College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

Sealey-Morris, Gabriel. Rhetoric of Comics. CS, Spring 2015. Posted 06/04/15.

Sealey-Morris, Gabriel. “The Rhetoric of the Paneled Page: Comics and Composition Pedagogy.” Composition Studies 43.1 (2015): 31-50. Web. 28 May 2015.

Gabriel Sealey-Morris argues that comics can enrich college students’ rhetorical education, supplying opportunities for students to meet the outcomes called for by the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition and the NCTE Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies. In Sealey-Morris’s view, although the recognition of comics as a complex form of literary activity has been well noted in critical circles, rhetoric and composition has been slow to take up the benefits offered by using comics as a pedagogical tool in the writing classroom (32).

Sealey-Morris examines competing definitions and critical takes on comics by specialists and artists, exploring such issues as the relative priority of words and images (34). He presents comics as a vehicle for enhancing students’ rhetorical and critical abilities by arguing that they meet each of four WPA outcomes—rhetorical knowledge; critical thinking, reading, and writing; knowledge of conventions; and processes—as well as the call for more intensive attention to digital literacy and production in both documents.

Sealey-Morris presents comics as an enhancement to rhetorical knowledge by virtue of the medium’s demands for a “radically different kind of literacy” (33) in which the juxtaposition of words and images expands the interpretive possibilities as well as their complexity. He notes also the role that the medium often elicits from authors (36). He argues from sections of the NCTE position paper and from work by Scott McCloud that the separation of word from image required by conventional prose and represented as “maturation” elides the degree to which children naturally combine words and images to communicate. Sealey-Morris sees comics as operating on a rhetorical level that foregrounds more choices and possibilities than either words or images alone can permit snd re-opens the potential for a “rhetorical richness” that may be lost as children are weaned away from seeing images as equal components of expression (35). Sealey-Morris explores comics authors’ relationships to their own work as they create their “authorial ethos” in the process of interacting with varied audiences in different ways, often by depicting themselves as characters in their comics (36). Such recognition of the effects of a wider range of rhetorical choices than prose can allow as well as of the options for designing oneself as a visible component of a communicative act, Sealey-Morris argues, lend increased range and depth to the rhetorical knowledge college writing students are asked to acquire.

The interpretive complexities Sealey-Morris discusses also encourage critical thinking and reading, as well as critical attention to writing as students begin to produce their own comics. Critics present a range of views of how the relation between panels and their contents affects readers’ construction of narratives, their impressions of time, and their choices of reading strategies (37). Sealey-Morris argues that comics cannot be read “superficial[ly]” (38); they demand constant work as readers move between language and images within panels, additionally assessing the overall relationships established by the arrangement of different components on the page (37). Readers, moreover, must choose among a range of possible orders for encountering the text (37). For Sealey-Morris,

[i]mmersion in a comics page is more difficult than in prose, which is temporal and necessarily sequential, or in the presence of image only, which is static and visible within a self-created context. (38)

Such challenges to reading result in a “critical distance” in which conventional responses to reality become unavailable; at the same time, exposure to images of body language and gesture simulate “the work of interpreting real life” (38). For Sealey-Morris, these contributions to the activity of reading encourage students to develop a much more varied rhetorical and critical repertoire.

Comics, Sealey-Morris contends, can also help students develop knowledge of conventions. He presents examples from Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, by writers Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander and artists Kevin and Zander Cannon to illustrate how a comics presentation can both lay out an academically sophisticated argument and teach an academic convention like citation (39-40). He further draws on examples of work by comics artists to argue that the intensive revision and recursive development of a comics page instills in students both an understanding of the importance of writing processes and an appreciation for the ways collaboration can increase rhetorical choices and effectiveness (41). Collaboration, in this view, is becoming more and more central as multimodal literacy assumes heightened importance in literacy education (42).

To argue for the effectiveness of comics as a means of enhancing students’ digital literacy, Sealey-Morris draws on Richard Lanham’s contention in The Economics of Attention that print “is marked by ‘fixity’ and ‘invisibility,’ as it delivers meaning without calling attention to itself as a medium” (45). In contrast, the image/word juxtaposition and tension unavoidable in comics demands awareness of the role of the medium in the communication process, thus alerting students to the complex pressures inherent in rapidly changing communicative technologies (45-46).

Sealey-Morris points out that the technical difficulties students might face in actually generating comics within classroom environments have been addressed by the recent distribution of a number of relatively simple, cheap, or even often free apps that can be used to create the necessary images (46). Such production is important for the college writing classroom, he argues, not just for its contribution to critical thinking and rhetorical knowledge, but also for the degree to which it can support student ownership of their work. Quoting Jared Gardner, Sealey-Morris sees words as easily available for passive consumption and thoughtless deployment in “an environment in which, for writers, the ‘choice of tools (pen, typewriter, laptop) have become irrelevant'” (48). Sealey-Morris again contrasts the effects of producing comics, an activity in which the multitude of complex elements and choices make rhetorical action a much more demanding and absorbing effort than, in his view, print generation has become, thus encouraging increased thoughtfulness and awareness of the effects of each choice (49).

Hum, Sue. Racialized Gaze, Design. CE, 1/15. Posted 3/2/2015.

Hum, Sue. “‘Between the Eyes’: The Racialized Gaze as Design.” College English 77.3 (2015): 191-215. Print.

Sue Hum, associate professor of English at the University of Texas, San Antonio, examines the 19th-century political cartoons of Thomas Nast to argue that the assumptions, ideologies, stereotypes, and received knowledge of our social, cultural, and political environments constitute a “lifeworld” that inescapably influences our choices in designing visual messages. She focuses on the “racialized gaze” that, she contends, as one of the “habits of looking” (191) to which all design is subject, undercuts Nast’s efforts to ameliorate anti-immigrant attitudes and legislation directed at Chinese populations from the mid-1800s well into the 20th century. Her exploration of Nast’s activist visual rhetoric leads to a call for teachers and scholars involved in the analysis and production of visual rhetoric, particularly as it becomes a focus in English Studies classrooms, to become more alert to the degree to which the readily “available resources” provided by our “lifeworld” direct and constrain our choices in design (197-99).

Hum develops her argument along two axes. The first involves the “characteristics” of “sight” and “site,” which she sees functioning as verbs. Sight as a verb results in the use of visible markers to stand in for a range of judgments about the nature of an individual; visible characteristics take on the power of “facticity,” informing us of supposed truths about a person based solely on what she looks like (194-5, 199-201). “Site” uses these visible markers to incorporate individuals into a “homogenous group” that can then be located in an extant social and cultural hierarchy (195, 202-3).

The second axis is that of the “dynamics” of “authenticity” and “universality,” which Hum sees acting as nouns. Authenticity requires the use of visual detail to represent individuals in the ways that the contemporaneous culture views as accurate representations (195-96, 203-04). For example, Nast used elaborate, stereotypical indications such as flowing robes and long queues to establish the ethnicity of his Chinese subjects. Universality involves depictions that attempt to establish the shared humanity of different groups, for example, by attempting to evoke sympathy for the anguish felt by a bullied “coolie” in an 1869 cartoon (196, 205-08). This attempt to subsume specific cultures by incorporating them into the conception promoted by the dominant social order of what it means to be a fellow human, Hum contends, “elides the lived experiences of people of color by overlooking how differences are produced by histories of oppression and ideologies of exclusion” (196). Hum argues that these two dynamics function both simultaneously and at odds with each other. The care Nast took to mark his subjects as Chinese rendered them inescapably alien even as he hoped to show their commonality with the culture that characterized them as the “yellow peril” and a dangerous “horde” (195, 206, 204)

Thus, Hum writes, the “racialized gaze” invests the visible with the power of a truth that is in fact a product of the culture’s readily available beliefs and expectations. It focuses on markers of difference as statements about individuals and groups and in doing so, reinforces extant hierarchies and divisions even when meant to challenge them. Hum’s closing suggests that awareness of such tendencies can temper their power and urges scholars and teachers in English Studies to cultivate such awareness in the examination and production of visual rhetoric: “This historical inquiry offers students an understanding of the broad array of contextual decisions involved in producing images” and “highlights how well-intentioned designers, as a result of the perceptual habits of their time, may be blind to the ideological grammar, structures, and conventions of their lifeworlds. . . .” (210).