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From the Classroom to the Web: Developing a Visual Literacy Exercise on Japanese Geography

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When I first began teaching at the university level some twenty-five years ago, I found that the use of media in the classroom still was considered somewhat suspect. A number of my colleagues clearly felt that to employ films, slides—even overheads—in the classroom was akin to capitulating to the evil forces of the entertainment industry. “Real education” consisted of well-crafted lectures delivered with flair to an audience of industrious note-takers.

I soon found, however, that my attempts to convey the essence of Japanese history were often hampered by the inability of my students to visualize many of the cultural aspects to which my lectures made reference. They had no notion of what a samurai warrior looked like dressed in laced-leather/metal plate armor, nor of the architectural features of a shoin-style room. In response, I developed a series of slide-illustrated lectures which I used to review each of the several historical epochs into which I divided my consideration of the Japanese past.

Yet I quickly realized that complementing my formal lectures with such visual reviews of the material failed to accomplish my initial intentions. Students persisted in holding an iconographic view of, say, what a “castle” ought to look like, even if that structure were located in Japan. I sensed that the average student, no less than my colleagues, looked at the instructional use of media as essentially a matter of passive entertainment and “time-wasting” more than anything else. I also came to recognize that a major part of the problem was that students had never been taught how to approach visual materials interactively as a source of useful information.

That realization led me to develop a set of two Visual Literacy Exercises. These slidebased instructional modules were structured so as to convey to students through an active learning experience several key aspects of the optimal approach to visual sources of information. One focused on the traditional Japanese conception of feminine beauty, utilizing slides from a commercially available set commemorating an exhibition of ukiyo-e hanga mounted in 1969 at the UCLA Art Gallery and later at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.(note 1) The other (the focus of my comments in this article) employed as its source material selections from Hiroshige Ando’s woodblock print series on the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido and served the dual purpose of introducing aspects of Japanese geography to my student audience.


1. See Harold P. Stern, Master Prints of Japan: Ukiyo-e Hanga (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1969), the exhibition catalog.


Stern, Harold P. Master Prints of Japan: Ukiyo-e Hanga. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1969.