Context: I was teaching an assignment about photography for my first-year writing course that took place under the theme of War and Culture. Students read articles from Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Roland Barthes, and the assignment was to basically select a “current” war photograph and to write a critical piece on it about what the photo was saying, what the photo was doing, and how where/when/how we view it influences our experience.
Inspiration: One thing I felt that my students weren’t quite getting was the idea of vulnerability that comes along with public photographs, particularly in the context of war images. Conversations often went towards the social media angle of where we find such images and the perceived agency over what one posts, so I was trying to think about how to get students to understand what happens when instances are captured without such explicit agency and to get them to experience something more public.
Activity: I sent students out of class about 15 minutes early one day (before the rush of classes switching), all armed with one piece of sidewalk chalk. They were to write down one “secret” on campus—no guidelines were really given to this, though they did look at PostSecret.com beforehand—and move about with their day. If they found someone else’s secret, I asked them to take a photo of it and email it to me. I debated on making a Facebook album and realized that it was important to the assignment that their secrets transformed into public images. When I pulled the album up during the next class, they were able to see strangers interacting with their secrets in interesting ways. Knowing that the “subjects” of the images were present in the class led toward much more careful, thoughtful rhetorical analysis.
Note: Students took the assignment with varying degrees of seriousness—from “I pee in the shower” to “I lied in my common app”—but it was important to gather them all as intention becomes a bit fuzzy when “secrets” become art.