For the past few weeks, “graphicacy” has insinuated itself into the part of my brain where nagging curiosity comes from (the self-nagebellum), becoming the terministic equal of an ear worm: word worm. Term worm? Lexical maggot? Whatever. And there, for weeks now, it has wriggled, dug in.

I don’t recall encountering “graphicacy” before Liz Losh mentioned it casually in her presentation to EMU’s First-year Writing Program during her visit last month. I wrote down several things from Liz’s talk, but graphicacy was there on top of my notes, large and starred. It stands to reason that graphicacy keeps company with literacy. Both are –acy words, which means they are adjectives converted to nouns and that they name or identify conditions. Presumably these, too, are nominalizations, but they by-pass verbs, which is the problem I’ve been thinking about. We have reading and writing to verb literacy, but what verbs graphicacy?

I had to do a little bit of cursory sifting and searching for graphicacy, to start. It seems like the term was initiated in a mixed and sprawling range across math education (learning to plot points and interpret graphs), geography (facility with maps), and graphic design (technical-aesthetic savvy). Late last month, it surfaced in the context of a conversation about multimodal composition and the graphic rhetoric we have adopted at EMU, Understanding Rhetoric. This is the main reason it took hold for me: graphicacy seemed to gather an array of practices related both to understanding and making visuals. It sweeps into one pile an assortment of visual communications–graphs, maps, word clouds, comics, painting, photography, typography, data visualization–much in the same way visual rhetoric does. And yet, with graphicacy as with visual rhetoric, it feels like we are still missing a sufficiently encompassing verb to capture the array of practices.

At our Advanced WAC Institute on campus late last April (or was it by then early May?), I worked with a team of colleagues on a new (for us) configuration. With colleagues from Communications and Education, we put together an institute keyed on five complementary practices: writing, reading, critical (or I would say “rhetorical”) listening, speaking, and visualizing. The fifth term, visualizing, was mine to introduce to institute attendees, and it was the most difficult to identify with a verb that was adequate to account for the frame, which amounted to concept mapping, drawing/sketching as heuristic for arrangement, and creating occasions for students to work at the intersection of textual and overtly visual and designerly composition.

Because we called it “visualizing,” we began the sessions needing to backtrack and contextualize. With visualizing, we weren’t talking about conjuring brainbound images or about an indwelt priming of the mind’s eye to work on problems or particular ways of seeing. These were among the associations attendees made with visualizing. And this seemed reasonable. Visualizing wasn’t quite the right verb. But what is the right verb? What is the general verb comparable to writing, reading, listening, and speaking that relates not only to seeing but to creating visuals, especially in consideration of vector illustration programs and shape-based concept mapping software that bears only faint relation to drawing?

Graphicacy stirs this question yet again but does not quite answer it. But I hope not to call it “visualizing” ifwhen we convene the institute again next time.