On (Un)Planning and Experiencing “Critical Visual Dialogues”

Nearly a year ago Daniel Lynds contacted me to find out if I might be interested in submitting an application to co-lead a course on visual culture at Digital Pedagogy Lab (DPL) 2020. Despite both being at DPL 2019 at University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, our paths hadn’t crossed, but Daniel had heard good things about my workshop. After Daniel got in touch we spent the months that followed figuring out exactly what our course would be about and what we would bring to it. Eventually we arrived at the following:

CRITICAL VISUAL DIALOGUES

Throughout the course we will consider issues concerning power, positionality, privilege, and pedagogy in relation to creating and engaging with visual culture in different digital and analog contexts…we will think through, map out, and visually represent how the rise of “user-generated” social media content and co-created digital and visual artefacts are impacting how people learn, communicate, educate, collectively organise, and express themselves.

The many plans that we had for our Critical Visual Dialogues course included activities that would involve making a meme from scratch using print and craft materials, and collaborative collage creations to communicate different ideas. Following the ongoing global impact of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, in Spring 2020 we found out that DPL 2020 which was due to take place at the University of Colorado Denver would be an online event. Naturally, our course plans shifted as we spent time considering how our cohort’s exploration of Critical Visual Dialogues would be different to what we had originally envisioned.

Trauma is part of the daily lives of many people and has been long before 2020, but being hyper-aware of trauma surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and atrocities in people’s lives meant that how we planned for our course ended up being a kind of “unplanning”. We wanted the course to be designed in a way that was not based on an assumption that everyone participating in it would have the time to and be able to engage with the course in a very structured way. We also wanted to acknowledge that not everyone who took part in Critical Visual Dialogues would experience it the same. We hoped to create space(s) for connections, conversations, and collaborative (re)creations that emerged in whatever way felt most comfortable to all who were involved.

Put briefly, the type of relatively organised structure that we had previously considered seemed especially inappropriate now and could have resulted in additional pressures in the lives of people (ourselves included) who are dealing with a significant amount of stress on a daily basis. For these reasons, as we approached the start of DPL 2020 we had a collection of questions, topics, themes, and activities prepared to share with everyone on our course, as, when, and if it seemed helpful for us to do so. However, our plans were pretty fluid and flexible, particularly beyond the first couple of days as we thought that by then we’d have more of a sense of what people hoped to experience through the course, how they hoped to experience it, and how we could help to make that happen.

Flexibility and the space to think, discuss, and make without a definable objective is not something often found in institutions—where structure and planning tend to be prioritised. One of many brilliant aspects of DPL is the opportunity it offers to “experiment” and do things differently. If we had been determined to cover all that we’d once planned to in our Critical Visual Dialogues course I don’t think that (m)any of the critical visual dialogues, reflections, and remixing that occurred would have happened.

While it’s something that I’m always conscious of, through our course I was reminded of how freeing it feels to discuss, draw, do, and (dis)engage in ways that are far removed from forms of measurable productivity and fixed criteria. I wasn’t concerned about potentially “going off topic” or presenting a question that went unanswered, as the purpose of the space we created and its pedagogical potential felt as though it was, at least partly, to pause and ponder in ways typically discouraged in more formal and institutional educational settings.

I delighted in seeing images I shared on the course being remixed in ways that told me something about someone else and helped me to reflect on the meaning-making processes that surround the creation and (re)circulation of visuals. I was moved by the openness of everyone and how moments of connection were formed with the use of images, ideas, insights, and (re)imaginings. I learnt from the words and work of others which felt like fragments of what it can mean to approach pedagogical work in radically different ways than the prescriptive ones that are commonly praised and promoted.

Although our course was about critical approaches to constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing dialogues with the use of visual forms of communication, through our course I also ended up learning more about what connecting with people right now can mean and involve. In turn, I learnt about how learning communities take shape in both ephemeral and sustainable ways.

Our course may have been fleeting but the forms of self- and collective reflexivity that were a part of it will stay with me for a long time.

*Some of our Critical Visual Dialogues course content can be found here: https://visual.dpl.online/