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University of Alabama at Birmingham ARS495: Stories from the Line – Documenting Poverty students listen as Magnum photographer Matt Black gives an artist lecture via Skype on his ongoing project, "Geography of Poverty," November 9, 2015.

Photography is in the midst of an uncertain, yet exciting, present. Through the shaping of found and fabricated images, compressing histories of both canonical and vernacular photographs, and engaging with emergent technologies, contemporary photographic artists are employing a wide range of artistic strategies to critically engage with the dilating character of globalized visual culture and expand the possibilities for what a photograph might be. Acts of accumulation, appropriation, construction, and manipulation have become prevalent methods in contemporary practice, and these methods have prompted widespread discussions on visibility, authorship, and identity while challenging previosly assumed values in historical photographic discourse.

A viable, contemporary photography program should consider the intellectual, aesthetic, and pedagogical implications of this pivotal moment and respond with the kind of dynamic curriculum that actively address these issues and connects citizen artists to the broader cultural and political conditions shaping our time. By embracing interdisciplinary applications and building a culture based on inquiry and experimentation, a program can provide the critical tools to inspire students to take risks, recognize and develop their individual voices, and redefine the photographic medium in their own ways. This culture of learning is made possible by building a firm foundation in current and historical methodologies and teaching within an inclusive, equitable, and diverse environment where students have access to safe, clean facilities outfitted with up-to-date, professional equipment. 

As a teacher, I want to encourage my students to pursue the act of making as a way of thinking, as a process of self-discovery and expression, and as a means of cultural criticism and political engagement. My pedagogical approach challenges students to master the craft and production of image making, approach the reading and understanding of pictures with proper historical and contextual knowledge, and understand the power of photographs to document, reveal, criticize and engender change.

Yet I recognize that artistic development does not necessarily occur as a result of making itself, and acquiring knowledge for its own sake rarely motivates students to learn. Learning can only occur if the student is engaged, and true artistic growth comes from critical reflection. So, to foster deep learning and growth, studio assignments and presentations are given in concert with museum visits and multimedia resources including podcasts, websites and online social media applications. I draw from a variety of literary and academic texts to augment my teaching and often give cross-disciplinary reading assignments in literature, poetry, science, history and journalism. I make great effort to connect students to renowned photographers and artists through visiting artist programs, workshops and internships, and I assign immersive fieldwork and community-based research where students must develop partnerships based on shared vision and tangible benefits, trust and respect, to yield multi-dimensional, mutually beneficial outcomes. Carefully structured critical reflection intentionally connects the students’ creative work with course content and broader contexts, and is facilitated through ongoing conversations, critical writing assignments, and studio critique. Through these methods, theory is put to practice as students test the strengths and limitations of their work, integrate new experience against existing knowledge, and analyze their assumptions and beliefs in open, constructive dialogue.

Ultimately, the object of this dialogue is a creative exchange marked by the success John Henry Newman describes in The Idea of a University: a kind of higher learning that does not cherish “talent, genius, or knowledge, for [her] own sake, but for the sake of her children…with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.”1

1 Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907.

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Teaching Philosophy can be downloaded as a PDF here: Ragland-Teaching Philosophy.pdf

Examples of student work can be downloaded as a PDF here: Ragland-Examples of Student Work.pdf

Sample syllabi can be downloaded as a PDF here: Ragland-Syllabi.pdf