Learning to See Writing

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Jonathan Alexander and Elizabeth Losh‌ are currently at work on Understanding Rhetoric, Second EditionThe following post continues to reflect the journey, even though it was originally posted on February 13, 2012.

For me, one of the biggest challenges of working on a graphic book has been adapting to thinking and composing in a different medium. Indeed, one of the lessons we have learned in the process is that we can’t just think like “text” authors; we also have to begin to think visually. As we sketch out the chapters, panel by panel, we try to provide detailed visual cues for Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, our fabulous artists–who, in turn, not only modify our initial image directions and augment them beautifully, but have also challenged how we understand and use text in the graphic book form. 

Along these lines, one of the earliest lessons we learned about our use of text is that we were initially relying too much on captioning and not enough on dialogue to carry the instructional weight of each chapter. That is, we were thinking like the text-producing scholars that we are, and not like the collaborative graphic authors we needed to be. We were constantly explaining rhetorical concepts, for instance, while ignoring how images and dialogue—the principal features of the comic form—could be used to convey our ideas about writing. Comparing initial drafts of the first several chapters with their more recent revisions shows a steady move away from captioning to significantly more reliance on dialogue and visuals.

Concomitant with that shift has been a shift in how we think about the project and the processes we have to engage in to maximize our use of the comic form.  For instance, we’ve frequently found ourselves sitting around my kitchen table, reading dialogue out loud to make sure that our characters strike the right—and credible—tones.  Moreover, the dialogue format forced us to focus on the process of understanding rhetorical concepts. We’ve had to show characters, in action, coming to understand concepts such as logos and ethos, or the complexities and recursiveness of the writing process. The format of the comic book allows us—actually requires us—to model, dialogically and visually, what it means to compose. 

I focus on this particular example of how our composing process had to shift because it seems to me a powerful reminder of how different genres call forth different modalities of thinking, as Anis Bawarshi argues in Genre and the Invention of the Writer:

The writing prompt does not merely provide students with a set of instructions. Rather, it organizes and generates the discursive and ideological conditions which students take up and recontextualize as they write essays. As such, it habituates students into the subjectivities they are asked to assume as well as enact—the subjectivities required to explore their subjects. (144)

In our case, our self-inflicted writing prompt—compose a graphic book about composing—required that we assume and enact a different kind of compositional subjectivity.  Put another way, the particular rhetorical affordances of the genre created the possibilities through which we could think about writing and composing differently.

How so? We rediscovered the intensity of the process of writing since we were now writing both collaboratively and visually. We discovered the joys and frustrations of working, not just with each other, but with artists and editors. We talked endlessly with one another and our collaborators about various topics and how to present them. We were constantly negotiating meaning, confronting how the expression of an idea visually might resonate very differently than it does textually. For instance, Liz and I wanted to present ourselves in one chapter as spies rappelling down a skyscraper while uncovering the mysteries of the writing process—but when we looked at the art and realized that it was more reminiscent of 9/11 than of a lighthearted spy caper, we knew the idea had to be reconceived. We learned a valuable lesson in visual resonance—one we could not have encountered had we been working alone with our text. We had to see our words in visual action to understand their potential implications.

The process of learning to write in a new genre has cued us in powerfully to the many sensations that our students must encounter as they sit in our classes, learning new genres, new modes of composing, new ways of thinking. But more than this, the dialogic and visual nature of the genre required that our composing processes shift significantly. Peer review, for instance, became not just a step in the writing process, but rather an integral, nearly weekly negotiation of meaning as we attempted to work through, clarify, understand, and (in many cases) radically revise what we were doing.

Perhaps most importantly, we not only remembered the challenges of learning to compose in a new medium, a new genre, but we have to come to value more highly the importance of thinking across media and genres. Working with the same concepts (in our case, rhetorical concepts) in multiple genres literally allowed us to re-see and to re-vise how we presented them, perhaps even how we have come to think about them. From an essay-like proposal to text-driven chapters to a dialogue-driven script to drafts of visually rich panels, each step in this process offered us the chance to re-examine what we were doing—to refine, clarify, and even discover different ways of thinking about our content. This project has been an excellent reminder of the power not just of the writing process but also of conceiving of that process through and across multiple genres and media.

I’m thinking about how I might provide my own students with the same sense of discovery that we have had with this project….

About the Author
Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine. He is collaborating with Elizabeth Losh, as well as artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.