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Monday, March 13, 2023

Course Design

Some chappie on twitter, one Charles W McKinney, Jr., asked this question:

Professors - a question:

What would it look like to put together a course based on photos? For instance: 10 photos on urban black life. Then, using the photos as a base, build the syllabus from there. Have ya'll done this before? Thoughts? How would you do it?

and that tickled me, so I thought I'd write it up. Long-time readers will find some redundancy, because I'd like this little essaylet to be standalone. It's been a while since I've done any teaching, but I have spent some time standing in front of a batch of students, so I'm not completely inventing stuff here.

This is exactly the sort of overwrought plan I always got myself in trouble with when I was teaching, but since this is hypothetical, I am (more or less) safe from the consequences.

I'd begin with one photo per week. Possibly skipping week one. Photos should be on-topic, visually rich, and ideally point in a fairly straughtforward way toward some sort of week-relevant theme. Weekly themes would ideally tie together as indicated below. The course could be on pretty much anything, although I probably wouldn't try to teach math this way.

The first week might usefully be an introductory week and proceed differently, but in general each week would proceed in this way:

Begin with a photo, and something on the order of an hour of careful forensic analysis of it. The photo should be amenable to such digging, hence the "visually rich" remark above. A well-chosen photo will contain many discernible facts, and the goal of the forensic analysis is to enumerate and elaborate on those visible facts. If the format is seminar-like, the professor should have useful answers for questions regarding discernible facts: "what does such and such an acronym refer to?" and so on, playing the role of a research library as students explore the picture and assemble facts. If it's more of a lecture, the professor does essentially all the fact-finding, enumeration, and elaboration.

At the end of the process, a large number of facts have been enumerated. "A person is holding a sign, which says such and such, which refers to such and such, which is probably part of a larger protest about such and such" and so on. Ideally a great deal of information about the 5 W's has been assembled and organized. Probably light on "Why?" of course.

The remainder of the week's efforts then focus on developing the context and implications of these facts. Something is going on in the picture. How does that fit into a larger situation? What can we say about the larger situation, referring back frequently to the picture. Are there other pictures than can be introduced? And so on. Glibly: the "Why?" is explored in detail.

Ideally each week's material flows into the next weeks in a coherent way, providing a semester-long flow of material that coheres into a body of knowledge.

The purpose of the picture is first of all a point of interest, something "fun" to anchor on, but also, ultimately, to reify the material we're supposed to be learning/teaching.

Long-time readers will likely recognize this as essentially a rearrangement of my standard approach to photo criticism, pointing it in the direction of general teaching rather than as a critical method.


  1. Plan B: "Class, punt your laptops and cameras into the hall for other losers to pick up, find a piece of paper and a pencil, and draw your fucking hand." -- Guaranteed they will leave better photographers, without even having to name shit. (This is my cat. The cat is on a chair. My cat is sleeping. On a chair. There's a sock on the floor. Where is the other sock? [...]"

    1. I confess it never occurred to me to think of teaching photography this way. I think it would be an absolutely terrible way to teach it!

      I was thinking more history, economics, geography, that kind of thing.

    2. Other people, let's stipulate "Normies," don't study photographs or give a flying fuck about them, despite the delusions of one, weirdo prof.