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Illustrating Understanding

posted: 10.15.12 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander


In other blogging venues I have written about the importance of teaching visual communication.  I’ve also discussed the obstacles facing those who try to facilitate more instructional drawing time in a culture where those on the college track are quickly trained out of seemingly unproductive “doodling.” Although finger paints may be fine for preschoolers and watercolors might be acceptable as a hobby or form of therapy for those in their golden years, the prime of life for rhetorical activity is often when hand-crafted visual communication seems most alien to our daily practices, particularly in an increasingly keyboard-driven culture.

Recently, along with an amazing roster of other media scholars, I participated in contributing to a series of “zine”-style volumes about “Critical Making” that was edited by artist Garnet Hertz.  (Hertz has achieved international fame for subversive hackerspace projects such as constructing a cockroach-controlled robot and assembling an arcade style video game about driving that actually can drive through city streets.)   In the process of joining this diverse group of critical makers, I wanted to tackle my own anxieties about what I perceive as my relatively weak drawing skills.  I also wanted to practice what I preach when it comes to working in multiple modalities.  So I created a hand-drawn and hand-lettered story about scout badges that may not be the most artful contribution to the collection, but at least it achieved my basic goal of composing a visual argument in a two-page spread.

As someone out of practice at drawing from observation, I found it easiest to work with inanimate objects smaller than the piece of paper that I was using to represent the items pictured.  However, I also liked to choose things that were large enough to see key details without magnification.  I can imagine a successful exercise in which writing students draw objects from pockets, purses, and bookbags and then add labels about their potential rhetorical significance.  Pens, keys, and cards in a person’s wallet might all have meanings when it comes to thinking about communicative actions.

It was also helpful for me to emphasize expressiveness rather than accuracy in depicting the complexity of the human figure when I returned to a sketchbook for the first time in years.  I can see that it might be liberating for students to draw comics rather than anatomically correct figures the first time round.  For example,  you might ask students to draw a recent argument in which they either felt that they had “won” or “lost”  in the exchange.

Finally, even hand-lettering can be a way to get students comfortable with visual communication.  Many students have hang-ups about handwriting that make them feel inhibited about this form of expression.  But the videos of Michael Wesch and others show how the display of hand lettered statements can be powerful in many rhetoric situations.  Perhaps you want to encourage students to bring a protest sign to class with hand lettering to discuss its rhetorical dimensions.

There are a number of books on the market about drawing superheroes that might be a good introduction to talking about the basics of a more anatomical drawing style or elements of illustration that incorporate perspective.  The superhero metaphor has also been a powerful one in education.  The game theorist Jane McGonigal argues that even research faculty might benefit from imagining their intellectual “superpowers” in more detailed ways.  Perhaps students might also benefit from drawing the heroes and villains in their lives of argument and research, which Understanding Rhetoric implicitly advocates in its chapter on writerly identity.

For those who would like to go deeper into the subject of exploring visual expression, there are also a number of videos about figure drawing available on the Internet that range from master practitioners like Glen Villpu to virtuoso drawing performances by kids.  The key seems to be getting disinhibited and returning to doodling activities that might have been abandoned under duress years earlier.


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2 Responses to “Illustrating Understanding”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    Your section on hand lettering made me reflect with a smile on my days as a student and beginning teacher, when so many professors demanded typed papers over anything hand written. I never had that hang up. I told students as long as I could read what they wrote, all would be fine. I don’t remember ever having to return a paper as ‘unreadable.’

    I know you’re talking about more artistic kinds of hand writing and lettering, but I think your emphasis on writer-created illustrations is at least tangentially related. In a world of clip art, computer-created pie charts, and photos borrowed from paper, your project urges students that it’s just fine (and it can be even better) if you make your own illustrations.

  2. Bill Torgerson, St. John's University Says:

    This text gets me thinking about the tension I feel between a whole class sharing an experience (let’s all empty our pockets, draw something, and follow that experience) vs. individually designed projects that vary for each student according to where they are intellectually and emotionally as people. I do like to ask students to do things they have never done before as opposed to jumping through the same old academic hoops. Thank you for the thought provoking post.