Thursday, April 30, 2020

COVID-19 and the UMass Lowell College Student Experience

In the spring 2020 semester, undergraduates enrolled in Professor Vinson’s Visual Rhetoric course maintained a blog all semester devoted to discussing theories of how visuals work as means of communication. We had lively and engaging conversations in the comment thread, ranging from debates over copyright infringement and representations of women to passionate reflections on the ethics of quantitative claims and racialized binaries reproduced in everyday media.

In this concluding blog post, we are showcasing our final projects of the course. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the series of closures and other physical distancing measures that developed to combat it, Professor Vinson asked students to use a platform called Adobe Spark to create multimodal Web pages that document and communicate something about the college student experience in this uncertain time. 

Figure 1: Screenshot of Professor Vinson's Adobe Spark page announcing final assignment
Students were challenged to use everything they learned this semester—about color, typography, photo composition, photo editing, copyright, captions, connotative meanings, and the varied relationships between words and images—to create a coherent and engaging message.

I encourage you, dear reader, to take the time to review these pages and glean what you can from the smart, creative, and deeply critical thinkers that are the students of UMass Lowell’s Visual Rhetoric course:

  • Evelis Cruz’s “Two Worlds Colliding in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Academy and Family Responsibilities 
  • Genevieve Burke’s “COVID-19 and College Students Dealing with Mental Illness 
  • Tyler White’s “Staying Positive During a Pandemic 
  • Mariella Mendez’s “Death through my Eyes What I Learned as a Funeral Director’s Daughter 
  • Deanna Darah’s “Can't Spell ‘Pandemic’ Without ‘Panic’ 
  • Julia Ashley’s “Finding Balance in the Midst of a Pandemic 
  • Abigail Dwyer’s “Coping Methods: An Exploration of My mental Health During Quarantine 
  • Michael Parke’s “My Journey through COVID-19 
  • Kacey Corbett’s “Staying Connected to Ourselves During a Pandemic 
  • Rebecca Primak’s “Shelter-in-Place: One College Senior's Experience as Coronavirus Took Hold of the World 
  • Jontrell Murray’s “GO BEYOND:Plus Ultra!  
  • Lauren McLean’s “The ‘New Normal’ Finding a New State of Calm Amidst a Pandemic
  • Cyle Hairston’s “COVID-19 VS Education: Life as a Student During a Pandemic
  • Emily Teague’s “Creativity, Connection, and Control: Emily's Search for Control in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Monday, April 6, 2020

Copyright or Copy-wrong?

Hi Everyone,

This week we were blessed with the opportunity to learn more about copyright and its origins. From the reading we learned that “copyright grants legal protection to the ‘expression of an idea’,” and not to the work as an object or the “idea itself. The fixed expression is deemed to belong uniquely to someone—the photographer, writer, or painter—who created it” and is not transferred when a work is sold (Sturken and Cartwright 204).

Our textbook authors explain, “Copyright, taken literally, it means ‘the right to copy.’ The term refers to not one but a bundle of rights. This bundle includes the rights to distribute, produce, copy, display, perform, create, and control derivative works based on the original” (Sturken and Cartwright 204).

 For this blog assignment I think a great discussion would be the idea of fair use.


 Find an example of a picture or a piece of art that was based on someone else’s original. It doesn’t have to be an exact 1:1 look alike. Then once you find the two try to decide if you think it violates copyright infringement or if it was a harmless recreation (i.e., fair use).

 Fair use is usually the legal basis on which art copyright cases have been argued. “A major factor in determining fair use is the question of whether the copy promotes or adds something new— whether it is transformative rather than simply derivative of the original”(Sturken and Cartwright 208).

 For example, this poster for the Hangover 3 got inspiration from the poster from the Harry Potter movie. I would go on to say that in my opinion I see this as a harmless recreation of the harry potter poster due to fair use. While the two posters look very similar the hangover poster is a parody of the original and very transformative in nature. The theme of the posters is the same, but the representation of the theme is very different.

Movie Poster for Hangover 3

You don’t have to, but it would be nice if you could mention any of the following things in your responses:

Is fair use actually fair? When does inspiration become mimicry?

Stay safe everyone. Stay home, wash your hands, and avoid touching your face. Maybe try to learn a new skill from home or something. We all have an insurmountable amount of free time now. I plan on using it to catch up on anime. Take care everybody,

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Infographics and the Rhetoric of Numbers

Hello everyone!

For this week’s reading, we read an excerpt about infographics from White Space is Not Your Enemy, in addition to watching a presentation from Dr. Joanna Wolfe.

In White Space is Not Your Enemy, authors Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen argue that infographics are an effective medium of communicating information. They affirm that infographics can convey information in more accessible and digestible ways than text alone and that it is actually sometimes more practical to present information in this way. In Dr. Wolfe's presentation she illustrates how numbers are rhetorical choices with different emotional impacts depending on what they count, how they count, and how the number is represented with languages or visuals. She explains that the rhetorical choices made, seemingly small differences in the delivery of a statistic such as the word choice, emphasis on certain pieces, and the arrangement and order of data, can actually create large impacts on the type of argument that the information presents.

For this week’s blog assignment, I’m asking everyone to first find a recent infographic and identify what type of graphic it is. Argue whether or not you think the infographic you have chosen sufficiently or insufficiently displays the information presented and explain your position. What is it about the infographic that makes it efficient or inefficient at presenting its data? 

Some questions to consider: What rhetorical choices are being made? Is the graphic able to stand as a document of its own without additional research? Are the sources credible? You can also use some of our previous understanding of how color and typography can be used to communicate in images.

Use a quote from the reading from White Space is Not Your Enemy chapter and/or Dr. Wolfe’s presentation to support your claim about the effectiveness of your infographic and its numbers (if it has any).

Types of infographics outlined in WSINYE:
  • Text boxes, Sequences, Maps, Diagrams, Charts and Graphs (162)
  •  Multimedia (165)
  • Graphics packages – use multiple types of graphics together (166)

Here is an example of the type of post I'm asking for:

This infographic created by Forbes and Statista displays information about countries most and least prepared for an epidemic. It is a graphics package, as it includes both a map and a horizontal bar chart to portray the information. It is ineffective at presenting which countries are best and worst prepared for an epidemic. Although the information from the graphic was explained as information found based on “factors critical to fighting disease outbreaks,” it does not explain what kind of factors were analyzed. As such, the numbers listed in the bar graphs, such as 83.5 for USA and 77.9 for UK, cannot be easily understood or interpreted by most readers. Additional research will be needed to properly understand what these numbers mean. Golombisky and Hagen explain that “infographics shouldn’t rely on information buried somewhere else,” so this infographic cannot stand on its own (172). This infographic and its numbers appear to be more of an image depicting to people who live in US and the UK that their countries were once considered to be strongly prepared for epidemics. To me, the rhetorical choices made in this infographic, like the longer bars displaying the top three countries, were to emphasize their lead over other countries. However, without explaining what exactly it was about their health factors that made these countries seem more prepared than others, I believe the purpose of graphic is more so to display the irony of how some of the countries that are currently facing difficulty with the COVID-19 pandemic were previously considered to be very prepared to tackle an outbreak.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Writing Cultural Critique


This week’s reading focuses on Essay 2 and the two student examples given to us on Blackboard. Essay 2 asks us to write a visual cultural critique and thus can be about subjects like class, gender, race, age, etc. and can offer important lessons about all of them.

We ask you to read the two Essay 2 examples provided on Blackboard then answer the following questions:

  • What aspects of cultural critique are you writing about?
  • What theory are you going to use to frame the subject and why?
  • Is there anything from the two essays that you particularly liked and were thinking about incorporating in your paper? Conversely, are there things to avoid?

As a reminder, here are the theories that we are using in Essay 2:

  • Roland Barthes’ theory of Denotative and Connotative meanings
  • Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism and the Other
  • Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze

We also invite you to share the challenges you’re having in writing this paper. It might lead to new ideas/perspectives about your subject that you could then incorporate in your paper, and we’re all for creating stronger papers.

With that, we hope you all stay safe and have an easy time navigating the rest of the semester!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Watching in the Dark: The Male Gaze in Cinema

Hi Everyone,

Hope you’re all staying healthy while trying to make the best of the situation that we’re in.
We know this transition is difficult, so our prompt will give you a chance to sit back and
watch some movie clips and apply them to this week’s reading.

Mulvey's "Viewing Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and The Practices of Looking (pp.
120-129) focus on the male gaze present in visual representations of women, specifically in film.
According to Mulvey, there has been "a split between active/male and passive/female...In their
traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their
appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to be
looked-at-ness" (837). Mulvey emphasizes that women do not move the plot forward in narrative
films, but they are simply there to be viewed by the male characters and audience members.
Although Mulvey was writing in the 1970s, these ideas still hold true today in modern films.

This week, we are asking you to complete the following prompt.

1. Watch these 4 movie clips:

Dirty Dancing:

Miss Congeniality:

Wolf of Wall Street:

Wonder Woman:

2. Choose one to write about. If several other students have chosen the same clip, please
consider responding to their post with your own ideas that add to the larger conversation.

3. Argue whether or not this clip demonstrates the male gaze as outlined in Mulvey’s essay.
How do you think Mulvey may respond to this clip?

To help you with your post, here are some of the key vocabulary words from the readings.

It is not necessary to use these in your post, but just keep them in mind when thinking and writing
about the male gaze.

Voyeurism - Pleasure is derived from looking without being seen.

Phallocentrism - The phallus, a symbol of men’s power, is the main element in the organization
of the world.

Scopophilia - The sexual pleasure that a person derives from looking at prurient objects of eroticism,
such as pornography, the nude body, and fetishes, etc., as a substitute for actual participation in a
sexual relationship.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Gaze and the Other: The Effects of Binary Opposition and Relationships of Power in an Increasingly Visual Culture

This week’s reading was on the representation of “other” groups in visual culture, or minority groups that are perceived to be different from an ethnocentric, patriarchal perspective. This chapter focuses closely on the idea of “the gaze”, which is the way that the audience of a visual is intended to perceive the subject of the visual. While this theory can be applied to any person portrayed in any image, it is most frequently perceived as the lens that a group holding some form of power (whether it be racialized, gendered, sexualized, economic, or social status) views the “lower” group through, and the ways that the visual is constructed to influence this. 

Another way of analyzing “the gaze” is through the concept of binary opposition. Binary opposition is a pair of two things that are perceived to be polar opposites. In practice, this can refer to almost any opposite concept, however, for the purposes of this week’s blog, we are focusing specifically on diametrically opposing social groups where one has historically wielded social power over the other, such as male/female, white/non-white, cis-gendered/transgendered, straight/LGBTQ+, rich/poor, and so forth.

For this week’s blog, we want the class to:

  1. Either find an image of someone who is binarily opposed to you in some way or find an image where binary oppositions are reflected within the image itself, explain what you perceive to be the intent or message(s) of the image, and how the image you chose is supposed to make its intended audience feel about the subject of the photo, advertisement, etc. Please find recent images to focus on modern visual culture!

  1. Explain the deeper social issue(s) being exemplified within the image (racism, classism, sexism, etc.) and what specifically the image does to showcase it. How does the opposition featured within the image exacerbate social issues and cultural stereotypes by portraying certain demographics as other? How does it seek to subjugate, dominate, or marginalize the subject(s) of the image? Are you, the “spectator,” interpellated by the image? These are just a few questions that you can consider as you post your responses and please be sure to reference the reading!

While finding images and examples of binary oppositions within visual culture, reflect on these terms from this week’s reading:

The Gaze: helps to “establish relationships of power, which typically function to represent codes of dominance and subjugation, difference and otherness... In systems of representation, meaning is established through difference” (Sturken & Cartwright 111).

Unmarked: The first category designated by binary oppositions is the unmarked or the “norm”. For example, Sturken and Cartwright state that “the category of white is understood in European American contexts to be the primary category or the ‘norm’” (Sturken & Cartwright 111). The unmarked demographics are perceived as dominant. 

Marked: The second category is the “marked,” or what the authors define as other. Whereas white is understood to be the “norm” in the example above, black (or brown, etc.) is understood as other to that category - what is not white (Sturken & Cartwright 111). The marked demographics are subverted or subjugated by the unmarked.

Interpellated: The authors define interpellation as “A process of interruption through which an individual viewer comes to recognize himself or herself as among the class or group of subjects for whom the message seems to be intended” (Sturken & Cartwright 103).  

Above is a Ralph Lauren Safari Ad from the 1990s, which was featured on page 113 of our reading for this week. It is an example of binary opposition, as it demonstrates Western v. Eastern cultures and Occidental v. Oriental ideals. The "unmarked" would be Western, while the "marked" is Eastern.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Who is She, Do You Know Her?: Representations of Women in the Media

For this week’s assigned material students were asked to watch the film Miss Representation. The film is a cultural critique that exposes how the media functions as a patriarchal construct to influence and control women. Through instigating self objectification by women, the media is able to utilize the rhetoric of empowerment (through physical beautification) to completely distract and disempower women resulting in lower political efficacy and oppression. For this prompt we ask that you consider your thoughts and reactions to Miss Representation while making connections between the film itself and the roles that you’ve witnessed the media play in the representation of women.
  1. Provide an example of a recent media portrayal of a female and analyze its effect on the character or figure. Be sure to mention if your chosen example reaffirms or resists the cultural critiques offered by the film.
  2. It has been roughly 9 years since Miss Representation was released. In this time do you believe things have changed or not? Explain.

While writing your responses, keep in mind some of the following terms used in the documentary:

Self-Objectification: when girls/women internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance; studies have shown that self-objectification is much more prevalent in girls/women than boys/men 

Symbolic Annihilation: the way cultural production and media representations ignore, exclude, marginalize, or trivialize a particular group

“Fighting Fuck Toy:” Caroline Heldman’s term for the manner in which female superheroes are depicted in the media, which she defines as follows:
 “hyper-sexualized female protagonists who are able to “kick ass” (and kill) with the best of them. The FFT appears empowered, but her very existence serves the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. In short, the FFT takes female agency, weds it to normalized male violence, and appropriates it for the male gaze.”