity to utilize the image databases developed by the visual rhetoric program in the University of Texas at Austin. “The program has more than 30 databases with common license agreements, which allowed students to utilize images for educational purposes, such as integrating them into their papers, as long as they acknowledge the source,” said Jones.
For the students, the course taught them to look beyond the basics. “The course was both interesting and innovative,” said Mostafa Mahmoud, a petroleum engineering senior who wrote his final research paper on the graffiti art in post-revolution Egypt. Using the skills acquired through the course, he was able to analyze the political, economic and social undertones of street art, as well as its visual influence. “My understanding of visual literacy and culture increased a lot. Now I pay attention to the tiny details of an image, and I can analyze the background behind visuals.”
Interdisciplinary in nature, the course brought together students from different majors, including the hard sciences. “My major is very practical, but I enjoyed the analytical writing and research included in this course,” said Mohab Osama, an electronics engineering senior who wrote his final research paper on material consumerism, and how advertisements and other visuals encourage people to acquire more material acquisitions. “The course also enhanced my ability to think critically and to analyze the hidden messages behind images.”
“Visual rhetoric is interdisciplinary because it is political, cultural, religious, historical and artistic, and can also bring with it biographical components,” explained Jones. “Students need to see that image interpretation also depends on their cultural perspectives, the knowledge they bring to the experience of the visual, and how they apply that knowledge to their interpretation.”