My experience using political cartoons when teaching political or cultural history has been that when I find a drawing that is apropos for college students, it garners little if any reaction from the students. It makes me wonder, how many of the students actually understand the cartoon and what the artist is suggesting in its rendering? An article in Journalism Quarterly from 1968 probably answers my question—and the answer is a resounding—NO.
According to author Leroy Carl, only 15% of Americans understand the artist’s intended message, and another 15% of Americans partially understand the artist’s message. That leaves 70% of Americans in the dark. What that means is in a classroom the teacher is enlightening 15% of his/her students, confusing 15%, and frustrating 70% unless there is a way of teaching students how to better understand political cartoons.
Teaching how to better understand editorial cartoons presumes that the understanding of cartoons is not inherent (kind of like learning perfect pitch—you either have it or you don’t). If it is not inherent, how does one go about teaching it? On-line resources on how to teach political cartoons are pitching someone’s teaching resources more than explaining a process– except for an article by Jonathan Burack, a former history instructor and editor of Newscurrents. The problem with Burack’s system, found at http://teachinghistory.org/teaching-materials/teaching-guides/21733, is that it assumes students know too much.
The first things that students must identify is from the journalistic dictum of who, what, where, and when. After all, cartoons are journalistic opinions. After that, one can either use Burack’s system of analyzing “symbol and metaphor,” visual distortion, “irony in words and images,” “and stereotype and caricature,” but how many college frosh can pick out an irony—in anything? I suggest that there are two more steps: Many cartoons either make comparisons or exaggerate (or understate) a concept, or both. Ask students to identify the humorous effect that the artist is using—even if the cartoon is not humorous. Eventually, students should get to the “why” in the cartoon. Why is this important? What is the artist’s intended message? Finally, discuss whether the cartoon is fair to the subject.
Consider the following cartoon by Jeff Danziger and dated on January 19, 2014:
Who: Wall Street Bankers and investors
What: New York Stock Exchange and the movie Wolves of Wall Street. Note the sign: “Warning: Members New York Stock Exchange.” The pig denies that any of the brokers in the office are wolves.
Where: A broker’s office (note that it is the home turf of the brokers).
When: 2014 (when using historical cartoons that may be more difficult to ascertain, and some contemporary cartoons are actually set at some time in the past for reasons of comparison).
Comparisons: The movie title compares stock brokers to wolves, a carnivorous predator. The cartoonist compares stock brokers to vultures, those who prey on carrion; tigers, another carnivorous predator; snakes, known for their “cold-blooded killing,” and their trickery as depicted in Genesis in the Bible; and pigs, stereotyped as sloppy-eaters that consume whatever they can get their mouths on.
Intended message: The artist suggests that labeling Wall Street brokers and bankers as wolves is an understatement. They also have the characteristics of vultures, tigers, snakes, and pigs.
At this point, much of Burack’s discussion can be incorporated: The man is trapped by the body of the snake. What the pig says is ironic in that he denies his and his partners’ “wolfishness.” Discuss “anthropomorphism.” Would this cartoon be as effective if a human were talking and the animals were described as his/her partners? Do most signs identifying an entity as a member of the New York Stock Exchange carry a warning?
Finally, from Burack’s lesson, is this a fair statement about bankers and brokers? Why or why not?
The question is whether understanding political cartoons and the depictions therein is actually teachable? If it is, is it a necessary skill? If not, what do teachers do with the wealth of political cartoons that are in history books? I am going to try teaching American History using political cartoons, and I would like my lessons to be effective. Therefore, I welcome helpful comments from readers of this blog.
Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others). Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity. Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.
I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue. What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.
I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.
I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.
I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.
There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?
I can tell you that later I learned:
On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)
But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.
Check out Self Deprecate Political Humor for more political cartoons!
Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin-R, who is now trailing 9 points in his race for a Senate seat, has had one hell of a time, lately. No one told him that you can’t spout nonsense data, not supported by science, as justification for the legal oppression of women in this country. Todd Akin, from the same party that brought us the 2012 Republican War on Women, is even getting dirty looks from within his own ranks. Not because of what he said, but because people are upset that he said it. Go figure.
As strategists on both the left and the right celebrate the inclusion of Paul Ryan on the 2012 GOP ticket for what seem like a lot of the same reasons, I suppose that we can also add humorists and cartoonists the list of beneficiaries of this nomination. So for the moment at least, everybody is winning.
Many of this first round of editorial cartoons also emphasize the marquee name of Ryan, whose ideological convictions and actual specificity when it comes to stuff (like, you know, budgets) threaten to eclipse whatever it is that Romney was predicted to one day have had from the beginning. It’s not surprising, then, that many cartoons adopt pretty a reasonable approximation of Ryan’s star status, as though betraying a certain ironic accuracy in Romney’s own recent gaffe that, when introducing Ryan at a rally, the attendees were meeting “the next president of the United States.”
One of the more curious trends among Romney/Ryan cartoons, however, is that of violence, in the sense that Ryan’s proposed budget is set to (or threatens to, or is thought to) significantly curtail federal spending, which forces us to consider the vocabulary with which we address financial reform — “slashing the budget,” for example, or “trimming the fat,” or the seemingly benign, “budget cuts,” which nevertheless implies a sense of slicing, incision. When, however, cartoons begin to give a visible body to what in language has become almost innocuous or unremarkable, the results can be a little literally gruesome, as we see in this telling cartoon by Dale Cagle:
Although Cagle’s may be the most extreme example, there is a certain stab-happiness and almost Shining-grade blade-eerieness to the way in which sharp implements signify Ryan’s fiscal conservatism.
Check out Self Deprecate Political Humor for more political cartoons!
As the Jerry Sandusky trial unfolds, more and more disturbing details emerge on the scandal that rocked Penn State Football’s reputation and saw the dismissal of the revered Joe Paterno.
Check out below for more
See this post for reactions to the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage.
The reaction to President Obama’s changed stance on gay marriage is obviously big news. While I have argued before that proponents of gay marriage have a funnier argument than opponents, when it comes Obama’s decision the focus of the humor is less on the issue of gay marriage but on the politics of the situation. In the midst of an election season, Obama’s changing (evolving or flip-flopping? depends on who is drawing) view of gay marriage was bound to become a key instance in cartooning the major issues of the campaign.
We will be running some compilations of political cartoons as the campaign continues in order to examine how the visual representations of the candidates and the issues help shape the political conversation. As M. Thomas Inge noted in his essay “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” “the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.”
The first thing one notices in looking at cartoons over the past few days is the rapid change in the situation once Obama came out of the closet in support of gay marriage (to use some popular metaphors). For instance, Mike Luckovich illustrated both the possible political “grenade” of the subject and one major theme of the fallout in two cartoons.
Mike Luckovich, the next day
many more below…
Today, websites like Wikipedia, wordpress, Craigslist, and hundreds of others are striking in order to bring attention to two bills–the Protect IP Act and the Stop Online Privacy Act–currently under consideration in Congress.
These bills would have a negative impact on the internet and could impact the ability of academics to post material on websites (such as this) for educational purposes. Please take a look at the information provided and contact your representatives.
Scott Stantis / January 13, 2012
Tornoe, Media Matters
And to help you get through the day without Wikipedia, here are some facts…