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Visual Literacy: Two New Editions to Consider for Visual Literacy

Wendy Eagan
Walt Whitman High School

    Two new editions of standard world history texts offer instructors the opportunity to include more visual primary sources for student analysis. In the new AP Edition of The Earth and Its Peoples, Bard Keeler has written a document-based question following each chapter.1 These questions include many colorful visual sources and give students images to analyze which include "photographs, charts, and maps."2 In addition, a new black and white feature (called "Visual Source") in the third edition of Documents in World History "involves the presentation of visual evidence…with context and interpretive exercises attached."3 How can these new resources help in our daily task to guide students in literally "seeing" the past for themselves?
    For starters, students can marvel at the 1,000 pillars of a temple in south India,4 understand why the Buddha "abandoned asceticism" by seeing a sculptured emaciated body,5 explore the multiplicity of perhaps 330 million Hindu gods while gazing upon the Khajuraho Temple to Shiva,6 and dream along with Vishnu as they "assess the role of religion in the development of Indian society before 600 C.E."7
    By the end of the academic year, we hope our students better understand their place in the wider world. They see a plethora of images on television and in the print media, but the document-based question in Chapter 33 of the new AP edition by Bulliet et al. helps by providing maps showing the Global Distribution of Wealth,8 Regional Trade Associations from 2004,9 World Religions,10 and a pie chart showing World Distribution of HIV/AIDS Cases.11 A comparison of these graphics with the photographs of Lower Manhattan six months after September 11th, 2001,12 the Sectarian Strife in India which resulted in the razing of a 16th century mosque,13 and the Beijing Women's Conference in 199514 help students understand the "factors fostering and hindering the political, economic, and cultural integration of the global community."15
     When we travel today we tend to drive or fly. How, then, can we introduce the importance of seafaring and maritime activities before the modern era? One way is by juxtaposing images, found in Bulliet's Earth and its Peoples, of Zheng He's imposing junks to one of Vasco da Gama's smaller vessels or to the paddlers of Polynesian canoes.16 4
    Students who struggle with maps assigned for homework may appreciate the precise yet fanciful cartography of a Portugese Map of Western Africa from 1502.17 Or, after coming back to school from a few "sick days," they may understand the transmission of pathogens which resulted in the suffering of Aztec smallpox victims depicted in Death from Smallpox.18 Images such as these help students to "characterize cross-cultural contact and exchanges…during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries."19
    Comparing the yearbook photos of faculty and students in terms of dress and appearance is a time honored tradition in the United States. But how best to make other comparisons, like the "perceptions of Europeans and Ottoman subjects [had] of one another"?20 Students can view Muhammad Ali meeting with European Representatives in 1839,21 travel down a Street Scene in Cairo,22 or come face to face with an Ottoman Janissary's Change with Tradition.23 They can also analyze the clothing of the crowds viewing the Raising of the Alexander Monument in St. Petersburg,24 the famous nurse Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, or the government officials in the Interior of the Ottoman Financial Bureau.25
    Peter M. Leschak has said "All of us are watchers…but few of us are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing." ( Rather than ask students to analyze several images at once, it may be useful to get them to "see" more clearly by focusing on just one image at a time. This is the approach of the third edition of Documents in World History, Volume 1. For each Visual Source, the authors provide commentary and study questions. So, for example, students can concentrate on the voyage to the Egyptian afterlife via a twelfth dynasty sculpture of a royal barge,26 or investigate a woodblock print of the agrarian lifestyle of a Song Dynasty Chinese Peasant Family.27 Two aspects of spiritual dedication are evident in the image of Pilgrims Performing the Tawaf in Mecca ca. 1980, and in the soaring interior of Gothic Architecture in Rheims, France.28 Or, following the re-election photos of President Bush, the bronze head of a sixteenth century Benin king may offer some historical clues about political authority to this generation of students.29
    In Documents in World History, Volume 2, the impact of Confucian values are evident in the Chinese Family Offering Hall, while the impact of western technology in Japan is depicted by a nineteenth century Japanese cartoonist.30 Contrasting twentieth-century lifestyles can be seen in images of the elegant couple Juan and Eva Peron as against the image of backbreaking African Women's Work.31 In an age of workouts and buff bodies, what does the anatomical sketch by Leonardo da Vinci still say about the inherent potential of the human anatomy?32 All of these images should provoke ample discussion about material culture, intended audience, and meaning.
    Both of the new editions of The Earth and Its Peoples and Documents in World History provide new and exciting techniques for utilizing visual sources by the instructor who is looking to add images to his or her teaching practices. Indeed, we can all "see" the past more clearly with revisions such as these.

Biographical Note: Wendy Eagan teaches world history at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.



1 Richard Bulliet et al., The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, 3rd edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

2 The Earth and Its Peoples, xxiii.

3 Peter Stearns et al., Documents in World History, Volumes 1 and 2, 3rd edition (Addison Wesley, 2003), xiii.

4 The Earth and Its Peoples, 150.

5 The Earth and Its Peoples, 157.

6 The Earth and Its Peoples, 158.

7 The Earth and Its Peoples, 172.

8 The Earth and Its Peoples, 886.

9 The Earth and Its Peoples, 888.

10 The Earth and Its Peoples, 891.

11 The Earth and Its Peoples, 894.

12 The Earth and Its Peoples, 878.

13 The Earth and Its Peoples, 882.

14 The Earth and Its Peoples, 896.

15 The Earth and Its Peoples, 905.

16 Images found, respectively, in The Earth and Its Peoples, 380 and 379.

17 The Earth and Its Peoples, 386.

18 The Earth and Its Peoples, 394.

19 The Earth and Its Peoples, 400.

20 The Earth and Its Peoples, 676.

21 The Earth and Its Peoples, 650.

22 The Earth and Its Peoples, 659.

23 The Earth and Its Peoples, 658.

24 The Earth and Its Peoples, 664.

25 The Earth and Its Peoples, 660.

26 Documents in World History, Volume I, 24.

27 Documents in World History, Volume I, 206.

28 Documents in World History, Volume I, 304 and 241, respectively.

29 Documents in World History, Volume I, 271.

30 Documents in World History, Volume 2, 67 and 226, respectively.

31 Documents in World History, Volume 2, 364 and 395, respectively.

32 Documents in World History, Volume 2, 32.



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