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Interview: The Understanding Rhetoric Team

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Tracy Edmunds, Reading With Pictures Curriculum Manager

Emerging research and practice are consistently proving the efficacy of graphic texts as teaching tools, but so far most of this work has been done with pre-existing texts not specifically created for the classroom. Now, a team of teachers and artists has tackled this challenge head-on by creating a graphic textbook specifically for use in college level composition courses. Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing is an ambitious project and a groundbreaking work:

Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing covers what first-year college writers need to know — the writing process, critical analysis, argument, research, revision, and presentation — in a visual format that brings rhetorical concepts to life through examples ranging from Aristotle to YouTube.” (Beford St. Martin’s)

This exclusive Reading With Pictures interview with the Understanding Rhetoric team brings you behind-the-scenes stories from this leading-edge project.

The team:
            • Elizabeth Losh (UCSD) and Jonathan Alexander (UCI), authors
            • Kevin Cannon & Zander Cannon, artists
            • Carolyn Lengel, editor


Reading With Pictures: Writing isn’t a subject that most people would associate with a visual format. Why the graphic novel format for this particular subject? Why did you feel there was a need for this particular work?

Elizabeth Losh (author): It’s funny that you ask that question. In the book we argue that there is actually a long history of illustrated rhetorical manuals that has been erased because of the dominance of much more sterile works in which images are either absent or contribute little to the pedagogy.

For example, the traditional canons of rhetoric from ancient Greece to the antebellum United States included instruction in “memory” and “delivery.” Pictures helped those who wanted to improve their skills in public speaking to become better orators. Illustrated figures provided devices for speakers to remember what they were going to say and even how they should say it – with gestures and other forms of body language.

Furthermore, writing is an important expression of rhetoric, and Jonathan and I believe that writing is something that involves embodiment, affect, and the constraints of the material world. The graphic novel format is a great way to show those features of what cognitive scientists call our “embodied interactions” with texts, such as going to a library or to a place where you could get expert advice from an instructor or writing specialist, and how what they call “distributed cognition” develops knowledge. We are also big believers in teaching in a dialogic way (Socratic or otherwise), and we liked the fact that we could show how ideas are tied to particular identities.

This strong commitment to making the most of the format was really important for making the collaboration with the artists and our editors at Bedford work. We liked the fact that nobody treated comics as a remedial form or pressured us to produce a “rhetoric for dummies” book that might insult the intelligence of students.

Jonathan Alexander (author): We also thought that a graphic book would provide a visually-rich medium through which to discuss with students some of the multimodal rhetorical practices that characterize, and in many ways are enabled by, digital communication technologies. Ambitiously, even perhaps hubristically, we felt inspired by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a book inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s multimodal Understanding Media, to teach while practicing. Indeed, having taught writing with comics, we believed that a graphic book might enliven the teaching of writing while also extending the teaching of composition to more multimodal forms—not least by modeling our own composing of such a multimodal book.


RWP: How familiar were you with the graphic format going in? Had you written this way before?

Elizabeth: We both had taught with graphic novels for years and were enthusiastic readers, although this was a first for both of us as writers. Learning to think with scripts and page layouts in mind involved rethinking a lot of what we had done as academic writers in the past. Jonathan and I had collaborated before as co-authors of more traditional texts, and as individuals we had done experiments with hypertexts, zines, video essays, and other forms of multimodal composition, but this was definitely something different that really required us to be more creative in our working relationship. I feel like we learned a lot about the canon of “invention” by working together, because brainstorming and trying out bits of dialogue or ideas for images was an important part of the process.

Jonathan: That’s right. When we started brainstorming how this book might take shape, we had both just been teaching comics and graphic novels, I in a course on the history and theory of graphic books, and Liz as part of her work as writing director of a large liberal arts-oriented first-year introduction to the humanities at UC, Irvine. But composing a graphic book was a whole other story, as it were. For instance, when first drafting the initial chapters of Understanding Rhetoric, we found ourselves relying heavily on text bubbles that narrated in a “universal” voice. We had created characters and intended to use ourselves as “guides” throughout the book, and we knew theoretically from our own teaching of comics how graphic books are often narratively driven through dialogue. But our experience as academic writers lured us into a predisposition to privilege expository communication. To riff of a comp cliché, we were telling, not showing. Entire chapters had to be rewritten to recast our exposition into dialogue, into exchanges between characters who were discussing—actively, sometimes heatedly—the rhetorical strategies and knowledges we wanted to introduce to students.

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RWP: Which aspects of traditional textbooks did you keep, which did you adapt, and which did you intentionally exclude?

Elizabeth: The tricky thing for us was finding a way to integrate samples of written work, since we all believe in the importance of providing models for successful writing in many genres and showing how a text can be revised to be more effective in reaching its audience and achieving its purpose. We know that showing tends to be much more effective than telling, but we had to figure out a way to show sample student essays without making it look like a standard composition textbook. The solution that we came up with – letting the characters be small and the text be large, so that the characters can walk around the text and make suggestions – really worked, but it involved a lot of trial and error and late night goofy brainstorming to arrive at it.

Jonathan: Writing this book also allowed us to push sound boundaries in the field. For instance, we insisted on having a chapter on “identity,” knowing how important identity is to writing. We write from standpoints, from our own senses of self and other, so addressing identity as an important dimension of learning to write seemed obvious to us. Graphically, we could portray writers taking on different identities, experimenting with different perspectives, trying to see the world through others’ eyes—hence the character Morph, who uses his superpowers of transformation to experiment with different perspectives!


RWP: Zander and Kevin, how familiar were you with the subject matter before taking this on? What have you learned about composition?

Kevin Cannon (artist): Zander was an English major in college, so I’m sure he had a more formal grasp on the subject matter before starting the book than I did. We’re both writers, however, so informally we both had an understanding of the concepts, but it was definitely interesting to see them all gathered together and explained in this format. Throughout my schooling I somehow managed to skip out on English classes that taught formal terminology, so it was fascinating to work on this book and learn terms like kairos and logos — terms that refer to concepts that I knew intuitively but didn’t realize they had official names.

Zander and I say this about every nonfiction book we work on, but I wish this book had been around when I was in school. Textbooks back then were something you read only when assigned, and I think there’s something dangerous about that. If I learned anything from a standard textbook it’s only because I willed it to happen. Books like Understanding Rhetoric, however, are the polar opposite — you can’t help but pick it up and be engaged with it, and when that’s the case, learning the material becomes a natural byproduct of the enjoyment of the story.


RWP: You’ve worked in non-fiction before (The Stuff of Life with Mark Shultz; Evolution with Joy Hosler; T-Minus with Jim Ottaviani). How was this project different?

Kevin: From a production standpoint, Understanding Rhetoric was a big change for us. In previous books we were given a polished script that we were simply asked to illustrate, but with this book we were given a script that existed in a more raw form and thus we had a bigger hand in shaping the final product. Specifically, Jonathan and Liz’s script was broken down into panels but not pages, and that gave us the freedom (and responsibility) to craft how those panels sat on a page and how much weight to give each panel. For example, most pages have several small panels on them, but every once in awhile we’d run across a panel that was making a larger point or needed room to breathe, and we’d be able give that panel the space in deserved. That freedom to direct the flow of the story — as opposed to just illustrating it — was new to us with this book.


RWP: Can you give us some more insight into the working relationship between the authors, artists, and editors?

Elizabeth: Everyone was great to work with, despite all of the editors, reviewers, and artists weighing in during the process. The process went on for much of five years and often involved weekly hour-long conference calls during the two years leading up to finalizing the manuscript.

I took a new position during that time on a separate University of California campus, but we actually ended up becoming closer together as collaborators despite the geographical distance. If we weren’t hanging out on Skype or Google hangouts, we would have dinner together at Jonathan’s house and then read for hours afterwards as our characters in Jonathan’s kitchen. It was like a private staged reading, but we would make changes to the script all along the way. I read as all of the female characters, and Jonathan read as all of the male characters. The process helped us generate jokes and gags as things devolved into silliness.

Jonathan: Indeed, the process was fun—but often intense. While Liz and I tried our hardest to produce a “finished” chapter before giving it to the artists, we were struck again and again how often we had to rework, not just tweak, our original text because (1) the text and graphics weren’t working together or (2) the graphics opened up for us whole new ways to conceive of representing rhetorical principles and ideas. For instance, when looking at the mock-up drawings for our discussion of the graphic version of The 9/11 Report, we realized that it might be more useful to have our characters actually walk into the graphic book itself. This graphic-book-within-a-graphic-book design was hard for us to envision until we saw a version of it laid out for us.

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Zander Cannon (artist): Our working relationship with both Jonathan and Liz (writers) and Carolyn and Leasa (editors) was great; we felt like the scripts were very well vetted and that the writers did an excellent job of calling for varied imagery and of putting forth interesting visual metaphors for their concepts. We felt like we had a great amount of input in terms of style and structure, and that our concerns as visual storytellers were addressed entirely.

When we received the scripts, we generally looked through and found places where there would be a nice reveal, or an arresting visual, and tried to arrange the pacing of the chapter so that those would fall on the top of a left hand page, so as to provide a surprise for the reader when they turned the page. Beyond that, we worked to make the character interactions between the two narrators (who happened to be Jonathan and Liz) funny and engaging, and tried to draw them in very simple, cartoony, appealing ways, while making the background elements more textured and naturalistic. This helped in allowing the reader identify with the characters and ‘listen’ to them, while simultaneously hopefully getting a nuanced sense of place.

We would send in roughly penciled (but readable) versions after we got the scripts, which would allow everyone to read the story essentially in its final form and discover how it would flow, and it allowed us to note where we thought a word balloon was overlong, or a piece of exposition was redundant, or where we could have imagery that would complement the words in an interesting way. Once that was all approved, we printed full-sized versions of the pages with the penciled artwork in very light cyan, and did finished artwork on top of that. Having the physical pages in the studio allowed Kevin and me to both work on pages and fill in the gaps left by the other.

The lettering was done with a font that Kevin created of his own handwriting, and while the book contains lettering that was placed in the computer after we scanned the pages, we made sure to also put them on the original pages. Having the words physically there on the originals not only provides the context for subtleties in characters’ faces, but also allows us to use the word balloons as graphical elements and aesthetically balance out other imagery. Balloons that are placed after the artwork is finished seldom fit into panels quite so neatly.

The way that Kevin and I work together on books of this nature is an ever-evolving process that has to balance art with craft, while throwing efficiency, adaptability, and speed into the mix as well.

Carolyn Lengel (editor): The process was very different from traditional textbook development in some ways. For one thing, Zander and Kevin served as authors who helped develop the content and as production people who laid out the pages and followed the design specifications—in a traditional textbook, those parts of the process are done at different stages of the work by different people. But in other ways, this was something like a traditional textbook process, with many, many, many rounds of manuscript revision passing between the writers (Jonathan and Liz) and the development editor (me).

In traditional texts that are mainly words, you can often get away with adding a new paragraph or two in later stages, as long as you don’t throw off the overall book pagination. It’s frowned on, but it’s possible. So in the beginning we sometimes submitted scripts with sections that we weren’t sure about, hoping that seeing the chapter in comic form would help us figure out what needed to change. But we had no real idea for this book how difficult it would be to make significant changes to the chapters after the layouts were underway. Zander and Kevin clarified the kinds of changes we could make at each stage in the process and gently but firmly let us know that scripts had to be really almost final before their part of the work on each chapter could begin.


RWP: Can you cite an example from the book in which you think the graphic format worked better than a traditional textbook format to teach a particular concept?

Elizabeth: In the chapter on argument, I think the diagram of the paragraph sandwich really works as a way to show students how to think about organizational strategies without being doctrinaire about things like a rigid adherence to always using the same kind of topic sentences. When I see the book taught in writing classrooms, it is often the example that students most relate to (and who doesn’t like thinking about food).

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Jonathan: I have to admit that my favorite chapter is Chapter 7, with the science fiction theme. In part because I’m a nerd. A big SF nerd. But also in part because it’s the chapter that invites students the most to think of their work in terms of publics, actual readers. We show our characters experimenting with different forms of communication, print based and digital. One of the things I’m most proud of in Understanding Rhetoric is its emphasis on readers and writers engaging one another.

Carolyn: The section on citing sources ethically (pp. 203-204), with the Jonathan and Liz characters drawn for a few panels by another illustrator, is a really nice way of showing conceptually what it feels like for instructors when students cut and paste someone else’s writing into their own work.


Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford St. Martin’s) is available as a paperback text and an e-book, and includes an instructor’s manual and an extensive student site. More information and a sample chapter are available at the publisher’s site. View the excellent “making of” video here.