Taking Comics Seriously

Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan AlexanderElizabeth Losh, Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego, and Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.

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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Comics and Scholarship

posted: 1.30.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

By Elizabeth Losh

Academic scholarship that depends upon citation and review of existing literature is usually seen as  dense and complicated, diametrically opposed to the clarity and accessibility of comics.  As this column has pointed out, however, the increasingly common practice of assigning graphic novels in college curricula has hardly created a rise in “gut” courses.  Grappling with a dense graphic novel often means that students are more challenged by the visual and verbal content than they had anticipated, and they need to develop more sophisticated strategies of reading to understand practices of allusion, notation, framing, and sequencing that are common in the comics lexicon.

Now a number of younger scholars are embracing the comics form as a vehicle for criticism, from single-panel comics to full-fledged graphic novel presentations.  For example, Stockton College professor Adeline Koh has produced a series of web comics tagged with the hashtag #dhpoco that depict her frustrations with the conservatism of the digital humanities and her desires to represent the complexities of the postcolonial experience in new media archival environments.  One of the comics at Postcolonial Digital Humanities shows Koh with colleague Roopika Risam reacting to an archivist announcing that “people of color didn’t start writing until after the twentieth century,” while books on the bookshelf list centuries of masterpieces composed by former slaves or writers in the Global South.

Writer Nick Sousanis is currently a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he is writing and drawing his dissertation entirely in comic book form.  At his blog Spin, Weave, and Cut, readers can see samples of chapters from Unflattening as it is being written, which includes existential meditations on the “boxes” that are “divided and neatly packaged into discrete units” and rich tableaux that demonstrate his mastery at representing anatomical figures, graphic representations, and architectural landscapes.  His work has also appeared in publications such as the periodical Journal of Visual Arts Research or the book On Narrative Inquiry.  You can see his pedagogy at work in his course on “Comics as Education”.

At The Comics Grid, an open access open peer review journal of comics scholarship, articles like “Irony in The Dark Knight Returns can take advantage of “modular” rather than “strictly linear” ways to organize a scholarly argument that could also be modeled in the composition classroom.   Writer Nicolas Labarre explains that “modularity was a way to include footnote digressions without relegating them to a marginal space.”

All three of these academic writers are using comics as a means to expand the expressive capacities of academic discourse. whether it be for pointed criticism in the tradition of satire, lyrical philosophical exploration of a medium, or new modes of argumentative organization, their efforts offer new paradigms for students to imitate as well, as developing writers consider the pathos, ethos, and logos of traditional rhetorical offerings.

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The Importance of Teaching Comics Literacy

posted: 12.10.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Today’s guest blogger is Michael Pemberton, a Professor of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, Director of the University Writing Center, and Editor of the online journal Across the Disciplines. He has published five books, including The Ethics of Writing Instruction: Issues in Theory and Practice, The Center Will Hold: Critical Reflections on Writing Center Scholarship, and Bookmarks: A Guide to Research and Writing, 3rd Ed., and more than 90 articles on writing, writing technologies, and writing center research in journals such as College Composition and Communication and Computers and Composition. He has also actively pursued a lifelong interest in sequential art, graphic novels, and the impact these media have had on American culture.

Every fall semester, I teach a course called “Comic Book Writing in American Culture,” an upper-division offering in the department of Writing and Linguistics that attracts not only majors but a variety of interested students across campus. Many of these students, as might be expected, are avid comics readers and fans; they’re familiar with the genre, the tropes, the conventions, as well as many of the artists, writers, plots, storylines, and histories of their favorite characters. They do the readings and participate actively in class discussions.

Other students, however, are significantly less familiar with comics – either as a genre or as a medium of expression. A few say that they remember reading Archie or Sonic or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they were kids, but they don’t read comics regularly now, if at all. I really appreciate having these students in my class because it gives me the chance to introduce them to comic book history and a few of the analytical tools used in comics studies. They frequently interpret course readings (both comic book stories and scholarly, analytical texts) with perspectives that are largely unfettered by a long-term immersion in fan culture.

One of the problems I hadn’t anticipated with these students – a problem that should have been obvious in retrospect – is that not all of them know how to read comics. Sometimes they’re simply not familiar with the iconic conventions (e.g., the manipulation of panel borders to indicate dreams or flashbacks, the significance of emanata, etc.), but other times they just have a hard time adjusting their reading practices to a genre that relies so heavily on visual cues and artistic style.

I first became aware of this phenomenon a few years ago when I assigned the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. It’s a grim, post-apocalyptic tale in which the aging Bruce Wayne once again takes up his Batman identity and attempts to restore order in Gotham City and, later, the rest of the world. One of the pivotal moments in the story is his final confrontation with the Joker, a visually potent scene in which the Joker commits suicide by breaking his own neck, knowing that the Batman will be blamed for his murder.

When we talked about the novel and this particular event in class, half of the students expressed surprise when I said the Joker had killed himself. “Really?” “No way!” “I was sure Batman killed him!” “Wow! That changes the whole way I look at the story.”

I was as shocked as they were.

In Understanding Rhetoric’s Reframe section, Issue #2, Luis and Cindy get to the gist of this problem quite succinctly:

Luis: “When I came back from my trip, I figured that these were just comic books and that I could speed read them, but this is taking forever.”

Cindy: “Yeah, comic books aren’t always a quick read.”

We all know that students sometimes have difficulty reading print texts, and sometimes, partly due to time pressures, they rush through assigned readings without taking the time to think critically or analytically about what they have read (Horning 2007, Jollife and Harl 2008). But I think comics introduce a new variable into this equation because most students – and most everyone else, truth to tell – believe comics are meant to be read quickly. People’s reading behaviors are largely conditioned by their exposure to conventional print formats, so they tend to “read” comics by focusing on textual elements first and foremost (captions, word balloons, thought bubbles, sound effects) and visual elements quickly or only in passing. This can be a workable strategy when visual elements contribute relatively little to meaning or when their significance is simply and easily perceived. The image to the right, illustrating Cindy’s bit of dialogue from Understanding Rhetoric, is one such example. The image shows which character is speaking and little more.

On the other hand, this second image (which appears later in the text) is far more visually complex and conveys layers of symbolic meaning far beyond that expressed by the text in the word balloons. The individual blocks, the childlike versions of Liz and Alexander, the actions of other children in the background, and Liz and Alexander’s “adult” selves all need to be “read” in order to extract the panel’s full meaning, a meaning that is important to the rest of the narrative.

In Understanding Rhetoric, Losh and Alexander highlight the importance of visual “reading” skills when they analyze images of Frederick Douglass in two editions of his Autobiography (Issue 2, pp. 82-84), and this same process can be applied, I think, to comics reading in our classes more generally. Just as we teach our students print literacy, digital literacy, information literacy, and visual literacy, we need to designate time and effort to teach them skills in comics literacy if we expect them to read, interpret, and comprehend the unique features of this hybrid medium.


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A Re-Vision of Peer Review using Understanding Rhetoric

posted: 11.25.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

This week we welcome guest blogger Molly Scanlon. Molly is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her research focuses on visual rhetoric through the study of comics collaborations, educational comics, and public/street art. Scanlon will be featured in a forthcoming collection, The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World, edited by Daniel Worden.

Issue 6 of Understanding Rhetoric, Rethinking Revision, offers students several ways to think about what the authors call “rhetorical revision” — revising for higher order concerns. Revising on this macro-level involves taking what may seem to be extreme and unusual action to see your work in a new way. In their discussion of radical revision, Liz and Jonathan provide two examples of professional writers and their processes: Jane Austen, who struggled with the ending of Pride and Prejudice and decided the only remedy was a total re-writing of the story’s final events, and Maxine Hong Kingston, who lost her manuscript in a house fire. Like Austen, her revision would re-inform her work, but she had to do more than rewrite a conclusion; she had to start from the beginning. So she incorporated the fire and her loss in the story itself.

The examples of professional writers included in Issue 6 demonstrate relatable scenarios that any writer could encounter. Like Austen, there are moments when we just don’t feel right about our writing, and that instinct is often correct. After walking away, even for a few minutes, it seems we are able to see our argument in a new way.

Like Kingston, we can be forced (or encouraged by a peer or instructor) to start over. Whether work is lost to a hard drive crash or a lack of audience response, at some point, every writer must face the fact that revision is the required next step. But, like Kingston’s experience, this does not mean the previous work is “lost.” Rather, it provides a new way of seeing writing through prior work thereby informing and—more often than not—enriching a new draft. How, I thought to myself, could I help my students to see their writing in new ways? How could I turn the experiences of Austen and Hong Kingston into a class activity that would inspire radical revision?

Taking it to the Classroom

When preparing students to write a rhetorical analysis, I try to keep in mind that students often struggle with writing too much summary before they feel confident in making claims about a speaker’s credibility, purpose, or emotional appeal. How can I help students to see where they need to stop summarizing and start making claims about the speaker’s rhetoric? How can I help students understand that every claim must be supported with evidence from the text or speech? How can I make peer review most helpful to students and get them to think about revising radically?

I recalled an exercise that a colleague had shared in which students highlight summary in one color and analysis in another. This visual approach allows students to see where their writing was out of balance and weighed too heavily on summary. I loved this idea, but I wanted to do something more radical as well: I wanted to ask students to see their work through another’s eyes, as Issue 6 had encouraged.

Inspired by the experience of Maxine Hong Kingston, I concocted a series of radical re-vision exercises that would provide the proverbial cleansing fire, without the trauma of losing an entire manuscript. I wanted to tailor this approach to address balancing summary and analysis as well as supporting analytical claims with evidence. Using formatting features available in most word processing software, I created two exercises that visually transformed student writing in ways they—and I—had never seen before.


Radical Re-Vision Exercise #1: Balancing Summary and Analysis

Using the highlighting feature in a word processor, peer reviewers were asked to highlight a sentence in yellow if it was the speaker’s idea and in blue if it was the student writer’s idea (a claim about how the speaker made her argument). Then students returned to their papers to see their paragraph in a new way:

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This was what students had to say about this re-vision exercise:

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Students raved about how helpful this exercise was. Seriously. They raved about peer review. After grading the second assignment, I estimate that 90% of students effectively balanced their summaries of the content speaker’s argument with their analysis of the rhetorical strategies evident in the speaker’s argument. For my on-level composition course, that might not be surprising to hear, but for my Basic Writing sections, I was impressed by this growth of sophistication in my students’ writing.


Radical Re-Vision Exercise #2: Evidence to Support Analytical Claims

To complement the first exercise, which aimed to help students balance summary and analysis, I conceived of another re-vision exercise which would then ask students to make sure that their analytical claims had support (a quote or a paraphrase from the speaker). This time, the re-vision would be even more radical; students would re-order the sentences in a paragraph and ask a peer to reassemble it using a template like the one below.


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Some students were left with oddly-shaped pieces in the form of sentences that served no purpose; it was neither summary nor analysis, and so it did not fit. This proved helpful for those students who were inclined to evaluate the speaker or insert opinion. The re-vision exercise visually identified where evidence was missing, which then allowed students to identify where their revision needed to begin and showed students that there is no room in rhetorical analysis for their opinion of the speaker or the speech.


Seeing revision in this new light allowed me to develop peer review exercises that helped my students to see their work from new perspectives. The success of these exercises was evident in students’ final drafts, but also in their own reflections:

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Because of Understanding Rhetoric’s unique approach to revision, I was able to create peer review exercises that encouraged students to engage in a re-vision of their own writing. The memorable stories of Jane Austen and Maxine Hong Kingston are just two examples of how the visual form of this textbook makes its messages more engaging and memorable for all writers.

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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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Conversation, Writing, and the Role of Comics

posted: 10.28.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Today we welcome guest blogger Chris Gerben. Chris teaches writing and speaking courses within the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University. His research interrogates ways in which students’ extracurricular and/or online writing may be seen as collaborative, argumentative, and academic. You can contact Chris at cgerben@stanford.edu.


At the beginning of each semester you may confuse me for a priest holding confessions. Students line up to confide in me that they’re not good writers (despite grades or early writing assignments to the contrary.)

For thirteen years as an instructor, I’ve heard the same insecurities from both stellar and struggling students. Students often tend to think that becoming a “writer” is something that is far off, like a goal line that, once passed, will be seen only in hindsight where the hard work and difficulties are behind them. In this view, “writers” are other people, and the rest of us are still struggling to find our way.

Experienced instructors fully understand the fallacy of such thoughts, and yet we often teach and assign texts that inadvertently reinforce it.


Comics in the Classroom

Part of the problem feeding the aforementioned confessions is that our assigned texts often reinforce paradigms of what it means to author: everything from the style of academic prose to the hardcover bindings of books tell students that writing is an indifferent, far-off success. As a result, how we teach students to read (and consequently write) is equally walled off: we seek to understand and to analyze hidden motives and far-off meanings, and we read to write through the text, but not necessarily to the text.

Comics in the classroom, however, provide us with examples of where authors look directly at their readers, and students can imagine themselves as equally active agents in the ongoing dialogues. Likewise, these texts provide multiple entry points to knowledge.

Page 44 of Understanding Rhetoric, for example, uses smart, economical visuals to explain the classical appeals in a variety of ways: providing definitions, paraphrases, examples, and even an author’s facial reactions mimicking the given appeal (e.g. Liz looking emotionally distressed to display pathos.)

This page, which I’ve taught with equal success to both high school and college students, demonstrates these strengths of comics in the writing classroom: meeting readers exactly where they are on their journey to seeing themselves as writers. Such a graphic approach takes advantage of its visual means to connect directly with readers and, perhaps, restore some of their confidence in their ability to talk back to the material.


Production Over Consumption

Here, “talking back” is the bridge between reading and writing (or consumption and production), where teachers can use comics to deliver information, but also invite students to produce visual narratives, such as comics. Bedford provides a nice list of sites and sources to accomplish this.

One way I’ve used comics successfully in my college classroom is to use them in assignments I call “visual conversations.” In these assignments, students bring in a digital photo of themselves (or choose an impersonal yet significant avatar) and then use Google or other online resources to find photos of the authors we’ve discussed in class. For example, if a student were writing about this blog, she may use the author photo above. Once the author photos are in place, students use comics to simulate an actual conversation they may have with the authors. The conversations often start as informal, and even silly, but eventually scaffold to incorporate class themes, the students’ claims, and even direct quotes.

Though students use the paradigm of comics to model this conversational give and take, there are many variations I allow:

  • Use an app/program like Comic Life to drag and drop visuals and text into actual comic forms (students often create pages-long narratives with this)
  • Use software such as Photoshop or Powerpoint to create a low-tech visual mock-up of a social network site, where authors become the student’s virtual “friends”
  • Use Word or any word processer to mimic the give and take of a text message or instant message conversation


Conversation as Writing; Writing as Conversation

What the above assignment and Understanding Rhetoric have in common is that they position the students as active agents in a conversation that they (the students) are invested in. In the assignment, students control the language, flow, and outcome of the conversation. In the textbook, the authors are drawn to literally look readers in the eye, forming a direct connection to the content. Both instances make the metaphor of writing as conversation more concrete, and provide a powerful lesson for our student writers that the best writing isn’t some far off goal of getting published, but is the immediate action of connecting with a singular individual.

Comics provide us, in the form of texts like Understanding Rhetoric, not only novel ways to read and analyze the inherent conversation of writing; they provide us with a heuristic for transferring the often abstract forms of thought and oral conversation with the very vivid world of rhetorically-aware writing.

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