Visual Analysis Assignment Sheet


  • 1500 words (10% over/under okay)
  • Single spaced or 1.5-line spacing.
  • Title the essay.
  • Put your full name (as you want to be recognized) at the top.
  • Use header or footer with your last name & page numbers.
  • Use MLA style, acknowledging all sources in your text, using parenthetical page citation, and, below your essay, a list of all “References,” including full citations for Barnet and/or Burke, and all images used.
  • Use Lipson, Cite Right, to help you with citation style. See also: Tipsheets on Handling Images and Citing Archival Sources.
  • Save final copy in PDF to preserve all formatting of images, etc: filename protocol:  yoursurname_vis_final.pdf
  • Post final copy to Blackboard (File Sharing > Tutorial #2 Final.)


The prompt:

Use methods and concepts from Sylvan Barnet, “Analysis,” ch. 2 in A Short Guide to Writing about Art, and/or from Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence, ch. 2: “Iconography and Iconology,” and/or other assigned chapters, to develop a visual analysis of your chosen archival object. Your analysis will take the form of an argument consisting of:

  • a propositional claim that is contestable, substantive, and specific.
  • descriptive analysis of specific formal qualities of the object (or small collection of objects).
  • explicit and logical linking of these details to the claim.
  • consideration of and response to countervailing evidence, claims, and logic (alternate ways of reading the evidence).
  • consideration of the uses and limitations of the methods or approaches described by Barnet and/or Burke: does your analysis of these graphic materials point to problems or gaps in their methods, terminology, or concepts? This work may be explicit or, if the claim lies elsewhere, implicit.

The essay must also:

  • include relevant image(s) for purposes of analysis (not mere illustration).
  • label images Fig. 1, Fig. 2, etc., and refer to them that way in your text.
  • cite all images fully, including creator and original date if known, any original publication information, current archival location, and all reprint information (the website for the copy you used).
  • demonstrate a firm grasp on basic syntax and a capacity for thorough proofreading.

For overall grading criteria, see the Essay Evaluation page top menu, under Syllabus).


Do we assume our readers know the works we’re analyzing or not? Both: Summarize the prior claims and describe evidence both for (a.) readers who do not know these works already and for (b.) readers who may know them but might not remember them clearly or might not see them in the same way that you do. Use summary and description (forwarding) to highlight what you see in the texts (the images) that we might not have noticed or thought about in the same way.

How much detail is too much?  Err on the side of too much detail. Academic readers generally want to see you carry out your analysis of evidence in far greater detail, with more nuance, than you are accustomed to, especially from most high school writing. Again, even if I know the work, you are pointing out details I may not remember or may see differently.

Are we allowed to have an opinion? Yes! You can’t write this paper without one. But note that opinions are necessary but insufficient to the task here. You must develop your opinion into a viable claim by setting it against other possible claims and other possible interpretations of the evidence at hand.

Are we allowed to use “I”?  There is no rule against it in most analytical essays (this is always an  editorial decision, not a rule).  But you want to consider what purpose you have in using it.  If an statement of “I believe” is not followed by logical and detailed analysis of evidence, then the “I” is at best, meaningless distraction, or worse, hubristic assertion. But if you use first person to more accurately represent your own perspective as a viewer of the images—in order to provide  evidence of at least one viewer’s response—then this could be very useful. It can also help clarify your goals in the essay or the reader’s place in the essay (“I don’t want to suggest that…”; “But now we have to consider…”).

Do you have an ideal paper in mind? Not exactly. But here are some basics regarding structure:  introduce the problem or question and the essay’s agenda (perhaps its central claim); provide a map of the essay, indicating where it is going; organize the essay logically, with each paragraph’s role clear and each building towards the whole; use rhetorical cues to guide us through the essay; conclude by moving beyond mere restatement of your claim — point towards broader significance, relevance, or further implications of your claim.

Do we need other sources? Probably, but restrain your research to the merely factual, and just enough for necessary context. This is not a research paper. Best to draw on academic textbooks, encyclopedias, or books that give historical overviews or reliable, factual narratives of the relevant events, people, or technologies you needed to understand in order to interpret the object.

Is Wikipedia a trustworthy source? Sometimes. It depends on whether the people most knowledgeable about the particular thing you’re interested in go to Wikipedia to write about that thing. This is true of any number of popular culture phenomena (just sample any reference from Lord of the Rings, for example). It is often not true of historical subjects, though sometimes you find a good factual summary or biography that is amply sourced–this may be true for subjects related to major wars. But academic historians don’t (yet) routinely go to Wikipedia to write encyclopedia entries. For this project, it would often be better would be to use GW Libraries to find academic historical encyclopedias or textbooks for these contextual facts. (We’ll deal with historians’ arguments and interpretations later.)