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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Visualizing Imperialism & the Philippines, 1898-1913

Massachusetts Institute of Technology via edX


In this course we use visual records as a way of understanding history at the turn of the 20th century. Learners will learn how to navigate visual primary sources and use them to investigate:

  • the historical debates that emerged in political cartoons;
  • issues of race and prejudice in both cartooning and photography;
  • photography as a tool of power in conquest and colonization;
  • the often forgotten Philippine-American war;
  • ethnographic photography;
  • how the theme of civilization and barbarism appeared to justify imperial wars;
  • early use of cross-cultural photography in mass media.

The roundtable discussion format of the course will set up a discursive and exploratory style of learning. Learners will be exposed to multiple points of view as the teaching team brings together scholars who have studied the topics from different disciplines. Learners will also learn how to work with visual evidence as primary sources to assemble arguments.

For teachers, the course presents a number of units developed for the MIT Visualizing Cultures (VC) project. The instructors are the authors who created the VC resource, and the course provides a pathway into the VC website content. The VC website is widely taught in both secondary and college courses, and is the primary resource for this course. Educators can selectively pick modules that target needs in their classrooms; the course can be used in a “flipped” classroom where students are assigned modules as homework.


Module I—Introduction

  • This module introduces the MIT Visualizing Cultures project and approach to history through the visual record, the source for the content and methodology.
  • Overview of course content, methods of visual analysis, and background on Philippine and US history.
  • Instructional team introduce their approaches to visual history, and present critical questions of race, power, and intercultural exchange that will frame discussion throughout the course.
  • The evolution of digital education.

Module II—Civilization & Barbarism: Cartooning and Global Imperialism

  • Based on the Visualizing Cultures unit, “Civilization and Barbarism: Cartoon Commentary & the ‘White Man’s Burden’ (1898-1902)”.
  • This unit explores pro- and anti-imperialist imagery in the United States and international cartooning on the subject of “civilization” and colonialism at the turn of the century.
  • How did Americans learn about U.S. colonialism in the Philippines?
  • How did Filipinos and US-based critics of empire challenge and question American policies?
  • How can visual evidence from the past serve as the basis for new digital forms of history?

Module III—Photography and Power I: the Philippine-American War

  • Based on the Visualizing Cultures unit: “Photography & Power in the Colonial Philippines l: Conquest by the Camera (1898–1902)”.
  • This module explores the role of photography in the Philippine American War (1898-1902).
  • How did soldiers represent war experiences for themselves and for audiences in the United States?
  • How did Filipinos respond to US colonization, and what role did visual images play in their responses?

Module IV—Photography & Power II: How Photography Colonized the Philippines

  • Based on the Visualizing Cultures unit: “Photography & Power in the Colonial Philippines ll: Dean Worcester’s Photographic Record of the Philippines (1898–1913)”.
  • This module uses the photographic archive of US colonial official Dean Worcester to consider relationship of photography to anthropology and colonial governance.
  • How did photography serve as a basis for cultural engagement—both in positive and negative ways?
  • What are the “ethics of looking”? What responsibilities do we have today when confronting potentially difficult images?

Module V—Conclusion: Images of Power/the Power of Images
A roundtable discussion on the relationship between visual images and US expansion, as well as the contemporary implications of teaching and disseminating images in a digital environment.

Taught by

Christopher Capozzola, John W. Dower and Ellen Sebring


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