By Dr.Collie Fulford, assistant professor, English and Mass Communication, NCCU
Course: Introduction to Technical Writing and Writing for Digital Media
In fall 2009, my Technical Writing students wrote instructional articles to guide other students through complex aspects of student life here at NCCU. I encouraged these writers to embed appropriate images in their articles. The first semester that I tried this, students borrowed images from online sources. I tried to teach about fair use and acknowledgment of image sources, but this was mostly ineffective during the first semester of this project. Because casual unattributed use of online photos is a prevalent practice outside of academia, many students resisted the practice of checking for copyright and giving credit to original image creators. Meanwhile, students who did become concerned about fair tended to use used copyright-free clipart, which is almost unbearably boring. I wasn’t ready to abandon using images with writing projects, but I needed to teach this practice better.
In spring 2010, I tried the project again, this time using the advice of The Campus Echo’s Bruce dePyssler, who advocated having students take their own photos only. I also received advice and teaching support from Dan Reis of CUTL, who helped my technical writing students learn to manipulate their images.
This proved so satisfying that the practice of working with images spilled over to another course I taught that spring, Writing for Digital Media. With Dan’s and my coaching, these students learned both creative tools for working with their own images and appropriate citation strategies for incorporating the images of others.
Use of images with text is common practice in many writing environments, online and otherwise, because images are powerful conveyors of meaning. I wanted my students to learn how to select, edit, and embed images appropriate to their writing projects, integrating these elements into the overall purpose of each project. I also wanted students to learn how to give credit to image sources as carefully as we ask them to with textual sources.
The writers in the Digital Media class benefited from my experience with the image-rich technical writing project. Digital students learned all the same image work moves of the tech writers, but also learned to work with different image sources. Although all expressed frustration with the demands of honoring copyright, learning about copyleft, and carefully attributing sources, by the end of the class, most were able to do so diligently.
For both classes, the attractive results were a strong benefit. Students enjoyed the creative design aspects very much.
I am learning to be firm about certain principles. Students often resist the hard work of attributing image sources, much as they resist the hard work of learning to cite written sources well. But there’s something so pleasing about well-conceived visual results that it may be a motivation to students. When I insist, most will stumble through the hard parts so they can take pride in finished results.
For faculty who try working with images, I recommend not just assigning this practice but also teaching it. Demonstrating is not sufficient. It’s valuable to work with students in a lab setting where they can practice and question with an instructor on hand.
If a class is too large to fit any available teaching labs, image work can be assigned as part of a team project. This way, individuals who are designated as the graphic designers can schedule meetings with the instructor outside of class time to learn the photo-editing process. The CUTL lab works well for such smaller group activity.
In future iterations of image projects, I may ramp up my students’ interaction with CreativeCommons by asking them to assign a Creative Commons copyright designation for one or more of their own images or digital documents, then rationalize why they made that selection. That way, students are acting as full producers, not just consumers/re-users of others texts and images.