Monday, January 21, 2019

Visual Thinking Strategies and 19th Century Images

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. To be honest, I believe it can speak so much more. Take a peek at this lovely story:

For those of you who don't recall the background of this picture, take some guesses. Why is this crazy woman upset? Why is she holding a blob of paint on what we assume is canvas? Are those quilts in the background? Why is this outside?

Congratulations! You just participated in a visual thinking strategy, similar to ones found in my classroom. I'll throw a picture on the projector in my classroom and have the students simply ask questions. While the idea of asking questions about any topic or image is not new, this particular strategy hit my teacher training a few years ago. It is very successful with students, and I find it to be useful in my own research. We'll talk more about this later in the post.

Speaking of research, what does good research look like? This is something I've covered before. I've created my own guide to ensure a thorough look at history:

The Trifecta of my Research
-Photographic Images
-Textual Documentation
-Surviving Originals

Photographic imagery can be tricky. It can be very difficult to see jewelry (or much of anything) in a picture. They're often  undated, or are too blurry to see other fine details. Sometimes people wear older clothing, or pose. Photography was still a newer technology, so it's no wonder they were experimenting with appropriate (thinking of modern trends with "selfies").

Have you ever heard someone say that they have an "eye" for period images/textiles/accessories? That he/she can simply look at an object and "feel" it out, even without verification? I've scoured thousands of images over the years (thanks to Pinterest/online museum collections/Glenna Jo's stash) and I can't explain why a certain piece looks right. Sometimes I'm wrong, but if it's even questionable I start digging through my research. We cannot trust this instinct as fact (or even trust "experts" all of the time. Everyone is wrong sometimes), but it is a useful tool when narrowing down thousands of images.

Training your eyeballs
The gift of sight is a beautiful thing. Without it, we could not observe the world around us, in all its glory and details. I try to be particularly observant in my everyday life, especially in my classroom. I notice a scowling face, or rushed demeanor. I've trained my eyes to see things that are pertinent to my job. 

Eyeball training is not something you acquire after a week or two. It's a long, multi-step process that we do instinctively over time. Sometimes we look more for specific points of research (I often look at jewelry). Here are some suggestions to training your eyeballs!

1. Use a Visual Thinking Strategy

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is an inquiry-based teaching strategy for all grade levels. You do not need any special art training to use this strategy. The goal of VTS is not to teach the history of a work of art but, rather, to encourage students to observe independently and to back up their comments with evidence. -Milwaukee Art Museum

Personally, I have used visual thinking strategies in my classroom. They are always fantastic lessons, but it takes some practice. If you'd like an idea of what this looks like in person, here's a quick video:

I find this practice to be INCREDIBLY useful when teaching high school students. We often miss details or try to breeze past the observation part. Dwell in the picture. Take in the surroundings, any shades or colors. Deconstruct the image, because you are going to put it back together again.

2. Question yourself

In the video, the instructor mentions three questions. They are so helpful to creating observational skills!

What's going on in this picture?
What do you see that makes you say that?
What more can we find?

Specifically for my research purposes I reword the questions. In terms of reenacting, I can tweak them to better fit our needs:

What items or articles of clothing do you see in the picture?
What makes you say that it is the item/waist treatment/jewelry?
What more can you guess about the image based on what you see?

You're probably wondering how asking questions can help you get answers. For beginners, sometimes it's overwhelming to look at everything all at once. Examining individual pieces allows for greater practice with important details. For our seasoned veterans, it's easy to have that "trained eye" miss other details. Now let's do a practice example for questions.

What type of fabric is her dress?
What did she use to trim her bodice?
What waist treatment do I see?
How did she finish her sleeves?
What color/type of earrings does it look like?
How has she done her hair?
What type of collar is this?

When we start answering these questions, we can begin asking things like:

How old is this person?
What is his/her income?
What is the relationship to the other people in the image?
Where do they live?
About when was this picture taken?

Did you notice yourself looking closer at different elements of the image? If those were questions you asked without my prompting...congratulations! You're a pro! However, this is just a very basic set of questions I've come up with. You can get even more detailed in your examination based on your needs.

3. Use primary sources to back up observations

I've written about primary sources in the past, especially why Pinterest is not Documentation. It's nearly every day I see a fellow reenactor bemoan a certain vendor or self-proclaimed "expert" who doesn't quite understand what a primary resource is. Primary sources help you better understand what you see in an image, because you can comprehend just what you're looking at.

The Teaching Library at the University of California at Berkeley notes that:

"Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers."

Examples of primary sources include:

-Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers
-Memoirs and autobiographies
-Records of organizations and agencies of government
-Published materials written at the time of the event
-Photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings documenting what happened
-Original artifacts of all kinds
-Research reports in the sciences and social sciences from the time.

If you're looking for online access to primary resources, I have compiled a list of links to 19th century sources HERE. I use it all the time!

*A pinterest board is not a primary resource
*A book about the time period is not a primary resource 
   (though it can contain them)
*A link to an item on Etsy is not a primary resource
*Someone saying they saw something is not a primary resource
   (if they point you in the right direction, they are awesome!)

4. Ask for help

You know that awesome friend who pointed you in the right direction for that primary resource? Keep him/her around! That person is seriously magical and cool. I have a few mentors that have helped tremendously, and people that have aided in every step of my research process.

These mentors may already have those "trained" eyeballs. They can give you ideas, maybe send a few images your way. Their questions could spark new directions in your research. I've spent hours pouring through Glenna Jo's image collection. A good mentor will offer support whenever possible. They will offer you constructive criticism in a way that actually promotes change. If you leave a meeting/phone call/conversation with your mentor and feel good, then you found a good mentor!

Because even if you make mistakes, a good teacher knows that's part of the process. And making you feel terrible about messing up doesn't create a positive learning environment.

*If you find yourself in a toxic mentor/mentee relationship, I recommend leaving. I don't care how much a person knows; you deserve to be treated with respect. 

5. Reflect on your process

Reflection is a tough thing to do. It requires you to think about what you did right, wrong, and everything in between. You have to examine your process, find fault in yourself, and yet still find the motivation to improve. It's obnoxiously necessary.

I cringe sometimes when I think of the mistakes I've made in the past. It would be easy to get defensive, to refuse to change simply to save my own ego. Unfortunately Fortunately, as a teacher, my ego was deflated long ago when my students very decidedly pointed out my many flaws. There's nothing like a roomful of teenagers gleefully chirping about a spelling error on a handout...but it made me more aware of my own faults.

Here's a list of questions that can help you reflect when training your eyeballs:

What do I look for the most/least?
What biases do I have when looking at these images?
Which images DISPROVE what I believe?
How can I find more sources to prove my point?
If I could change one thing about my research right now, what would it be?

* The idea is to challenge yourself. Be your own best critic. But also be kind, as a good critic will know the right way to find your bias but not make you feel like crap. When I edit, I tend to treat myself to a cookie. Or a bit of fabric...

In Conclusion

As I prepare for the 2019 conference, primary documentation weighs heavily on my mind. In 2018 we made it our goal that EVERY item in our museum area had primary documentation, especially images. It was an exhausting task, one that Glenna Jo and I pushed for months. Every piece of jewelry, dress, and accessory had an accompanying image/primary source. I joke that I cried during this whole thing, but in a way I did; between reading books and staring at online resources, I never blinked!

I hope this post sparks a conversation about primary sources, visual images, and how we perceive our research process. We must keep in mind that the fruit of our research is on usually on display, whether it's live at an event or in a picture shared on the internet. We make a huge impact on how people view history, especially children.

And if I might add, The Citizen's Forum of the 1860s still has spots available! We have a large selection of workshops and fantastic seminars by amazing people. Primary sources are very important, and you will see many represented there. If you're looking for a good place to learn with very kind people, please join us! You can register here online.


Learning is a lifelong process.
There are new discoveries about the past all the time.
A progressive mindset makes for amazing living history!


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