Say what you see

As part of the package of materials I’m building for our new Masters in IR, I’ve been trying out some different ways of stimulating reflection and discussion with our students.

As a reminder, we run a fully distance-learning model, with weekly asynchronous bundles of written, audio and visual elements, with a lot of our students doing this around work or other commitments.

The mix of elements is an important point for us, both because it maintains interest for students and because it opens up different ways of looking at key questions when opportunities for face-to-face discussion with peers are limited: sometimes just trying to approach an issue in a different manner can help things to click together.

As such, while I’ve been putting a lot of effort into an asynchronous negotiation exercise, I’ve also been looking at ways of tackling other elements in an interesting and engaging way.

So I’ve been exploring some visual analysis of a table.

You’ll know the table, since it launched a thousand memes, back before the visuals from Ukraine became a lot more visceral (in all senses).

Source: DW

We’re written before about getting students to produce memes on subjects, but this time I’m more interested in the image as originally presented.

Strange as the table might be, it’s also evidently a conscious choice (given that Putin met other world leaders in different settings and around different furniture), so the question we might ask of students is: “what impression is Putin trying to convey here?”

That’s partly about the impression on Macron, but also (and more importantly) the impression on other audiences, both within Russia and beyond.

In my exercise, I ask students to write about what they think of these different communications, with some prompts for reflection once they’ve done. These prompts are important because they remind the student that what they see is not necessarily what others see.

This is a key part of this activity, since the polysemic nature of political communication is not always so obvious in other media, whereas visuals set up much more space for multiple interpretations. To make the obvious point here; this table set-up looks so odd to me that it must have some other set of meanings that I have missed.

Moreover, precisely because this image got so reworked for memes and mockery, there’s a follow-up exercise here to ask students to consider what those memes try to do and how they try to do it.

For my students, this will be a 15 minute exercise in total, but if you ran this in class you could easily make an hour of it, through exchanging ideas and grounding it back into wider patterns of Putin’s (self-)representation and communication. Plus how our view of it changes with all that has followed.