College Students Learn `Visual Literacy'
Inspired by Aristotle, a professor teaches a highly praised course on how to be an alert TV viewer. TELEVISION
CLAREMONT, CALIF. — ARISTOTLE as the world's foremost TV critic? The philosopher who roamed the hills outside Athens 23 centuries ago ``prepared the world for the video revolution like no textbook ever written,'' contends English professor Brian Stonehill. And Prof. Stonehill's course, ``Arts of Persuasion,'' at Pomona College here has become one of the most popular on campus.
It has also won high praise nationwide for rekindling an emphasis on visual literacy in an academic setting. The class is intended primarily for TV watchers, not for the medium's future producers.
```Visual literacy' is a catchword that has been kicking around since the days of Marshall McLuhan in the '60s but had sort of run its course,'' says Howard Myrick, chairman of the radio and television department at Temple University. ``[Stonehill] is saying academia is not doing enough on the subject, and he's right.''
``More English departments should be familiar with the fact that TV, in particular, is now the way that our culture is being disseminated,'' says Garth Jowett, professor of communications at the University of Houston. ``Part of the problem with media studies is that it is all career-oriented, teaching kids to turn knobs and push buttons. If one is going to study rhetoric - and TV is a form of it just as literature is - we should not limit ourselves to literature on paper.''
When he began his course in persuasion here 10 years ago, Dr. Stonehill mined classics such as John Donne's sermons, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and John Milton's ``Areopagitica.''
But he soon became convinced that television was by far the ``most persuasive instrument of our times'' and set out to describe its influence in detail.
His explorations led him straight to Aristotle, who saw every attempt at persuasion to be comprised of three elements: logos (intellectual content), pathos (emotional content), and ethos (authority based on personal charisma).
``For a television context, I updated the lingo to `smarts', `hearts', and `sparkle,''' Stonehill tells a Monday morning class. Writing the three words on the blackboard, he then plots a full day's network programming, from early morning until past midnight, to show where the daily TV diet falls.
``On the morning news shows, ethos is high,'' he says, referring to the heavy use of celebrity guests whose appeal is personal expertise or character.
``Next comes the morning game shows, whose stock in trade is emotion,'' he adds.
Afternoon soap operas are high on pathos, too, he says, appealing to audiences of homemakers often alone at home.
The triumph of logos doesn't come until the nightly news, says Stonehill, and for a while thereafter, ``dwindling into non-demanding evening talk shows....''
SORTING out the patterns of TV fare leads us, he says, ``to see both how TV responds to our [viewing] behavior but also how our behavior is shaped by those patterns....
Stonehill is not a naysayer about all things on the screen. ``I don't join those of my colleagues who say we have to stop our kids from watching TV,'' he explains. ``We have to accept the fact that TV has a great, attractive holding power and first teach people how to watch critically, how to be informed viewers, how to recognize rhetoric, deception, and false claims, because democracy is both wonderfully served by TV and also deeply threatened.''
Besides examining the uses of rhetoric in news programs and speeches, such as President Bush's recent speech on national drug abuse, Stonehill asks his classes to watch programs with an eye to such limitations as the ``fallacy of the excluded middle.''
``For the sake of drama, cop, lawyer, and detective shows overdraw characters to give us the extremes of character and neglect the middle ground in which most of us live,'' he says. ``Talk shows such as [the now-cancelled] Morton Downey Jr.'s are well-known for playing off two extremes of opinion. TV news does this with issues of rich vs. poor, communism vs. capitalism, abortion, and all the rest. It tends to polarize people out of all proportion to the real issues at hand.''
Other media are susceptible to the same shortcomings, he adds, but the problems are exacerbated on TV because of higher pressure to see comparisons visually and a pressure for ratings. So a built-in danger for TV is hyperbole, overstating a case visually. ``TV has a filter that enhances conflict.''
Stonehill gives other tips on visual literacy: Be alert to the subtle flattery of eye contact by someone who is really reading through a teleprompter; be aware of unfair conclusions about politicians based on dress that may or may not play well under television lighting; be aware of one-window views of such countries as Northern Ireland, where most media stories are about a single conflict.
Stonehill also lets his classes know the strengths of TV. ``Television is unequaled in taking viewers to far places to show them what is going on, to show them cultures of other countries.'' says Stonehill, or the Earth as seen from the moon. He says C-Span telecasts from the floor of Congress ``show Americans the democratic process they couldn't understand any other way.'' It's a perfect window into such issues as global environment, depicting devastation of rain forests or beaches, he says.
Once the good on TV has been identified and sorted out from the bad, Stonehill says his students have two obligations - to ``vote'' for the good both by watching those shows and by writing letters to encourage writers and producers to provide more such shows.
``It's very easy to think that our proper response to television is passive,'' he says. ``But we can't blame anybody but ourselves for the state of the medium. We have to work at it.''
According to Garth Jowett, professor of communications at the University of Houston, ``more English departments should be familiar with the fact that TV, in particular, is now the way that our culture is being disseminated.
IN the second half of his course, Stonehill hands his students video cameras and assigns them projects of visual persuasion, such as making a promotional tape on the merits of Pomona College.
Awareness of visual messages is enhanced by discussion of lighting, use of music to depict mood, shooting angles to depict tone, and editing to provide pacing.
``The idea of analyzing TV for the way it manipulates us is new to most students,'' says student Collin McMahon. ``I've really enjoyed the classical, rhetorical approach of Aristotle - to realize that his ideas of persuasion are timeless.''
``I've begun laughing at certain ads for their obvious fallacies,'' adds senior Michael Lazorchak. ``With the heightened awareness of this course, the shortcomings are obvious. We tend to accept so much benignly.''
Stonehill, who received his PhD in English under Saul Bellow and Wayne Booth at the University of Chicago, has directed and produced educational programs at Pomona and served as a script-development consultant at WGBH-TV in Boston.
``[Stonehill] has the unique perspective of coming at his subject from the world of literature but also with a knowledge of how TV is put together,'' says Deke Simon, president of a local production company who worked with Stonehill at local PBS affiliate KCET-TV.