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Visual Literacy: Letting Our Students See the Past for Themselves. Mesolore and Traditions and Encounters 3/e with Primary Source Investigator (PSI)

Wendy Eagan

Walt Whitman High School

    This fall two new CD-ROMS are available to assist with visual instruction in world history courses. At Brown University Liza Bakewell and Bryon Hamann developed Mesolore (, a multimedia and multidisciplinary tool which richly explores the Mesoamerican past and present for the teacher and the learner at a variety of academic levels. This past June the scholars presented their CD-ROM and its approach of combining the humanities and sciences to an attentive audience of AP World History Readers the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. In addition, each new third edition of Jerry Bentley and Herbert Ziegler's popular college text Traditions and Encounters ( includes the Primary Source Investigator (PSI) which provides visual primary sources with contextual information, interactive maps, and other rewarding pedagogical aspects. Both of these CD-ROMS can be especially helpful for letting our students see the past for themselves. 1
    One of the goals of world history is to analyze change and continuity over the recorded past. Since Mesoamerica is one of the few places on earth where independent rural to urban transformation occurred, many instructors are searching for visual sources to complement textual descriptions of a region so important for fully understanding our own hemisphere. With the Mesolore CD-ROM students can see in full color reproduction and animation some of the actual surviving images produced by pre-Columbian peoples. Users can see the images displayed on Mixtec palace walls or in Spanish colonial courtrooms in a variety of size and detail. They can also see and hear in video format scholars who are currently researching and studying contemporary issues in the region.
    At the heart of Mesolore are three primary sources, two screenfold books (the Codices Nuttall [pre 1520] and Selden [circa 1560]), as well as the printed 1593 Alvarado Vocabulary, which is a Spanish to Mixtec dictionary. Tutorials are available which carefully pair the images with textual explanations on such topics as social stratification, cuisine, pictorial writing, and clothing. One place to start might be the selection on the Mixteca and Its People. Explanations of the images of people and their body positions, clothing, landscapes, concepts of time keeping, and actions and events are presented here. Using a clever compass image as an icon, users can easily navigate which direction they wish to take in their exploration of this content.
   Another great visual section is the Atlas section, which begins by displaying a general map of Mesoamerica. From there, users can go to other maps to locate specific towns and archaeological sites of interest. Students or teachers can click on the Lecture section to see and hear (in either Spanish or English) noted professors in the field. Frustrated with balancing your checkbook or math homework using Arabic numerals? See and listen to Professor Anthony Aveni discuss Mesoamerican mathematics in this section. The Mentors section contains a series of photographic slide shows narrated by ten North American scholars filled with personal biographical notes and research results. Interested in edible insects? See and listen to ethnobiologist Julieta Ramos- Elorduy in this section. Click on the Library section and you will find a trove of textual materials to support the images and introduce new topics. Debates on topics such as ownership of archaeological artifacts, the demarcation between history and propaganda, the future direction of indigenous rights, and the validity of gender analysis in historical inquiry are included in audio segments. 4
    All in all this CD-ROM packs an academic punch which invites repeated and enthralling study. It is an excellent academic tool for visual comprehension of the past, and is well worth investigating. After spending time navigating this accurate textual and visual compass, users will return highly satisfied from a lengthy and scholarly journey through time and space. It is a timely and desirable passport for teacher and student alike, we all can learn something valuable here.
    In their preface to Traditions and Encounters 3/e authors Bentley and Ziegler state that "…global interactions and global problems are by no means new features of world history. To the contrary, there is a long historical context for contemporary globalization, and only in light of past experience is it possible to understand the contemporary world."1 As instructors plan their lessons for the semester, they can utilize a new student study tool bound into each copy of this text called the Primary Source Investigator (PSI). This CD-ROM contains interactive maps, images, artifacts, buildings, cartoons, government documents, videos and audio recordings which support the many textual documents also included. Each source type is accompanied by full explanations such as the definition or explanation of the source type, questions to consider when viewing the source, or uses of the source. 6
    Arranged in an Ask, Research, and Argue format, users have the opportunity to research historical buildings by viewing a black and white photograph of the remains of the ziggurat at Ur. This image from the CD-ROM could be compared to a color photograph of another temple in Ur dedicated to the moon god found on page 34 of Chapter 2 in the text. Returning to the PSI other images of buildings such as the Church of the Resurrection in Russia (circa 1390), the Temple of Heaven in Beijing (1420), and the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali (1890) can be easily accessed and analyzed as to function or cultural influences expressed by the buildings, or the technologies used during construction. 7
    Users have the option of clicking on selected icons to read Source Introductions for textual clarification of the image, to answer a series of Source Questions designed to further analysis of the image, or to add or remove the image to a selected folder. Another excellent option is the Source Notes section where students can record their thoughts under the actual citation they might need later for a paper or project. A convenient zoom feature allows the image to be manipulated for detailed observation and a change of perspective. Two more easy clicks and the image may be printed or emailed to a friend or colleague. 8
    As for secondary sources, a series of 43 interactive maps consisting of colorful layers of animated geographic and historical data allow users to trace forced migrations of slaves in the Atlantic World from 1451 to 1870, to accompany 19th century soldiers under the command of Napoleon to and from Moscow, to watch in horror the transfer of pathogens during the first and second wave of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, to compare member states of NAFTA, OPEC, the Arab League and the EU, or to return to our roots at Australopithecus sites in Hadar or Olduvai Gorge. Images of historic maps are also found in another section which allow students primary source images to ponder such as a updated 16th century version of a Ptolemaic World Map, Waldseemuller's World Map naming the region of America, or an 18th century map of the Portuguese port Macao in China. Convenient back and forth buttons facilitate quick transitions for the scholar under time constraints. 9
    Images of Hindu Brahmins from Bengal, Cambodian Buddhist monks, the Polo brothers receiving the Golden Seal from Khublai Khan, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the practice of widow immolation called Sati in India, captured 19th century Arab and Swahili slave traders, displaced African refugees during the Boer War, Churchill, FDR, and Stalin at Yalta, anti-French Vietnamese protestors, US soldiers mourning the loss of a fallen comrade and a triumphant Kwame Nkrumah in 1957 all communicate messages that students must learn to interpret. 10
    Thanks to the marvels of 21st century technology, three small plastic disks of four and one-half inches in diameter offer significant potential for improving visual literacy to both students and instructors of world history. 11


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


1 Jerry Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler. Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past (New York: McGraw Hill, 2006.)


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