DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly
2015
Volume 9 Number 4
2015 9.4  |  XML |  Discuss ( Comments )

Sequential Rhetoric: Using Freire and Quintilian to Teach Students to Read and Create Comics

Tom Lindsley <tomwlindsley_at_gmail_dot_com>, Interaction Designer, Workiva

Abstract

Our comic combines visual literacy, progymnasmata, and critical pedagogy to showcase a classroom study that used comics production to teach visual literacy. The comic first looks at comics criticism, visual rhetoric, and comics scholarship to set a base to build a methodology build in critical pedagogy and ancient rhetoric. Critical pedagogy’s tradition of inviting students to find meaning in the origin of ideas fits in with having students design and study a medium that’s often overlooked during their college experience. Such an approach echoes Freire’s ideas of using critical strategies as an effective model for change. Progymnasmata, and Quintilian’s work in general, allows students to approach the new medium of comics through reading and production through an ancient rhetorical practice that relies on a step-by-step process. Looking at Quintilian's pedagogy, we demonstrate a modern classroom study that uses progymnasmata to make the strange familiar while introducing visuality. The actual study is briefly discussed as well. This amalgamation of ancient rhetoric, comics studies, and critical pedagogy is the basis of the research behind this pieces’ goal of exploring comics as a multimodal means of composition.

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Creator's Statements

We decided to present our argument through an omniscient narrator that mimics the tone and moves of the academic genre’s tones and invisible (and partially objective) narrator. This means that instead of relying on a traditional avatar like most comics do, it relies on academic writing and technical instruction techniques (like Jody Culkin, Mitch Altman, Andie Nordgren, and Jeff Keyzer have done), where the narrator occasionally shows up, but primarily lets the findings and arguments do the work. That said, the teacher that bookends the story serves in many ways as the narrator as do some of the characters.
Ideally, our comic would have been done by an artist, someone like Jeff Lemire, Emily Carroll, Alex Ross, Scott McCloud, Richard McGuire, Seth, Kate Beaton, Vitaly S. Alexius, Hope Larson, Gabriel Rodriguez, or any other talented artist. However that defeats the purpose of our argument: that students and instructors can engage in the comics medium and gain from its affordances. This is why the art relies on a simple style based in examples of the medium, but done with inadequate art training. However, this isn’t a weakness; instead it embodies the call of the paper to get students and scholars to write visually no matter the skill level involved.

Original Contribution of Work

The goal of many contemporary compositionists, rhetoricians, and professional/technical communication scholars is to incorporate multimodal elements and visual rhetoric into the classroom. Research in this area, as well as the desire to use multimodal texts, is nothing new or unique, but the practice itself has been adopted slowly. Many reasons for this exist: courses are already brimming over with content, competing mediums don’t carry sufficient academic weight, and accessibility concerns abound. These are legitimate critiques; multimodality is complex and taxes an already crowded composition and technical communication field. Yet, a simple form of multimodality already exists and has legitimate research to support it — comics. Comics is a medium capable of handling many genres and incorporating comics as a form of multimodality in research, composition, rhetoric, and professional communication is a practice that is simple. Since publishing in comics is usually not at option, in order to justify the analysis and creation of comics in the classroom — and in turn, academia — one can turn to established practices, in particular, critical pedagogy and the ancient rhetoric practice of progymnasmata.

Comic Studies

Comics in academia isn’t a new idea either, though it’s usually limited to being the subject of rhetorical analysis in published articles or as a catalyst for analysis in the classroom. If it’s used as a means for composing or creation, it’s primarily for reflective and autobiographical writing. These approaches are helpful and important, but comics can be used in other academic formats, including peer-reviewed research. Comics use rhetorical skills to teach important lessons and students can compose with comics to create arguments and instructional texts. In the process of composing with comics, students learn visual rhetoric and effectively realize multimodal writing. This isn’t the end though. Teaching students to compose with comics is the first step toward arguing that comics can be a means of publishing research in addition to the traditional essay.
Comics studies is a steadily growing trend in academia across multiple disciplines. The medium was once considered merely pulp-art or a children’s genre (and in some audiences still is), but many scholars (both in popular culture and in academia) have worked for years to show its potential and depth. Research has already been done proving comics’ usefulness in the classroom (from elementary to higher education) as a medium to teach from and to analyze. Although many have argued for comics’ positive influence, and there are comics that have been accepted as textbooks and readers (see McCloud; Losh, Alexander, Cannon; Gonick; etc.), the majority of instructors and scholars are either unaware such a movement exists, indifferent to the movement, or unconvinced it’s legitimate.

Important and Academic-esque Comics

Usually titles like Maus, Persepolis, or any of McCloud’s non-fiction work come to mind when serious comics are mentioned. These are a great start, but they are only the surface of many more works that deserve further exploration. The non-fiction genres that stray from memoir and lie on the margins of academic scholarship are a great place to start. These pieces include Colon and Jacobson’s 9/11 pieces (the first a graphic adaptation of the 9/11 commission report and the second a history of the wars that followed), the journalism cartoon movement (including Sacco’s books), McCloud’s Chrome instructions (and earlier work), Paul Buhle’s editorial work on multiple academic-themed comics — including historical texts like Zinn’s adapted People’s History — biographies, history tomes, technical communication done in comics format (like Eisner’s work and other instructional comics), post-modern philosophical debates like in Logicomix, and the textbook Understanding Comics done in comics form (see Losh, Alexander, Cannon). This is the line where entertainment and scholarship blur, which are explored in the justification in our piece.

Comics, Progymnasmata, and Multimodality

Although the overall goal is to see the acceptance of comics as a means to publish research findings (not to replace the essay format, but to be a companion when appropriate), this piece focuses on the initial steps — teaching the idea to students as a goal to teach visual rhetoric and multimodality. This piece looks at a method of teaching that draws on critical pedagogy, analyzes comics that read like scholarship, and has students compose in that format. Critical pedagogy’s tradition of inviting students to challenge the authority and looking below the surface level to see where meaning lies fits in with the idea of having students compose in and study a medium that’s often overlooked during their college experience. Such an approach echoes Freire’s ideas of using critical strategies as an effective model for change. He writes, "the teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, an re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own" [Freire 1993, 81]). In order for an acceptance of new media and mediums to occur, it’s often necessary to engage students in the process of discovering. Empirical evidence based on students’ experiences can provide valuable evidence to support the bigger goal of having the larger academic community accept such a medium as a way to compose arguments.
Progymnasmata, and Quintilian’s work in general, make up another significant section of our piece. Combining ancient rhetorical pedagogical practices with comics studies hasn’t been explored. In addition, this piece draws on critical pedagogy concepts of otherness and oppression, in this case making a literal observation of the inherently "other" medium of comics compared to the safer essay and textual pieces. This amalgamation of ancient rhetoric, comics studies, and critical pedagogy is the basis of the research behind this pieces’ goal of exploring comics as a multimodal means of composition.

Works Cited

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Gwynn1926 Gwynn, Aubrey. Roman Education: From Cicero to Quintilian. London: Oxford University Press, 1926. Print.
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