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Composition Forum 32, Fall 2015

Review of Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander’s Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing

Nathan Wagner

Losh, Elizabeth and Jonathan Alexander. Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing. Illus. Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2014. Print. 304 pp.

Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander have devoted much of their academic careers to exploring multimodal possibilities in the composition classroom. Recent texts such as Losh’s The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University and Alexander and Rhodes’s On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies seek to explore the influence and importance that multimodalities hold in the current writing situation. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that they would collaborate and create a writing textbook in graphic format. Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, established Eisner Award-winning artists, offer playful illustrations to bring Losh and Alexander’s lessons to life. The combination of these different talents enables Understanding Rhetoric to stand as a significant contribution to composition theory and practice. Through this innovative (for a textbook) format, Losh and Alexander are able to connect the study of writing through the graphic presentation of the textbook and demonstrate how academia and popular culture might meet in provocative ways. What this implies is a new pedagogical approach to teaching writing through an engaging multimodal presentation. As Losh and Alexander write in the Preface, “We hoped that by emphasizing multimodal approaches to composing, we would engage student writers in thinking about their identities, contexts for their research, and effective writing processes. But we also wanted a book that students would actually want to read” (v).

Ultimately, Understanding Rhetoric appears to be the definitive homage to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, the forbearer of teaching comics theory through the presentation of a comic book. While McCloud’s text provides a theoretical framework through which to study graphic works, Losh and Alexander have taken a step towards cementing comics as a means of practical and effective instruction in the composition classroom through the graphic format of their text. As Jason Palmeri reminds us in Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy, this trend towards multimodal literacies in writing studies is not a new phenomenon: it has been happening for years, even with textbooks that incorporate innovative formats. The idea of comics as educational tools that promote multimodal literacies is a well-worn tale, stretching back to McCloud and Understanding Comics in 1993 through Syma and Weiner’s edited collection Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art in 2013. So, what makes this book different? There is something inherently accessible about comics, so when the format is united with academic instruction, then the assumption that classroom work has nothing to do with the “outside world” is demystified. It not only makes sense to “reimagine composition as a course that teaches students to discover—to choose the modalities that best help them convey what they want to communicate” (Palmeri 37), but also to reimagine the ways in which instructors present the material to the students in a relatable, informative, and interactive manner.

Academic journals such as ImageText and SANE approach comics as a serious format that demands attention in research interests as well as pedagogy. Since our contemporary landscape is so saturated with visual images and digital spaces, comics can serve as an accessible introduction to multimodal writing. Understanding Rhetoric not only discusses visual culture and multimodalities much like any other textbook, but it also enacts them through its presentation. In her book, Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form, Hannah Miodrag writes, “The ongoing anxiety about the supposed hierarchy of words and images means that comics are habitually defended against the benchmark of language and literature. If images – or even the comics form itself—can be argued to work just like verbal language then comics must be as good as ‘proper books’” (10). It seems that there is something important that comics can say about the current writing experience. The underlying ideology present here demonstrates to students a key piece of the writing process: to “understand rhetoric” implies an awareness of when and how writing is done across different situations. As Jeraldine Kraver asserts, “Comics theory reveals the kinds of complex skills underlying any literary practice: skills in decoding, inferencing, and recognizing conceptual relationships as well as attending to syntax, semantics, and word properties” (32). Understanding Rhetoric demonstrates this theoretical framework through its lessons and design.

Early in the text, Losh and Alexander, reflexively addressing the student writer, state, “Our primary goal is to help you think about how writing occurs in different situations, in different forms, and in different spaces, and how paying attention to those changing contexts changes how–and why–you write” (5). From the start of the textbook, the authors are attempting to connect with students by demonstrating the relevance of each chapter and lesson. The emphasis on “difference” implies that writing is not treated as a skill, but as something complex and worthy of consideration and study. In this way, Losh and Alexander are offering new insight about what counts as writing and a writing textbook through their graphic presentation. The text also makes the (correct) assumption that students are not interested in the material with which they are presented in the classroom; they are bored with thick textbooks to which they find little relevance or relation. However, the format of Understanding Rhetoric attempts to address this issue by providing a medium through which students might better involve themselves with the material.

The accessible nature of comics influences students to engage with the text and also develops their multimodal literacies; this is what makes Understanding Rhetoric so revolutionary and especially appealing to new writing instructors interested in incorporating a textbook that provokes student interest. It is a textbook that invites students to involve themselves with the material through its presentation; it conceptualizes the writing situation for contemporary scholars by using current examples of the rhetorical situation in an innovative format. Through this marriage of “high and low” cultures, Understanding Rhetoric shows its relevance to students by demonstrating that the composition classroom can be a space for popular inquiry. In Figure 1, Losh and Alexander unite a discussion of discourse and communication with the Cannons’ drawing of the fictional superhero, “Metamorph.” This instance is a perfect example of Understanding Rhetoric’s “revolution” among textbooks: elements of popular culture (superhero, graphic illustration) converge with academia to provoke an understandable and relatable discussion about “serious” subjects (literacy, effective communication).

The image is labeled “High and Low Culture” and shows an illustration of the discourse superhero Metamorph dressed in tights and a cape speaking to an audience about important communicative principles.
Figure 1. “High and Low” Culture.

Losh and Alexander present writing as a complex endeavor, and the different emphases stress an awareness of context and genre. There are sections that include the rhetorical situation, research methodologies, and textual analysis, but the chapters are situated towards the writing process, and most strikingly, the text demonstrates the writing process through its format. It is almost as if Understanding Rhetoric has been adapted from previous writing textbooks into a different multimodal presentation, utilizing a meta-awareness of this format and context in its instruction. In the introduction, the authors state, “Learning to read the different elements of a visual text is part of what we call visual literacy. Visual literacy is very important in understanding the messages that are conveyed by…any media that engages with our eyes” (16). Through this presentation of content, the authors seemingly imply that in order for contemporary students to approach an understanding of the writing process, they must first gain an understanding of rhetoric as well as the current visual and digital landscape. In Figure 2, the Cannon brothers utilize the visual mode of the textbook in order to enact illustrations of the rhetorical appeals. This demonstration clearly articulates relatable definitions of how these appeals are enacted by engaging student attention and comprehension through playful illustrations.

The image is labeled “Illustrated Rhetorical Appeals” and shows a cartoon version of Losh reacting to different depictions of ethos, pathos, and logos.
Figure 2. Illustrated Rhetorical Appeals.

On a daily basis students are confronted with an overload of visual data, and this textbook seeks to afford them an understanding of the various media they intake, and, in turn, how to use this analytical knowledge to create compositions. As Figure 2 demonstrates, the textbook might be seen as bridging the gap between “dull” instruction and relatable student interests. These lessons and the illustrations that accompany them are followed by different prompts that ask students to apply what they have learned to writing activities such as a rhetorical analysis of a website or translating textual-based writing into multimodal works. With an emphasis on relatable multimodal genres such as web design, filmmaking, and comics, Losh and Alexander enable students to reflect on and interact with rhetorical concepts and the media that they encounter on a daily basis. For these reasons, writing students will more than likely find the text accessible and as enjoyable as a textbook might possibly be.

There may, however, be some dissonance between the content and the format for students and instructors. Hierarchies are established within the academy of serious texts and serious instruction, and comics are not generally thought of as worthy of scholarly merit. Some students may be taken off guard by using a textbook in this format. This leaves instructors to ask: How might we negotiate this terrain and show the text as worthy of pedagogical use? Half of the battle in the composition classroom is engaging students with the material and showing them that writing is an important field of study and relevant to their everyday lives. Not every student will embrace this text. In my experience, the majority of students will pay attention and learn with this interactive book, but a small group will reinforce the hierarchies of academia and popular culture: everything that is not of “high” thought stays out there—only scholarly pursuits in the classroom. And that is the biggest issue of the book, isn’t it? Why can we not bridge this gap between academia and popular culture? That is the most important aspect of Understanding Rhetoric. Through the marriage of “high and low,” the text not only becomes more accessible for students, but it also demonstrates how what we do in the classroom has some significance out in the world and what we do in the world has significance in the classroom.

When I used this text in my composition class, the majority of my students engaged with the material and effectively applied the lessons to different writing scenarios, such as translating a personal narrative into a multimodal presentation. I also had students tell me that in previous English courses they were not able to fully comprehend rhetorical concepts, but after seeing them presented in this format, they were able to grasp what is going on through the interplay of words and images. The emphasis of Understanding Rhetoric is ultimately on the creation of student compositions in a variety of media. By using this inviting text—in contrast to prior experience with traditional textbooks—I was able to actually influence students to consistently read the material and consider writing in new ways and as something relevant to their daily lives. I can’t ask for much more from a textbook. When comics are beginning to be taken seriously in the humanities, it almost seems inevitable that the format can be used to remix and promote traditional studies, including rhetoric and composition.

Author’s Note: An earlier version of this review appeared as a personal blog post by the author.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan, and Jacqueline Rhodes. On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies. Urbana: NCTE, 2014. Print.

Kraver, Jeraldine. Reinventing the Composition Classroom, or How Making Comics Can Clarify the Composing Process. SANE. 1.3 (2013): 30-46. Web. 20 May 2015.

Losh, Elizabeth. The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: William Morrow, 1994. Print.

Miodrag, Hannah. Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form. Jackson: U of Mississippi Press, 2013. Print.

Palmeri, Jason. Remixing Composition: A History of Multimodal Writing Pedagogy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2012. Print.

Syma, Carrye Kay, and Robert G. Weiner, eds. Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2013. Print.

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