J.24: Visual Rhetoric for Social Change in the Writing Classroom

Reviewed by: Jessica Shumake, University of Arizona (shumake@email.arizona.edu)

Chair: Heather Graves, University of Alberta
Speakers: Rosanne Carlo, College of Staten Island, "Students as Actors, Not Consumers: Toward a Heuristic for the Production of Graphic Novels in the Composition Classroom"
Brenda Hardin Abbott, Bay Path University, "Challenging Gendered Scripts in Education through Movie Trailers: The Critical Potential of iMovie"
Heather Graves, University of Alberta, "Ethical Energy, Immoral Energy: Strategies for Teaching Visual Argument for Social Change"

I attended this panel on visual rhetorical pedagogies for social change because I teach digital storytelling, new media studies, and the critical analysis of visual texts. In my teaching, I look for ways to evaluate and analyze the structures, conventions, and storylines that frame and give coherence to the digital stories that captivate, move, and entertain us. A well-designed story directs our attention and arouses our emotions so that we suspend disbelief. Still, teaching students to name and describe the structural elements of a captivating digital story or persuasive multimodal text helps them to become better producers, revisers, and critics of their own and others’ work. As the projects on this panel illustrate, when we analyze multimedia and visual texts, we can better apply and incorporate what we have learned, from specific examples of effective communication and document design principles to our digital projects.

The first speaker, Rosanne Carlo, discussed a partnership among her composition students at a public land grant university in the southwest and students at a Title I high school in the same region. Carlo explained that she and her teaching partner from the high school collaborated to develop a shared curriculum and asked their respective students to analyze graphic narratives and then make their collaborative graphic narratives. Carlo argued that through the “production and revision process,” her composition students gained an “expanded perspective of literacy and of the creative process” as they made informed “rhetorical choices about the design of their projects” in collaboration with their high school partners. Carlo shared examples of different iterations of students’ projects to demonstrate how they grew in their awareness of ethical peer review practices. They offered feedback on other students’ visual narratives and eventually wrote reflective artist’s statements on the mixed emotions they experienced when they made suggestions that could potentially change too much of another student’s narrative. Carlo’s service-learning partnership with a local high school teacher modeled the paradigm shift of “writing for” community members, as described by Tom Deans (2000) in Writing Partnerships: Service-Learning in Composition, to “writing with” and “writing about” community members.

Brenda Hardin Abbott, the second speaker, discussed and shared materials from her curricular innovations in a first-year writing program at a small women’s university in western Massachusetts. Abbott offered a glimpse into what she termed the “infrastructure for multimodal composing” through the scaffolding of assignments, the offering of feedback on students’ production decisions, and the assessment of students’ final projects. Abbott’s presentation focused on clips from her students’ multimodal projects, wherein students analyzed and then reimagined Hollywood films about education through their digital stories. Through the planning and creation of digital stories of their own, Abbott’s students aimed to counter the gendered, racially prejudiced, and class-based scripts, stereotypes, and tropes found in Hollywood movies about high school. Abbott described how she often observed her students simultaneously enacting and countering the very scripts and tropes they sought to reimagine in their digital projects. Ultimately, Abbott argued that the critical potential of multimodal composition issues from its promise as a vehicle through which students can attempt to reimagine oppressive scripts and talk back to the Hollywood film industry. Abbott further argued that people of color and women are underrepresented as storytellers and story producers in the mainstream film industry and that the production of meaning must be democratized through making space for new storytellers. For Abbott, that democratizing space is the first-year composition classroom wherein students can produce new possibilities for those whose stories are told and those whose experiences are represented.

The third speaker, Heather Graves, Director of Writing Studies at the University of Alberta, discussed her collaborations with co-authors in engineering and organizational studies to apply their ongoing research on the relationship between text and image to the teaching of multimodal message analysis and production. Graves began her presentation by defining a multimodal message as the “combination of text and image to make an argument that has an impact.” Graves’s interest in marketing and organizational studies research is connected to her claim that when it comes to processing persuasive messages, “text alone is slow”; however, the combination of text and image has a more direct and immediate impact on an audience’s established beliefs. In her discussion of strategies and structures to teach students to analyze advertisements, Graves used categories developed by Karen A. Schriver (1997) in her book Dynamics in Document Design. The majority of advertisements Graves presented to the audience from her research were circulated by environmental organizations concerned with the environmental impact of oil extraction in Alberta.

These presentations, taken together, offered contextualized theories of visual rhetoric to support students to analyze and create multimodal and digital projects with the potential to inspire critical action. At the end of this panel presentation, I left with not only a better understanding of the visual communication theories that are being put into practice to support students to analyze and compose digital projects, but also with many practical ideas about how visual analysis helps students to produce meaningful and critical work for social change.


Deans, Thomas. (2000). Writing partnerships: Service-learning in composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Schriver, Karen A. (1997). Dynamics in document design: Creating text for readers. New York, NY: Wiley.

Created by MichaelM. Last Modification: Tuesday January 3, 2017 22:36:18 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.