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. 


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