A Graduate Seminar in Educational Semiotics

Applied Semiotics for Deep Education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison Graduate Seminar in Educational Semiotics.

François Victor Tochon

François Victor Tochon is Professor at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He works in Curriculum & Instruction in the School of Education with part of his work load in the French & Italian Department of the College of Letters and Science. An applied semiotician, he has been 1999-2002 president of the Special Interest group in Semiotics and Education at the American Educational Research Association, 2001-2006 co-editor and 2006-2011 editor of the International Journal of Applied Semiotics and and has briefly participated in the board of the Semiotic Society of America. In 2001, he started a series of Graduate Seminars in Applied Semiotics at his university, which have attracted a growing number of students, not only from language education and language & literature departments, but also from other disciplines such as Early Childhood Education, multicultural studies, and Mathematics.

The Seminar syllabus specifies that Semiotics is the study of sign-action or semiosis, described as any activity or process including the production of meaning. Applied Semiotics is a transdisciplinary field of knowledge linking life to the ongoing meaning making process. It encompasses Applied Linguistics while being broader and integrating sociocultural pragmatics, gesture, symbolism, science as the fixation of beliefs, rhetoric, intuition and situated meanings. The Seminar reviews the basics of semiotics with a perspective proper to language and discourse, cultural, educational and media studies, with a broad survey of authors. The orientation of the seminar has evolved toward an exploration of the subject-object connection and how its understanding may stimulate deeper research and deeper education.

The Seminar is a one semester a year, 3-credit event. Six to eight articles or book chapters are discussed each week on specific theme or topics. The Seminar process has evolved over the years: initially students would present one article or chapter every other week, and then the discussion would open in the Seminar mode. However this formula, while presenting the advantage of a systematic review of contents, did not lead to sufficient in-depth discussion. This year the formula chosen for the Seminar is that all students read the articles and chapters, the meeting starts with a powerpoint presented by the professor on elements such as Sean Hall’s book chapters “This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics” or slides from Semiotics-related Totem Books for about 30-40 minutes, and then two students are in charge of leading the debate on the readings or organizing cooperative groups before whole group discussion and class debates about the texts’ contents. For each seminar, students prepare a one-page journal of their critical reactions and comments to the readings of the day. The pages are posted on a discussion list of the University ‘passworded’ network. In addition, the students are invited to search for articles and videos on semiotics that are being shared on the Seminar facebook group. The facebook group is open to the public and is titled “Signs and Symbols”
In their comments, students address questions such as: what did I learn from these readings that I didn’t know or wasn’t aware of? In what way can it impact my understanding of communication, learning and education? In what way can it inform my inquiry? Then we discuss the contents of the readings in the light of the questions brought by the course participants as they relate to new ways of understanding, planning, organizing and interpreting research, communication, education, language education. Part of each meeting are devoted to personal experiences, analyses, sharing brief writings in view of expressing new insights and imaginaries for semiotic inquiry, and video clips.

Reading assignments: Totem Book introductions on media studies, cultural studies, semiotics, and critical theory were used as a way to accelerate the assimilation of complex phenomena and subtle processes that the construction and socialization of meaning implies. Their graphic dimension helps students’ understanding and provides a threshold from which more complex texts can be explored. Students have access to articles and chapters on the electronic course reserves (not more than one chapter per book). Gary Shank kindly shared his book in press, titled The Semiotic Inquirer In The Age Of Signs.

The weekly topics we explore vary from Seminar to Seminar, so students can attend the Seminar twice. Authors we neglected a certain year are front page the next year. The selection of texts depends on the topic chosen. For example, for this year:  Semiology and modernity (a discussion of Saussure and his impact on structuralism and relation to semiotics at large, with readings from Barthes, Chandler, Derrida, R. Harris and H. Smith on Saussure). Science as a Belief System (an introduction to Peirce with his article and comments from Merrell, Habermas, Shank, and Shore). Sociocultural Semiotics (with Bernard, Danesi, Hodge & Kress, and Tochon); Body, Lookism and Racism (with Ashby, Danesi, Sebeok, Stalcup, Tietje, Nichols, Petrilli, and Van Dijk); Feminism and Postfeminism (with Chang, Derrida, Brodribb, Godard, and Vaughan, Phoca & Wright); Postmodern Integration (with Chandler, Deely, Eco, Lather, Lyotard, and Waugh); Narrative Grammar and Storytelling (with Greimas, Kristeva, Ricoeur, Thody & Course, Tochon); Media Studies (with Baudrillard, Bauters, Chandler, Charon, Johansen & Larsen, Sardar & Appignanesi); Poetics & Aesthetic (with Barthes, Derrida, Evans, K.Parker, Rancière, Taylor);  The Production of Space (with Danesi, Gutiérrez, Lefebvre, Sebeok, Tochon); Connective Life (with Deely’s Intentionality, Laszlo, Sherldrake, Stine, Tompkins & Bird, Zukav); Semiotic Systems (with Bouissac, Danesi, Sadowski, Smith, Tochon & Okten, Young).

Here are the testimonies from two students:

“As an important new inquiry approach applied to the field of education, semiotics enables me to view learning from a new perspective. Discussions during class provide a platform for everyone to brainstorm, having had different experiences and exchanging them with each other.”

“This semiotics seminar drives me crazy because I am constantly analyzing and interpreting everything I see, smell, feel, hear, taste and even what I myself am saying that might be analyzed and interpreted by the listener or the non-listener.”

Final project assignment: the students gather their critical comments into a 9- to 10-page creative writing that can mesh reflections on authors and readings with personal experiences in a storyline development or narrative of experience on the educational topic of their choice, expressing new knowledge gained through their semiotic explorations.  The final project is about demonstrating the role of applied semiotics in/for deep education. It can be in the form of a blog, text or personal video, as well as text.

As a whole, the graduate seminar has an attendance growing from 12 to 22 graduate students this year, along with visiting professors from various universities in the U.S. and abroad. The UW-Madison Graduate Seminar in Educational Semiotics has led graduate students to understand the relevance of semiotics as a conceptual framework for their dissertation research. While the concepts explored are abstract and sometimes difficult to grasp, students clearly raise their awareness of sign power in society and Education in particular.


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