Author Bio

More than a Textbook

posted: 11.11.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Today we welcome guest blogger Dr. Jim Haendiges. Jim is an Assistant Professor of English at Dixie State University in Saint George, Utah. He teaches courses on technical and professional writing as well as visual design in documents and multimedia authoring. These courses correspond with his research interests in visual literacy and digital interfaces in education. Apart from his research, Jim likes playing video games with his children and reading comic books to them for bedtime stories.

I was sold on the premise of Understanding Rhetoric even before I saw chapter outlines and mock pages. Comic books have been a hobby and academic interest of mine for several years, and I have been waiting for a textbook like this to use in my classroom instead of presenting my students with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and saying, “Trust me, this type of visual format works for a writing course, too.” Needless to say, I did not need any strong convincing to use Understanding Rhetoric in my college introductory writing course this semester. But I really wasn’t sure how my students would react.

On the first day of the semester, the students offered me hesitant smiles when I introduced the text in the syllabus. “It can’t be any worse than any other English book,” a student replied. Every freshman composition teacher has to contend with that kind of cynicism. Most students assume a textbook is going to be boring and expensive; I assume that students have these thoughts because many composition textbooks focus on relaying information in the writing process instead of allowing students to experience the writing process.

The class and I worked through Understanding Rhetoric in the next eight weeks. The students seemed receptive to each chapter, especially when we discussed the narrative examples in the text that illustrated writing concepts. Liz and Jonathan’s journeys through rhetoric, writing identities, and argumentation strategies made the material more interesting to the students, and therefore more understandable. For example, in Issue 1, “Why Rhetoric?”,  my students really engaged in the discussion on Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero because these figures were placed in a storyline and they interacted with each other. This type of engagement with the visual narratives seemed to happen in many of our classroom discussions: the students were drawn to writing concepts because of real-life character examples such as Frederick Douglass, as well as fictional characters like Metamorph. This kind of visual narrative is simple to accomplish in a comic format, but it is atypical for most standard textbooks.

As we wrapped up the last chapter of the textbook, I wanted to ask the students what they thought of the text. I passed out blank, unlined sheets of paper to my three courses and told the students to communicate their responses in whatever manner they chose on the unlined paper. Here are some of their responses:

I was initially disappointed with the responses because they did not seem to contribute to my academic investigation of the pedagogical experience of this composition textbook. Most of the positive feedback for Understanding Rhetoric noted that the text was “easy to read,” “fun,” “cool,” and “something totally new and awesome.” I spend most of the semester trying to get my students to stop making comments like these on peer reviews, so these remarks initially seemed unhelpful when they were directed at Understanding Rhetoric.

However, when I coupled these responses with my in-class interactions, I saw that students were experiencing this text in a new way—as  an enjoyable story and not just delivery of content. Understanding Rhetoric utilized a comic book layout to illuminate writing concepts to my students, which is no small feat. Some students even said that the text really appealed to their predisposition towards visual learning and strengthened their visual literacy. For these students, Understanding Rhetoric was opening up a door that was previously shut with many textbooks.

This semester’s experience reminds me of what Will Eisner says about comics as a medium in Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative:

The reading process of comics in an extension of text. In text alone, the process of reading involves word-to-image conversion. Comics accelerates that by providing image. When properly executed, it goes beyond conversion and speed and becomes a seamless whole.

In abiding by Eisner’s understanding that the comic book format enhances and speeds up the reading process, the idea of having a textbook like this for a writing course makes so much sense. This course was a trial run for this textbook: I was worried that my enthusiasm for Understanding Rhetoric would push me to ignore whether the text was really effective for my students. I was pleased to see that I don’t have to be concerned.

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