Like Monkeys in a Tree: Writing, Media, Thinking

Fox, Roy F.

The interesting writer, the informative speaker, the accurate thinker, and the sane individual operate on all levels of the abstraction ladder, moving quickly and gracefully and in orderly fashion from higher to lower, from lower to higher, with minds as lithe and deft and beautiful as monkeys in a tree.

—S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (1991)


After nearly 30 years of experimentation in teaching writing, reading, thinking, and media, as well as researching and speculating in these areas (read “mucking around”), certain notions persist in the bones, several of which I would like to note in this article.

In the first half of my involvement with visual and verbal literacy, I privileged language over imagery and media. For example, an article from 1980 is titled, “Reading and Writing Language We Can See.” By the early 1990s, I came to value visual and verbal processes equally. I placed the image at the nexus of composing and comprehending—as the central, most unifying element of any kind of literacy activity, product, or process. In fact, I believe that the most important kinds of meaning are built from our personal interactions with images—whether in language or mediated by language. As I’ve argued elsewhere (e.g., Fox, Images in Language, Media, and Mind), this activity resides at the core of literacy development.

I remain convinced that the image—in print, film, music, in whatever form and context—is the unsung DNA of communication, even of the human spirit. More than ever, we must conceive of language and media as one symbol system. The teaching of writing and media, both historically marginalized, should be regarded as a single discipline. I would like to consider where we have been with respect to visual and verbal thinking before exploring where we should go. This last section contains recommendations, as well as specific approaches for teaching language and media simultaneously, along with examples of student work.

Where Have We Been?

Elsewhere I have reviewed some of the major ways in which, for eons, people have struggled with the seeming oppositions between the word and the image (Fox, Images). This struggle is a fascinating lens through which to view many of the best thinkers of our past, from the sciences and engineering, to the social sciences and arts and humanities. Here, though, I can only do a quick and dirty thirty-second tour.

Visual/Verbal Thinking in the Sciences and Engineering

Because we usually regard scientists and engineers as practical folks who work with “real things,” their accounts of visual/verbal thinking seem especially intriguing. For example, Darwin’s irregularly branching tree became central to his theory of evolution (Gruber, 1978) while mental imagery helped physicist Niels Bohr to develop quantum theory (Miller, 1978). Hughes (1985) studied Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and concluded “Leonardo thought visually or verbally according to the circumstances and subject” (30). Leonardo likely ranged about as lithe and deft and beautiful as a monkey in a tree.

Galton’s 1874 study of English scientists and engineers concluded that many of them relied upon visual thinking. Later, Albert Einstein stated that his thinking was dominated by “certain signs and more or less clear images that can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined” (142). Einstein is reported to have been a nonverbal, sometimes violent child; as a preschooler, he is said to have attacked his sister with a trowel (Patten. 1973), and that only after young Albert began attending school —a school that operated on Johann Pestalozzi’s principle that all understanding is rooted in visual thinking—did his talents begin to bloom.

Nikola Tesla, the inventor of florescent lights and the AC generator, claimed that he could create detailed images of his machines and even set them into motion, conducting “dry runs,” to see how everything worked. He said he mentally ran the machines for weeks at a time and then examined the parts for wear (O’Neil, 1944). Gowan (1978) reviewed such accounts by scientists and engineers and concluded, “In every case of every historic scientific discovery which was researched carefully enough, we find that it was imagery [. . .] which produced the breakthrough” (26).

Of course, by no means should these examples indicate that everyone or even most people believe in the powers of visual thinking. They do not. Jerome Bruner (1973), for instance, claims that more sophisticated thinkers abandon visual imagery in favor of verbal reasoning. Arnheim (1986), on the other hand, believes such a distinction between seeing and thinking is “absurd” (139), that thinkers do not abandon visual thinking; they merely use it more effectively. Arnheim believes that thinking occurs in a visual medium and that language, while helping us to think, plays only a secondary role. According to Arnheim, we think “by means of the things to which language refers—referents that in themselves are not verbal, but perceptual” (138).

Visual/Verbal Thinking in the Social Sciences

In 1890, William James’s work on the “stream of consciousness”—his belief that psychology should focus on “the personal self rather than the thought”—began to change our notions about visual thinking (James, 1974). According to James, “thought is constant change . . . . There is no proof that the same bodily sensation is ever got by us twice” (155). James believed that we come to know one thing by what precedes it, underscoring sequence and contrast, elements which are basic to visual thinking, even film. James also observed that “thought is “without breach, crack, or division” and that this stream is consistently characterized by “warmth,” “intimacy,” and “immediacy” (160). He further contends that language cannot keep up with this quick stream, forcing us to “ignore most of the things before us” (163). These are precocious, accurate descriptions of visual thinking. James’ words could describe us today, as we sit mesmerized in a movie theater.

At about the same time as James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung focused on healing peoples’ psyches using language. Maybe more importantly, ultimately, is the fact that they validated the importance of internal imagery. Their emphasis on the unconscious—our internal imagery—has helped us to demystify it. Much of Freud’s work—his use of “constructions,” free associations, and analyses of dreams and childhood memories—depends upon visual processes. Eissler (1965) notes that Freud himself is said to have had “strongly developed” visual abilities (396).

Jung’s work represents a more direct source for people interested in visual/verbal literacy. His essay, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry” focuses on all artists’ absorption in the creative process and their relationships to it (Adams, 1971). Jung’s notion of “archetypal” images—simultaneously the most sweeping yet personal application of images—positions them at the center of culture and the human spirit. Most importantly, Jung assures us that when we recall, wonder about, and communicate with others about our dream images, we are doing exactly what healthy, normal people should do. Jung legitimized internal imagery, assuring us it was neither mystical nor voodoo in the dark.

Both Arthur Koestler (1964) and Aldous Huxley (1954) viewed language as limiting our creative process and our “larger” understanding of life. Huxley viewed language as a “reducing valve” that filtered out much stimuli, resulting in our understanding only what our “local language” allows us. For Koestler, the “snares of language” keep us from viewing concepts as fluid and ever changing. On the other hand, the quicksilver, malleable nature of images makes them easier to combine, manipulate, and play with—essential for problem solving, connecting, and discovering ideas.

Many other humanistic and cognitive psychologists, such as Polanyi (1958), Luria (1968), Salomon (1979), Gardner (1982), Kosslyn (1983), Paivio, and Pinker have made important contributions to the explorations of visual/verbal thinking and literacy. Especially valuable is the work of Gestalt psychologists, many of whom emigrated from Germany to America during the 1930s, such as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Lewin. The most influential and articulate Gestaltists have been Rudolf Arnheim, noted earlier, and E.M. Gombrich (1982). Their work is intellectually substantial, clear, and fascinating.

Finally, anyone exploring the endless folds of visual/verbal literacy cannot miss two related fields: semiotics, the study of signs, and general semantics, the study of how people interact with symbols. In semiotics, things “stand for” something else (e.g., a red rose stands for love, money stands for work). According to C. S. Peirce (1839-1914), the founder of American semiotics, “all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs” (Sebeok, 1977, ix). Semiotics focuses on three elements of the “stands for” relationship of signs: 1) the object or referent; 2) whatever the object stands for, and 3) the person using the object to stand for something. Signs bear meaning, and one sign may be read in terms of another.

General semantics, founded by Alfred Korzybski in the 1920s and later popularized by Wendell Johnson (1946), S. I. Hayakawa (1991), and others, is a system for examining the relationships between language, behavior, and reality. General semantics tells us that verbal language is not the same thing as actual experience—that the word is not the thing; that the symbol is not the thing symbolized. In short, the map is not the territory. Specific instances of this principle are found in general semanticists’ notions about “time-binding,” the process of abstracting, the “two-valued orientation” (vs. multiple-valued), and the “allness orientation.” Most of these principles apply equally well to images: the image is not the thing symbolized.

Visual/Verbal Thinking in the Arts and Humanities

Most of the work discussed so far has one major commonality: a quest for wholeness or balance. Freud and Jung tried to help people mend their fragmented selves by recognizing another part of the self often neglected, the unconscious. James argued for the stream of consciousness that was unbroken or whole, while psychologists, too, have tried to balance identities and psyches, especially the Gestaltists, who focus primarily on the relationships between wholes and parts. All have tried, through their concerns with visual and verbal thinking, to unify, to mend, to make whole.

This same struggle has long been waged by artists, writers, philosophers, and composers, whose artistic impulses, products, and processes are directed towards wholeness, on many levels. Regardless of medium, interpretation, or taste, art helps us perceive wholeness--whole meanings in what otherwise is perceived as the fragmentation, chaos, and blur of daily experience. Whether it’s Jackson Pollock or Willa Cather, Maya Angelou or Woody Allen, artists create a pattern of images (verbal and/or visual) that lead us to discern some complete or sensible shape in the mist. Overall, in crude and brief terms, verbal thinking takes reality apart and visual thinking puts it back together again. But of course, each can do the other, because they are, after all, as limber as monkeys in a tree.

Where Should We Go?

The previous sections on our visual/verbal literacy past provide only a glimpse at the massive amount of work at our disposal. Today, “media literacy” means thinking critically about media messages: connecting media content to our actual experiences; questioning, analyzing, interpreting, and synthesizing media messages for the ideologies and values they communicate, directly or indirectly; and even constructing our own media messages. Media literacy helps us “transform citizens’ passive relationship to media into an active, critical engagement capable of challenging the traditions and structures of a privatized, commercial media culture, and thereby find new avenues of citizen speech and discourse” (Bowen, 1996). In short, the goal is for people to exercise more control over media (and by extension, their culture), lest media and culture control them.

With such deep roots, it’s ironic that education as a whole remains so oblivious to the powers of integrating visual and verbal literacy. Although media and visual literacy now appear in the official teaching standards of most states—a definite step in the right direction—nobody seems to know it’s there yet. What’s more, such media literacy standards are often disconnected from standards on reading and writing print.

Another irony: America’s media literacy movement lags behind most other countries. For decades, the U.S. has exported violent television and film packages, mainly because gunshots and car wrecks “travel well” on the world market. Such media is more profitable because it requires less investment in translation and providing subtitles to explain, qualify, or develop characterization (Gerber, 1994). Because Hollywood’s “violence-as-the-universal-language” approach has been so effective, other countries have felt compelled to require media education much earlier than we did. Following are some recommendations for the future of language and media study.

1. Organize--But Be Careful.

In the past twenty years, media literacy organizations (such as the National Telemedia Council and Citizens for Media Literacy) have grown. This “movement” has also become better organized, especially through the efforts of such umbrella organizations as The Cultural Environment Movement, founded by George Gerbner, dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication. The CEM is a nonprofit coalition of independent organizations and individuals from every state of the U.S. and 57 countries on six continents. This coalition states that it is “united in working for gender equity, general diversity, and democratic decision-making in media ownership, employment, and representation.” From all indications, CEM is a dedicated, practical, imaginative, and humane organization. On the other hand, no organizations of which I am aware have a dual focus on media and language. The group that comes closest to this dual approach is the Assembly on Media, a special interest group of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Although it’s great that the number of media literacy organizations is growing, a few of them have become somewhat co-opted by corporate interests. For example, one large clearinghouse of media literacy information excludes materials that criticize “Channel One” television, or that document its adverse effects on students. (Channel One broadcasts daily, throughout the nation, to a captive audience of school children. These programs include MTV-like commercials for candy, soft drinks, computer and video games, and expensive running shoes; these ads are played countless times.)

Similarly, I watched a video (distributed by this same organization) that was supposed to focus on “how to watch TV critically.” I patiently waited for the video to go beyond the fluff and deal squarely with specific ways that viewers could watch TV critically. It never happened. At the film’s end, as I watched the credits roll, I noticed that one of the sponsors was Whittle Communications, the corporation that established Channel One television in nearly half of America’s public schools. Organizations that espouse “media literacy” should cleanly separate themselves from the very corporations that profit from media.

The study of electronic media in the academy ranges from the analysis of a single frame (e.g., the camera positioned low, so that viewers must look up at Charles Foster Kane in Orson Wells’s Citizen Kane), to the exploration of a genre (e.g., TV westerns), to how a Nike TV commercial reinforces the same theme of competition as does a Hemingway short story. However, what has been consistently lacking in media literacy efforts is the study of the larger context of media—of how media productions interact with the larger “mega-systems” of technology and culture (Fox, MediaSpeak, 2001). A key way to accomplish this is to “follow the money” involved in media productions, but this still remains off our radar screen:

Almost no one wants to look at key questions of who owns and controls the media. There is little attention to the profit-driven nature of our economy and how that gives rise to a commercially driven media. With the exception of organized religion, most of the media literacy movement emphasizes awareness over social change, and places responsibility for mediating the media squarely on the shoulders of parents and teachers, and the children themselves. (Peters, 1998, 1)

The only people who indeed seem to understand the ways in which media, technology, and culture work in tandem (and sometimes against each other) are the marketers in the business world, as well as pollsters and other media professionals who run large political campaigns. In Chomsky’s terms, they are the people who “manufacture consent” (Herman and Chomsky, 1998). To survive, the students in our classes need to understand these relationships.

The best starting place, though, is for writing instructors (actually—all instructors, regardless of level or discipline) to embrace media consistently in the classroom, so that students use oral and written language (along with media) to think about it, to analyze it, to evaluate it, to connect their own experience with it, to connect one media product to others—and to link these to print products. The possibilities are endless. This cross-fertilization activity should occur as frequently and in as many different ways as possible—movements not unlike monkeys in a tree. I hope the following guidelines motivate such mad swinging, back and forth, up and down.

2. Argue for Teaching Language and Media Simultaneously

In proposals for new courses, syllabi for existing courses, descriptions of growth in teaching, etc., articulate to administrators, students, and the general public that writing, reading, and electronic media (especially visual media) are the most active, combustible learning processes in existence—for discovering ideas, for analyzing ideas, for evaluating and connecting ideas. What’s more, when the reading and writing of print works in tandem with electronic media, then hell’s a’ poppin’. That is, any writing instructor knows how powerful writing—visible language—can be at helping students generate ideas and make connections between ideas. In the same manner, any instructor of media knows the explosiveness of thinking that often occurs when students seriously discuss a recent episode of Will and Grace or the film, Traffic, or a magazine ad for Gap™ clothing, or their preferences for the Dave Mathews Band over Nine Inch Nails.

In arguing for the merger of language and media, it’s also helpful to articulate some of the many similarities between the two. Briefly, both print and media are constructions of reality, not simple reflections of external reality. Second (and in a related sense), both language and media are rhetorical or persuasive in nature. Neither system can be “objective” representations of reality, but must carry the same “fingerprints” of the people and processes that shaped them. Third, print and media are naturally interwoven parts of any discourse community and are thereby highly intertextual. Both symbol systems can elicit meanings in other systems across time and space. A news account read in 2002 can “flag” a scene from a film viewed twenty years earlier, and vice-versa. Fourth, readers and audiences both negotiate meaning from texts, though this is usually a matter of degree and circumstance. The form and content of both language and media are closely related. Each system has its own grammar, syntax, codes, and conventions. Fifth, both language and media have their own unique aesthetic forms. For instance, with language, various forms have their own pleasing patterns, rhythms, and conventions—from the essay, to the poem, to the grant proposal. The same is true with media. Just within television, for example, the “Western” differs from the “Cop Show,” both of which differ from the soap opera.

When the processes of reading and writing print are harnessed to the reading and writing of electronic media, then we have pried open the floodgates as wide as we can. Only language (especially writing) and media—in their infinite shades and combinations—represent our best opportunity for developing the kind of symbiotic literacy that our students need for the future--literacy that employs verbal as well as visual and, by extension, emotion as well as reason. This “argument” (as well as those below) needs to be made explicit to all people involved in teaching and learning.

3. Ensure that Language and Media Operate on All Levels of the Abstraction Ladder

These uses of language become particularly powerful when students do what Hayakawa describes in the quote that opens this article—when their thinking and language range about--from general to specific, from concrete to abstract, from global to local, and back again. The student writer focusing on gun control, who never gets down to cases and details, who keeps cycling through generalities, is not thinking, but mentally floating above reality. Hollow phrases (“the sanctity of human life”) only begin to breathe when writers anchor them in direct, local, tangible experience and information, such as crime statistics for Jackson, Mississippi in 2002, or an account of the how James Bucher, age 18, obtained an AK-47 assault rifle over the Internet, and subsequently used it to murder a family of four in Youngstown, Ohio, in February, 1999.

The abstract must be yoked to the concrete not just in the language students use, but in the actual media products they explore. The latter is obtained through ensuring that students operate within as full of a media context as possible. While it’s desirable to focus on a single magazine ad and deconstruct it to the n-th degree, if students never go beyond this single instance, then they are “stuck” at the lower rung of the ladder of abstraction, lacking larger experiences and concepts about such advertising to which they should connect.

In other words, developing fluency in critical thinking and analysis demands that students study numerous instances of whatever text, not just one or a few. It’s like visiting a large art museum and spending longer amounts of time scrutinizing the first painting you see, say one by Paul Gauguin. Then, the more paintings you see, the faster you move, because you’re learning what you like and don’t like; you’re learning what to look for; you’re learning how to evaluate these paintings and do so more quickly. You may have seen so many paintings that you began forming your own categories of them. After walking for several hours, you now have a larger concept of what, say, “Expressionism” is—and you can now locate the first Gauguin painting within the larger context of Expressionism. With language, it’s similar to asking students to analyze a Shakespearean sonnet, when they’ve never read any other sonnets, by Shakespeare or anyone else—or maybe never even read any poetry. The seeming necessity to rely upon “film clips” when dealing with video is just as problematic as trying to understand an entire novel through an excerpt.

4. Use Language and Media in Many Different Ways

Following are some specific classroom assignments for using language, especially writing, in tandem with media. When possible, I’ve included examples of students’ work. Overall, when students apply language to media, language often directs them toward logic, naming, partitioning, classifying, cause-effect, evaluating, etc., while electronic media, especially its imagery, drives students the other direction—toward wholeness, emotion, and unity. Of course, each can do the other. The result is students become better critical thinkers.

Assignment: Write a PowerPoint Paper about a Snapshot, Using a Verbal and Visual Metaphoric Frame

Directions for Instructors: I have used this assignment with students of a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels. Students now complete this not as a PowerPoint presentation—but as a PowerPoint paper. Here, you must make sure students are out of the “presentation” mode for which PowerPoint is commonly used. Most of the responses contain about the same amount of language as they did before I required PowerPoint.

I give students the following instructions and rubric, along with a copy of a one-page article by Art Spiegelman, titled, “Mad Youth.” Most students are familiar with Mad Magazine. I also make student examples available. Please see the sample PowerPoint papers by Katie Aquino, “Pieces,” and Shannon Lester's, “Kermit’s Little Girl.” (View "Pieces" as a Flash presentation ; view "Kermit's Little Girl" as a Flash presentation.) Both students are college juniors.

The Snapshot PowerPoint Paper Assignment

Christmas Day 1944. Millersport, N.Y.—deep in the rural heart of the snow belt, north of Buffalo. Upstairs, in the living room of my parents’ half of the old, cozy wood-frame farmhouse, built in 1888, we shared with my mother’s adoptive parents. I am six and a half years old.

Don’t be deceived by that pose of utter stillness, nor that yet less characteristic look of pensiveness and sobriety. I am anything but a quiet child….

This is Joyce Carol Oates's’ beginning discussion of her own snapshot. Now it’s time for you to do it. Select a snapshot and write about it. You might want to write your paper first and then arrange it into a “PowerPoint Paper”—yes, PPT is not just for sketchy presentations; you can use it for writing a real paper—albeit one that has visuals in most of its twenty or so frames.

You must still pay attention to effective use of graphics, font, color, unity, etc. You may want to alter the photo you use by using it in varied sizes; by focusing on parts of it; by supplementing it with other relevant photos (returning, of course, to the main photo; readers/viewers should have not doubts about which photo is key). Here are some additional guidelines.

  • The photo must be rich in personal meaning for you.
  • Use a photo at least five years old, if possible. This will enable you to think and write with more “distance” and perspective than a newer photo will.
  • Try to avoid “group shots” of several people; this often forces writers to focus just a little bit on several people, adding up to a fragmented message.
  • Describe the people and setting of the photo.
  • Narrate any story that explains the occasion or background of the photo, or continue the snapshot by explaining what happened moments, days, weeks, or even years (as Spiegelman does) later.
  • Try (though avoid too much forcing of it) to use some object, specific element, or other quality within the photo as a kind of metaphoric frame or theme for your paper’s overall point. Note how Spiegelman uses Mad Magazine: it appears in the actual photo, it was a publication that greatly influenced him, and it is linked to his mother’s and his own life in 1968, by virtue of “madness” or mental health problems.
  • Somewhere, directly explain, or strongly imply, why you chose this snapshot.
  • Provide readers with a sense of distance, a sense that you’re looking back with some objectivity and honesty, as you place your snapshot into perspective by judging or evaluating your topic. That is, take a definite stand on the issues.
  • As noted earlier, you may use more than one photo, as long as readers are clear about which one is the focus of your message. Also feel free to manipulate your photos (via a program such as Photoshop), splicing them, zooming in on certain parts, altering texture, color, size, etc., so that they might better reinforce or illustrate your written points.

Other guidelines:

  • Models: You may want to review the following additional “Snapshot” features in LIFE Magazine: John Updike (October, 1990); Amy Tan (April, 1991); Bruce Duffy (June, 1991).
  • Audience: Your primary audience is general, educated readers (such as those of LIFE Magazine). Your secondary audience is your colleagues and instructors.
  • Purpose: This in part depends upon your choices. Likely purposes are 1) to inform readers; 2) to stimulate or motivate readers to think about your situation and then their own circumstances; 3) to persuade readers; 4) to entertain readers.
  • Manuscript guidelines: Length is about twenty frames with 1-2 paragraphs per frame. Proofread carefully and view the PowerPoint several times to catch all glitches.
  • Rubric for Evaluation: You are responsible for adding, deleting, and otherwise changing this list (after you respond to papers in groups). These criteria should be applied by each person who responds to your PPT paper and used by the instructor when grading your final version.

    • Does the creator specifically describe the person(s) and setting of the photo?
    • Is the topic sufficiently focused?
    • Is the writer detailed and concrete when it counts most?
    • Does the opening pique your interest to continue?
    • Does the writer take a definite stand toward her message?
    • Do you hear a real person’s unique “voice” behind the words?
    • Is the paper organized effectively?
    • Is the prose style smooth, clear, and correct?
    • Does the writer use photo(s) and graphics effectively and creatively?
    • Do you learn something by the end of this paper?

Assignment: Create an Interactive PowerPoint Program that Explores Some Element of Media Literacy

Directions for Instructors: This assignment, intended for freshmen composition students, high school students, pre-service teachers, or others, asks students to become teachers themselves and to develop an interactive PowerPoint program which focuses on some topic or issue in media literacy.

These programs focus on such topics as, “how women are portrayed in ads in women’s magazines”; “how 1930’s Hollywood movie posters communicated wealth to consumers”; and “how men are portrayed in TV situation comedies.” (View Bekki Mosher's "Act Like a Lady or Be a Man" as a Flash presentation.)

These programs, which range from twenty-fifty frames each, typically employ many images and even video clips. They are interactive in that students must pose questions, discussion prompts, informal writing tasks, and other activities within their programs—elements that will get a classroom thinking and talking about the topic. These programs are not formal presentations or lectures. I often ask students to work through their final version with a class or small group, “teaching it” to others, serving as the expert on their topic.

Assignment: Explore Audiences “Targeted” by Media

Directions for Instructors: After students read the following research report, ask them to respond to it and then evaluate or critique it. Informal written responses might precede a whole-class discussion, which might conclude with a more formal, brief paper evaluating this report. Suggestions: 1) How do you think the investigators obtained this information? 2) Do you think this information seems accurate? 3) Do you think there are any ethical issues involved in such research? If so, what? 4) Market research commonly uses words like “targeted” audiences and advertising “campaigns.” Why do you think a war metaphor is used? 5) Select a product and/or a print ad or TV commercial for it. Study it carefully before creating a description of the “targeted” group of consumers. Explain why and how you arrived at your conclusions by pointing to specific features of the ad and/or product.

Introduction to the Market Report: Young people who attended annual Lollapalooza festivals, an “alternative rock” and cultural festival that toured America each summer, were studied by The Interval Research Corporation, which focused only on those people who might attend the festival’s “Electric Carnival,” a tent exhibit in which participants could play around with video and computer technology (e.g., electronically altering their own voices and images). They defined this audience as 16-24 years old and referred to them as “zippies,” “cyberpunks,” “head-bangers,” and “wannabees” (“Targeting the Stoned Cyberpunk,” Harper’s). Further descriptions of this “target” audience and how it might influence the product’s design, follow:

  1. Their common preoccupation is the question of personal identity. They are largely self-absorbed and extremely focused on personal appearance. But they are vaguely aware that identity is primarily a construct of culture and family conditioning, variables over which they have little control. This leaves them feeling personally anxious and socially powerless (the Slacker angst). They are likely to be interested in exhibits that allow them to control the various elements of personal identity.
  2. They feel marginal to mainstream society (although they are overwhelmingly white and . . . [can] afford the $30 festival admission fee). Thus the Electric Carnival needs to look and feel very different from school- or office-based experiences. The tent and all the elements in it should reflect a counter cultural aesthetic.
  3. Shocking parents, family, friends, and community is often part of this group’s self-definition process. They will want a record of the most socially unacceptable image of themselves to freak out their parents. We need to provide at least one printout of their self-creation. Ideally, this would be tied to completion and return of a survey after leaving the tent.
  4. They don’t want to fail, especially in public. Thus we need to set them up for success. Exhibits must be designed and tested to limit the frustration factor.
  5. The majority of them will be drunk, stoned, tripping, or otherwise chemically altered. They are likely to have:
    • short attention spans
    • poor hand-eye coordination
    • impaired judgment
    • an altered sense of time

Depending on the drug, they may be more aggressive (alcohol), more passive (marijuana), more impatient (speed), or more paranoid under usual circumstances. Thus:

  • they need the Electric Carnival to keep track of time for them
  • they need brief, self-contained experiences
  • interface images need to be larger and clearer than normal
  • they need clear signs
  • they need help understanding and making choices—facilitators
  • they need a constructive outlet for expression of emotion, especially rage and grief
  • we need to avoid heavy-handedness in controlling crowd. Humor? Costumes?

Assignment: Analyze a TV Commercial Transcript

Directions for Instructors: Give students a copy of the TV commercial transcript below. (Note: This commercial may not be appropriate for all classes.) An excellent and accessible article to read before or after students explore this transcript is Carol Moog’s “Ad Images and the Stunting of Sexuality.” In class discussion, in writing, or both, ask students to respond to this commercial (as they would imagine it actually playing on TV), as well as to this written transcript of the commercial.

Following are some suggested guiding questions and assignments for students: 1) In addition to the actual product, what invisible thing (i.e., attitude, value, belief) do you think is being sold? 2) What are some of the comparisons being made in this commercial? 3) Are they logical or valid comparisons? Why or why not? 4) Describe another commercial that you think is similar to this one; 4) Could this commercial be translated into a radio or magazine ad? If so, how? 5) What do you think about how this writer chose to describe this commercial (including the title of the transcript and the chapter from which its excerpted)? Identify some specific choices the writer makes (word selection, organization, etc.) and explain why you think she made them.

Cavorting on the Farm

SCENARIO. In this thirty-second spot for Pringles corn chips, six teens (four girls and two boys) dance and play in a cornfield. As the scene opens, one boy, standing in the middle of the cornfield, is slowly detassling an ear of very yellow corn. The other is standing on a ladder propped against a silo. He has a paint roller in his hand, but is facing away from the silo and into the camera. Four girls, waving yellow cans of Pringles at the boys, arrive in a speeding yellow jeep. Girls and boys come together. They dance and feed one another corn chips. Magically, the silo turns into a yellow can of Pringles. A large banner appears across the screen in block letters, “FEVER RELIEVER.”

AUDIO. A musical jingle runs throughout this ad. The jingle compares corn chips to fresh corn and tells the students, “You have the fever of a fresh corn flavor.” The rhythm and volume of the jingle gradually increase until they reach a “fever pitch.” After the jingle ends, a rich deep male voice-over says slowly, “The fresh corn fever-reliever.”

VIDEO. The video track is in the form of a music video. Although a story is told, dramatic narrative codes are abandoned in favor of MTV codes. Approximately seventy shots occupy the thirty-second slot. Very fast-paced cuts articulate the shots, half of which are not matched, but are jump cuts. The boys are dressed in jeans and T-shirts, but the four girls are dressed in tight, bright clothes that call attention to their bodies. The two girls whose images occupy most of the music video are blond. Each wears an off-the-shoulder top. Their shoulders are bare. The pacing of the cuts increases as the rhythm of the music increases, until it reaches a fast-cut culminating scene. This scene is a very tight shot of a boy’s lap. He is supposed to be seated in the cornfield. His face is not shown. With one hand he holds a detassled ear of yellow corn erect in his lap. A female hand (no face) reaches for the corn. Magically, the corn turns into a stack of corn chips about the size of an ear of corn. The female hand plucks a corn chip, and the stack turns back into an erect ear of corn. By repeatedly intercutting the ear of corn held by the boy’s hand and the female hand reaching for the corn/chip stack, the producer shows the stack of chips gradually diminishing. The scene closes with a close-up of the girl’s ecstatic face. The scene switches to the closing series of shots next to the silo where the “fever reliever” banner is rolled. (DeVaney 146-147)

A Note about “Cavorting on the Farm”: In this ad, potato chips become the same thing as an ear of corn--and both of these become the same thing as a penis. Of course, none of this is plausible. The primary way that the message-maker constructs this meaning is by simple placement or proximity and some fancy camera work. Otherwise, there’s very little connection among these things. This commercial illustrates immature and trivialized relationships between men and women, which, according to Moog contributes to kids’ “stunted” perceptions of sexuality and gender identity. This prevents both men and women, Moog maintains, from developing humane and mature gender identities and relationships with other people.

Assignment: Explore “Showing vs. Telling” in Writing and in Media

Media, especially film and television, are excellent vehicles for teaching students about the fundamental principle of “show-don’t-tell” in their own writing, as well as the values of writing intended to tell or summarize. Simply put, this assignment asks students to translate back and forth, between writing and media, between show and tell.

Directions for Instructors: Find (or write them yourself, as I did!) two brief pieces of prose that communicate essentially the same message. However, one of them should do so through “telling”—summary, generalities, vagueness—no details, specifics, or images. The other piece should communicate exclusively through “showing” readers the message—specific description of specific actions, dialogue, detail, and imagery.

1. Begin by reading both writings aloud and discussing which best represents “good” writing. Be prepared for students to choose the summary because it’s “brief and to the point!” If students respond this way, ask them why this topic has to be “to the point.” You might contrast it with a writing for another purpose, such as a an airlines’ sales brochure or a textbook description of how five-year olds behave.

Eventually, students should understand that spinning out the details of “showing” something involves readers in the message much more than telling or summarizing. If readers are involved in the piece, then they are participating in it, much as we participate in the unfolding bits of “show” when viewing film or TV.

2. As an assignment to follow-up this discussion, ask students to bring in a summary of a film or TV program from the local newspaper or from TV Guide. These sometimes contain evaluations of the film or program, but usually only summarize the plot (e.g., “Beaver loses his after-school job at the fire station when Eddie makes him late for work”). Ask students to determine whether their summary contains any critique or evaluation of its subject. Students can work with a partner or two on this part.

3. Focusing only on the summary or “tell” part, ask students to write the “show” version, using dialogue, specific and active verbs, description, and a limited amount of language which only “tells.” These papers should contain no evaluation or critiquing of the media text. Students will need to focus on a single scene from the entire plot and “explode” that moment. If you have access to video cameras, this assignment could be completed with videotape.

4. Place all of the brief summaries onto a sheet and give students copies. Then select some of the best “show” pieces to read aloud and ask students to find their corresponding “tell” versions. Another option is for students to write the summary or tell versions after hearing each show version. After each “show” piece is read or viewed, ask students which specific parts of show were most effective and why. Point out that piling up details is one thing, but using the most effective details is another thing they should strive for. Students should be encouraged to revise their papers so that they include only their most vivid and effective details.

Assignment: Explore What Verbal and Visual Images Suggest

Directions for Instructors: This assignment asks students to “enter into” verbal images and determine what they suggest or imply. Even after you explain this, many students will want to restate or replay the same image within the original text. However, the goal of this assignment is to push them deeper into connotative meaning and interpretation of both verbal and visual texts.

What Do Verbal Images Suggest?

1. Read and discuss the poem, “Vickie Loans-Arrow, Fort Yates, North Dakota, 1970" by Marnie Walsh (from her book, A Taste of the Knife, 1982). Any poem that relies upon highly imagistic language will work well.

2. Brainstorm with students and list on the board or overhead all the images suggested by this poem. When you’ve listed fifteen-twenty, ask if anyone can order several images, in effect creating a poem from them. You might do this yourself, demonstrating by thinking aloud and writing the images in a list on the overhead projector. You may have to add some connections here and there, but basically stick to the images. When done, read it again, aloud, as its own independent work.

3. Now, direct students to a second imagistic poem, such as Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” and ask them to do the same thing with this poem as you did collectively with “Vickie Loans-Arrow.” Their work should contain the list of suggested/implied images, along with their finished reordering and revision of them into a final poem. Also, ask them to write a paragraph reflecting on this assignment. You may want to ask them if this “processing” or “translating” of the images affected their overall interpretation or feeling about either poem.

What Do Visual Images Suggest?

1. Do the same assignment as above, except, this time, use a media text or clip of one, which contains exceptionally vivid imagery (e.g., films such as Titanic, The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and Sling Blade or TV series such as Homicide, NYPD Blue, etc.).

The benefit of using twenty or thirty minutes from the same film (or the entire film if possible) is that students will focus on different scenes, which opens up excellent discussion about why images are effective for some but not for others.

2. Again, ask students to reflect on their poem and media text. This time, you might ask them to focus on their experience in working with images in film and language simultaneously, as this assignment requests. You might also ask them to compare and contrast the two assignments.

Assignment: Analyze (and Intuit) Persuasive Media

Directions for Instructors. Often, students should respond intuitively to media messages before they analyze them. First, students respond only to the visual portion of a message. Then, as teachers gradually reveal more of the context, students examine how the message’s verbal and visual elements interact. Finally, students explore how their responses change throughout the activities. This approach is appropriate with three kinds of visual messages: 1) those in which visuals dominate, such as posters and magazine, album, CD, or book covers; 2) those in which visuals are surrounded mostly by language and/or other visuals, such as newspaper and magazine articles; and 3) film and video, where visuals dominate, but are accompanied by audio (and sometimes print), such as televised political debates or commercials.

1. Engage students in imagistic thinking. We think in both images and words, as images ignite other images (and words), and as words prompt other words (and images). Have students generate, detail, and manipulate their own images whenever you discuss any kind of print or electronic text (e.g., In the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, what else could Atticus Finch look like and still reflect the book?”).

2. Ask students to respond only to the visual portion of a message, out of its surrounding context. For example, show a photo accompanying a newspaper article without its caption, headline, or anything else. Or, remove the headline from a magazine cover or play a video clip without the sound or as a selected still photo. Ask students to respond to it in the same way we often respond to any visual—quickly, intuitively, with a chain of associations they list on a sheet of paper, working very quickly.

3. Supply more of the visual’s context, asking students to respond after each addition. Restore one or two “pieces” to the lone visual, as students stop and jot down whatever associational strings or chains they have after examining each one.

4. Place the visual into its entire context and explore responses and meanings of the entire message. For example, with the newspaper photo, you should add its caption, headlines, accompanying story, and all of the stories and ads surrounding it. With the entire message and its context in front of students, explore the verbal elements, such as 1) how persuasive the writers are; 2) how students think the writers would define and describe their audience; 3) what students think the writers’ purposes are (e.g., to inform? to persuade? to entertain?); 4) what students think might be left out of the message; 5) whether students think the evidence of the message is verifiable and logical. Students should also examine it for propaganda devices such as, the bandwagon technique, the glittering generality, the either/or fallacy, repetition, irony, metaphor, voice or tone, and stereotyping of gender, race, and class status.

Students should also explore the visual elements of the message, such as its uses of composition, shape, line, color, texture, foreground, background, lighting, facial expressions, body language, gestures, and point of view. They should examine film and video for camera angles, position of viewer and subject, lighting, background and foreground, etc. Students should consider the placement of people and objects for connotative meanings that might rub off of one element and onto another nearby, even though they may not be logically related.

Finally, return to students’ original associational chains of response and ask them to speculate about how they arrived at them. Focus discussion on possible causes and effects. Try to define the ways in which the text’s main verbal and visual elements “speak” or connect to each other. The culminating assignment is for students to use all their notes and other sources to write a paper in which they report whether their initial impressions were justified and why/how they may have changed, as more of the context was revealed. Even if students’ responses don’t change, they should nonetheless render their journeys into explicit, written language, carefully documenting all responses and all possible reasons for them.

The careful charting of an explicit roadmap helps us gain (and solidify) a metacognitive awareness of our transformations in making meaning from media, while also imposing a critical distance between our selves and media, helping us to regain some equilibrium while engulfed in visual/verbal vertigo.

Assignment: Practice Clarifying Mental Imagery

Directions for Instructors: The following activity, adapted from a psychological test, will help you assess the vividness of your students’ mental imagery. Mental imagery is intensified when other sense modes are brought into play. Translate the following descriptions into a mental image. As you do this, rate its clarity according to the following scale: C = Clear; V = Vague; N = No image at all. This practice can segue into a discussion of how literature employs recurring images to construct a theme, showing vs. telling in writing, etc., especially if students create their own, similar lists.

Can You Visually Imagine:

  1. A familiar face?
  2. A galloping horse?
  3. A rosebud?
  4. A body of water at sunset?
  5. Your bedroom?
  6. The characteristic walk of a friend?
  7. A table laden with food?
  8. A changing stop light?
  9. The moon through clouds?
  10. A newspaper headline?

The following descriptions are intended to evoke other modes of sensory imagery:

  1. The sound of rain on the roof.
  2. A bird twittering.
  3. The voice of a friend.
  4. Thunder.
  5. The feel of soft fur.
  6. The prick of a pin.
  7. The itch of poison ivy on your leg.
  8. The muscular sensation of running.
  9. Of kicking a can.
  10. Of slowly drawing a circle on paper.
  11. Of reaching toward a high shelf.
  12. The taste of a lemon.
  13. The taste of black pepper.
  14. The taste of toothpaste
  15. The smell of bacon frying.
  16. The smell of burning leaves.
  17. The smell of gasoline.
  18. Of extreme fatigue.
  19. Of coming awake.
  20. Of radiant well-being


At least to me, language, especially writing, and media, have always seemed integral to nearly everything about “being human”—knowledge, reason and emotion, critical thinking, empathy, tolerance for ambiguity and difference, visualization of options, imagination, identity, and social and cultural health. Language and media could well be the most complex games in town. It seems even more certain to me that language and media are now the only game in town: our lives orbit more around representations of reality, than they do around reality itself. But this isn’t cause for alarm. It is really an invitation to help your students move quickly, gracefully, and in an orderly fashion from language to media, from image to word, from lower to higher, with minds as lithe and deft and beautiful as monkeys in a tree.

Works Cited

Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory since Plato. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Arnheim, Rudolf.New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Bruner, Jerome. “The Course of Cognitive Growth.” In Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing, edited by Jeremy Anglin, 325-351. New York: Norton, 1973.

Bowen, Wally. Citizens for Media Literacy, Asheville, NC, 1996. August 2001.

DeVaney, Ann. “Reading the Ads: The Bacchanalian Adolescence.” Watching Channel One: The Convergence of Students, Technology, and Private Business. Ed. Ann DeVaney. Albany: SUNY P, 1994. 102-137.

Einstein, Albert. “Letter,” in The Psychology of Inventions in the Mathematical Field. Ed. Jaques Hadamard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945.

Eissler, K. R. Medical Orthodoxy and the Future of Psychoanalysis. New York: International UP, 1965.

Fox, Roy F., ed. Images in Language, Media, and Mind. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994.

---.. MediaSpeak: Three American Voices. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2001.

Galton, Frederick. English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. London: Macmillan, 1874.

Gardner, Howard. Art, Mind, and the Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity. New York: Basic, 1982.

Gombrich, E. H. The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982.

Gowan, J.C. “Incubation, Imagery, and Creativity.” Journal of Mental Imagery 2 (1978): 23-31.

Gruber, Howard. “Darwin’s ‘Tree of Nature’ and Other Images of Wide Scope.” On Aesthetics in Science. Ed. Judith Wechsler. Cambridge: MIT, 1978. 121-40.

Hadamard, Jacques. The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. Princeton, NJ: Dover, 1945.

Hayakawa, S.I. and Alan Hayakawa. Language in Thought and Action. 5th ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Hughes, T. “The Graphic Truth.” American Heritage of Invention and Technology 1.1 (1985): 28-30.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper and Row, 1954.

James, William. “The Stream of Consciousness.” The Nature of Human Consciousness. Ed. Robert Ornstein. New York: Viking, 1974. 153-66.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Kosslyn, Stephen. Ghosts in the Mind’s Machine: Creating and Using Images in the Brain. New York: Norton, 1983.

Luria, A. R. The Mind of a Mnemonist. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Walsh, Marnie. “Vickie Loans-Arrow, Fort Yates, North Dakota, 1970,” A Taste of the Knife, Boise, ID: Asahta Press, 1982.

Miller, Arthur. “Visualization Lost and Regained: The Genesis of the Quantum Theory in the Period 1913-27.” On Aesthetics in Science. Ed. Judith Wechsler. Cambridge: MIT, 1978.

Moog, Carol. “Are They Selling Her Lips?” Advertising and Identity. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

O’Neil, J. Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla. New York: Washburn, 1944.

Paivio, Allan. Mental Representations: A Dual Coding Approach. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Patten, Bernard. “Visually Mediated Thinking: A Report of the Case of Albert Einstein.” Journal of Learning Disabilities 6 (1973): 415-20.

Peters, Cynthia. “Media Literacy.” Z Magazine. February, 1998.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958.

Salomon, Gavriel. Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1979.

Sebeok, Thomas A. A Perfusion of Signs. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Spiegelman, Art. “Mad Youth.” LIFE Magazine, August, 1992.

“Targeting the Stoned Cyberpunk.” Harper’s Magazine, December 1994: 26-27.

Selected Resources in Media Literacy

Organizations / Web Sites

Assembly of Media Arts. National Council of Teachers of English. Robert Happ, Hempstead H.S., 3715 Pennsylvania Ave., Dubuque, IA 52001; (319) 588-5172.

Adbuster’s Media Foundation and Culture Jammer’s Headquarters:

Center for the Study of Commercialism. AdVice Newsletter. 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 300, Wash., D.C., 20009; (202) 797-7080.

Citizens for Media Literacy. Wally Bowen. 38 ½ Battery Park Ave., Suite G, Ashville, NC, 28001; (704) 255-0182.

Commercial Alert, Washington, D.C.:

Media Awareness Network:

Media Communication Studies (United Kingdom):

Media Literacy Online Project:

Mediascope, 12711 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 250, Studio City, CA 91604; (818) 508-2080.

National Coalition on TV Violence, 247 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212; (310) 278- 5433.

National Telemedia Council. Marieli Rowe, 120 E. Wilson St., Madison, WI 53703; (608) 257- 7712.

Rebel Mothers website:>Rebel

Stay Free! Zine:

“The New Age of the Book.” NY Review of Books:

The :30 Second Candidate (The Democracy Project):

Thesaurus (visual, multi-dimensional):

Znet, Home of Z Magazine:


Killing Us Softly I, II, and III (videos on media and gender by Jean Kilbourne)

The Ad and the Ego (video on advertising)

Affluenza (video on advertising)

Buy Me That I and II (videos on advertising)

Lines in the Sand (video on media and Persian Gulf War)

Liquid Pleasures (video on media)

Understanding McLuhan (CD Rom on theorist Marshall McLuhan)

Manufacturing Consent (book, video on Noam Chomsky’s critique of media)

On Television: Teach the Children (video on children, ages 6-11, and TV)

Does TV Kill? (“Frontline” PBS video on TV and violence)

Killing Us Softly and Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women, Jean Kilbourne

Books, Chapters, and Articles

Bedict, Susan and L. Carlisle (eds.). Beyond Words: Picture Books for Older Readers and Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.

Claggett, Fran. Drawing Your Own Conclusions: Graphic Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Thinking. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.

Consodine, David and Gail Haley. Visual Messages: Integrating Imagery into Instruction. Englewood, CO: Teacher Ideas, 1992.

Costanzo, William. Double Exposure: Composing Through Writing and Film. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1984.

---. Reading the Movies--Twelve Great Films and How to Teach Them. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1992.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

Duncan, Barry. Mass Media and Popular Culture. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Fox, Roy F. Harvesting Minds: How TV Commercials Control Kids. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

---, ed. Images in Language, Media, and Mind. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.

---. “Where Main Rivers Meet: An Inquiry into Visual and Verbal Literacy.” Iowa English Bulletin, Vol. 42, 1994.

---, MediaSpeak: Three American Voices. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Fiske, John. Television Culture. London: Routledge, 1993.

Greenfield, Patricia. Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games, and Computers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

John-Steiner, Vera. Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking. Albuquerque, NM: U of New Mexico P, 1985.

Moog, Carol. “Are They Selling Her Lips?” Advertising and Identity. New York: William Morrow, 1990.

Monaco, James. How To Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Morris, Barbara.“The Television Generation: Couch Potatoes or Informed Critics?” English Journal (December, 1989).

Olson, Janet. Envisioning Writing: Toward an Integration of Drawing and Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness. New York: Viking, 1985.

---. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1993.

---, et al. Myths, Men, & Beer: An Analysis of Beer Commercials on Broadcast Television, 1987. Falls Church, VA: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 1988.

---, and Steve Powers. How to Watch TV News. New York: Penguin, 1992.

“The Public Mind with Bill Moyers.” Public Broadcasting System. Includes “Illusions of News,” “The Truth about Lies,” “Consuming Images,” and “Leading Questions.” PBS, 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA, 22314. Ph: 703-739-5380 or 800-424-7963.

Pugh, Sharon, et al. Bridging--A Teacher's Guide to Metaphorical Thinking. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1992.

Savan, Leslie. The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1994.

Zettl, Herbert. Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics, 2nd Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1990.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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