Visual Rhetoric: Revisualizing ENGL 1101

“Tell them that there are not (yet?) fixed definitions of what constitutes a ‘visual argument,’ so they will have to work with what they understand ‘argument’ and ‘the visual’ to be.”

– Anne Wysocki

In my continuing quest to bring my composition class out of a dominantly written/verbal mode that’s nearly as teachable in 1914 as it is in 2014, I’ve come up with a mockup of the class I want to teach.

Foremost, my overall goal of this transformation is to maintain a strong foundation of writing instruction. As I’ve said before, I can’t lose sight of written composition skills as a primary outcome for anyone enrolled in my course because that is what the academy will expect of them repeatedly in their next few years. Keeping that in mind, I can better envision how I want to make my class more visually situated.

I decided to focus on ENGL 1101. As of this point, I think I have a workable course plan and philosophy for 1102, but I’ve had half as many chances at bat in its prerequisite, and it’s that course plan that feels the most in need of change.

To frame my revisualization of 1101, I’ve created a rough comparison of 1101 as it unfolded in the single section I taught this semester, juxtaposed to the nascent plan for the next time I teach 1101 (which I hope is this coming Fall).

ENGL 1101, Spring 2014

Theme: digital identity

4 major writing assignments

  • Low engagement, progression too abrupt, no tangible interconnectedness between assignment

Various short writings/quizzes

  • Low stakes, little development beyond credit/no credit
  • Ultimately punitive

Partnered readings presentations

  • Most engaging and creative assignment – required a visual component

Ultimately indistinguishable from any other generic writing course

Having a primarily written/verbal course meant there was limited opportunity for the inward transfer of alternative composition skills my students may have had at their disposal. Functionally, I do think the written assignments served their purpose well for the most part, and students have confirmed that impression in informal course feedback received thus far. The single visually-accessible assignment of the course was popular, but from there it felt like a compulsory, low interest grind to the end. I don’t question that there has been growth in my students’ writing skill, but I think that same growth may have been achievable with less redundancy in fewer assignments.

Thus, it looks like there is room to spare for a second composition focus in my composition class. To figure out how to frame this second focus – and more importantly, have its inclusion make sense to the students – I wanted a better theme than the somewhat stilted non-starter theme of “digital identity.” (Interesting side note: After having used the theme a few times in the past year across 1102 and 1101, it seems that traditional college students – meaning those enter college directly out of secondary education – are simply not as interested in examining their digital identity as educators would hope. I hate to generalize, but it’s possible that 18-19-year-olds now are too “born digital” to see their digital identity as that separate, whereas those even just a few years older are just enough on the cusp of internet expansion to see it as a more distinct phenomenon.) My tentative plan is moving forward with a vague “social justice” theme. It’s a bit tried-and-true as far as novelty in composition course themes go, but it does offer a lot of room for engagement with a composition topic.

To better define what it is I want the students to take from the course, I also will draw from a success I’ve had in recent 1102, which is to firmly and outwardly define the composition skills I want to cultivate. I’ve also decided to arrange the assignments to be as closely 50/50 written/visual as possible. Thus, every written assignment will either have a visually analytical or visually productive pairing situated very closely – a co-equal ancillary that provides a visual answer to the written call.

ENGL 1101, Future

Theme: social justice (tentative)
Learning objective: Summary • Weeks 2-4

  • Assignment: Facilitated reading annotation. Similar to the readings presentations in the earlier version, students will read, digest, and summarize an assigned portion of a larger course text (perhaps the university-assigned composition reader or similar), the format of which could be a single annotation; all such annotations are compiled and dispensed as a collection
  • Paired Assignment: Facilitated reading presentation. Using the same source material, students will create a class presentation to remediate their summarized material as visually as possible; I may prohibit PowerPoint to encourage broader experimentation in format

Learning objective: Argument Analysis • Weeks 5-8

  • Assignment: Argument Deconstruction. 2-3 page written analysis of a documentary’s argument, focusing on evidence presented, ethos/logos, and audience awareness
  • Paired Assignment: Visual Deconstruction. Entirely separate 2-3 page written analysis of the same documentary’s visual argument, focused on pathos and rhetorical choice

Learning objective: Argument Building • Weeks 9-16

  • Assignment: Researched Argument. Major course paper, 5-7 pages, on social issue of student’s choice, drafted, refined with peer & instructor feedback, conference
  • Paired Assignment: Argument Visualized. Visual remediation of paper as entirely visual argument, requiring minimal or zero use of words, formatted as a displayable piece or video
  • Possible addition: Exhibition. Class open house/exhibition of argument visualizations (no additional grade)

It is my hope that the paired call and answer of the verbal and the visual modes will guide lay the groundwork for several positive outcomes in addition to offering a more whole composition course:

  • Better transfer, both inward and internally; visually-oriented students will have more to draw from to aid them in the course than just written arguments, and hopefully visually- and verbally-oriented will both improve on a weaker skillset when they have their preferred mode as a mediator
  • Increased student interest, perception of course material as boring or a grind when they have more creative input in fully half of the course’s major assignments
  • Having a broadly-encompassing but clearly defined course theme might offer better engagement, especially if students fully embrace the activism-minded options the theme offers
  • The “worst” assignment – the large researched argument paper – is finished well before finals, with the (hopefully) more enjoyable, creative assignment bringing the course to a close

The next step is to draft the specific assignment details, which I think I may share here when complete.

Visual Rhetoric: Moving forward

I chose the Applications & Pedagogy week for my class presentation because it fits neatly into the larger plan I have for what I’ve hoped to get from this course: better application of visual rhetorical theory for my ENGL 1101 or 1102 students.  And by better, I mean introducing visual rhetoric at all.


I’ve avoided visual composition assignments because I wanted them to have a point. Because so much of my own experience in composition, both as a composer and as a student of its instruction, has been concerned with the verbal, taking on the visual has always seemed out of reach because I lacked the context of why my students should care or how they could benefit. As Brumberger astutely explains, “Most of our students have learned to talk – as we have – in verbal language, not in visual language” (378). I figured I would stick to the territory I knew I could cover and contextualize for them, thus I kept to verbal composition objectives and projects.

This was an especially frustrating compromise for me, having had a brief career in the graphic communications industry as a typographic, layout, and graphic designer. I knew personally the value of effective visual communication, and that there was plenty of theory on how to construct it, but I saw nothing I could use to link it to a composition course. Imagine my enthusiasm when I read Anne Wysocki’s suggestion that the incorporation of visual rhetoric into a writing class should not be undertaken based on the principals of graphic design alone; it is rare that you will locate justification for visual design elements based on rhetorical lines. Indeed, thinking back to the many guides, magazines, and anthologies I perused in my graphics days, I have difficulty recalling anything other than analyses of previously successful designs ever being offered as support of a design decision.


And so I turn to two of this week’s visual rhetoric authors (in a thoroughly verbal fashion), though I intend to cover more in tomorrow’s class. First continuing with Wysocki’s “On Visual Rhetoric,” I’ll expand on the reasons why teaching a solely verbal composition course has never sat well with me. On one hand, I recognize and endorse that FY comp instructors are the first – and too often only – instruction undergraduates will receive in how to write for college. I mean really write for college. Many students will leave the FYC classroom and go on to write more papers for other college instructors, and because those college instructors have no reason to think of writing as anything more than a means to an end, the instruction in writing never advances further. Here’s your term paper assignment, here is what I require it to display, and how you get there is up to you. What FYC instructors teach is how to interpret and negotiate the rhetoric of the college composition assignment. Most of those composition assignments will take the form of a verbal paper. Most, but not all.

On the other hand, Wysocki rightly argues the why of teaching a visual rhetoric: “To be responsible teachers, then, we need to help our students (as well as ourselves) learn how different choices in visual arrangement in all texts (on screen and off) encourage different kinds of meaning making—and encourage us to take up (overtly or no) various values. We need to learn how to analyze and create texts that do not ignore the visual if we are to be responsible and appropriately critical citizens” (4). Wysocki is speaking specifically about teaching writing with computers, but the lesson applies more broadly to the critical consumption we must teach composition students in (cliché time!) an increasingly visual world. It is a cliché, but is as occasionally the case, this cliché has root in truth. Wysocki wasn’t expressly considering the omnipresence of visual writing modes we interface with daily across multiple web-enabled platforms. Our students will continue to be flooded with visually constructed messages at an ever-higher rate. We must teach how to respond to that visual bombardment in their non-academic life, as well as teaching them how to fulfill the handful of visually-situated projects they may tackle as they complete their studies. In either situation, this rhetorical preparation is empowering.

That empowerment can be seen in Dr. Hocks’ 2003 College Composition and Communication article. The deconstruction of Christine Boese’s “Xenaverse” dissertation in Kairos highlights the multi-vectored navigation potential that a natively-visual composition possesses. While, as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I never fell into the Xena scene, it was easy to overlay my own framework of choice: Star Trek. With that in mind, it was easy to see the broader appeal the Xena project had to the type of die-hard fan Boese’s dissertation assumed, and how appealing the described navigation options would be for a visitor to the webtext. A similar type of user-negotiated learning or text engagement appears also in the Spelman “Colorblind Casting in Shakespeare” project. As Hocks notes, the “hybridity” of the project allowed the creators to exist both as students learning from the contributions of site visitors, but also as “professional” composers of the visual and verbal components of an enriching discussion about a fascinating topic amongst other theatre students and theatre veterans.

The ability to move around these sites/webtexts at will to whatever subtopic interests the individual visitor, and to create a self-negotiated relationship with the content contained within, recalls the now commonplace experience of losing hours chain-clicking through Wikipedia articles. Much like Wysocki suggests, this isn’t a solely design-driven or visual experience. The blending of verbal rhetoric to explain and detail, and the visual to contextualize and situate, represents the best potential one can hope for in visually rhetorical project.


This week is a welcome capstone to the course, as I intend for my final project to be the production of usable visual rhetoric course materials for the first-year composition students I will teach in the future. Over the next few weeks, I will continue to update this space with the accumulating fruits of my efforts. As this week’s class presentation leads into the final project, I’ll post more on the pedagogy of visual rhetoric in the composition classroom. I’ll return to some of the other texts from this week that I couldn’t cover in this blog post as well as other voices as they find their way into my course pedagogy. 

Visual Rhetoric: Threads in a web

I ultimately agree that the web is a rhetorical place, as Burbules argues. Two decades after the information explosion of the mid 90s, we have undeniably realized the potential of the personalization of the internet, and in ways Burbules couldn’t possibly have anticipated.

The most obvious manifestation of this defining of web places is seen in the rise of the social network. To varying extents, these services have offered users the ability to curate precise, rhetorically-situated representations of the web as they see it, and of how the web sees them. Social networks were the natural 2000s outgrowth of 1990s message boards, interest groups, and newsgroups.

Where Burbules’ analysis falters now is in the rhetorical navigation of the internet. Again, we can’t really blame him for his inability to see the massive changes just around the corner, considering this 2002 publication was likely in the works through 2001, if not earlier.

Burbules speaks of the linearity of the web, of how users feel the pressure of where they currently are spatially in choosing where to go next, i.e., the webpage which I am currently displaying has a high potential for semantic manipulation on which page I will choose to visit next. It is argued that this becomes something of a rabbit hole effect, where the user clicks from a starting point, and each space visited becomes one of a rapidly growing series of “turns,” and enough of these turns leads the user to a cloudy understanding of their journey in hindsight. This view of the web as an unknowable warren assumes a user experience rooted in the technology, software, and web design of the late 1990s:

“First, these links are bi-directional — users can go from page A to page B and return from B to A — but this relation is not symmetrical. Users must usually perform extra work within the browser’s conventions to return from B to A, and (especially having seen A already) the movement from B to A does not have the same semantic effect as the movement from A to B” (Burbules).

This changed radically soon after publication, and as a result of numerous pressures. A significant change on the end-user side of this relationship came in a deceptively simple package: the browser tab.

While tabbed browsing was a possibility back into the 1990s, it existed primarily as modifications or software plug-ins that were geared to the power user more than the average end user.  Browser tabs were not legitimized in mainstream browsers until the mid 2000s. Mozilla Firefox offered the first substantial penetration of the feature, but Internet Explorer didn’t offer it until 2006. This codification of the feature, combined earlier with alternative browsers like Opera and Avant, and later with expansions of Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari (which had existed for several years, but remained a minimal impact until the dramatic market expansion of Apple hardware in the late 2000’s), gave rise to a new user dynamic: breadcrumbs.

By using browser tabs – a process as simple as single mouse click in most browser interfaces – it has become simple for a user to leave themselves a clear route back through the multiple turns of their journey. This isn’t simply a convenience. The rise of tabbed browsing encourages the user to travel farther out of familiar territory, and to go off-road, knowing their travel needn’t be linear. The semantic pressure Burbules ascribes to the web is dramatically lessened when a user no longer feels compelled to move directly forward from their options at hand, or directly backward to the last page they visited.

A final note of difference is found between this empowered user’s browsing flexibility, and the rise of personal expression of the social network. Content aggregator websites, the most notable of which being Reddit, are the perfect compliment to this empowered browsing environment. Reddit and other social networks offer users the ability to tightly control the links to interesting material they might care to see, such as interests in social issues, news, political affiliations, or entertainment media. The user can visit their personal collection of interest-focused “subreddits,” their collection of Tumbr feeds, or their chosen list of Twitter microbloggers, and jump off to any of the numerous links featured with a new browser tab. From each landing, the user can then jump off again, creating both a rich collection of alternative browsing routes to return to, but also the ability to return back to any single waypoint along the journey.

Burbules’ critique of the linearity of the web of 2000-2002 is perfectly valid, and perhaps then, the best analogy of browsing was a fixed, straight thread. These few but critical changes in a user’s navigation, as well as the content they navigate from and to, has brought us much closer to viewing our internet browsing as a literal web.