Lie to me once, shame on you

Lie to me twice, shame on me. But what if you lie to me with maps? No idea what happens then. But our class is prepared for that contingency now.

This spring, we read parts of How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier (thanks to the recommendation of my friend and professor at AUM, Terry Winemiller, geography guru).

We talked about visual rhetoric this semester (which Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham said was a cool thing when he visited our school earlier this spring!). We talked about ethos, pathos, logos this semester, too. We talked about ways we persuade… even when we aren’t thinking about it, even when it’s only with an image.

As the spring term winds down, students are creating, or have created, their final projects: 1) an analysis of several maps using How to Lie with Maps, and 2) thoughts on the map of Montgomery they recreated for our partner writers at Oklahoma City University (we just exchanged maps at a symposium hosted by OCU on April 18).

Below are the blog pages where students from this Honors Composition II class created their map/research/writing projects.

I’m dazzled.


A memory palace worth seeing

Wouldn’t you know it? I opened this month’s National Geographic and flipped to this page with this image.

"The Art of Memory" from National Geographic (March 2012)

A Memory Palace. Here in this magazine. An example of how someone really created a complex memory palace.

I never would have thought this was part of popular culture, or part of a whole subculture of memory competitors/champions. I KNEW it was part of history and part of the mnemonic history (mnemonic is from the Greek word for memory, by the way.) But that it was a method so widely used is a surprise to me.

I’m not great at memorizing, but this made me realize that I spent most of my educational experiences linking my learning with some sort of visual “map” of a sort:

  • I tapped into timelines for my learning of literature and history. I acquired new information and hung it on the proper hook in the timeline of history.
  • I remembered moments in math classes by thinking of each thing I learned as part of an elaborate dance and how each part of math could be connected to the other… like a quadrille or other form of complex dance with mu1tiple dancers (theories, formulas, disciplines).
  • I “saw” maps in my head when I studied particular texts or portions of history and located the “action” in a cosmographic way. I was learning about Rome, so I saw a map of Rome in my mind, where the Tiber River ran, where the major Roman roads were located and ran to, where the borders of the Roman Empire were at a give time. I located my learning on the earth in some way.

I’m always sharply aware that I am here. I am in Montgomery, Alabama. I see myself here. I see my friend in London, another friend in Arezzo, Italy, another in Oman, one in Oklahoma City. When I talk to a friend in Michigan, I “see” him in Michigan in the place he lives on the map. I know he’s there. I really don’t even think about it, but this sort of visual connection I have to what I know, to the knowledge I acquire, even everyday knowledge, is powerful and defines me and how I learn to a great extent. Pow. Ka-Bang. Smash. Crash. Zap. Ka-Blooie.

Made me stand up and take notice in a metacognitive way.

And I was thinking… If I didn’t have any other way to remember what I knew, I’d weave it into a tapestry.

Bayeaux Tapestry (1070s)

You’ll see in this above photo the full tapestry–230 feet long (about)–that was woven to commemorate events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conquerer. The Battle of Hastings was the deciding moment for William (1066). You may have heard of this before. I mentioned it the first day of class Fall term.

A portion of the tapestry (a little easier to see!)

But it’s apropos to mention again–because it’s a memory palace of a kind, isn’t it? We’re participating in a long and varied history of human thinking, textual creation, visual rhetoric. Now you see it.

Monday without each other

On February 27, we will NOT meet as a group in class. Please complete your exploration as planned (which is due).

Also please watch this video talk by David McCandless on He’s a data dude, but he’s also an artist and a journalist. Please watch this at least three times–this will take you about an hour total. Watch, walk away. Spend a few hours away from it. Watch it again. Then watch once more. While you’re watching the third time, I want you to take notes about what you notice the most about what he shares–the thing he talks about that startles you the most, the least, the thing that you wish you could do. AND visit his web site to just poke around and see what you can see: Information is Beautiful.

THEN I want you to spend 300 words or so writing about how this connects to: ethos, pathos, logos, AND how his data visualization may or may not function as a kind of memory palace. Another question related to this: is data visualization visual rhetoric? How? Why? (Obviously, I’m stacking the deck a bit on this because I think DV is VR… but you need to figure out why. Bwahahaha. Yes, that’s my mad scientist laugh.)

See you on February 29! Be ready to talk at length about this experience and weave your explorations into this discussion. Also be prepared to switch OCU blogs that you read regularly. We’ll change blogs you read in class Wed., start to talk about the final projects, firm up plans for the trip, discuss the work you’ve done in the past week, and generally have a grand ol’ writing time.

Stop the presses! “Visual Rhetoric” fav new phrase for author

Yep. Today, Jon Meacham said his new favorite phrase/idea is “visual rhetoric.” Thanks to this Honors Comp 2 for rocking our class meeting with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. He thought y’all were fantastic. And I do, too–it’s because you did your homework, asked great questions, and made everyone look good because of all that. Way to make it look easy.

What we think matters in a blog

Today, we had a most interesting discussion about what mattered most in a blog and why and tried to work around with the following questions through a discussion and by looking at a bunch of our blogs and the OCU blogs.

  • What matters the most in a blog?
  • What matters the least?
  • What kinds of visual rhetoric choices do you make and how can that be evaluated?
  • Grammar counts–“correctness”?
  • Should there be a check list of features you need to have in order for it to be a good blog, an “A” blog?
  • What is blog greatness?

The first thing we talked about (and that I wrote on the board–old school style with dry erase markers!) was the “visual decisions” that writers make, or in other words, visual rhetoric.

A moment at the board...

It was amazing how we worked through the above questions and noted down all the things that we could think of that seemed to matter in a very immediate sense (actually things we could see). Many of the things we noted were part of our reading in the Web Writing Style Guide by Writing Spaces.

So. We started with visual decisions and started listing under that:

  • The theme of the blog
  • Background/text
  • Set-up of sidebar (recent posts first or archive first or Tweets or what?)
  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Pictures/images
  • Titles
  • Tag lines

We also talked about overall organization–did it please the eye or make sense to the mind? Was the spacing right–too much “white” space or too little? How can we tell? One person may prefer something over another one. We all agreed there should be a “balance” between text and image or space, so that it’s easy for the reader. Cohesion in design mattered as well–too many wacky colors or different fonts might make most of us a bit nuts. And we all said that overall organization mattered (I’m inferring here that we meant blog posts vs. pages and how easy it is to use the blog space as a reader–how easy it is to navigate–how it “feels”).

All the while we noted that the blog is a conversation between reader and writer that can be interactive but there are some things missing, even if it’s terribly exciting with lots of images and links…

But wait… we realized that no one had really mentioned the actual writing. Whoa. And woe.

I added that at the top along with something we all said mattered: voice.

We have all been reading each others’ blogs with our voices–because we have heard each other talk so much and are in class together. But how are we perceiving the voices in the blogs of our partner students at OCU–whom we’ve never met? And gulp–how are they perceiving our voices? Are we too formal, too flip?

And then it hit us that we really have an audience, and we needed to step up our game–readers are counting on us. Our blogs are the only way our readers will know us–what does that really mean?

We don’t have a finished idea of how to grade blogs yet, but I think we’re making some great progress as we continue to formulate and form and grow what it is that we are doing as writers online in this space at this time for ourselves and our partners at OCU.

As usual–great class, great chat, great thinking. Man, I love my job.

How to lie with words

Doesn’t that title sound silly?

We have always been able to lie with words. Humans have told lies of omission, lies of commission, duplicitous lies, lies of complicity and so on. And we have done it with words. Tall tales, telling tales, spinning yarns, fairy tales–and we could list more names we affix to half-truths that might have come from life but have been twisting in the winds of time until they are, out-n-out, downright, dirty lies. Or stories we tell children.

We have regularly also created fictional worlds with words (technically, fiction in print or on flim are lies according to the Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula). And in fiction, or even nonfiction, we make choices about what we choose to include or not. Omission.

We do it with images, too. Remember the scandals surrounding various starlets who said the camera “lied”? The camera puts on 10 pounds or takes off 25 pounds or whatever. There’s also Photoshop. Sarah Palin in a bikini holding a rifle anyone? And there was photographic “evidence” of fairies (the Cottingley Fairies, they are known) that everyone thought were real, too, once upon a time–only the kids who did it finally confessed it was all a big fat lie.

We lied with paintings, too–the human race, I mean (not sure the painting elephant purposely evades “truth”). Ever see Napoleon I on his horse by David, ascending the Alps to embody the supreme conqueror of all time? It took the artist years to “compose.”

(Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics–courtesy of Mark Twain, famous 19th century American author, and perhaps before him, Benjamin Disraeli, Victorian Prime Minister).

Napoleon I (bound for glory!) by Jacques-Louis David (1801-1805)

I think it’s gorgeous, don’t you? The red cape is stunning against the dramatic blue skies. Napoleon is so dramatically leader-like, as I imagine he was in real life–look what he did.

But I have a few issues with this particular portrait.

  1. Napoleon is not that big.
  2. Or that’s the smallest horse in the history of the world.

He was only about as tall as I am (5’7″)–not a giant, but this looks massive here and commanding in relation to the powerful horse.

My. Wonder whose idea that was? But it’s not the “truth”–it’s a metaphor for Power.

Soon we’ll be looking at maps through the lens of visual rhetoric. I want to bring the ideas in collision that words and images have ever been used to create feelings, thoughts, evoke responses in readers and viewers throughout our recorded history. This business isn’t new, the visual rhetoric; it’s as old as the cave paintings at Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc. Visual rhetoric is as old as Holy Roman Emperors who used coins for propaganda or created images of themselves as saints in the windows of cathedrals to let people know the order of things: God-King-the rest of you.

The thing about communication is that it’s worthy of investigation and thinking and questioning, always. No communicative moment is entirely perfect (well, not usually–though, you can certainly have a moment when you and your best friend just “know” it’s time for ice cream). We are in a place of higher education to think about communicative moments, and in this particular learning place, in Honors Comp 2, online and blogging to explore and delve deep into how truth and lies are told in words and images (and even through sounds, too–playlists from fall term!).

And that is exactly what we are doing.