Mass Culture: Learning with Posters

I can be a snob sometimes. And sometimes that snobbery has to give way under the weight of respected opinion. Such has been the way with the idea of using posters in my teaching.

It’s not a method of teaching or learning I came across in my undergraduate or postgraduate studies. It was only when I began teaching while working on my PhD that I saw the use of posters in university-level learning. Students produced posters in the style of eighteenth-century quacks advertising their wares, so I could see the poster was an appropriate medium. Since then I’ve come across numerous occasions of professional historians being asked to make a poster to show off their areas of research expertise, for example at academic conferences or for university open days. Again, this is really a form of advertising. So a visual display makes sense. But I’ve also seen senior colleagues using them as a way of pinning down key concepts and other rigorous ideas. When I saw Matt Houlbrook’s recent blog post on using posters in class, as a way of students tracking the changes in campaigning on women’s rights, I decided this really was something I ought to try out.

Indeed, there is a pedagogical rationale for using posters. Written or spoken forms of communicating ideas or analysis tend to be sequential – we make sense by one thing setting up the next or elaborating/clarifying the last. Whereas visualising instead of verbalising forces us to order what we’re communicating in hierarchies instead of sequences. In fact, this might be a more useful way of trying to get our heads around the key themes, points and examples found in our academic reading. And so it seemed to be when I put this to the test with my first-year History undergraduates.

In our Making of the Modern World module, we had a seminar coming up to discuss the nature, construction and dissemination of mass culture in the modern world. For this I asked them to read three set texts. Typically we might break into small groups to identify the key points from one of the readings and then feed back to the others to facilitate a whole-class discussion. This time we did something very similar, but with posters. A number of students said afterwards that they found it a really helpful way to make sense of the reading, and asked if they could be gathered together somehow (hence this post – hope you find the below helpful!).

Unlike posters serving as displays, we used them as a visual starting point for presenting to the rest of the group and initiating discussion. So there was no expectation that the images or limited text should speak for itself, but rather serve as a prompt. Incorporating posters as a tool for students in an otherwise familiar seminar arrangement seems to have worked well. Certainly, it was at least as successful as making notes in mining the reading for its key topics, ideas and arguments. Doing something that feels rather different and giving students a chance to flex their artistic muscles both make for enjoyable classes. But, more importantly, my worries that such an exercise might trivialise the subject were entirely misplaced. Having the students make posters didn’t distract from but rather aided the serious academic aims of the seminar. Perhaps it’s something I’ll bring in a little more often in future.

Western Fashion in China, c.1912 One of the readings was a chapter from Henrietta Harrison’s 2000 book The Making of the Republican Citizen: Political Symbols and Ceremonies in ChinaIt documents the new republican spirit that embraced Western fashion and etiquette following the overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty.

Television and Global Culture Another reading was the opening and closing sections from Anthony Smith’s 1998 edited volume Television: An International HistoryAs he notes: “What the inventors never quite realized was that television would become normative, that so much of what we see on the screen would contrive to suggest how things ought or ought not to be.”

Mass Culture in Postwar America The final reading was TJ Jackson Lears’ chapter from a 1989 edited volume on American culture and politics in the Cold War entitled ‘A Matter of Taste: Corporate Cultural Hegemony in a Mass-Consumption Society’. Lears was calling for a Gramscian perspective to complete the “social ideas of the leading intellectuals” of the time, who typically saw “mass consumption and conformity as the defining characteristics of postwar American society”.

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