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Aspects of a Literacy of Infographics: Results from an Empirical-Qualitative Study


Over the past decade, infographics have become a ubiquitous genre—circulated in mass media, posted on walls in public spaces, shared on social media sites; and more recently, assigned as reading and writing assignments in academic classes. Their ubiquity and appeal as a visual representation of processes and data make them a promising genre for delivering instructional content and assessing student learning. However, few studies have explored the extent to which infographics are being used in disciplinary contexts and what conventions around this emergent genre are being enacted by those who interact with them. For these reasons, this dissertation was designed to include two concurrent studies—a questionnaire, surveying 80 upper-division undergraduate students, and a discourse-based interview study with seven doctoral, postdoctoral, and professional participants—in order to understand participants’ familiarity with infographic texts and whether infographics are mediated by particular features and/or types of knowledge indicative of a literacy of infographics. Qualitative coding and descriptive statistical analysis revealed general familiarity with infographics. Participants in both studies confirmed their common presence in various contexts, including academic ones, where interview participants tended to recognize infographics for their pedagogical affordances. However, undergraduates indicated low confidence in their ability to read/comprehend or create infographics and reported difficulty with particular elements of questionnaire exhibits. These results suggest that the literacy demands of infographic texts might be greater than other types of visual texts, challenging those of us in higher education to be more considerate of students’ literacy needs in our evaluation, selection, and uses of pedagogical materials, and more deliberate in the types of experimentation we do with infographic genres.

The results from 80 questionnaire respondents and 7 interviews reinforce findings from other studies of data visualization literacy, suggesting that, despite their reported prevalence in participants’ informational, social, and academic lives, infographic texts are not straightforward texts that anyone can read or easily create with an infographic generator. The study’s findings also suggest a theoretical extension to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) Community of Practice theory and the boundary objects (Wenger, 1998) and corollary genres (Yates & Orlikowski, 2007) embedded within them. That is, the experimentation with infographics as boundary objects between disciplines and public or learning audiences, as well as their treatment as corollary genres in certain academic contexts, revealed a tension between pedagogical intensions, effective communication, and the traditional processes and practices in disciplines. Finally, this study serves as a case for those of us in higher education to evaluate rhetorical situations carefully and to consider infographic texts as presenting an opportunity to teach disciplinary processes and practices.

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