Author Archive

Announcing a CCCC Event on Teaching with Understanding Rhetoric

posted: 3.11.15 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Have you taught with Understanding Rhetoric by Liz Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon–or are you curious about teaching with it in the future?

Are you going to 4Cs in Tampa?

If you said yes to both questions, please consider joining us for a panel featuring instructors who have taught with Understanding Rhetoric–plus a chance to share your own ideas and gather some new assignments and teaching tips.

 WHEN: Friday, March 20, from 9:30-10:45 a.m.

WHERE: Tampa Marriott Waterside

WHAT: Panel discussion and idea lab! Hear from instructors about ways to teach with the book. Then brainstorm, share, and evaluate assignment ideas–in a friendly group, with art supplies (and muffins)! Our goal is to give everyone three great new ideas for teaching with Understanding Rhetoric.

Please complete this brief survey to RSVP. Space is limited! We’ll send the room information during the conference.


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Categories: Elizabeth Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Professional Conferences, Professional Development & Service
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Teaching Engineering as a Discipline with Graphic Novels

posted: 3.6.15 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

A few months ago Nick Carbone pointed out one of the most interesting and sophisticated examples of student work that I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel format, “What is Engineering?”  by Mallory “Mel” Chua, who blogs at

In a Skype interview, Chua provided some of the context that inspired her to create this dazzling graphic essay. “Visual rhetoric is something I can’t stop doing. I’ve been a visual thinker for a long time. I wanted to be an art major in high school, but my parents wanted me to study engineering instead. Fortunately, I liked it… and now I draw comics about engineering, so that worked out.” Chua has no formal art training, but has been informally experimenting with graphical communication for many years; a scan of her high school physics class notes shows a similar comic-book sketch style:

During her years in industry, Chua used her visual skills to insert herself into team conversations. “I would be the first to go to the whiteboard and start sketchnoting what we were doing, and people would start telling me things and explaining things because they wanted me to draw them. It was a strategy to keep myself in the loop, to get people to teach me what was going on, even if I was the most junior engineer in the building.” A good deal of her work involved international collaboration, and the visuals translated well across language boundaries. “It’s just the way I think,” she observed, “even though I am usually supposed to translate myself into words afterwards.” She described her typical approach to a writing prompt as being “doodle doodle doodle, then reluctantly think about writing the real paper. It never occurred to me that the sketches could become the real paper. What if you didn’t have to translate things into words to have them count?”

“What is Engineering?” was written during Chua’s first semester of graduate study at Purdue’s School of Engineering Education in a course on the History and Philosophy of Engineering Education, which she described as her “first delving into social sciences” in which they were asked to write papers defining “engineering,” “education,” and “engineering education.”  Rhetoricians, familiar with the concept of an “argument of definition” will recognize the assignment as an ancient one, of course.

As Chua explained, “I sketched and sketched as I thought, but could not find a way to translate my thoughts into writing. Before I knew it, the paper was due the next day, but the visual format was too important to my thoughts. I sat down and inked out the written pieces in my sketchbook so I would at least have something to turn in. I thought for sure I would fail the assignment, that my professors would say it wasn’t written properly.” Instead, she was surprised at the positive reaction to the piece, which has since been downloaded thousands of times from around the world. “My advisor went to South Africa and mentioned the names of her students, and another professor reached into their bag and pulled out my comic. We were stunned.”

Despite the spontaneous character of the work’s initial composition, she acknowledged the need to reflect and consider many of the aspects of doing nonfiction work in a graphic format. “How to I cite things? What tools do I use? I didn’t know anyone else did this, so I thought I had to invent all the visual rhetoric devices on my own. And validity. I worried so much that the approach wouldn’t be seen as serious or valid, so I came up with defensive arguments for everything.

In response to a question about how eyeglasses were an important visual motif that ran through “What is Engineering?” and “other frames, lenses, and viewfinders” that she might have been conscious of deploying, Chua laughed about how she had initially overlooked the importance of the trope as an assistive technology. The use of the eyeglasses metaphor was not a “rhetorical or political decision,” according to Chua, although she also says that “the personal is political.” “We use the word ‘lenses’ to describe our theories all the time, so I just drew them remember, it was 2am the day the paper was due, so I wasn’t thinking too hard about it. The visual metaphor worked, so I kept using it as I continued to draw the piece. There can be many kinds of engineering eyeglasses, and they can coexist with other disciplines. I might wear my engineering eyeglasses, my anthropology hat, my journalism coat, and my social activist boots all at the same time.”

Chua admitted that drawing diversity  age, race, gender, and disability  into the engineers portrayed in “What is Engineering?” was important for broadening the perspective of engineering students. She added that there are many other kinds of diversity that aren’t as easy to draw. In thinking about “disability as a site for engineering education work,” Chua wonders in hindsight if she could have chosen a different sort of visual rhetoric, especially since many engineers have disabilities that are hidden or invisible. “The wheelchair has become the handicapped poster symbol. I might think about it differently if I redrew the piece, try to mix it up a little.”

Using engineering graph paper as a choice of medium was completely accidental. “The assignment was due in 10 hours, and that was the paper I had on hand, but it was a nice effect for this particular piece. I have worked in other mediums since then, but they’re all pretty primitive  it’s usually an ordinary writing pen on printer paper or in my notebook, or sketching on my phone.” When asked for her ideas about how to best design a graphic assignment for engineers, she emphasize the importance of formative assessment. “Drawing is an unfamiliar and intimidating language for lots of people. It has to be okay to get out these awful, incomplete, sketchy things to think with. We work with prototypes of machines and drafts of papers all the time, but there’s not a lot of examples out there of draft sketches outside of art class  of what visual thinking in other disciplines looks like before it becomes the polished, final piece.” Fortunately, this format also has “a different sort of hermeneutics built in… it’s more generative, more expansive, and supportive of more divergent ideas, once people are accustomed to doing dialogue with pictures rather than words.”

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Communicating to Non-Literate Audiences with Comics

posted: 2.2.15 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

In the United States comics generally appeal to those who already know how to read and write, but in other contexts sequences of images with relatable characters and stories convey important information to the illiterate about how to avoid danger or pursue opportunities.

For example, Mudita Tiwari and Deepti KC of India’s Institute for Financial Management and Research are distributing comic books about financial literacy in the slum of Dharavi in Mumbai to discourage women from relying on vulnerable hiding places in their homes to squirrel away cash. As a co-author of Understanding Rhetoric, a comic textbook, I was particularly interested to see their financial literacy tools for women, which emphasized graphic media for storytelling and sequential art as a means of communication.

As they explained to the annual conference of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, before adopting this approach they found that the lack of information about banking alternatives was compounded by apathy toward generic information that “didn’t click.”   To provide meaningful context, they developed an interactive story-telling approach using comic books that starred two major characters: Radha, who is always struggling with financial adversities, and Saraswati, her sensible money-managing friend.  Researchers actually used real-life stories to compose the narrative.

Financial Literacy for Women Entrepeneurs

The literacy problem in India is serious, because the country has 287 million illiterate adults, or 37 percent of all illiterate adults globally (UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report).  However, many countries have large populations of illiterate adults, and in the United States, public health efforts have enlisted comic books for decades (Schneider, “Quantifying and Visualizing the History of Public Health Comics”).  Even in the supposedly conservative 1950s, Planned Parenthood used comics to get out the word about family planning.

Selene Biffi was asked to write a public health comic book for Afghanistan by the United Nations.  The experience inspired her to found a nonprofit organization that makes graphically appealing storytelling-oriented print materials for the developing world, Plain Ink.  According to their website, rather than donate books manufactured in the West, their organization supports “the use of local skills in the countries where we work” and strives to “find the best authors, illustrators, printers and distributors to collaborate with” to “create employment and contribute to local economic and social development.”  A story on the organization in Fast Company includes some sample pages, which show children making a lid for a well and a sign warning of contaminated water.  These panels need to communicate information efficiently, simply, and without ambiguity.

Composition instructors can create interesting audience-oriented assignments for students that ask them to create comics for audiences lacking fundamental literacy skills, perhaps as part of a larger research project exploring a topic, such as ways to ameliorate disease or the effects of natural disasters.  As an example, faculty could show recent pamphlets with visual instructions about containing the Ebola epidemic.

Explaining complex phenomena with simple illustrations can also provide the provocation of a grand challenge to classes exploring different communication modalities.  For example, how could global warming be explained to non-literate people or discoveries about the benefits of breast feeding using only pictures?  The peer-reviewed research may use relatively advanced scientific models, but the issues you assign should be ones that affect rich and poor alike.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Audience, Elizabeth Losh, Genre, Purpose, Rhetorical Situation, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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Talking about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with Comics

posted: 11.17.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Many campuses now have general education requirements that require students to take courses that incorporate sensitivity training designed to reduce incidents of racism or sexism on campus.  The problem with these courses is that they may often be too short in duration, too large in enrollment, or too superficial in content to effect real behavioral change, particularly among students imbued with false confidence that they live in a postracial society in which Obama is president, they don’t know any racists, and they can adopt completely color-blind attitudes.

My colleague Ethnic Studies Professor Wayne Yang, whom I have written about in Bedford Bits before, asks students to consider how there can still be racism without designated racists, given existing structures of inequality.  In his courses he also assigns work by the Hernandez Brothers, such as the classic Love and Rockets series to help students understand everyday racism, sexism, and homophobia and why it is so destructive.

Not every conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion needs the visual and verbal sophistication of the so-called Los Bros. Hernandez to get started.  Many students encounter spurs for discussion in the cruder comics that might be shared through social media venues.  For example, xkcd’s classic stick comic that opposes “you suck at math” with “girls suck at math” is frequently reposted.    Other examples that promote “stick figure politics” can prompt meaningful exchanges, which your students may be willing to share if they have encountered them on feeds from Facebook, Tumblr, and other sites.

After Elliot Roger’s verbal rants and misogynistic killing spree that targeted University of California students at the Santa Barbara campus, a Japanese artist working under the penname Rasenth wanted to call attention to how sexist attitudes could have many kinds of negative consequences with this comic, which The Huffington Post praised as one in which “This Comic Perfectly Captures How Feminism Helps Everyone.”

In fact “perfect” is often a term that describes such comics, such as “What Men Need To Understand About Everyday Sexual Harassment, In One Perfect Comic” or “This Comic Perfectly Explains What White Privilege Is.”  It might be worth talking to students about why a particular rhetorical performance with “comics” might be understood at “perfect” and how the medium of comics might be seen as distilling particularly essential truths.  Of course, the danger of introducing comics into sensitive conversations about race, gender, sexuality, age, class, and ability might be to reinforce cartoonish notions that the issues are easy to reduce to simple truisms or can always be understood easily without a complex process.   Nonetheless, comics can often be a good way to introduce dialogue about sexism and racism.

That said, drawing attention to comics isn’t always the right way to go in discussions about disparities around gender and race.   For example, given the current discussion about the intensity of online harassment that can be aimed at women in the wake of the GamerGate, I am not sure that this essayist in The Atlantic is right to equate earlier debates about “high” and “low” culture in comics with the hate speech that has boiled up in response to the challenges of AAA games from those in the independent games movement affiliated with feminist critics and developers.  I would urge instructors who want to address this straight-from-the-headlines story to read the text of “The Art War Before GamerGate” themselves, but I fear that the author doesn’t get specifically to issues about how women may be silenced in hostile online environments.  (For more on the GamerGate story, check out my #GamerGate 101 and resources about Diversity, Equity, Access here.)

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Teaching about Free Speech with Comics

posted: 11.3.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Last month Alison Bechdel received a prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program Award.  Known for her comic strip work Dykes to Watch Out For and the acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home, which is about her experiences growing up in a funeral home fearful of coming out as a lesbian to her closeted gay father, Bechdel was lauded by the foundation for  “redefining paradigms” in autobiographical writing.  Achieving this recognition was particularly notable, because Bechdel had been at the center of a firestorm of controversy after her work had been designated for inclusion in all-college assigned reading at state-funded campuses.  Conservative legislatures objected to subsidizing material that they deemed supposedly promoting “gay lifestyles” and tried to use the power of the purse to block teaching the book.  Particularly vociferous in condemning Bechdel’s work was Representative Garry R. Smith, who used committee procedures to withdraw $52,000 in funding from the College of Charleston, which had arranged to highlight Bechdel’s Fun Home in its summer reading program.

After being threatened with the de-funding of the reading program, both the college and Bechdel responded.  Ultimately funding was restored, but only on the condition that monies be spent on instruction about documents created by the founding fathers.

During Banned Books Week this year, the Bechdel case was still foremost in the minds of organizers who staged a dialogue between two famed cartoonists — Scott McCloud and Larry Marder — held in San Diego, home of Comic-Con, to commemorate the long history of censorship and comics.  I’ve written before about teaching with comics as primary sources in order to understand how comics played into anxieties about nonconformity in the 1950s and earlier censorship debates, but it might be worth discussing classroom materials for discussing attempts to regulate free speech in graphic novels that are situated in the present.

One great resource for instructors is the website of The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which provides a free download to a comic book devoted to Celebrating Banned Books Week.  It details a number of cases in which local schools and libraries have encountered campaigns for book bans and the reasons why other popular comics with literary ambitions, such as Persepolis, Blankets, Bone, and Watchmen, were seen as objectionable.

(The CBLDF also offers a comic book for parents and K-12 teachers about that aims at addressing the stigma associated with comic book literacy, suggesting ways that graphic texts are appropriate for fulfilling new state standards, and defending younger kids “right to read.”)

In our chapter on “Getting Beyond Pro and Con” in Understanding Rhetoric, we argue that it is important to show that there are usually more than two sides in an academic debate, so before introducing this material, you may want to think about possible cases in which there might be legitimate arguments for opposing sponsorship of certain kinds of graphic texts, such as those that promote racist or sexist ideologies, distort facts, or promote values at odds with public funding.  For example, is the depiction of scientists in Evolution vs. God appropriate for a public college campus?

As an instructor, you may also want to talk about the methodologies of analysis that might make a seemingly inappropriate comic appropriate for the classroom.  For example, the anti-Semitic cartoons published by Der Stürmer might appear in a history classroom as a way to discuss the stereotypes perpetuated by the Nazi racial state, but they wouldn’t meet the criteria for redeeming cultural value as assigned reading in a literature course, where Maus might be much more appreciated as an object of study, although the CBDLF notes that Maus itself has been targeted for expulsion from the curriculum.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Elizabeth Losh, Visual Rhetoric
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Getting your comic Zen on…

posted: 7.10.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Jonathan recently sat down digitally to catch up with his former student, David Lumb, now a full-time journalist and aspiring comics author in NYC. In this interview, David shares more thoughts on comics, composing, computers, crowdfunding…and hesitation sandtraps!

 1. What are you reading now, graphically, and what’s special about it?

Graphically, I’m reading a lot of Image comics – Saga, of course, but also Sex Criminals and East of West. It’s pretty clear that Image has an amazing roster of top-tier writers and artist who have taken the Vertigo crown for non-superhero concepts and are leading from the fore. As my journalist friend Josh Rivera says, it’s all about finding a creative team you trust. Even new stuff that’s yet to develop, like The Wicked + The Divine, are conceptually dynamic enough to keep me hooked. But I’m a sucker for new concepts, and since the above creators are largely white folks writing about white characters, I’ll pick up G. Willow Wilson’s and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, in which a Muslim teenager inherits an Avenger’s mantle and romps around NYC. The book’s a great stride for nonWASP superhero comics, but equally important are the conversations it spurs: what identities is America uncomfortable with exploring? There are millions of Muslims in America–so why do we treat narrative explorations of their lives as evangelism?

2. What are you writing now, graphically, and what particular composing challenges are you setting yourself?

I’ve been working on a story about characters in a Massively Multiplayer Online game. Game companies are getting scary good at giving us what we want. It’s easy to criticize escapism–but what about mobile and tablet games that insert gaming everywhere you go? Instead of distinct in-game-selves and IRL-selves, mainstream mobile gaming is blurring our identity. Spike Jonze’s [film] Her illustrated this perfectly: the real horror is when nobody’s anxious about new technological interaction but you. The challenge, I find, is to light on our discomforts as humans and peer beyond that edge. It’s easy to write a topical version of “Sinking Into The Matrix,” about humanity’s addiction to indulgence. It’s much harder to present complex characters in repulsive situations they’ve gotten themselves into and find it hard to break out of. Discomfort and change have always been bedfellows, but the real fun comes when different characters reach those thresholds at different times–just like us humans!

3. What would you recommend writing teachers who want to teach with graphic books teach–and why?

Writing teachers who have been adventurous enough to share comics almost always use seminal comic texts–Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, etc. Those are critical artistic and narrative texts, to be sure, but more important in historical context. We’ve been living in a post-DKR world for thirty years now. We surely don’t need Marvel or DC to save comics, especially now that they’re both making billions off their IPs in the theaters. As a conservative medium, comics has honored predecessors for generations. It’s time to talk about why we have come far from it–and why we haven’t. Go pick up a few single issues from a comics store and let’s talk about why some books are way better at serialization and others are clearly chopping up a five-issue arc into arbitrary chapters, if not just making it up as they go. Should we even support serialization?

Note that I said “pick up at a comic store”–because graphic stories really haven’t grown out of the “comic book store ghetto” as comics legend Gerry Conway puts it. The much-hoped digital marketplace for comics is thinning: the death of Graphicly means Comixology is now by far the most visible place to get comics online or on mobile–and yet, thanks to its purchase by Amazon earlier this year, the most visible digital comics outlet is enmeshed in the Amazon-Apple war. This is obviously very granular for the classroom, but it’s important to discuss how the medium’s growth is being helped and hampered by its wild Hollywood and digital success. We have the potential to crowdfund comic projects, but how are we going to make these projects visible and accessible when corporations have digital distribution by the short hairs?

 4. Any special exercises you might recommend that writing teachers have their students do–or do with their students?

The more interactive experiences, the better. There’s certainly fear on both sides that personal work isn’t good enough, but sharing builds trust. There are more tools and frameworks helping writers every day. Even though Sturgeon’s Law still applies, you have things like the Storyline Productivity Schedule that motivate writers to plan, schedule, and set goals for their days. It’s a terrible admission that I often don’t get to writing by the end of the day, but tools eliminating obstacles between a writer and her work will make that work pleasurable again. There’s an assumption that folks in the orbit of academia have more time on their hands–but it’s not the quantity of time that keeps us from writing, is it? It’s the obstacles inside, the hesitation sandtraps that bog down what kind of writers we want to be. More directly, I think exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones are exceptional for chopping rules and getting you back to writing things that breathe. Get your zen on!

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Making Comics in the Classroom: Success as Process

posted: 6.23.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander


Guest blogger Keith McCleary has an MFA in Creative Writing from UCSD and is the recipient of the Barbara and Paul Saltman Excellent Teaching Award for Graduate Students and a UCIRA Open Classroom Challenge Grant. He is the author of two graphic novels, Killing Tree Quarterly and Top of the Heap, from Terminal Press. 

The past two springs I have taught a course called ComiCraft, which combines an upper-division composition seminar with a hands-on practicum in which students create and then write about their own comics, making for a unique experience that’s both generative and reflexive. The binary works especially well as a reflection of the work the students are already doing to exercise both their textual and visual skills through each assignment.

“Who Are You?” (excerpt) by Andrew Keohane, ComiCraft 2013

Being a combination course, ComiCraft also has two final assignments–participation in an on-campus gallery show of student comics, and a letter of intent from each student in which they must craft a personal statement that leads to an argument for why their work should appear in the gallery space. Many of my students feel intimidated in trying to write about their development as artists in ways that are genuine, since they often do not feel like artists at all. (I make sure to explain to them that this particular strain of impostor syndrome will show up even when applying for jobs or grants in their own fields, and in those situations the stakes will be much higher.)

But this past spring I was pleasantly surprised to see several students declare that they enjoy making comics even when they feel that not every aspect of their finished products are especially “good,” and that they appreciate having several avenues at their disposal to communicate their ideas–text, art, and layout. The fact that none of our students comes in with all the skill sets needed to execute comics at a professional level is very apparent to them—and faced with this relatively even playing field, the students become more willing to try, fail, and try again.

One of the most difficult barricades to break down in my classroom comes in working with students whose honest investment in their own education is complicated by their fear of getting anything less than an “A” on every assignment. Even in a class on comics, in which garnering a basic level of involvement is relatively easy, I’ll still have many students who try to “game the system”–those who seem to learn new material only as a side effect of trying to figure out shortcuts to acing the course. For them, it’s vitally important that failure (which to them means a “B” or less) be seen not as a punishment, but as a very necessary part of a process. I have found that making comics in the classroom is a great way to get this point across.

“Mariele Mondala” (excerpt) by Aimee Ermel, ComiCraft 2014

Whether through 15-minute assignments that demand a full page be drawn in class under a strict prompt, or in a several-week long project that goes through multiple drafts, it becomes obvious to my students that anyone can make comics, with little to no training. It’s also clear the quality of those comics becomes better with practice, and with attention to detail. But it’s a form free of the emotional weight of academic writing–being “bad” at making comics isn’t a big deal, and says nothing about who you are as a student or a person.

Although this is never stated openly during the course, the larger takeaway on using comics in class is the way they reteach us how to be “bad” at something and remind us how we learn to get better. With the proper coaching, I’ve been able to get my students to take the same perspective into their prose–to generate new material without self-editing as they go, to be critical of their work without being judgmental of themselves, and to realize that revision is useful and necessary, but does not need to overwhelm them so completely that it stops them in their tracks.

Of course, these revelations don’t happen for every student. But I think that as an unofficial “graphic novel initiative” is taking over the humanities, it’s worthwhile for instructors to try and make the course assignments match the course readings. It may be scary for teachers who have never drawn comics themselves to ask students to make the attempt, but this inexperience can also be used strategically. My students know I have a background in comics, and yet they have seen me participate in class exercises in which I draw terrible comic strips no better than the ones they’re able to make themselves. The fact that I’m still able to speak articulately about the choices I’m making illustrates all the steps in the process between intention and execution, and it provides a model for students to do the same.

“Worldmaking, Too” (excerpt) by Keith McCleary, for ComiCraft 2014 gallery show

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How Comics Can Be an Entry Point to Prose Novels

posted: 5.30.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Today’s guest blogger is Daniel Jose Ruiz, assistant professor and Vice-Chair of English/ESL at Los Angeles City College. Daniel teaches a wide range of courses, from basic skills to literature, but his emphasis is always on fostering a student’s engagement with a text. Daniel is also known for using a variety of materials ranging from YA literature and SF/Fantasy to canonical works.

Imagine that you learned two languages primarily aurally and visually. You did not receive much, if any, formal education in literacy in either language. You were taught to read, but only to the extent that you can navigate the world. You can read basic expository text, but you cannot read subtext or layered prose. You learned both languages by hearing others speak them, speaking back, and consuming media within that language, not by reading.  You may have never even finished a full length novel in your life.  Your primary source for written text is through social media, advertising, and blog/article posting.   If your primary means of engaging language is by speaking, by hearing, and by seeing it displayed, how would you be expected to engage with Orwell’s masterpiece 1984? The answer, generally, is not very well.  This is the struggle that the students in my basic skills courses face.  They are intelligent students, eager to learn and engaged with the concepts of the class, but their literacy skills are often weak.

This past semester, I have taught two works and had two very different experiences.  1984 is a masterpiece (few would dispute this), and its themes of surveillance and tyranny often mirror our own world.  My students struggled with it, even my best.  V for Vendetta is a masterpiece (to the graphic novel crowd), and it is often included in the same list of “canonical” graphic works along with Watchmen, Maus, Persopolis, or The Sandman series.  The themes of surveillance, ideological extremism and purity, and terrorism also mirror our own world. My students excelled with it, even my weakest.  My students found themselves deeply immersed, making poignant connections back to 1984 or contemporary issues, and I never had to worry about asking a question based on a plot point and having the room stare blankly back at me.  Why? Simply, the visual nature of V for Vendetta allowed my students to utilize more than just written literacy.  Even if the words or location were unfamiliar (none of my students had ever been to London or were very familiar with English history), they could look at each individual panel and begin to construct the narrative.

This is not to say that it was easy for them; hardly. For most of my students, it was their first comic book, and learning how to read from panel to panel and in which order was a skill that had to be explained.   Together, we went over how different fonts, italics, and the visual nature of the written language were meant to signify something, a guide from both the artist and writer to lead the reader through the piece.  It did not take long before my students were happily pointing out subtle changes in shadow and composition between panels, different typefaces, and speech bubbles.   It did not matter if a student had learned English as a primary language, a secondary language, or learned it concurrently with another; all of my students could access the text and began to understand its multiple layers of meaning and construction.  I often call this moment “Seeing the Matrix”: where a student finally understands how a text is composed of many, many different yet interwoven layers.  It was exciting for them, and it was exciting for me.

I would often point my students back to 1984, highlighting how Orwell’s text often uses different typeface and visual cues to alert the reader to the change in narration.  While I had explained this to my students already, having read V for Vendetta better demonstrated the point, and now they were able to engage with 1984 in a richer way than before.  In my 7 years of teaching, I have always brought in pieces of visual texts for my students, but this semester marked my first outing with a complete work, and I do not think that I will be going back.

So much of teaching composition is about leading a student to engage with material, but a fundamental problem exists: What happens if a student is lacking foundational literacy skills?  At the institution where I teach, the vast majority of students test into a level or two below freshmen comp.  This is the reality of teaching at a community college like LACC, and each instructor finds a way to educate despite this reality.  For me, graphic novels and visual story-telling have proven to be a consistent means of allowing students to fully engage material despite any foundational gaps.  Once students have developed an understanding of how texts work, it becomes easier for them to see how their own writing works, and it then becomes easier for them to express their thoughts clearly and logically. More importantly, once students feel confident in their abilities, they are more likely to push themselves forward, addressing the foundational gaps that may exist.  A student that feels ashamed for not being able to read at a college level is not going to want to read “college level” novels, let alone write about them.  A graphic work allows them to fully engage, and material like V for Vendetta or Watchmen is neither “teaching down to them” nor “easy”.  In my experience, any text is teachable.  Getting a student to engage and getting a student to think are the ultimate goals, and for me, graphic works provide that balance between the literary and the accessible and the bridge between disengagement and critical thinking.

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We Are All Metamorphs

posted: 4.14.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Today’s guest blogger, Paula Mathieu, teaches courses at Boston College in composition pedagogy, nonfiction writing, rhetoric, cultural studies, and homeless literature, while also directing the First-Year Writing Program and the Writing Fellows Program.  She is author of Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition and co-editor of three essay collections, including Circulating Communities, (2012) co-edited by Stephen Parks and Tiffany Roscoulp.   

Why am I writing this blog entry? While this is either a painfully obvious or deeply philosophical question, it is also deeply rhetorical.

As I write anything—this blog, a letter to my daughter’s school, a love note, an academic article—I must first choose among the many “me”s who write. In this blog, am I Professor Mathieu, from Boston College, director of the Writing Fellows Program—a me who has taught Understanding Rhetoric and recommended it to colleagues? Or am I Paula, a friend of Jonathan’s, who first met him in an airport because I recognized him from his avatar in Understanding Rhetoric—a me who enjoyed learning about the many-layered process of creating a graphic rhetoric book? Or am I Paula the former Chicagoan, who loved seeing animated films such as Spirited Away and the Iron Giant at the grand Music Box Theater on Southport Ave—a me who sees animation and graphic writing as complex, important rhetorical styles?  Or am I Delia’s mom—a me who tries to teach my five-year-old to value words and images and the story and imagination in both?

Choosing which parts of one’s identity are relevant to a specific writing situation allows for certain rhetorical choices while limiting others. For this reason, I love the character of Metamorph in Understanding Rhetoric. S/he helps me clarify to my students a question that can seem puzzling: Who do you want to be as you write this piece?

As Metamorph shows us, we have the ability to frame our writing by calling on certain aspects of our identity, while perhaps de-emphasizing others; we as rhetors need to decide and calibrate who we are in relation to the material and audience.  And it’s often a matter of choosing among several viable possibilities.

Blake, a student in my Argument and Commentary seminar, responded to a New York Times article critiquing music-sharing sites like Spotify.  In his first draft—which was four times longer than the Times letter’s 150-word limit—Blake wrote about his experiences as a musician, as someone who worked in the music industry, and as a music fan.  Each experience offered its own logic and response to the article.  In our workshop, he realized that he wouldn’t have the space to occupy all three identities in one letter, and he appealed to the class to help decide which identity gave him the strongest ethos.  At first, the class suggested that having worked in the music industry gave him the most authoritative perspective. But once we talked through his argument, Blake realized that his most unique perspective came from Blake the Fan, which was the most persuasive metamorph for this situation.

Lizzy, in the same class, had originally hoped to persuade the organizers of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) to continue a longstanding but informal tradition to allow a small group of Boston College students to run the Boston Marathon without a bib (which means without either qualifying by time in another marathon or raising the $5,000 necessary to run for a formal charity) in order to raise money for the BC Campus School, a program that provides intensive learning for severely disabled children.  Given the horror of last year’s bombing, the BAA ruled that this year it will no longer allow “bandit runners,” those who run without an official bib. While understanding the reasons behind this rule, Lizzy mourned the loss of that marathon experience for many college-student runners who can’t afford the steep fundraising requirements of official charities, yet who still helped many local causes like the campus school.

Lizzy decided to write a respectful open letter in defense of bandit runners that she published on an unofficial BC Sports blog.  In it, she she accepts the decision of the BAA for this year but identifies herself as a 2012 bandit runner who helped the BC Campus School.  Instead of challenging BAA’s decision, she suggests a new class of college-charity runners, who could be issued a bib without having to raise the steep $5000 required of charity runners. To offer this new option, she relied on the metamorphing power of research (below) to report on the loss of fundraising to the campus school this year, and to report on other college-marathon relationships in jeopardy because of BAA’s ruling, like one at Tufts University.

The power to metamorph is real but limited.  For example, as someone whose only music experience is that of a listener, I could not draw on what it means to be a musician or a music-industry employee, as Blake could.  As someone who has never run farther than 5K at one shot, I could not draw on my understanding of what it feels like to cross a marathon finish line, as Lizzy could.  So metamorphing, as Elizabeth and Jonathan so artfully show us, is more than putting on a writerly costume; it’s realizing that tactically drawing from our identities and adapting to changing conditions and audiences are central to shaping our persuasive possibilities.

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MOOCs and Comics

posted: 3.14.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

In the composition community, there has been a lot of discussion about the efficacy and difficult of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that may enroll tens of thousands of students in courses designed around video lectures, online quizzes, and peer grading of assignments. Coursera offers English Composition I: Achieving Expertise from Duke University and First Year Composition 2.0 from Georgia Tech.  Steven J. Krause and Charles Lowe have edited the recently published Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, and it’s also a topic for this year’s 4C’s conference.  High-profile MOOC instructors, such as Karen Head, have published reflections that indicate that it can be difficult to scale up from an intimate setting and to work with existing platforms designed for quantitative rather than qualitative assessments.

When Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric decided to launch their own online learning modules using the open edX platform, they wanted to use a different approach: comics.  After all, the program had been shaped by the commitment to teaching multimodal rhetoric championed by former director, Andrea Lunsford .  As academic technology specialist Megan O’Connor explained in an interview with Bedford Bits, when Stanford built it’s modules “using graphic novel style, people have had a really positive response.  They were surprised and excited to see something so different.  The project, which O’Connor explains is “not massive and not a course,” is called Adventures in Writing and uses comics characters to cover a number of subjects in comics format, including active and passive voice, academic language, punctuation, argument, and the rhetorical concerns of audience, purpose, and context.   “We developed the characters by working with six lecturers and a program administrator,” although she admits that they “came to the style somewhat by accident.  We were asking ourselves how to make the most compelling learning tool possible, and we didn’t want to have just talking heads, which are not very helpful to our students,” although they are common in the canned instruction of MOOCs.

From Adventures in Writing’s module on argument

As in the case of composing Understanding Rhetoric, dialogic approaches seemed to be a natural way to approach the task of teaching first-year composition.  Lecturer Erik Ellis, known for arguing for reclamation of the metaphor of conversation in the Burkean Parlor, mentioned doing storyboards as a way to express the group’s ideas.  “He came back with fantastic storyboards,” said O’Connor, which started from his own rough sketches and were developed into finished illustrations by another Stanford lecturer, Sohui Lee.  It was also a solution in which a virtue was created by necessity.  O’Connor described how “our initial idea was to produce motion graphics animations, until we figured out that animation would be really impossible.”  Using the storyboard format as a launch pad, the group eventually decided that the graphic novel format would work better than animation and divided the remaining four units among lecturers who co-wrote the scripts: Erik Ellis, Sohui Lee, Christine Alfano, Wendy Goldberg, John Peterson, Carolyn Ross, and program administrator Zach Waggoner.

Speaking with O’Connor, it was clear that some of the same challenges emerged for the Stanford team creating Adventures in Writing as they did for our University of California team when we created Understanding Rhetoric, particularly when tasked with creating believable and compelling student characters.  She detailed how the two characters that reoccurred, “Maya and Chris, were developed for their current lives in beta testing.   We wanted two characters students could identify with and went back and forth about who they should be.  We were especially concerned that one not seem smarter than the other by being the always narrating lecturer.”  Issues about representing gender and race also were tricky, especially since each module was illustrated by different Stanford students.

From Adventures in Writing’s module on argument

Nonetheless, O’Connor is enthusiastic about bringing comics into an open online learning initiative.

“We felt that this is a different style that may help learners that haven’t learned about these subjects in the traditional way succeed.  In our beta testing we’ve found that some students prefer to learn the traditional way with something that is not visual necessarily, but most appreciate the fact that we are bringing “something different to the platform.”  The technical challenges of adapting the edX platform for close reading panels in comics have also spurred improvements to existing MOOC technologies: “the ability to zoom in, which was not part of edX initially, was developed for us, which was nice.”  In closing, O’Connor summed up the group’s approach: “I think we want students to have fun learning about these topics, and we think the graphic style novel format is fun and very informative.”

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