Wednesday, 6 May 2020

'Multimodal academic argument in data visualization' in 'Data Visualization in Society' from @AmsterdamUPress #Academicbooks #OpenAccess

Written for design educators and social semiotic researchers who are interested in infographic design and multimodal argument.

Associate Professor Arlene Archer and I wrote 'Exploring academic argument in information graphics', which was recently published in the book, Data visualization in society. Our chapter proposes a framework for analysing and producing argument in data visualisation. This framework is applied in the chapter for investigating two second-year journalism students’ semiotic and rhetorical strategies in making arguments via data visualisation posters. We then discuss the broader implications in Higher Education for teaching students to become critical citizens via infographic poster production and analysis.

Figure 1. Data Visualization in Society book cover, Amsterdam University Press, 2020.

The chapter drew on my fieldwork as a lecturer in the multimedia production course (FAM2017S) teaching infographic poster design to journalism students at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, UCT. I liaised with Professor Marion Walton and Dr Martha Evans in preparing a five-week course for teaching infographic poster production in 2017. Students learnt to explore educational inequalities between two suburbs in Cape Town using's aggregated data and to visualise their findings via infographic poster design. Arlene kindly volunteered as a guest reviewer of students' poster design progress. As novice designers, students' data visualisation arguments produced some interesting inconsistencies and disjunctures that helped inspire this chapter. Its analysis was also informed by a review of students' final posters and accompanying rationales. 

In response to these concerns, Arlene proposed the framework for analysing and producing argument in data visualisation. Its components are illustrated in Table 1 below.
Table 1. A framework for analysing and producing argument in data visualisation. Archer, A. and Noakes, T. 2020.

This framework was applied in an investigation of how two infographic posters drew on semiotic and rhetorical strategies for realising argument: The semiotic strategies included their use of colour, typography and graphics, while the rhetorical strategies include establishing credibility and the use of citation. The effect that the underlying basis for comparison of data had on their contrasting arguments was examined, plus students' linked selection and processing of aggregated data. We also investigated the semiotic encoding of ideational material and the ways relationships were established within the discourse communities constructed via the data visualisations. The investigation highlights the complex entanglement of aspects of data visualisation. These include varied design processes, the underlying discourses and ideological work of data visualisations, as well as their pleasures and aesthetics. We concluded by arguing that this way of looking at academic argument has important implications for teaching these text-types in higher education in order to produce critical citizens.

We are very grateful to the book's editors, Professors Helen Kennedy and Martin Engebretsen, for their feedback and help in refining the chapter. 

In 2018, I retaught infographic poster design to a new group of second years and adjusted the course to allocate more for considering argument and included this framework and the article's cases for students' consideration. Both interventions helped students to improve the critical arguments in their posters. Arlene and I are writing about these changes in a draft manuscript, Creativity within constraints. How journalism students use semiotic resources for argument in data visualisation.

There are three ways you can view Data Visualization in Society digitally:
1. Its e-book page is at
2. Its Open Access version is at
3. You can download it as an Adobe Acrobat pdf book via

Or to purchase it in hardcopy, you can order through your local bookseller, via Amsterdam University Press for Europe/Rest of the World, or via Baker & Taylor Publisher Services for North America.

I hope that you will find our chapter informative and welcome any feedback in the comments below.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Reflections after 'Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios': a South African cultural hierarchy versus local practices...

Written for media studies researchers and educators interested in the challenges that young people in Cape Town face when formally expressing identities as visual arts students.

My first sole-authored journal article is published in the Learning, Media and Technology journal at Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios: negotiating digital disciplined identities, infrastructural inequality and public visibility addresses the special issue’s theme ’Global Technologies, Local Practices’, outlined here. Please visit to download one of the 50 free e-prints that Taylor & Francis has made available for download.

Dr Jeremy Knox and a few anonymous reviewers provided in-depth guidance that helped me to better address both the special issue’s theme and its international audiences. Over the course of two revisions, the article’s abstract became:

‘Despite the growing importance of digital portfolios for justifying creative work and study opportunities, little is known about arts students’ creative appropriation of online portfolios in secondary school. In particular, there is a research gap concerning the challenges that young black women face when curating portfolios as visual arts students. This paper describes the key challenges that three such government school students negotiated when taught to creatively appropriate an online portfolio software for curating showcase visual arts e-portfolios:

In formal contexts, art students’ e-portfolios are strongly shaped by assimilatory norms. Visual arts students who want to develop portfolios that follow local or global crafts and fandoms must negotiate their low status in, or complete exclusion from, the national syllabus. Students in under-resourced school and home settings may already be using other online portfolio solutions that suit their purposes better than the particular software prescribed in arts lessons. Online portfolios are public by default and young women negotiated this risk by using pseudonymous self presentations. Each student’s classroom practices were also constrained by a technology selected for its minimalist exhibition aesthetic. Students curated showcase exhibitions, but the prescribed service did not facilitate a wider exploration of contemporary digital practices.’

The case studies for three young black women revealed the diverse, yet overlapping, challenges each faced in expressing their creative identities and interests. It balanced the need to provide a full context with the special issue’s concerns in under 6,000 words. Following this article's publication, I felt I should use this blog post for reflecting more broadly on why so few local practices from Cape Town (and South Africa) became shared by visual arts students in their e-portfolios. 

Overall, such neglect of the local seemed strongly shaped by four cultural hierarchies in Cape Town communities, which may fall under a broader cultural hierarchy in South Africa:
  1. South African visual arts education is dominated by a Modernist tastes for expressing a traditional version of aesthetic distinction.
  2. Cape Town is an important creative hub in South Africa and there are many creative industries producing local content. However, students’ e-portfolios largely ignored it and other (South) African creations. This reflects how better-off homes typically prefer consuming global popular cultures versus local creative industries. Global media fandoms from the United States (such as Hollywood franchises) and Japan (Manga and Anime) influenced most of the fan art in students’ e-portfolios. 
  3. The lifestyle and vocational preferences of the middle-class dovetail with the cultural capital of secondary schooling. By contrast, working class culture was largely excluded in teens' e-portfolios.
  4. There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Despite several of the students not speaking English as their home language, all used English to present their identities and work.

As my essay describes, young black women did face obstacles in using the "global" online portfolio technology,, for expressing their artistic identities. This technology was not designed to accommodate their under-resourced contexts.

By comparison, the strong shaping influence of the dominant cultural hierarchy seemed to exert a much greater influence on all visual arts students in my PhD research study. Most did not spotlight uniquely local cultural interests and practices in their portfolios. This suggests how South Africa's cultural hierarchy is a great obstacle for those Cape Town visual arts students and their expression of local practices via "global" technology.

Kindly comment on this post, or contact me with your thoughts.
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