visual rhetoric & mulitimodal composition, spring 2010

Course Description

Writing, in our highly mediated, highly visual culture, is no longer just about using a keyboard to put words on a screen nor about using a pen to put words on paper. Writing is composing—in all the forms, media, modes, and genres we can think of. It is multimodal. That is, it brings together images (still and moving), words, and music. When composing such visual texts to make an argument, a host of rhetorical strategies are used, ranging from placement of texts on page to consideration of audience to the media used to write and present the text.

In this course we will consider the impact of the pervasiveness of the visual in contemporary society by reading theoretical texts on the subject of visual rhetoric and multimodal composition; reading historical and contemporary multimodal texts and texts heavy in visual rhetoric; and composing texts that contain multiple modes of communication using multiple media technologies.

Through our readings and projects we will gain critical and practical skills to become better consumers and creators of visual texts.

Brief Descriptions of Course Units and Projects

Unit I. Contexts, Semiotics, and Modalities
In this unit, we will be introduced to theories on semiotics and multimodal composition. The unit will ground the discussion of the visual with texts that consider the role of the image in writing and contemporary. Students will compose a semiotic analysis of one of the most visited visual blogs, PostSecret, or an extremely controversial blog project, Legofesto.

Unit II. Visual Rhetoric
In this unit, we will read theory on visual rhetoric, particular the rhetoric of photography, and will compose our own visual arguments in the form of a photo essay. The texts will be showcased in an online blog space and will be accompanied by an oral analysis of the work.

Unit III. Remixing
Contemporary culture is participatory; people create their own entertainment and distribute it online for others to enjoy, critique, or ignore. Much of this entertainment takes older media and represents it in a new way that often adds a new layer of social commentary. This is called remixing. In this unit, we will compose a 3 – 5 minute video that remixes still and moving images to make a comment about contemporary society. The videos will be posted to YouTube. The movie will be accompanied by a rhetorical reflection.

Unit IV. The Potential for and of Multimodal Texts (note: due to time constraints, this project was not completed)
In this unit, we will expand our understanding of the potential for multimodal texts by exploring issues of gender and race. We will read comics theory as well as an innovative, experimental, and fascinating mode of news reporting. Students will compose an in-depth multimodal document in the medium of their choice grounded in the theories and practices learned in the course. The document will be accompanied by a rhetorical reflection.

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Discussion Leader
Starting the second week of the course, each week will have at least one discussion leader who will introduce and lead a discussion about the assigned text(s). The leader will make a 10-minute opening statement about the text(s). The presentation must contain at least the following: an overview of the goals of the text(s), an overview of the main points/arguments made by the author(s), a discussion of the theories the author(s) uses to contextualize the arguments made in the text(s), a discussion of some of the places in the text that were particularly challenging, and some questions that you might have about the text. Accompanying the presentation will be a handout that lists key terms and ideas the author(s) introduce, as well as their definitions as understood by the presenter. These materials will help ground the discussion.

Some of you have participated in similar activities in other classes with mixed results. Let me explain that I ask for some decorum in our conversations (this decorum is to extend to online spaces, as well). We come to this course with varying levels of expertise and various backgrounds academically. Let us respect all of those positions. No question is stupid if it is related to the readings and all responses should be valid ones. We are to use this element of the course to enrich our understanding of the material.

While there are no stupid questions, there are more effective questions to encourage richer discussions. Please refrain from discussion that will elicit or center on whether or not you liked or disliked the text. It is true that some texts are more attractive than others. Ultimately, however, whether we like the text or not doesn’t matter, and such discussions become rather tiresome. What does matter is how the text furthers the overall goals of the class, asks us to reconsider previous understandings and rethink the other texts we read, and so on. Because we will be discussion of the texts on our blog (which you then will have the opportunity to announce on Twitter) our ideas will be open will be open to a discussion by a larger readership, as well. So, be sure that your reviews are grounded in the text and not in your own life.

This semester the class will name and design a WordPress blog. The ultimate URL will be: As a group we will decide on a name relating to the overall theme of the course, choose a theme, add widgets, and so on. We will be doing this as we are composing our blog entries. It will, then, be a work in progress with its development evolving as we add texts. By completing this project will be learn about the visual and multimodal literacy that comes with some basic web site design.

[updated 2/4/10] This semester students will create individual blogs that engage with the texts we’ll be reading and a visual rhetoric subject. Each student will be responsible for at least 2 blog posts and 2 blog comments per week except for the week when the student is discussion leader. Each student will post to kinds of posts for the weeks they are post: 1) one that extends the class discussion, and 2) one that explores a particular area of visual rhetoric and/or multimodal composition.

Posts that extend class discussion should take what we have discussed in class about a text or series of texts and continue the discussion. Often in class we will come up with a list of questions that are raised by the text. A post might address one of those questions.

Posts that explore a particular area of visual rhetoric and/or multimodal composition: Each student will choose a mode of visual communication and each week will compose a post that explores an example of that visual in terms of the theories read, social implications, historical and political contexts, and so on. Examples of modes can be analyzed: magazine covers (either generally or within a single magazine), children’s book covers and/or illustrations, advertisements (TV, magazine or other), products and product packaging, mappings, video games, and so on. The choice of which to analyze is up to the student, though I’d like each of the above to be covered by at least one student. The texts analyzed can be archival or contemporary. The post should contain at least one image or video of the text being discussed. Occasionally there may be an additional posting directly related to one of the major course projects.

[updated 2/4/10] When designing, creating, and writing in your blog, please complete the following:

  • Choose a professional and meaningful title and subtitle;
  • Compose a detailed and relevant about page that discusses who you are as well as what the blog is focusing on;
  • Choose an appropriate theme;
  • Add at least the following sidebar widgets: tag cloud, categories, search, and links (links create a blogroll and yours should include other blogs / web sites that cover similar topics as you cover as well as the other class blogs);
  • For each post, compose a meaningful title written for an audience larger than our class;
  • For each post, include 5 – 6 tags and at least 1 category

Experiment with the dashboard area; see how things work and what happens when you make changes. The more you engage with, customize, and explore your blog, the more effective it will be and the more you will get out of the assignment.

There is no set requirement for the length of a blog post. Indeed, one of the features of the medium of blogging and the characteristics of posts is that the length is determined by it’s content and goals. However, for our purposes, each post should thoroughly discuss the subject at hand.

Some example posts:

@Twittering  #vrmcs10
Twittering is micro-blogging, a form of communication that, like text messages, uses only 140 characters (including spaces), and it is quickly becoming the communication medium of choice for people around the world. According to Hubspot’s “State of the Twittersphere” for the 4th Quarter of 2008, “Twitter has about 4-5 million users, about 30% are relatively new or unengaged users; An estimated 5-10 thousand new accounts are opened per day; Traffic has grown over 600% in the past 12 months (; became one of the top 1,000 websites by traffic in May 2008 (” As of January 12, 2010, Alexa ranked Twitter the 12th most visited site on the Web.

Twitter is, in short, a phenomenon—and as a result we are going to create professional Twitter accounts so that we might be able to engage with people in the visual rhetoric field and communicate with each other more easily outside of class. There is no Twitter requirement and you will not be graded for using it. However, I do encourage you to think about using it as a way to broadcast your blog posts, continue discussion outside of class, contact me with questions about class, and engage with your own professional community.

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