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.

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:

Click to enlarge


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

Click to Enlarge


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.


Click to read in a new window

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:

Click to enlarge

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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Identity Play

posted: 10.18.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Liz’s last post on “Cross-Dressing and Identity in Understanding Rhetoric” reminds me how important it is to consider identity in the teaching of writing.  Indeed, one of the chapters we insisted on including in Understanding Rhetoric is the fourth chapter on “Writing Identities,” which focuses on the many ways that writers use language and other forms of communication to experiment with identity. One of the examples we draw on is Barbara Ehrenreich’s “experiment” in Nickle and Dimed, in which the author adopts the identity of a working-class American so she can understand the difficulties of making ends meet with a minimum-wage earning job.  In so doing, she allows her own perspectives on class structures to shift, change, develop, and ultimately transform.

Consciously or not, our students are experimenting with identity all the time in their education.  David Bartholomae famously identified students’ need to “invent the university,” to learn how to move within the academic discourse communities they encounter in their classes.  Bartholomae notes how ethos is at play in such experiences, as students sometimes struggle to understand themselves as not just willing but able to engage in the academic conversations going on around them.  I think this is what Henry Jenkins was referring to as “academic drag” in Liz’s last post.  Students “try on” academic identities to test out how they might participate in the university’s discourse communities.

Of course, we need to recognize the limits of such identity play, even as we foster it.  Ehrenreich gets to return to her privileged position, even as she brings us valuable insights from her experience. We experiment with identity, surely, but what identities do we carry with us—or have imposed on us—that cannot be left behind? How must that affect our experiences, insights, and what we want to write about?

I have certainly thought a lot about such issues as I crafted my “cartoon persona” in Understanding Rhetoric as an openly gay writing instructor.  My queerness shapes how I perceive, understand, and engage with the world around me—and how that world perceives, understands, and engages with me. I have argued in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies that sexual identity is a key component of how we are identified by our culture, not just a choice of identity within it.  Recognizing how our identities are shaped is crucial to understanding how such norms function in our lives.  For instance, my character in Understanding Rhetoric works to normalize the presence of LGBT folks as educators and articulates differences in how I experience and understand the world.  A glimpse of an educator in a wheelchair—unremarked in the text but visually present—reminds us that bodies are differently abled. In Chapter 2, our visual analysis of Frederick Douglass’s visual representation in his books demonstrates one highly self-conscious way in which he crafted his public image. The comics medium allows such visual cues to complement more explicit considerations of identity performance. Thus, we open up opportunities for you and your students to consider experience based on identity as they relate to our work as writers.

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Cross-Dressing and Identity in Understanding Rhetoric

posted: 9.30.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Recently I was honored to be invited by media scholar Henry Jenkins to speak to his graduate class on Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice about Understanding Rhetoric.

Jenkins wanted his students to hear both about making rhetorical theory more accessible to a broader public and also about using visual arguments—specifically comics—as a means for scholarly communication.  Jenkins also assigned a more traditional academic essay that Jonathan and I had published in 2010 in the Routledge collection LGBT Identity and Online New Media focusing on “coming-out” stories on YouTube. In this way, course participants could discuss the contrast between the comics form and the form of the conventional academic article and how our pedagogical personae might be perceived differently as a result.


One of the discussions during the Q&A with this lively group of sophisticated students involved  places in the book in which characters appear in the clothing traditionally associated with opposite gender roles.  Jonathan and I use the clothing metaphor throughout the book as a way to think about what literacy theorist James Paul Gee calls the “identity kit” of discourse.  In our own teaching we have found discussions of fashion, costumes, disguises, uniforms, and regalia to be very productive with our students, who can often relate to personal decisions about different strategies of dress more easily than they can more abstract notions of intellectualized and disembodied rhetoric.


Dressing men as women and women as men has a long history in our culture. One of my own undergraduate professors, Marjorie Garber, wrote Vested Interests, a very well-known book about cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s plays.  Many popular films feature stories that have the protagonist adopt unconventional clothing as part of pursuing a quest, following the pattern of “the hero’s journey” popularized by Joseph Campbell.  Even superheroes in very traditional comics have been known to cross-dress, as in the case of pipe-smoking investigator Richard Stanton who adopts the identity of Madame Fatal or Captain America dodging the Nazis dressed as a matronly grandmother.

Jenkins noted that students often don “academic drag” in their writing to test out unfamiliar identities as they explore different kinds of authorship and try to figure out how to signal their presence as interpreters of evidence to promote their own credibility as authority figures.

Of course, Jonathan and I are well aware that picturing this kind of roleplay comes with certain rhetorical risks.  Depicting difference in comics can be dangerous when the nuance gets lost.  In representing race and gender in this book—while working with the artists, editors, and reviewers at Bedford—we often found ourselves revising the material to appear in the frame.

To help present these segments of Understanding Rhetoric as teachable moments, you might try these in-class exercises about the function of dress that can deepen discussion:

  1. Choose a Hollywood movie (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Victor Victoria, Some Like it Hot, Yentl, etc.) in which a male character impersonates a female character or vice versa.  Ask students to look beyond merely analyzing how this deception operates to complicate the plot to focus on how adopting a different gender identity also can allow new ideas to be expressed or performed.  How do such characters speak and write and view the world differently? How does the rhetorical situation change when they switch back or when the deception is revealed? Are there places in Understanding Rhetoric where the clothing that characters put on alters their identity or rhetorical effect? 
  2. In the movie Helvetica, adopting a particular typeface is equated with choosing clothing, on the theory that a font can express what we would call logos, ethos, and pathos much as clothes on the street communicate information about the wearer’s rhetorical intentions.  What do students’ own choices about the way they present their writing say about their public personae? What statements do the type choices in Understanding Rhetoric  make? 

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The Cutting Room Floor

posted: 8.21.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Like all chapters of Understanding Rhetoric, our chapter on revision underwent some major revisions.

In order to make the narrative aspects of the book as vivid as possible and to humanize our approach to the writing process, we included a number of cases of radical editing involving famous authors, such as Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, and Maxine Hong Kingston.  We were particularly interested in showing the social context of revision activities and how “peer editing” was also done by literary notables.

One of our favorite revision stories involved how Joseph Conrad shared the manuscript of Heart of Darkness with fellow author Ford Madox Ford, and Ford proved to be a tough critic of word choice.  Before we adapted the narrative for our comic book, I had worked with didactic material about the Conrad/Ford relationship that was developed by Michael Householder , who is now an Assistant Dean at Case Western University and the Associate Director of the university’s SAGES program (Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship).

Householder focused on changes made to the last paragraph of the book and how Ford objected to descriptions of silence and immobility that seemed weak to him because they described a negative state.  As Ford wrote, “If nobody moves, you do not have to make the statement; just as, if somebody is silent, you just do not record any speech of his, and leave it at that.”

Of course, translating an argument between two writers about non-depiction into a visual representation can be a challenging thing to do.  Furthermore, the argument between Conrad and Ford took place through the medium of an exchange of letters, and it can be difficult to adapt phrases from epistolary discourse to the idiom of a comic book dialogue bubble.  As we read the Understanding Rhetoric revision chapter manuscript out loud several times and voiced the various characters, we found it difficult to get the script exactly how we wanted it. For example, the speech of our Conrad character sounded stilted saying things like “I think there is something compelling about the way these two sentences sound.”

We were confident that the team at Big Time Attic could show the relationship between the famous writing duo, but we could not give the artists many interesting primary source images with which to work, as we usually liked to do when asking them to recreate the visual style of a particular period in history, as we did in the “critical reading” chapter that incorporated the visual culture of the eighteenth-century abolitionist movement.

To paint a picture of the embodied interactions of Ford and Conrad, all we had to work with were letters and other pages from archives, such as the original manuscript of Heart of Darkness in Yale’s Beinecke Library.  Unfortunately, neither Conrad nor Ford had particularly interesting handwriting, and other than using “split screen” to show Conrad and Ford reading and responding, we did not have a compelling method for making their scenes of writing come to life.

Writers are often told to “murder your darlings” in the revision process, a phrase that actually comes from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch rather than F. Scott Fitzgerald, to whom it is popularly attributed.  Jonathan and I had to decide to murder the story of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford to keep the chapter concise and focused in its storytelling; ultimately, our “darling” story of the collaboration [1] between these two literary greats could not be conveyed as effectively in the visual comics medium.

[1] Just as Jonathan and I collaborated together as writers composing a collectively produced work, Conrad and Ford wrote several jointly authored manuscripts http://www.noumenal.com/marc/jcfmf/.

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