“Why Rhetoric? Why a Comic Book?”: Geeked on Understanding Rhetoric

Yesterday at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I picked up my signed copy of Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing by Elizabeth Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon. Today I woke up at 7 a.m., put on my bathing suit, grabbed some fruit and coffee, and headed down to the pool at my hotel, and read the whole thing.

Did I mention that I’m on spring break, in Las Vegas? (Let’s be honest. If you’re reading this, you probably already know both of these things).

I was too too excited to read this textbook, in part because my friend Molly has been getting me psyched about it for months.

Understanding Rhetoric is, as its title suggests, a rhetoric intended for freshman composition or similar courses that takes the form of a comic book. Well, actually, each chapter is presented as a separate issue, bound together into one book. The book presents many of the topics and issues covered in (I would assume; I don’t have the data here) most first year college writing courses in the U.S. (and perhaps Canada?) in a savvy, engaging, and rigorous fashion.

The main characters in the comic are the academic authors, Liz and Jonathan, speak directly to their student audience on rhetorical matters, covering a great deal of territory. There are three student characters, Luis and Cindy, plus Cindy’s mom, Carol, who appear throughout the chapters and in response sections at the end of each chapter called “Reframes.” Kevin and Zander (they’re not related), the author illustrators (these are my own contrived identifications; they’re all listed as co-authors) also appear as characters and help out with explanations of concepts like visual rhetoric and plagiarism.

The plagiarism section is an excellent example of the kind of thought, humor, and attention to detail that went into this project. There, Losh and Alexander suddenly find their characters have been replaced by similar characters co-opted from another comic, because Cannon and Cannon, looking haggard and harried, have run out of time to meet a deadline. As Molly pointed out to me when we were geeking out over the book at breakfast, this juxtaposition shows how obvious cut and pasted language in student work appears to the writing instructor. And yet, Losh and Alexander empathize with the illustrators (and, by extension, the student writer) when explaining: Alexander asks Zander, “And what about your credibility as an artist? You don’t want people to think you don’t have a style of your own . . . ” and Liz says in the next panel, “You should talk to us if you’re having trouble handling a project” (204-205, original emphasis). The dealings with other rhetorical and composing topics are sensitive, nuanced, and funny.

The preface argues that the book “reflects the latest research in composition . . . is an effective classroom text that is thoroughly grounded in scholarship” and that “by emphasizing multimodal approaches to composing, we would engage student writers . . . [and] make rhetoric interesting and maybe even enjoyable” (v). For the dubious, this book does it all, and does it really well. The use of the comic book genre is authentic, imaginative, and effective. The approach to rhetoric and the assignment suggestions in the “Drawing Conclusions” sections at the end of each chapter are savvy, interesting, and intellectually engaging. I’m not assigned to teach first year writing for a while, but this book makes me want to. I’d love to take the time to figure out if this book and its approach would work in the classic rhetoric/reader combo in concert with my other favorite, Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs’ Writing About Writing: A College Reader (I swear, I’m not trying to get on somebody’s good side @ Bedford St. Martin’s, although they do throw a mean party).

I’ll get back to you on where I think the book may be lacking. I definitely read with my “believing” lens (thanks, Peter Elbow). Totally geeked.