Teaching: Mind Mapping American Bodies

Untitled mind map
A student in my course “American Bodies” thinks back critically on the class, arguing that American citizens are defined by group-specific stereotypes that create different experiences and further reinforce misconceptions:
“We discussed many different forms of bodies that have all had distinct social associations connected to them.  For the most part, white men have dominated society, always being in power and having authority over others. Those with negative social associations have always been at a disadvantage and often have been restricted, whether that be socially or under very specific laws created by those in power. We discussed how people in power have tried to regulate and restrict those below them often for nothing more than their skin color….”

In my American Studies courses I ask students to construct a mind map with an accompanying essay reflecting back on the course. The assignment aims to secretly get students to think about a structural analysis of power.

For this assignment, students were asked to reimagine the course structure by choosing a few of the course readings, films, lectures, etc. and lumping them into new categories and linking these categories and topics. It might sound a bit confusing, abstract, or a little hippie granola for you, but when executed correctly produces beautiful, thought-provoking images that evidence students reflecting critically on the course material.

First I’m going to give you the assignment basics and then I’ll share some of the best mind maps and their essays from my Spring 2015 course I designed, “Blood, Bones, and Brains: 20th Century History of American Bodies.” (You can see the syllabus for that course on my Academia.edu page.)

Assignment Basics

I show them this mind map as an example and tell them that the center of the mind map should be their overarching argument — each branch shooting out from the center should be a main theme, and then the smaller lines attached to those main theme branches should be their evidence to prove their argument. I use that mind map example because many others that you can find through Google are not intending to evidence an argument and, therefore, tend to be more descriptive brainstorming maps than a tool for visualizing a thesis.

However, unlike that mind map example linked above, students are asked to build off the main theme branches with evidence from the course. These offshoots from the main themes can be organized in whatever fashion they want. Sometimes you’ll find clear linkages and in other cases huge messy clouds of connections. A brief 1-page explanatory essay accompanies the image in order to articulate the student’s argument and evidence why those themes, offshoots, and connections/linkages were selected. Students can create these mind maps whatever way they’d like — via 3D model, video, Powerpoint, drawn by hand, or using some of these programs.


Results

Student 1:

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“My mind map is divided into the three units (Turn of the Century, World War Era, and Postwar) that made up our semester.  Each unit is then divided into the topics of each class.  Lastly, I added the distinct topics and concepts that we learned in class and discovered in the readings.  In the middle of my mind map I drew a person to represent the common theme of our class, American bodies.  I made him look kind of like a super hero because I feel like everything we learned throughout the semester makes the American body; no matter skin color, shape, class, race, a superhero….”  


Student 2:

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“It is not everyday when you think about people and their mindsets/values as “bodies”. When we start to think of bodies and how they are shaped and characterized by society, I realized how we start to perceive them. Bodies such as women, people of color, or those who are poor are seen as “weak”, “disabled”, and even not worth “saving”. These perceptions lead to the image they have on society. They are viewed as these things with the help of racism and sexism. Are these bodies really “free” in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave if they cannot even be seen as equal?

It was interesting to see that the typical “white, middle class male” wasn’t even deemed glorious if they were not muscular and well behaved gentleman of society. The actions that were/are taken on these people include laws, internalized/externalized judgments, and discrimination. Society chose to oppress those who weren’t fit for society. Women, people of color, and even “weak” men were oppressed without question and still are today. The progression of these topics led to dire consequences for society. Society was divided and there was a lack of trust for other groups and the government as a whole. This begs the question: “why?”. Why did we oppress and continue to oppress different groups of bodies?”


Student 3:

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“The concept of the ideal body came from the readings: Modified Bodies, Bodies on Display, Regulating Bodies, and Bodies in Crisis. Each of these readings spoke about wanting to achieve the perfect or ideal body or of not having that ideal body (Regulating Bodies). Another strong theme was race. The race factor was in almost every one of our readings. It was what I would almost venture to say the main theme was of our class. It was everywhere which is appropriate since it is everywhere in everyday life….”


Student 4:

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“Something that I came to understand is that the theme of Bodies on Display is perpetual, for ‘the gaze’ as you called it, is and will always be present. In this course, I was able to look at bodies from a new perspective. With my mind map I aimed to visualize essentially, how the themes we covered are interconnected. For example, a modified body is equally a body in pain and a body in conflict. Women who would change their images whether through make up, breast implants, or vaginal reconstruction (a topic covered in another class), would initially be bodies in a state of conflict, torn between what they believed to be true beauty and ugliness. Simultaneous they would be a body in pain, for just about all the modification process that we talked about came at some cost or risk….”


Student 5:

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This student divided their mind map into quadrants: “When I went to first create my mind map, I knew I definitely wanted there to be certain divisions of demographics and then I wanted to place the readings, that related to that aspect of the body, into that category. I chose to divide the course into four different categories: race, class, gender, and able-bodies. Although these are just a few of many demographics, I feel like the readings fit nicely and evenly into those categories. While I have placed all of these readings into specific categories, they definitely, without question, overlap with one another in more ways than one. After dividing the readings into their corresponding areas of concentration, I then wrote a phrase arrowed off of the reading that explained one prominent aspect of the reading….”


Reflections

Ultimately, the assignment worked pretty well in getting students to explore the relationship between group identities and intersectionality. Having recently spoken with Julian Chambliss about his use of infographics in the classroom almost as research reports, I’m determined to find new ways of incorporating visual and experiential modes of communication and critical thinking into courses that moves beyond strictly reading and writing. Have other ideas?  Share them with me!

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Inspiration: Visualizing Slow Food

After posting recently on my Global Food Studies blog about my exploration in Italy of Slow Food International as a mission and practice, I wanted to explore the world of visualizing slow food.

This graphic by Daniel Touchet interestingly connects practices of consuming food (growing it, cooking it, and talking about it) with emotions, arguing that fast food is not only more anonymous but mindless and alone.  I don’t know if I agree with this, having enjoyed much family time at fast food restaurants over the years, but I do agree that a faster food lifestyle is more detached from the complexity of global connections that food has to offer.

Yet what are the local impacts of Slow Food?  How does it affect me living in Indiana?

Antidepressants are starting to show up in fish tissue. (Fish Pharm infographic by Oliver Uberti)

This is a really interesting infographic produced by Oliver Uberti using pills to visualize a fish.  As a warning about water quality downstream from sewage treatment plants, the pills represent the four main types and percentages of pharmaceutical drugs found in fish pulled from Chicago’s North Shore Channel. Since I take a Benadryl every night to sleep, the image really resonated with me, making me think about the potential harms of the toxins I consume.  This image implicitly advocates for slow food by illuminating the importance of knowing where you get your food, how it was grown, and what the harms are on your body and on the environment.

Douglas Gayeton, the author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, has been exploring the principles of sustainability through photography, taking abstract concepts and turning them into annotated infographics—or “information art.” It’s part an ongoing series called The Lexicon of Sustainability. The images convey invisible or purposely obfuscated ideas related to food, and the concepts are explained by the experts themselves, like Elaine Ingham (above) translating soil science and microbiology for the masses.

Another favorite visualization of slow food is this series by Douglas Gayeton who combines portrait photography with an overlaying sketched mind map.  Each visual centers the slow food advocate in a graphic that aims to unpack the complexity of the food system by visualizing connections, explanations, and processes.  In this graphic Elaine Ingham translates soil science and microbiology through simple sketched graphics.

Peter Smith describes Gayeton’s informational art at Smithsonian.org as

More than a construction actually, these images are a deconstruction of ideas, reducing them to their essence, then trying to find a way to graphically represent them. Somebody once wrote that one of the interesting thing about the work is that it works the way a mind works: If I were to simply give you a piece of paper with a lot of writing on it, you might skim over it; but if I were to take a bunch of ideas and place them on an image, then you are suddenly active in the idea. You’re active in the appreciation of the idea. That activity creates a narrative and makes it easier to retain information. You have more of a deeper connection…. It’s not a passive experience. The active experience of turning the reading of something into it’s almost a game-like quality, I think it allows people to connect more intimately with the ideas and images.

These graphics are part of Gayeton’s project The Lexicon of Sustainability that has created information artworks on food and farming, water, and energy.  Here’s another graphic illustrating the 100 mile diet that’s coupled on the site with definitions and links to the farmer’s website and local resources for pursuing slow, close food.

From The Lexicon of Sustainability by Gayeton

This style of infographic would work best for me to visualize slow food, with a recipe for my grandmother’s pound cake overlaying a photograph of my family at her house during the summer months when her front porch table is covered in home grown tomatoes, her yard groomed by wandering chickens, her basement shelves full of home canned meals ready to be transported to Muncie where I live.  When I eat her jars of pork stew, orange marmalade, and fig preserves I’m transported back to her home in Hahira, Ga where the heat and humidity make life and conversations slow and happy.

My dad's photo of Cypress Pond capturing the misty swamplands of the South.
My dad’s photo of Cypress Pond capturing the misty swamplands of the South.

How do you see slow food?

Research Spotlight: Dance Moves

Having recently read Kyra Gaunt‘s essay in Generations of Youth, “The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop” as part of our unit on “youth and place” in the American Studies undergraduate course I am teaching this summer, I watched clips from a 1985 PBS documentary on double dutch called Black Magic that BLEW MY MIND.  Watch the video on my other blog here.  And now I really want to figure out a way to translate their routines via infographics.  Mainly so I can break it down for myself, but also because I know how important it is to positive represent black girls’ athleticism, aesthetics, and power over space – especially via infographics since they’re really hard to find.

By research on how to do this began with Wikihow which breaks down everything from growing tomatoes to parkour.  Wikihow fails epicly at conveying visually how to double dutch.  They read like Ikea instructions.

What the what? What are we doing here, making a spider web? Using lasers to identify the hidden force field like Catherine Zeta Jones-Entrapment-style?

The awesome epicness of this routine and Wikihow’s visual failure to make it any easier for me got me wondering – how could you visualize space within the realm of double dutch?  Surprisingly a quick Google search of “double dutch routine” revealed nothing other than videos and images, with no step by step instructions.  Despite the globalization and institutionalization of this once-street sport, the 411 breaking down double dutch is still hard to come by.  You just have to watch videos or learn from a friend.

But what about dance routines?  Could I use visualizations of dance routines to rethink how to visual space utilized during double dutch?  This begins my exploration of dance visualizations, which ultimately offers an intense look of key dance components, processes, and the spatial meanings of dance.

These are the rules of dance club:

1) Dancing is all about where your feet are – in what direction they’re going, and which foot goes where first.  From this viewpoint, your feet are always parallel with the floor.  You just move your feet like you move fingers across a keyboard.  Super simple.

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Only it’s not so simple. Still a little lost?  Me too.  Here’s another version using a few more details regarding time to make it a little easier. These visuals excel for self-taught dancers because they’re only from the perspective of the dancer looking down.  But where’s the rest of your body go?

2) Dancing is moving through space above the ground plane.  With these side views, learning dance moves like the cartwheel (which would have previously looked like two feet print over there and two feet print over here) becomes much easier.  These visuals define dance by what it looks like from the spectator.  You now know how high to be above the ground, how far to move across the floor with a foot suspended, and necessary body angles.

Neither of these visuals capture what dancing feels like.  In these visuals, dancing is going to get the mail.  It’s loading the dishwasher or bending down to put on shoes.  But how can we visualize what space feels like for dance?

3) Dancing is all about getting in a good mood.  This visual breaks down steps into stages, connects those steps with feet routines and song lyrics, AND connects it all together with intense facial expressions.  You cannot Gangnam Style and not finish with a cool pose, otherwise go home and practice the Mambo.  Lots of arrows.

Lasso that sexy lady!

4) Dancing is about articulating your identity.  Who are you?  Because most likely, you dance how you want others to see you or how you see yourself.  Are you a straight white man and want to remind your mate of your incredible microwaving skills?  Want to look ridiculous and have fun doing it?  Then Killer Infographics says dancing is your chance!

9 out of 10 white guys actually read this and learned how to do the Shoplifter.

But there are just single moves.  So far we’ve only seen bits and pieces of dances.  Could you visualize a ballet on a side-view X/Y axis that charts momentum and energy throughout the entire performance?  I think so.

5) Dancing is fluid. When you dance your body should seamlessly glide across the floor.  You are one with the ground plane, your body, the space, the music or your mood or identity, and your partner (or spectator).  When you moonwalk, you are not alone – you are one with MJ.

The sliding is always flat! Also, you’ll need one glove.

Here’s a final infographic for all you all out there still don’t know how to dance that breaks down your body into zones of appropriateness:

Don’t forget to follow Kyra Gaunt at her blog here.