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Fran Abbate FYI on Venice

Fran Abbate FYI on Venice

Promoting Information and Visual Literacy in FYI
A tentative course unit for “Invisible City” Fall 2008

  • Instructional Goals
  • To develop a passion (or at least an inclination) for research and to introduce students to the library’s resources and the basics of finding and evaluating sources.
  • To practice/strengthen the “intelligent” (vs. “lazy”) eye. [The terminology is taken from David Perkins’ The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Looking at Art. In his first chapter, Perkins proposes we can “learn to use our minds better by thoughtful looking.”]
  • To promote critical thinking skills, especially analysis and synthesis.
  • To practice reading like a writer—to understand the rhetorical choices authors make and how and why academic and popular writing uses sources.
  • To practice writing for specific purposes: vivid and lucid descriptive writing, summary, bibliography, invention, and research/source-based writing.

Unit Purpose and Assignment Overview
Students will choose a painting to save from a “hypothetically” sinking Venice and construct an argument about the value of the artwork—why it should be saved and for whom. A series of writing assignments will be given which address the above-stated goals. The written assignments about the chosen painting range from informal journal entries to bibliographies and research questions. The “formal”/outcome paper (and formal presentation based on the paper) will include a description of the painting, a justification for saving it (including historical/artistic contexts that speak to its value) and the findings of research into a particular question or mystery about the painting that the author has conducted. I’m more concerned with process than product in this assignment. My core goals are that students become familiar with—and comfortable using—the library’s resources and that they gain skills in writing about the visual and integrating sources. A side note: I think/hope Perkins is right and that practicing a deeper way of looking, rather than our everyday cursoriness, will improve analytical skills.

Background Readings and Assignments

Venice Revealed, Paolo Barbaro. Barbaro returns to his home city after a protracted absence and details how Venice has changed—most particularly in terms of its ecology and economy—and how it hasn’t. Bruce Bower, in The Hudson Review, writes that the book is a “Lyrical report of Barbaro’s observations and reflections as he wanders around the city….Life a smaller-scale Proust, this book is, at best, a lesson in using one’s senses to their fullest.” Barbaro’s vivid observations of the city can be seen as the product of the “intelligent eye,” and we will use a 1-2 page passage to write an imitation of his style. The book also, of course, provides a good introduction to the city and its imperiled state.

“Venice’s Uncertainty,” Eric Jaffe. This March 2007 article (from the Smithsonian’s website) gives an update on the state of Venice’s environmental health and plans for MOSE, the system of floodgates intended to save Venice from acqua alta. In many ways, it picks up where Barbaro leaves off. It also provides a manageable model of source-based writing. We can examine when and why he uses sources—and how valid those sources are—together as a class. Reading this article (as well as Barbaro) gives us a sense of how a truly devastating period of flooding might be possible, and thus provides us a sense of urgency and validity in terms of the assignment and its “hypotheticality.”

City of Falling Angels, John Berendt. Berendt arrives in Venice just days after its famed opera house, La Fenice, has been destroyed by fire. The book is a portrait of contemporary Venice and its inhabitants and a record of the investigation into what started the fire, which is ruled as arson. I think it’s a good reading for this unit because Berendt’s investigations involve research (of a type) and the book is fueled by a passionate search for the truth. It’s also about art and architecture, and questions of restoration and preservation. One assignment will ask students to isolate quotes taken from conversations Berendt has or overhears that argue for the reconstruction/replication of La Fenice. This will allow us to practice integrating quotes and to focus on arguments about what constitutes aesthetic, social, and historical value.

Tentative Steps/Assignments for Unit

1) Library workshop. Introduction to ARTstor and other sources. Outcome: To demonstrate and familiarize students with sources they’ll use to find their painting.

2) Choosing a painting.

3) Living with the work. (Informal journal writing assignments.) Outcome: greater visual literacy and material to use in formal paper.
Day 1—Record your initial impulse to choose this painting. What spoke to you? What did you notice first? What kind of emotions(s) did it evoke?
Day 2—What do you notice about the painting today? How might your describe the painting in terms of our other senses? (If this were sound, it would be….If I could taste the painting it would taste like…)
Day 3—Compare the painting to two of the following—your comparisons can be purely associative and personal rather than logical: a film, a song, a person, a memory, a poem, anything you’ve been studying in another course.

4) Writing the description. Outcome: information literacy and practical suggestions for writing about art.
Assignment: Find a website that has suggestions for how to write about the visual aspect only of painting. (That is, avoid the social/historical/topical considerations for now.) Bring a hard copy to class if possible—or note at least 4 good tips to share. In class, we’ll use our tips to collaboratively describe a sample painting.

5) Twenty Questions. Outcome: research questions.
Assignment: Now that you’ve become familiar with the painting, I’d like you to take some time to explore what you don’t know about it. You can formulate your list as an “I don’t know list” or as questions. (Or both!) Items on your list might include relevant questions about the painter (How old was Titian when he painted this and what was going on in his life?), about the subject matter (Are the figures allegorical?), about possible symbolism (Why a lizard?), or about historical/social concerns (How were those servants treated then? What did they throw in the canal?) Your questions might, of course, be related: one might lead you to another, and another…

6) Share and narrow. Outcome: focusing research.
Collaborative work: Share questions and help each other narrow your lists down to 2 or 3 that might be the most compelling to research. Can you foresee any difficulties in terms of sources? What would be your ideal source? Is there a danger of compounding too much information? How might our course readings be used as sources? Is there any information they might provide you with?

7) Back to library. Outcome: to find one possible (and relevant) print source from stacks/reserve and one for an academic online source (JSTOR, etc.).
Assignment: A formal bibliography of three sources you might use in your paper.

8) Evaluating/Using sources. Outcome: critical thinking about appropriateness of sources.
Assignment: Please write me a letter in which you introduce me to your sources. What are they about? How might they be useful in helping you answer your question? Are you finding them easy or difficult to read? Do you think the date of publication should be a concern with your sources? Why/why not?

9) Planning, Drafting, Meeting. Outcome: testing/rethinking topic choice.
Preparing for conferences: Visit from Writing Center. Q & A about purpose, shaping, and other concerns. (Even, yes, starting over—it’s not uncommon to question/reformulate the purpose of a paper at this stage, and one main goal of this project is enjoying research. If you’re not happy, now is a good time to shift or refine your focus.) Conferences with me: please bring a purpose statement and a rough outline.

10) Paper due/reflection. Outcome: critical reflection about using sources.
Assignment—please respond to the following.
What steps do you think were most production in this process?
What challenges did you face in finding sources?
What do think about the quality of your sources?
What questions or concerns might you have about integrating sources?
How do you feel about your paper and its arguments/explorations?