Within the past decade, scholars writing about composition in higher education have called attention to the impact of technological and social changes on literacy practices. Gunther Kress, for instance, has argued that, “Writing now plays one part in communication ensembles, and no longer the part” (21). Similarly, Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia Selfe have contended that, “Teachers of composition are beginning to sense the inadequacy of texts—and composition instruction—that employs only one primary semiotic channel (the alphabetic) to convey meaning” (2). In the contemporary world, literacy practices extend beyond the “alphabetic” or written mode, encompassing the multiple modalities of writing, images, sounds, gesture, and space; when two or more modalities are combined, the literacy practice is considered to be multimodal.
As the New London Group has suggested, these changes to literacy practices require that we “rethink what we are teaching and, in particular, what new learning needs literacy pedagogy might address” (61). To prepare students for active lives inside and outside of the academy, many have posited that the writing classroom should become a site for practicing not just print but multimodal literacies. To engage in contemporary literate practices, students need “understanding and competent control” of multimodal meaning-making resources, which can be achieved through both the analysis and production of multimodal texts (61). Selfe and Takayoshi, for instance, indicate that composition teachers must integrate multimodality in the writing classroom but need to ask students to “go beyond the consumption” of multimodal texts and guide them through “learning how to compose them for a variety of purposes and audiences” (3). Selfe and Takayoshi are just two voices among many scholars who have also suggested that contemporary literacy practices require both the critical analysis and design of multimodal texts in the writing classroom; consult, for instance, the work of Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, Diana George, Gunther Kress, Jennifer Sheppard, Jodi Shipka, and Anne Wysocki.
In his recent book Graphic Encounters: Comics and the Sponsorship of Multimodal Literacy, Dale Jacobs demonstrates that the reading and creating of comics requires a complex negotiation between all of the modes; writing is not the only—nor the most important—mode in the meaning-making process. Because they demand that readers and creators analyze and strategize about the effect of each modality, comics “open up a number of possibilities for thinking about multimodal literacy” (20). Particularly interesting are the potential uses of comics as sites for multimodal literacy activities in writing classrooms. While there is an existing body of literature within composition and higher education that addresses how comics might be used as tools for study in the classroom, little has been said about how or why students might produce their own comics. Yet as scholars like The New London Group and Takayoshi and Selfe have emphasized, multimodal literacy necessitates both the production and analysis of multimodal texts like comics. In this article, I expand on Jacobs’ assertion that comics are important sites for multimodal literacy practices and argue for the importance of both analyzing and creating multimodal texts like comics in the classroom. To illustrate how this might be accomplished, I will share how I approached teaching students to analyze and compose graphic nonfiction in my postsecondary English classroom.
According to modern literacy theorists, visual texts like comics and graphic novels belong in the English classroom. The New London Group was the first to suggest so nearly two decades ago when they wrote:
Literacy pedagogy must now account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies. This includes understanding and competent control of representational forms that are becoming increasingly significant in the overall communications environment, such as visual images and their relationship to the written word. (61)
In the years following The New London Group’s treatise on literacy, postsecondary scholars in English like Gunther Kress, Cynthia Selfe, Sean D. Williams, and Anne Frances Wysocki have also advocated for educators to expand their own understandings of literacy, and to include a wider variety of texts in their teaching. Additionally, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a prominent professional association for English instructors at all levels, authored a “Definition of 21st Century Literacies” in 2008. Within the document, the organization maintains that in order for students to develop literacy skills, they must be given the opportunity to “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts” in the English classroom.
Scholars writing about comics and graphic novels in postsecondary English classrooms have relied on these theories of multimodality and literacy to defend the place of comics and graphic novels in education, arguing for comics as tools to develop literacy in a time when visuals dominate modern communication. For instance, in his article “More Than Words: Comics as a Means of Teaching Multiple Literacies,” Dale Jacobs writes that reading comics in the classroom “contributes to the ongoing process of becoming a multimodally literate person” (24). Jacobs characterizes comics as complex, multimodal texts that invite critical reading from college-level students. He illustrates that teaching students how to read and interpret comics involves “knowledge of linguistic, audio, visual, gestural, and spatial conventions” as well as negotiation between those conventions and our own “agency” as readers (24). Similarly, Gretchen Schwarz contends that for students to fully grasp the meaning of a graphic novel, they cannot rely only on the “usual literary elements” of analysis, but must account for “visual elements such as color, shading, panel layout, perspective, and even the lettering style” (59). According to both authors, the ability to “read” texts that combine words and images like comics and graphic novels is an important skill in today’s society. Its practice in the classroom contributes to students’ developing literacies, encouraging them to be critically receptive to visual texts in the world around them.
When students are asked to conduct visual analyses of comics and graphic novels, Stergios Botzakis argues that students are simultaneously engaging in an analysis of contemporary literate practice. According to Botzakis, reading graphic novels like The Watchmen and American Born Chinese in the classroom can lead to robust conversations about visual conventions like “color changes” or “the panels, the gutters, the word balloons” (69). Because students often have not given much attention to the visual features of comics previously, they have to consciously work to make meaning from them. A conversation about the visual conventions of comics, then, can concurrently be a lesson “about how we break down and understand texts, how we work with struggling readers” (69). This process of negotiating and making meaning from texts is an important component of literacy, and becomes transparent when students work with unfamiliar forms like comics and graphic novels.
The controversial subject matter of comics and graphic novels like The Watchmen may also contribute to social aspects of students’ literacies. The New London Group claims that the need for diversifying literacy instruction in the English classroom stems from “our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalized societies…and the plurality of texts that circulate” (61). According to these scholars, students encounter texts daily that are dissimilar both in their form and content, and the English classroom must address this diversity. Prominent new literacies scholars Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis have also maintained that in a global economy, students will need to be able to “collaborate and negotiate with others who are different from themselves” (174). In the classroom, they argue that students and teachers alike need to learn to embrace difference and use it as a resource for learning. Building upon arguments like these from literacy studies, comics scholars have maintained that the wide range of topics covered in comics and graphic novels make them valuable tools for integrating diversity into the classroom; since diversity is crucial to modern literate practice, comics can be considered literacy-building tools on the basis of their subject matter alone. James Bucky Carter, for instance, claims that the variegated topics found in graphic novels can hold “transformative power” for students (“Transforming” 49). He reports that graphic novels tend to contain topics that are relevant for younger readers, such as “rape, abuse, and teen pregnancy” or “puberty and teenage angst” (49-50). According to Carter, the sometimes-difficult subject matter of graphic novels can both generate awareness about and ask students to confront “complex social issues and their attitudes and beliefs about them” (51). Superhero comics, in particular, can provide prompts for student discussion about moral and political issues in our culture. In his first-year seminar courses, Botzakis reports assigning superhero comics and graphic novels like The Watchmen, Ex Machina, and The Dark Knight Returns which “all touch upon complex societal themes of how power circulates and what defines justice” (68). Focusing on the superhero characters, students debate about right and wrong within the context of the comic’s political structures, giving them a chance to think about the “government and political stances that also apply to people’s everyday lives” (68).
While comics can be used to impact students’ multimodal literacies, they are also discussed in the existing literature as tools for “promoting the goals of traditional literacy” (Schwarz 58). To fully comprehend a graphic novel, students must engage with “the usual literary elements of character, plot, and dialogue” (59). Shorter-form comic strips can also be analyzed for literary elements. In a lesson plan appearing in the Read Write Think database, a national resource for English instructors at all levels, Sharon Webster describes teaching students about transcendentalism by having them identify examples of the literary movement in popular culture, especially in comic strips they might find in their Sunday paper. In connecting popular culture to literary theory, Webster believes “students gain a better understanding of the concept” (“Using Comics” para. 13). Graphic novels and comics may also be paired with canonical literature to facilitate student understanding of traditional print texts. In the collection Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel edited by James Bucky Carter, for example, collaborators pair graphic novels with works of literature in the classroom (for example, Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist and Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew).
The mixture of comics and graphic novels with print works proposed by writers and editors like Webster and Carter are perfect examples of intertexuality, which the New London Group describes as crucial to the meaning-making process of multimodal texts. The New London Group draws on the work of Norman Fairclough to define intertextuality as “the potentially complex ways in which meanings (such as linguistic meanings) are constituted through relationships to other texts (real or imaginary), text types (discourse or genres), narratives, and other modes of meaning” (82). When students read and analyze comics and graphic novels alongside related print works, part of the meaning making-process involves thinking about how multimodal messages are created through the relationship between those texts. How does one text build upon or change the other? How does the meaning change when they are read together? These “intertextual chains” assist readers of multimodal texts in the comprehension process and also enrich students’ readings of original texts (23).
If we want students to engage in multimodal literacies as scholars like The New London Group and others have suggested, then students need to work with diverse texts like comics and graphic novels in the English classroom in the ways that writers like Jacobs and Botzakis have described. There is great value in the examination of comics and graphic novels, in wondering how and why they were put together and what that can teach us about these mediums and about ourselves. In order for students to create their own comics, they must first have a grasp of the conventions of the genre; these conventions can be derived from the kinds of visual analyses scholars have proposed. These conventions are what the New London Group has called “Available Designs,” or the “‘grammars’ of various semiotic systems” such as comics (74). It becomes the instructors’ job, as scholars like Swartz or Jacobs suggest, to help students see how the conventions of multimodal texts like comics and graphic novels contribute to the meaning of those texts. Why might the author have drawn on these particular conventions for panel size, for instance, and what is the effect? These conventions or “Available Designs” then become resources for students to draw upon and question in their own work. Further, as Wysocki articulates, the consideration of multimodal conventions within the context of classroom analysis helps students learn that multimodal texts are put together in particular ways “in order to fit with the learned expectations of their audiences, not because there are universal, neutral forms” (173).
As the NCTE “Definition of 21st Century Literacies” indicates, the process of creating comics and multimodal texts is also part of what it means to be literate today. Few scholars writing about comics in college-level composition have addressed the creation process, a process that compliments the thoughtful kinds of analyses that have been proposed. The New London Group was one of the first to suggest that students need practice creating multimodal texts like comics and graphic novels in the classroom. Other scholars have adopted similar theories that emphasize both reading and making. In 2001, Sean D. Williams argued that as literacy instructors, we need to acknowledge the wide variety of texts that we all interact with on a daily basis—in other words, what it means to be literate in modern times—and work those texts into the curriculum, both as objects for analysis and production. He writes: “A new composition pedagogy must, therefore, equip students with the skills necessary…to read, write and critique ‘new forms’ of visual representation” (29). A few years later, Cynthia Selfe also advocated for what she termed “visual literacy” in the English classroom. She defined visual literacy as “[t]he ability to read, understand, value, and learn from visual materials … as well as the ability to create, combine, and use visual elements (e.g. colors, forms, lines, images) and messages for the purposes of communicating” (“Toward New Media Texts” 69).
Why do scholars and professional organizations like The New London Group, NCTE, and Selfe advocate for the creation of multimodal texts like comics or graphic novels in the English classroom? To begin with, when students read a comic and then create their own, they are demonstrating their understanding of how multimodal texts like comics work. As Peter Gutierrez notes, “Any time you produce something original you’re demonstrating the extent to which you’ve internalized the particular communicative codes of that medium as well as the practical or technical skills necessary to creating an artifact in it” (qtd. in “Graphic Storytelling”). In other words, students engage in a form of experiential learning by doing something with what they have observed about successful comics or graphic novels in the reading and discussion process. They must be mindful of the elements of comics and graphic novels they have analyzed and evaluated in course discussion, including the kinds of visual conventions (color, panel size and position, lines, etc.), literary conventions (point of view, character development, plot, etc.), and subject matter scholars like Swartz and Jacobs have described. They have to put classroom lessons into practice, creating texts both to exhibit and advance their own learning. Thus, these texts become artifacts of their “understanding and competent control” of multimodal meaning-making resources, which is a crucial component of multimodal literacy according to The New London Group (61).
When students create comics they realize that multimodal texts are not just objects they can critique but are dynamic texts they can change. Students’ ability to take multimodal meaning-making resources and “remake” them in new arrangements “to achieve their various cultural purposes” is a second vital component of multiliteracies, according to The New London Group (64). If reading and analysis has taught students about visual texts like comics or graphic novels and their purposes, then production teaches them that they, too, have the agency to “make things happen” in their own work (Wysocki 5). They come to understand they have the ability to design their own versions of the kinds of multimodal texts that circulate in the world around them.
As students construct their own comics or graphic novels, they must also exercise creativity. In their conclusion, The New London Group asserts that “In an economy of productive diversity, in civic spaces that value pluralism, and in the flourishing of interrelated, multilayered, complementary yet increasingly divergent lifeworlds, workers, citizens, and community members are ideally creative and responsible makers of meaning” (88-89). To prepare students to fully participate in the literacies of civic and workplace life, teachers need to encourage students to think creatively about meaning-making. The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” a document compiled by several professional associations in the teaching of English including NCTE and the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), also identifies creativity—”the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas”—as an important habit of mind for success at the college level (4). In the English classroom, ideas have long been fixed in print forms. Students have to think in creative ways when they are asked to capture their stories, thoughts, and research in multimodal forms like comics and graphic novels which require the thoughtful integration of print and images and other modalities. For example, if they are accustomed to writing research essays using print only but are asked to create a research comic, they have to come up with “novel approaches” to its production. They cannot simply transfer the content of an essay into a new form. They have to consider, among other things, what to cut, add, and reorganize, as well as how they might integrate or challenge the conventions of comics they have previously analyzed. Further, when making comics and other multimodal texts, students have the opportunity to play creatively with convention to make meaning. For instance, in a comic about interpreting abstract art, a student might challenge conventional, neat uses of lines for panels or a conventional left to right reading order to reflect the abstract nature of the comic’s subject.
Clearly, when students are asked to read and produce texts like comics and graphic novels, they learn skills and ways of thinking that are crucial to multimodal literacies. Further, they engage with literacy in ways that connect powerfully to their lives in and out of the classroom. In a digitally-mediated world, students read and construct visual and multimodal texts frequently outside of school, ranging from presently popular six-second Vine clips to multimodal Tumblr micro-blog posts containing photos, videos, and text. As Selfe writes in “Students Who Teach Us,” teachers need to capitalize on students’ “enthusiasm about reading/viewing/interacting with and composing/designing/authoring such imaginative texts” (44). As we integrate multimodal texts like comics and graphic novels in the classroom, we acknowledge and build upon students’ “enthusiasm” for these new types of texts, but also their existing experiences and skills in multimodal composing. In “paying attention to the whole range of literacies that students bring to the classroom,” Selfe believes that we can “avoid the violence attendant to labeling individuals as illiterate when they perfectly capable of communicating, making meaning, and exchanging information within various systems and contexts” (57). In other words, we ought to move from assuming students are blank slates toward thinking about how we can teach to their interests and abilities. Michael Bitz’s work with the Comic Book Project is an excellent example of how integrating multimodal literacies can help at-risk students, or students who struggle with writing. Bitz helped to organize several after-school literacy programs that engaged urban youth in the comic book creation process. The children were first asked to analyze comic books, with special attention to how writing and images interacted. They then moved to creating their own works, which were guided by an extensive, collaborative planning process using outlines and manuscripts. Teachers at the literacy sites reported that students made connections between the pre-planning required for comics and pre-planning that might need to be done when they write. Creating comics both taught students about writing and the writing process, and helped them connect a traditional school subject to something they enjoyed. Similarly, Jennifer Sanders found that when she exposed elementary school students to an “art-infused writing workshop,” in which students received instruction in art and writing and were given free time to create either (or both), the creative processes students used were similar across modalities. One pupil, for example, engaged in “rehearsal, drafting, research, and revision” when he produced art, but not when he wrote (129). As Sanders suggests, multimodal composition can provide an opportunity for teachers to show students all that the modes, like images and writing, share—especially when it comes to how they are produced. This can allow students who have sound processes with one type of multimodal text (like comics, for instance) learn how to apply that process to the production of texts they struggle with (like writing). As Selfe notes, multimodal assignments can help to illustrate students’ existing communicative capabilities.
Elizabeth Losh and Henry Jenkins have also emphasized that teachers ought to connect classroom learning to what students “care about the most, what makes them curious and passionate outside of school,” and use the classroom as a space to assist students with learning “ethical standards and skills in critical judgment, helping them avoid some of the risks and achieve some of the opportunities associated with new media platforms and practices” that they “care” and are “passionate about” (19). A focus on comics and graphic novels in the classroom both builds upon student interests and multimodal literacy skills and, at the same time, refines them. It allows students to leave the classroom with a better understanding of how to more critically analyze and creatively construct the multimodal texts they already actively engage with outside of school.
“But I’m Not an Artist!”: Creating graphic nonfiction in the English classroom
Students read and make comics in my postsecondary English courses for a multitude of reasons including, for instance, to break down the rhetorical appeals, to create visual outlines of their ideas, or to capture research arguments. Most of what I teach is first-year writing, which is already packed with required content and mandatory print-based readings. In these courses, there never seems to be enough time for the close study of comics (including students’ own comics). Recently, however, I taught an upper-level English course entirely devoted to the study of words and images. I designed the course, intended for journalism and creative writing majors at the junior and senior level, around reading and producing nonfiction comics and graphic novels. With the luxury of an entire semester to spend with these texts, my students were able to thoroughly engage in new literacies and develop a deep understanding of the potential of words and images in their own work and that of others. In this section, I will explain the course design and activities, including examples of student-produced graphic nonfiction, to illustrate how to integrate both the study and production of comics and graphic novels in the postsecondary English classroom, as well as how these processes align with the goals of multimodal literacy pedagogy outlined in the previous section.
Part 1: Designing the course
The course, titled “Topics in Media Aesthetics: Word and Image,” was designed around learning objectives. L. Dee Fink, a pedagogical expert in higher education, has specified that when teachers create a course, they ought to begin by asking: “What is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?” (63). In other words, they should identify long-term, broad learning goals for their students. I knew that I wanted to tie my learning goals to the outcomes of multimodal literacy pedagogy identified by scholars like the New London Group, emphasizing that students should understand how to interpret and author their own comics and graphic novels. I also wanted students to analyze and produce these texts within the context of the discipline of English. While many scholars in postsecondary English agree that multimodal texts like comics belong in the classroom, there is some disagreement about how they should be taught. Should English teachers learn principles of art or graphic design, or is it possible for them to apply what they know already about print texts to the analysis and production of visual texts? Scholars like Meredith Zoetewey and Julie Staggers have suggested that teachers adapt their existing rhetorical knowledge to the new, multimodal texts they encounter in classroom spaces. They urge teachers not to adopt principles from other disciplines like graphic design but instead “focus instead on transforming the rhetorical criteria we already understand, such as coherence, clarity, relevance, so that we can read and evaluate them as they operate in new media” (148). Similarly, Madeleine Sorapure has advocated for the application of rhetorical tropes like metonymy to the teaching of multimodal texts. By re-purposing the tropes, she believes teachers are able to account for new kinds of textual arrangements and, at the same time, build off what they already know to evaluate those arrangements.
In light of these compelling arguments for adapting existing disciplinary knowledge to new contexts, I planned the course around examining graphic nonfiction from a writer’s perspective. Students were asked to work with concepts they were already familiar with as writers like the rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos) and rhetorical conventions (metaphor, juxtaposition, antithesis, etc.) and apply them to the study of unfamiliar texts that extended beyond print, like comics and graphic novels. In merging the goals of multimodal literacy pedagogy with this rhetorical approach, two major learning goals were identified for students in the course:
- To feel more comfortable and informed when “reading” visual/verbal texts like comics and graphic novels; to better understand how visual/verbal texts work from a rhetorical perspective
- To feel more comfortable and informed when composing visual/verbal texts like comics and graphic novels; to be equipped with a set of rhetorical questions and strategies to select from in future situations when composing visual/verbal texts is necessary or desired
Though these were not the only goals for the course, they were unique to the subject matter (other goals, for instance, addressed the research and writing process, and classroom discussion).
As a next step in course design, Fink suggests teachers plan course activities in the context of the learning goals they have just established by posing the question: “What would the students have to do to convince me that they had achieved those learning goals?” (63). To address the first learning goal outlined above, students were assigned several visual texts including short works of typography and visual poetry, but primarily focusing on four works of graphic nonfiction including Palestine by Joe Sacco, Maus I by Art Speigelman, Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld. Students’ understanding was measured by their weekly Tumblr reading logs, in which they critiqued the work we were reading from a rhetorical perspective, as well as their participation in class discussions and activities. To reach the second learning goal, students applied what they had learned from discussions of the rhetorical and visual conventions of graphic texts in the course (learning goal one) to produce their own works of short, graphic nonfiction as a culminating course project (see Appendix B). Both of these processes are outlined in more detail in the sections that follow.
Part 2: Analyzing and evaluating visual and rhetorical conventions
Before students can create their own multimodal texts, like comics, they need, in the words of the NCTE, to “critique, analyze, and evaluate” the work of others. As previously discussed, the ability to comprehend visual texts like comics and graphic novels is a crucial component of literate practice in contemporary times. Not only does analysis prepare students to be critically receptive of other multimodal texts in and out of the classroom, it can also be useful in preparing students to make their own similar texts. The existing body of scholarship about comics in the English classroom provides excellent suggestions for ways to encourage student comprehension, including a focus on visual and literary conventions, and on global subject matter. Similarly, in this course, students focused on visual conventions in the texts they read. They were also asked to read for evidence of rhetorical conventions like metaphor or juxtaposition—conventions they were used to reading and implementing in writing, but probably had not previously analyzed in visual texts. As writers and journalists reading works of nonfiction, students were asked to think about the conventions they saw from a rhetorical perspective, asking questions like: Why did the author choose to implement this convention? How does the convention contribute to the message of the text or to my reception of the text?
Some of the most fundamental concepts in rhetorical theory are Aristotle’s pisteis, or appeals: ethos, pathos, and logos. The appeals are strategies from which the writer selects in order to best persuade her audience. When an author tries to convince her audience of her point by relying on her own credibility and the ways she represents herself, this is considered an appeal to ethos. When she tries to stir or evoke emotion in her reader to make her point, she is appealing to pathos. Finally, logos involves appealing to the audience through evidence, logic, and arrangement. The three concepts, originally derived by Aristotle to describe the ways orators might make their speech more persuasive, are transferrable across text types and formed the basis of students’ analyses of graphic texts in this course. While one appeal is usually dominant in any text, all three are always at work. As an author consciously chooses an appeal on which to focus in her work, she must also select from visual and rhetorical conventions in order to accomplish that appeal. For example, if she decides pathos and a feeling of fear in the audience will be most effective in conveying her message, she might experiment with visual conventions of color or jagged lines in a comic or rely on the rhetorical convention of juxtaposition by placing two images together to form a “fearful” combination.
Since the author was a central figure in all but one of the graphic novels in the course, analyzing the visual and rhetorical conventions used in terms of appeals to ethos was an important part of students’ learning experiences. The first novel we read was Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle’s humorous travelogue of his experiences in Burma with his child and wife, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières. In the text, Delisle’s ethos plays a central role in the travelogue’s persuasive power. Students immediately picked up on this rhetorical strategy, using adjectives like funny, honest, and relatable to describe Delisle as the narrator. From where do these impressions of the authors of visual texts originate? How do writers of graphic novels achieve appeals to ethos (and pathos and logos) using visual and/or rhetorical conventions? In first-person print-based texts, writers appeal to ethos through print-based conventions, including things like a wide variety of vocabulary and/or point of view, or explicitly revealing information about themselves through anecdotes. As we approached this first graphic novel, students faced an important difficulty: the struggle to keep track of the multitude of ways that authors of graphic nonfiction or other multimodal texts can portray their ethos. Delisle, for instance, appealed to his audience using visual conventions from comics and graphic novels (typography, color, lines, panels, etc.) and rhetorical conventions (juxtaposition, hyperbole, etc.). And, since print was involved, print conventions like word choice and sentence structure also figured into his ethos. There was so much to consider, so much for students to look at. While comics are often dismissed as simple or childish texts in popular culture, the first step in our analysis already demonstrated that like many multimodal texts, the process of making and extracting meaning from them was quite complex.
We began our analysis with the visual. Lines, for instance, are a visual convention of comics and graphic novels. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of the “expressive potential” and symbolic significance of lines in comics and art (124). Lines are used to construct panels, text boxes, backgrounds, and even characters. In classroom analysis of Delisle’s work, we discovered that he utilizes neat, simple, and thin lines to create his face (see Figure 1). Our analysis did not stop there, though. As writers approaching the study of conventions from a rhetorical perspective, students were asked to consider the rhetorical effect of this visual convention, which they decided was the audience’s identification with the narrator. As Scott McCloud illustrates, “The more cartoony a face is, for instance, the more people it could be said to describe” (31). Abstract faces like Delisle’s are easier to forget and “fill up” with our own identity as we read (37). As we progress through the narrative, the abstract lines of Delisle’s face encourage us to imagine ourselves in his position.
Delisle also exaggerates his nose to inhuman proportions, employing a rhetorical convention typically associated with writing or speech called hyperbole (see Figure 1). In extending his nose, Delisle draws attention to what we assume is one of his most prominent physical features. When Delisle employs the convention of hyperbole in a visual way, the rhetorical effect is that we see him as someone honest about his faults and possessing a sense of humor. The shape of Delisle’s face and nose, and the visual and rhetorical conventions he uses to create them, are excellent examples of the rhetorical effect of conventions in comics and graphic novels. Delisle’s self-portrait, which reveals him to be an honest and relatable narrator, impacts how and why we read the rest of the text. In other words, who he becomes as the narrator through the use of visual and rhetorical conventions is crucial to the success and message of the work.
Of course, students were also asked to analyze how the other appeals functioned in each text we read. As part of the process, students learned about various visual conventions of comics and graphic novels including typography, color, lines, panel structure, word and image relationships, and transitions, all in relationship to the appeals. For instance, in Delisle’s text, they evaluated how his use of all CAPS and hand-lettered typography contributed to his personable ethos, and also to the emotions they felt while reading. Additionally, students were asked to think about how familiar rhetorical conventions that they often use in writing—like metaphor, juxtaposition, pun, hyperbole, and antithesis—functioned in graphic novels. In Delisle’s text, for instance, the visual juxtaposition of lofty cultural and spiritual goals with human realities often contributes to the honest, humorous ethos that is so central to the book’s success (see Figure 2). When an author employs juxtaposition, she emphasizes the contrast between two objects or ideas by placing them together, as Delisle has done in Figure 2 by situating his altruistic goal to donate rice to the monks every morning alongside a visual depiction of him sleeping in as the monks pass by his house the next day.
For many students, Delisle’s work was their first exposure to graphic nonfiction and, as such, the word and image relationships in his text presented some challenges. The first, as one student noted, is that the reading path is less strict than it is in print-based texts, which are typically read from left to right, top to bottom. One student reflected in her Tumblr reading log that “it took a little getting used to how the words are layed [sic] out. I find that sometimes the order I read the words doesn’t always make sense but it’s still really interesting.” In graphic novels and comics, reading involves images, text, and spatial relationships. Sometimes an obvious reading path is not evident, such as when multiple speakers are involved or a page is presented as a single-panel collage with text in several places. In class, we read and discussed Scott McCloud’s work on image and text relationships in comics, and this helped students better understand the different ways that words and images interact in the genre, and that often words are not the first or only place we should look, despite our instincts as writers and journalists trained in print.
In Burma Chronicles, Delisle also frequently takes advantage of what Scott McCloud has called picture-specific combinations, relying predominantly on images to tell a story (sometimes to the complete exclusion of text). Students accustomed to primarily reading print-based texts can initially be baffled about how to “read” panels and pages that consist only of images. As another student wrote in her Tumblr reading response:
“Another thing that tripped me up a bit was the section that was done with all pictures. Don’t get me wrong, I thought that section was really cool, but it was hard for me to adjust too [sic]. When I read stories, I’m used to having words.”
In situations like these, it was helpful for students to think about how they could apply what they already knew about rhetorical conventions in writing to interpretting the visual story. In the panels on pages three through five in Burma Chronicles, for instance, I urged students to think about repetition in order to understand the visually-dominated sequence. In the panels, we see the repetition of profuse sweat beads around Delisle’s head, as well as the repetition of a circle with jagged lines that represents his son’s crying. Since we know from the previous section that Delisle is traveling to Burma with his wife and child in this sequence, we understand the repetition of these two images to be an important part of that experience, which is probably stressful and uncomfortable (as the recurring images of sweat and crying suggest). Just as the author of a print-based text might repeat a phrase or word, authors of multimodal texts like comics may repeat images for emphasis and to provide clues to the reader about what is important.
Part 3: Making a short work of graphic nonfiction
Reading and analyzing visual texts like graphic novels in the postsecondary English classroom can provide students with a way to talk about how multimodal texts like these work from a writer’s perspective. This experience can be valuable, as students encounter multimodal texts frequently and need to understand how to read and critically evaluate them. Increasingly, students of English will also create texts in their personal and professional lives that integrate writing with other modalities like the visual. As previously discussed, to be literate in contemporary times means to practice both the evaluation and production of a range of texts including visual texts like comics and graphic novels.
When students create their own comics and graphic novels in the classroom, they have to apply their knowledge of the conventions of those texts. Wysocki notes in “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” that as students make their own multimodal texts like comics, they must “understand that there are principles and why they need to follow them” (172). After students spent several weeks in my classroom reading graphic novels and other visual texts to develop their understanding of visual and rhetorical conventions and their effects, they were asked to apply their growing knowledge to create their own graphic texts. During the course of the semester, students gathered observational data from a community site of their choosing, ranging from pole-dancing fitness groups to art museums. This primary data was the inspiration for their own short works of graphic nonfiction, which focused on some memorable aspect of the people at the site. Before students began crafting their texts, they were asked to plan out their projects in a detailed proposal (see Appendix A). In their proposals, students had to identify the purpose and audience for their projects and outline how they would address each of the three appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos), as well as which would be dominant. Throughout the proposal, students described how they would integrate the kinds of visual and rhetorical conventions we had discussed as a class in order to reach their audience and achieve their purpose. For instance, in a project where an appeal to ethos was crucial in order for the audience to accept the message, the student would have to consider how to represent herself visually using the conventions of comics and graphic novels. Would she play with conventions of line and hyperbole to create a self-deprecating caricature like Delisle in Burma Chronicles, or would she use metaphor to represent herself in the way Art Spiegelman does in Maus? Or, if a student’s main strategy for persuading the audience was logos, she would have to consider conventions about structure, among other things. Would she create a text with discrete sections like Delisle, or would she produce more of a continuous narrative like Speigelman? What had she noticed about how short works of graphic nonfiction are typically structured? To be literate in contemporary times, students need to be aware of the conventions at their disposal and able to fit them to the unique communicative context in which they find themselves—in this case, the student’s own work of graphic nonfiction.
A working knowledge of the conventions of any text type, whether it be graphic novels or essays, is necessary for the successful production of those texts. However, as The New London Group articulates, we never “simply reproduce Available Designs. Designing transforms knowledge in producing new constructions and representations of reality” (76). That is, we never just copy or replicate conventions in our own work. We are all unique individuals with our own experiences and interests and purposes. As we compose, we make choices that are influenced by these factors and generate unique texts as a result. Sometimes, our choices can be subversive. As Wysocki argues, in their multimodal texts students “can—and often should—push against” conventions for personal or political purposes (173). In a project that relies on strong appeals to ethos, for instance, a student might choose to challenge the conventional ways women are sexualized in comics, especially superhero comics. Or, if she were relying on logos to persuade her audience, she might choose to deviate from conventional structural patterns for graphic novels. But students do not need to subvert conventions to exercise agency. The very process of production, which involves both the negotiation of our own identities and the conventions of text, is in-and-of-itself a powerful process. As Wysocki contends, “when someone makes an object that is both separate from her but that shows how she can use the tools and materials and techniques of her time, then she can see a possible self—a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world—in that object” (“Openings” 21). Through the process of making visual texts like comics, students realize that they have the ability to produce, not just consume, the multimodal texts that surround them every day. They come to see that they can achieve their own purposes using these texts, whether those purposes are subversive or not. Every text made becomes a physical manifestation of our communicative objectives and bears the mark of our distinctive identities.
As students moved from the proposal to actually making their projects in my class, they had to exercise creativity, an increasingly important component of modern literate practice. Most students felt that they lacked the artistic and technological skills necessary to make their own graphic nonfiction. However, through the creative application of visual and rhetorical conventions, they were still able to produce persuasive visual texts. For instance, in one student’s project, stick figures and text are used to chronicle observations about public spaces in Europe during spring break. Though the student declared he lacked artistic ability, he managed to produce a piece of graphic nonfiction that effectively appealed to his readers’ pathos, using humor to persuade them of the cultural differences from an American’s perspective. He accomplished this appeal largely through the visual application of rhetorical convention of hyperbole, or deliberate exaggeration, usually for comic purposes. In many of his scenes, the student visually exaggerated elements of his experience to emphasize contrast between cultures and generate laughs from his readers. As part of a series of images describing the behaviors of pigeons in various cultures, for example, the student utilizes hyperbole to illustrate a Parisian pigeon (see Figure 3). The pigeon is the object of textual and visual hyperbole: both its size and behavior are exaggerated beyond what is possible in reality. To capture its “lovely” nature, as the student describes it, the pigeon speaks to the humans next to him on the sidewalk, apologizing for obstructing their path. The pigeon says, “Oh, am I in your way? I am so sorry! Pardon me while I hop on into the street.” Through hyperbole, stick figures and text together at once describe the pigeon and appeal to the audience’s emotions. Though the student lamented his lack of drawing skills, he was still able to create an effective, communicative panel by fitting his knowledge of the convention of hyperbole to his rhetorical purpose.
Students had also amassed a large quantity of data for their projects. Accustomed to writing term papers averaging 15 or more pages, the graphic nonfiction project required students to think creatively about how to capture their information in a tighter space that integrated both words and images. Students had to be innovative in their use of visual conventions to do some of the storytelling and move away from a reliance on print. For example, in one student’s project, which focused on a life-skills classroom at a local high school, images of classroom activities are positioned next to activities outside of the classroom to demonstrate transference of life skills. Rather than relying on textual descriptions of those activities to make her point, the student appeals to logos and takes advantage of conventions for arranging image and text relationships (see Figure 4). Images of organized paint bottles appear in the first panel accompanied by the text “Just like they arrange paint in the classroom.” Immediately beside the first panel is the image of an organized rack of shoes with the text “They arrange shoes at the thrift shop.” The relationship between text and image in both panels is a convention of comics and graphic novels. Independent of the images, the words could not convey all of the necessary information. We would not know, for instance, how students “arrange paint” without seeing the paint organized neatly by color in the image. Without the second image, we would not realize that they “arrange shoes” in style and color order at the thrift store. Further, we would not fully understand the relationship between the shoes and the paint if we were not able to see the items neatly and clearly arranged by their similarities—color and shape—in the side-by-side panels. The images also need the text to achieve full significance. Pictures of organized paint bottles and shoes are only associated with the classroom activity through the clarifying text. This specific relationship between text and image, which Scott McCloud refers to as “additive,” occurs when text helps to “amplify or elaborate” on the image, or vice versa (154). According to McCloud, additive is one of seven conventional relationships between text and images in comics. Thinking creatively about her purpose through the use of conventional relationships between images and text found in comics, this student convincingly conveys the main message of her entire project in two panels: that this life-skills classroom provides students with valuable knowledge that transfers in a practical way to the real world. Using words alone, this message would have taken much more detail and space to communicate.
Nearly 20 years ago, Gunther Kress argued that “the visual is becoming prominent in the landscape of public communication” (67). Today, thanks to technological, social, and cultural movements, visual and other multimodal texts like comics have come to dominate how we communicate with one another both in public and private spheres. Put simply, multimodal texts have weight in our culture. As such, the ability to read and make those texts is a crucial component of modern literate practice and, as Kress contends, “cannot be ignore by school-curricula” (67).
Outside the classroom, students interact with multimodal texts like comics on a daily basis. Inside the classroom, students need opportunities not only to read comics, but also to learn how to read them critically with an understanding of how their design conventions contribute to their meaning and persuasiveness. Students in my course began by reading short works of graphic nonfiction and analyzing how those works had been put together, and to what effect. Instead of merely being taught that comics always employ specific conventions (for instance, no more than x panels on a page), students were encouraged to develop a more flexible understanding of how conventions are rhetorical and both affect and are affected by audience, purpose, and context. Working with my guidance and their own expertise as creative writers and journalists, students extracted the conventions of these multimodal texts including visual conventions like lines or color, and rhetorical conventions like hyperbole or puns within the context of the comics they were reading. When identifying a convention like line, they asked questions like: How and why has this type of line been used? What effect does the author’s use of this have on the narrative or on my perception of the author and his or her credibility? In other words, students were encouraged to think about “visual strategies as having real and expansive effects” (Wysocki, “Sticky” 173).
Learning how to “read” comics with attention to the values and purposes embedded in their conventions is an important component of multimodal literacy and helps to make students more agentive consumers of multimodal texts in and outside of schools. At the same time, it teaches students about how to be responsible and persuasive communicators in their own comics. When we undertook the creation process mid-way through the semester, students in my course had developed a working understanding of commonly used conventions of short works of graphic nonfiction and the attendant values and effects. They were able to apply what they had learned through the reading process as they made their own multimodal texts, deciding which visual or rhetorical conventions would allow them to best convey their purpose in a particular context to a particular audience.
When students create and analyze comics in the ways described in this essay, they develop an understanding that the conventions of comics and other multimodal texts are tied to context and meaning. There are no steadfast “rules” for the design of comics that apply in all situations. As Kress asserts, teaching a set of rules or standards for comics or any multimodal texts does not help students develop the kinds of “dispositions” they will need as multimodally literate citizens, citizens who must be “deeply at ease with change, difference, and constantly transformative action” (“Crossroads” 67). Instead of learning rules or standards for putting comics together, students need flexible strategies, including how to identify commonly employed conventions and tie them back to the rhetorical situation in which the text is situated in their own, and others’, work. As Wysocki puts it, they need to discover that conventions may change and are designed “to fit with the learned expectations of their audiences, not because there are universal, neutral forms” (“Sticky” 173). When students understand conventions of comics as choices and not as rules, they are empowered to exercise creativity and agency as they read and make texts—two “dispositions” that literate people need in order to be successful in our society. They know they can select from, manipulate, and even challenge existing conventions to better achieve their purpose or relate to their audience. And unlike the conventions themselves, these multimodal literacy skills will remain relevant even as technologies and cultural expectations inevitably change over time.
Appendix A : Project Proposal Form
Graphic Nonfiction Project Proposal
EL335 :: Media Aesthetics
PURPOSE. What will be the purpose of your project?
A purpose is a lot like a main idea or thesis and will guide the direction of your work. It should be tied to the kinds of themes or interesting moments you have captured in your fieldnotes. For example, if you observed at a local soup kitchen, your work could take a variety of directions: To show the bonds between volunteers and the poor in a local soup kitchen or To argue for more funding for a local soup kitchen, showing how much it helps those involved or To illustrate my experiences learning how to volunteer at the soup kitchen.
AUDIENCE. Who do you intend to be the audience for your project?
Consider: who would be interested in and/or benefit from reading it? Please be as specific as possible, including information about what you know about the audience’s demographics and interests.
ETHOS. What role will you play in your own graphic work?
Think about the different ethos we’ve seen so far in Speigelman, Delisle, and Neufeld. Which would you most be like and why?
PATHOS. What kinds of emotions do you hope to invoke in your graphic work and how will you accomplish this?
Remember all the devices we’ve covered, including things like color, typography, pun, hyperbole, etc.
LOGOS. How do you plan to organize your work?
There’s lots to consider here about the shape of your work. For instance, will you have chapters or sections? Will it be a continuous narrative like Speigelman’s, or broken into discrete sections like Delisle’s? Will you go back and forth in time like Neufeld or Speigelman, or will you show how things progress chronologically like Delisle? Will you focus on multiple perspectives like Neufeld, or just on one like Speigelman? Will your images be realistic (photos, true-to-life illustrations) or abstract (avatars, sketches)? Etc.
APPEAL. Which of the above three appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos) will be most important to the success of your work? Why?
Appendix B : Graphic Nonfiction Assignment Sheet
Graphic Nonfiction Research Project
EL335 :: Media Aesthetics
What are we doing, in a nutshell?
You will produce a short, graphic nonfiction narrative informed by your experiences observing and researching a local, off-campus community (or person with oral history to share—if you go the person route, you must first clear your choice with the instructor), as well as some supplemental secondary research. Though much shorter, your narrative will be similar to the texts we’ve read as a class (for instance, in Maus Art Spiegelman uses graphic nonfiction to share his father’s oral history about the Holocaust, and in Burma Chronicles Guy Delisle uses graphic narrative to relay information about his experiences with the culture of Burma).
What’s this about research?
For much of the remaining semester, you will be asked to spend time in a local, off-campus community site of your choosing (or with a person of your choice) collecting primary data about what the place and people are like. You must not already be a member of the community, though it can be a community you’d like to join. It should be a community that meets regularly in a place you can easily access, as you will return to the site multiple times to gather information.
You should think about observing a group of people, rather than a specific place. So, rather than observing at Starbucks, think about observing the baristas. Rather than plopping yourself down in the middle of the Greensburg Public Library, think about observing the weekly Story Hour or the librarians at work. Rather than observe the art at the Westmoreland Museum, think about going Sundays to the Imagine Nation Studio.
You’ll be asked to record five sets of observations (about one per week) in a notebook (digital or old-school spiral bound) as your “research journal.” Prompts will be given each week for your research journals to help guide your looking and asking (see Griffin Gate → handouts → assignment instructions for the prompts). If you take notes on paper, you should provide your instructor with photocopies or scanned copies of your notes. Your growing collection of notes about the place/person will provide you with the bulk of the material for your narrative. You will not (and should not) use all of the notes you take in your graphic narrative.
All writers—nonfiction and fiction—do supplemental research to enrich the stories they tell. Your primary research (your notes—observations, maps, interviews, etc.) will be supplemented by three credible, secondary research sources (library sources and credible web sources when necessary). This research will be conducted later in the process and will help contextualize your narrative, as well as allow you to better understand some of the issues that affect/are affected by your community.
For example, if you are observing at the Greensburg Public Library and notice that they are closed several days a week because of federal funding cuts, you could research those cuts, why they came into existence, and how they affect public libraries. Or, if your community is a Weight Watchers meeting, you might look for research on obesity and women, body image and the media, or the food industry in America.
The purpose of this secondary research is to add depth to your graphic piece. You need to reference all three sources within your final project. Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles is a good example of how secondary research can be integrated into a text made up primarily of observations. Note how he often interjects with explanatory facts, maps, and charts to help his readers understand what’s happening. On page 89, for instance, he observes being “ripped off” at a store, “slipped a bill that isn’t legal tender.” The rest of the page contains outside research about the tender system in Burma and how changes in the system reflect what’s going on politically. On pages 191-193, Delisle goes to a French school sponsored by Total, and spends an entire page explaining what Total is and why they sponsor social programs in Burma. This information helps readers who aren’t familiar with Total or Burmese culture to understand Delisle’s experiences at the school.
What will your narrative be like?
Your narrative should be directed at a specific audience (for instance, will they be familiar with your community? Potential members? Fellow students?) for a specific purpose (for example: to share how weight loss is tied to self-worth for Weight Watcher’s members in your community, or to reveal what it’s like to live with PTSD based on your informant’s experiences and stories about the Vietnam War). You will be asked to complete a project proposal identifying this information before you get started with creating your narrative (not before you gather notes). Instructions for this proposal will be posted to GG and explained in class as we get further into our observations.
Your narrative will get its persuasive power from one of the three appeals we’ve discussed (ethos, pathos, or logos). You should also plan to integrate at least two of the other visual stylistic devices we’ve discussed as a class (for instance, hyperbole, metaphor, juxtaposition, pun, etc.). You can think of your project as a sort of “final exam,” a place to illustrate what you’ve learned about visual rhetoric (and conducting ethical primary research).
You will create your narrative using ComicLife. You may create avatars, or use real photos or other images, including your own drawings (if you’d like to ink the entire comic by hand, you may). If you use images that do not belong to you, you must seek the author’s permission or select images that have permissions identified (like Creative Commons or Public Domain works). If you want to use real photos from your site, be sure that you have permission. Please respect your participants’ wishes for anonymity and follow the guidelines set forth in your informed consent form.
Your narrative will be accompanied by a 2+ page written artist’s statement that explains the audience and purpose of your project, as well as provides examples of how visual rhetoric was employed in the project. It will include a works cited page with entries for all secondary and primary sources consulted.
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