I often tell my first-year composition students that writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither do composition classes. With the current political climate and its reach into nearly every aspect of our lives, I, like other instructors, feel compelled to bring current events into the classroom, but I sometimes struggle with how to do it effectively, with balance, and with inclusivity.
As much as I’d love to spend all of our time talking about presidential tweets and examining the arguments for and against gun control legislation, I have a responsibility to be mindful of my limited face-to-face time with my class and to make sure that I’m covering the necessary curriculum to prepare my students for future coursework. So, when I do talk about current events in the classroom, which is fairly often, I try to do it in a way that connects directly to course topics and allows for viewing the situation from a new or different perspective.
The following activity and assignment provide an opening to talk about recent protests and their texts through the lens of visual rhetoric.
- The St. Martin’s Handbook: 18, “Communicating in Other Media”; Ch. 26, “Writing to Make Something Happen in the World”
- The Everyday Writer (also available with exercises): 22, “Making Design Decisions”
- EasyWriter (also available with exercises): 18, “Language that Builds Common Ground”
1. Talk to students about visual rhetoric. Like most instructors, I like to build on previous conversations about the rhetorical triangle and rhetorical situations and apply those conversations to things like advertisements, photographs, and videos. We cover things like arrangement, font, typeface, and color, among other elements and concerns. Claudia Cortes’s “Color in Motion” video series is a fun way to start talking about pathos and color choices in visual texts.
2. Provide examples of protest posters, both recent and historical, and foster discussion in small or large groups. A simple Google search will yield hundreds of possible signs for discussion, and there are several curated lists, such as this one from The Washington Post, that you could assign students to read, as well. Discussion topics could include:
- What is the purpose of a protest sign? Who is the audience?
- What features cause some signs, especially in recent protests, to go “viral”?
- Are there particular combinations of arrangement, font, color, etc. that are more effective than others in the context of protest signs?
- Have the criteria for rhetorically effective protest signs changed over time? If so, how?
- How does the creator allow the subject or content of the protest sign to influence the visual rhetorical elements of the sign? Do creators make different visual rhetorical choices based on the subject of the sign and/or type of protest?
These are just a few questions to get your class started with visual rhetoric, but this area is rich with opportunities to talk about language, audience, and discourse communities. You can and should tailor the discussion for your class based on your curriculum, interests, and course materials.
3. Create a list of “best practices” for creating an effective protest sign in today’s political climate. The “think, pair, share” activity could work well for this: give students time to think and free write on their own, then ask them to share their observations in small groups or pairs, and bring the class together to compile a collaborative list.
4. Ask students to use the list that your class has compiled to create a protest sign. This could be accomplished in any number of ways or a combination of different strategies:
- Students work individually on creating a protest sign about a cause that they’re personally passionate about.
- Small groups of students are assigned a cause based on a course theme or previous class discussion, and they collaborate to choose a stance, slogan, and rhetorical approach to their shared sign.
- Students use traditional poster board and markers to create, or they take advantage of more advanced digital programs like PowerPoint or Photoshop to create their sign.
5. Develop an opportunity to for students to share their protest signs and explain their rhetorical choices. One idea might involve setting up the physical signs around the classroom like a poster session at a conference and asking students to write a short explanation of rhetorical choices to accompany their signs. Students could visit their classmates’ signs, ask questions about their processes, and provide feedback about the rhetorical effectiveness of their products.
This activity and assignment showcase multimodal texts in a real-world situation with real-world consequences. While tired stereotypes about millennials might have one believe that they aren’t interested in civics (or anything besides themselves), the reality is that we have the privilege of working with a group of generally motivated, socially conscious young adults who have beliefs and values that they want to communicate in meaningful ways. Keeping this assignment firmly grounded in first-year composition teaching topics will provide a space for students to express themselves and pursue their passions, while maintaining a clear path toward meeting course objectives.