Navigating Modernism’s Visual History 

This is a guest post by Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English hopeful contributor Amanda Golden.  Amanda Golden is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York Institute of Technology. She previously held the Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Poetics at Emory University’s Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry and a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is the author of Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Routledge, forthcoming) and editor of This Business of Words: Reassessing Anne Sexton (UP of Florida, 2016). She has published in Modernism/modernityWoolf Studies Annual, and The Ted Hughes Society Journal and her essays on digital pedagogy can be found in TECHStyle and Postcolonial Digital Humanities.

My “Writing New York” course this term at the New York Institute of Technology invites students to develop greater facility with visual and digital tools as they construct arguments analyzing the role of New York in poetry, prose, and fiction from predominately the first half of the twentieth century.

The students began navigating modernism’s visual history early in the term. While reading Elizabeth Losh, et al.’s Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, the students practiced constructing visual arguments while exploring the relationship between the design of a little magazine published in New York and its contents in our “Visual Literacy and the Modernist Journals Project” assignment.  (The digital tasks described here took place during the second half of an eighty-minute class period.)  When we read Edith Wharton’s “New Year’s Day” from Old New York (1924), the students interpreted the role of the city in the characters’ interactions in an assigned section of the reading, investigating the significance of their locations using Google Maps. In “Locating Old New York,” the students had unexpected observations, including the number of fires that the novella’s Fifth Avenue Hotel experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This assignment also enabled the students to gain greater familiarity with “New Year’s Day” in preparation for their essays analyzing the role of humanity amidst the machinery of the city in E. B. White’s “Here is New York” (1949), Wharton’s story, or in both texts.

As we turned to the Harlem Renaissance, our class assignments began to include more written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal components.*  We held a thesis contest in which students presented arguments addressing Langston Hughes’s poetry and prose. Students then combined text, images, and videos in their interpretations of the role of New York in at least one poem during our “Snapchat with Claude McKay.” When we read a chapter of Nella Larsen’s Passing, the students used Google Tour Builder to depict its events, including the contents of the conversations and their significance. The task of mapping Passing presented an opportunity for students to explore the text and the software in preparation for their group map assignments. In this project, the students have the option to use Google Maps, Google Tour Builder, or a combination of elements in a Prezi, Power Point, or Word Document, to create a visual argument analyzing at least one text by one of the writers we have read. Each group will also compose a rationale addressing the arguments that their map makes.

The linear format of Google Tour Builder provides a legible structure in which students can insert annotations interpreting passages from the text. After I learned of this program from Gabriel Hankins, I asked students in my Global Digital Modernisms course this term to construct tours of Paris in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight (1938). Google Maps, which my previous classes have used in projects, such as creating annotated maps of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, allows for a visual interpretation in which the lines on the map need not address one route, but could indicate various connections with different colors.

Figure 1

Figure 1

When I last taught my Global Digital Modernisms course, the students used Prezi when mapping Good Morning, Midnight to combine annotations and current Google Street views with backgrounds, such as historical maps (Figure 1). Prezi also allows for more complicated maps of texts, such as one group’s depiction of the protagonist’s memories (Figure 2). A current issue with Prezi is that their free educational subscription no longer allows students to keep materials private. I prefer that students keep their work offline, sharing it with their professor. If students choose to do so, they can make their work public when it is finished.

Figure 2

Figure 2

The final project in my Writing New York course will combine research and digital media as students compose a script that they will record or film as a podcast or video. This assignment includes students’ research using primary and secondary sources and builds on the digital and visual literacy skills they acquired in previous assignments. Complementing our reading during the second half of the course, we will look to The History Chicks’s Dorothy Parker podcast and Patti Smith’s interview with Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library video as examples for synthesizing elements of conversation, research, and close reading.  When I assigned a similar project in my African American Literature from the Harlem Renaissance to the Digital Present course, the students found our critiques of sample interviews particularly helpful in developing their own projects.  Their assignment, “Mock Interviews with Contemporary African American Writers,” grew out of one that Anne Sexton proposed to her “Anne on Anne” students at Colgate University in 1972.

In their script and podcast or video assignments, my Writing New York students will demonstrate the ability to analyze quotations, acknowledge sources, and develop arguments. Creating podcasts or videos, using such tools as Audacity, Soundcloud, and VoiceThread, the students can use phones, tablets, and computers to record and edit their projects, working in new ways with devices with which they may already be familiar. Blending creativity and research, this assignment invites students to combine language, sound, and media to create digital interpretations of modernist texts.


*In the Writing and Communication Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, this is called WOVEN Communication and the ways these elements overlap comprise an artifact’s “multimodal synergy.” See WOVENText. Version 2.2. Bedford/St. Martin’s Press. Accessed 21 March, 2016.