Making Multimedia Communication More Inclusive

Diving beyond the surface of written language and visual media to get messages across.
Dr. Valerie Hanson, Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric. Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

When we write, speak, or share pictures, it’s easy to forget the deep layers of context, meaning, and connections behind even the most basic of communication. Cultural references, emotional undertones, and historical ties can all latch on without us even knowing, and it may be a problem when our communication comes with associations we didn’t mean to include.

Valerie Hanson, PhD, is interested in untangling the complexities of language and images to communicate in a more inclusive manner. She’s particularly drawn to visual forms of communications, like data visualizations and infographics. In this Q&A, Dr. Hanson explains how she became so interested in visual communication, and she discusses the techniques she uses in her classroom to make communications inclusive.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: I’ve been at Jefferson (Philadelphia University) since 2004: I was attracted by the way that the faculty thought outside the box and worked across fields to tackle important, complex questions. The strong and genuinely collaborative focus on excellent teaching here was also a huge and deciding factor; I am still so glad to have joined a community of such interesting and committed scholars and teachers.

Q: Tell us about your field.

A: I work in rhetoric and composition, a field concerned with how to write and communicate effectively and persuasively, and how to teach others to do so. In the field, we’re currently looking closely at how we can teach writing in ways that call attention to and interrupt structural inequity such as racism, sexism, and ableism. I also teach a multimedia communication class as part of our general undergraduate education at East Falls.

Q: What’s one question you’re exploring in your work?

A: Right now, I’m exploring how writing teachers can help students create inclusive multimodal communication like data visualizations and infographics. Infographics can be a really accessible way to get complex information across, because they use colors and images in an attractive way. But, when making infographics, it’s easy to fall into patterns of communication that perpetuate structural inequities; for example, when choosing icons for an infographic, we may choose the most able-bodied, gender-conforming versions of an image. These icons may get our point across, but they also may make parts of our audience feel excluded. Similarly, we’ve been studying how habits of language, like idioms or common sayings, can exclude or contribute to inequity regardless of the writer’s intention. Ultimately, we’re working to make changes in our classrooms to equip students to communicate inclusively.

Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

Q: What techniques do you use to teach inclusive, multimodal communication?

A: I’ve been really focusing on slowing down our “looking process,” or the series of conscious and subconscious steps and reactions we cycle through as we view visual media. I often have my students view infographics and map their “looking process” out on a timeline, considering how they digest the information, what it makes them feel, and the conclusions it leads them to. By comparing our reactions as a class, we can explore how we might experience an infographic similarly, or start to understand how it might be excluding certain members of its audience. From there, we can brainstorm ways to make it more inclusive.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: I’ve always been fascinated with digital imaging, and my first book was about digital scientific images made by the scanning tunneling microscope. The scanning tunneling microscope visualized what is literally impossible to see with visible light, like nanopoarticles, and it allowed researchers to communicate by arranging non-optical data into an image. Based on that new technology, researchers developed new metaphors to understand what nanotechnology is and could be — such as conceptualizing atoms as “building blocks.” I found that interplay between technology, visualization, and communication really fascinating.

I’m also deeply interested in how we acknowledge and honor differences in ourselves and our audiences—our backgrounds, experiences, stories, and ways of perceiving the world—and how we can become more aware of our own and others’ perspectives through communication. These two passions sparked my research questions when I was working out how to teach infographics in my writing classroom.

Q: What’s the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?

A: I’m deeply curious about how people communicate with and beyond words—I think all the writing I’ve ever done as a poet and researcher centers on exploring the limits of what can be said. How is it that someone can communicate what they are thinking and how might they do so in ways that incorporate gesture, or visual, or non-word sounds, or even repetition, in ways that focus the work of words, or expand the meanings of words? Even though languages have  so many words, I find myself so interested in those spaces where words don’t seem like they are enough to communicate what someone wants to say.

Q: What’s a cool or little known or unique fact about your work?

A: Beyond my academic writing, I also love writing poems—and I write a lot of poems about science!

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: Keep asking yourself those questions that drive your passion to discover. Also, write every day—even just 30 minutes a day—to stay in touch with your discovering processes and get your insights out into the world!

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Science and Technology