RHE315: Introduction to Visual Rhetoric, Spring 2016

Course and Instructor Details

Unique Number        43308
Meetings                    TR 2-3:30, FAC 7
Instructor                   Laura Thain
Office Hours              M/Th 12:30-2 and by appointment, FAC 16

Required Texts

We will read and annotate all our texts digitally using the plug-in on Google Chrome. I will provide digital scans of your readings for you on our course website.

Among the readings will be excerpts from

  • Handa, Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World and
  • Sturken and Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture.

I also recommend purchasing a handbook like Lunsford’s Easy Writer or similar.

Course Description

Kenneth Burke famously defined rhetoric as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.” Although the use of visual rhetoric in mass media has an extensive history, the development of new visual networks in the 20th century changed the face of mass communication: film, television, and the world wide web all rely heavily on the interplay between visual and linguistic information. Inverting Burke’s definition of rhetoric, this class will analyze how symbols work as a linguistic means of communication. The images of our everyday life—from memes, Instagram, and Vine to film, tv, and photojournalism—will serve as our primary texts as we explore the fascinating landscape of 21st century visual rhetoric.

As we work together to expand our understanding of this rhetorical landscape, we will practice three basic approaches to reading images: visual rhetoric as a way to do something, visual rhetoric as a way to know something, and visual rhetoric as a way to be or become something. We will begin by examining how images function as public address. How do we communicate with each other using images? What are these images meant to signify, and how is communicating with images different than communicating with spoken or written language alone? We will build on that understanding by looking at what sorts of assumptions and understandings different media rely on. How do the codes, clichés, and conventions of the visual communicate to an audience via a system of informal logic? Finally, we will read visual rhetoric as not only descriptive but also constitutive in the composition of our every-day lives. How does visual rhetoric shape our perceptions, our identities, and our communities? To answer these questions, we will produce both visual and written compositions that help us further our understanding of how visual rhetoric functions as a powerful communicative force in our society.


Course Strands

In this course you will work to develop the following skills:

Composition You will compose writing and other rhetorical artifacts that participate in a conversation. Good compositions respond to and analyze what has been said before and invite others to join the conversation as they advance their own argument. And speaking of argument…

Argumentation You will learn how to use symbols (including language) to induce cooperation from a target audience. In short, you will learn how to make a persuasive argument.

Research You will find, analyze, and integrate into your argument primary and secondary sources from a variety of registers—both high and low.

Visual literacy You will expand upon your prior knowledge of visual conventions, genres, and communication patterns. Like all forms of literacy, visual literacy requires rigorous and regular critical thinking.

Digital literacy Like visual literacy, digital literacy requires regular interaction with and analysis of communication that happens in digital spaces. We will also explore how to use digital tools to create your own digital work.


Short Assignments
Reading annotations
Discussion questions
Blog posts

Major Assignments
Trope analysis
Visual argument


This course utilizes the Learning Record (LR). You will determine your grade by monitoring your progress against the criteria below over the course of the semester, and documenting your development and achievements in a portfolio of work, frequent self-assessments, and a formal reflection on your work at midterm and the end of the semester. The portfolio and observations will provide the evidence from which you will build an argument about your performance in the class. After reviewing your argument, I will either agree with or revise your self-assessment based on the evidence provided in your Learning Record. We will discuss grades at midterm and the end of semester, but you are welcome to meet me in office hours anytime to brainstorm strategies for success in the course.

You’ll assess your work and progress within five Course Strands (broad-level goals that cover a variety of skills) and you’ll gauge your experience across five Dimensions of Learning (measures that are common to many different learning experiences for many ‘kinds’ of learners).

Your Learning Record reflections will discuss how your work measures on those dimensions in terms of the Course Strands. We’ll discuss the Learning Record in detail at the beginning of the semester, and we’ll have various conversations about compiling your portfolio as the semester progresses.

 Grading Criteria
A Represents outstanding participation in all course activities; all assigned work completed, with very high quality in all work produced for the course. Evidence of significant development across the five dimensions of learning. The Learning Record at this level demonstrates activity that goes significantly beyond the required course work in one or more course strands. All work must be submitted in a timely fashion.

 Represents excellent participation in all course activities; all assigned work completed, with consistently high quality in course work. Evidence of marked development across the five dimensions of learning.

 Represents good participation in all course activities; all assigned work completed, with generally good quality overall in course work. Evidence of some development across the five dimensions of learning.

D Represents uneven participation in course activities; some gaps in assigned work completed, with inconsistent quality in course work. Evidence of development across the five dimensions of learning is partial or unclear.

F Represents minimal participation in course activities; serious gaps in assigned work completed, or very low quality in course work. Evidence of development is not available.
Plus and minus grading will be employed when a student falls between these criteria.


Writing Flag

This course carries the Writing Flag. You will write regularly during the semester, completing both short and long writing projects. Furthermore, you will, and receive feedback from your instructor and your peers.

Based on this feedback, you will have the opportunity to revise one or more assignments. A substantial portion of your grade to comes from your written work. Writing Flag classes meet the Core Communications objectives of Critical Thinking, Communication, Teamwork, and Personal Responsibility, established by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.



Unit 1: Image as argument

Week 1          What is visual rhetoric?
Jan 19             Course introduction, the rhetorical situation.
Jan 21             Aristotle’s appeals: ethos, logos, pathos.
Read Sonja Foss, “Theory of Visual Rhetoric”

Week 2          Visual rhetoric and classical rhetoric
Jan 26             Learning Record due. The canons of (visual) rhetoric.
Read Keith Kenney, “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric”
Jan 28             Branches of rhetoric: forensic, deliberative, epideictic.

Week 3          Images and prior knowledge
Feb 2              Rhetorical tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony
Read Horn, “Rhetorical Devices and Tight Integration”
Feb 4              The role of media conventions.
Read Parry-Giles, “Mediating Hillary Rodham Clinton: Television News Practices and Image-Making in the Postmodern Age”

Week 4        Image and the “real”
Feb 9              Images as evidence, episteme vs. doxa.
Feb 11            Scientific modeling.
Read Mishra, “The Role of Abstraction in Scientific Illustrations and Implications for Pedagogy”

Week 5          Images and the imagined
Feb 16                        Iconography and amplification.
Read Scott McCloud, excerpt from The Vocabulary of Comics
Feb 18                        Political cartoons. Trope analysis due on Canvas by 5 pm.

Unit 2: The logic of the image 

Week 6        Introduction to moving images
Feb 23            Film and its historical antecedents.
Feb 25            Semiotics and the language of film.
Read Monaco, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax” (“Signs” section)
Discussion leaders: Christian and David

Week 7         Arrangement
March 1          Mise en scene, montage.
Read Monaco, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax” (“Syntax” section)
Discussion leaders: Pearl, Sophia
March 3          Editing, cutting, juxtaposition.

Week 8         Dynamic shots and shot dynamics
March 8          Spectatorship, power, surveillance.
Read Sturken and Cartwright, “Modernity: Spectatorship, Power, and Knowledge” pp. 93-111.
Discussion leaders: Kaitlin and Daniel
March 10       The gaze.
Read Sturken and Cartwright, Modernity: Spectatorship, Power, and Knowledge” pp. 111-139.
Discussion leaders: Victoria and Angel

Week 9
March 15       Spring Break
March 17       Spring Break

Week 10      On the small screen
March 22       The “language” of television: signs and syntax.
March 24       Cinematic TV.
Read P. David Marshall, “Screens: Television’s Dispersed Broadcast”
Discussion leaders: Madison and Yessenia

Midterm Learning Record due Friday, 5pm.

Week 11      On the really small screen
March 29       Web 1.0; is the internet a medium like television or film?
March 31       Web 2.0.
Read Uricchio, “The Future of a Medium Once Known as Television”
Discussion leaders: Michael and Savannah

Visual arguments due Friday, 5 PM.

 Unit 3: Visual communities and the rhetoric of public space

Week 12                 Space and memory
April 5                        The rhetoric of public space.
April 7                        Monuments and the canon of memory.
Read Sturken, “The Wall, The Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial”

Week 13       Trauma and the ephemeral
April 12          The museum as visual rhetoric.
Read Bednar, “Denying Denial: Trauma, Memory, and Automobility at Roadside Car Crash Shrines”
April 14          Curation and exhibition.
Read Haskins, “Ephemeral Visibility and the Art of Mourning”
Discussion leaders: Sam and Cuillen

Week 14      Capital and capitol
April 19        Civic semiotics: historical examples.
April 21        Spatial rhetoric and state power.
Read excerpt from Vale, Architecture, Power, and National Identity
Discussion leaders: Bo and Jamie

Week 15     When virtual meets spatial
April 26          Video games and virtual space.
Read Gregerson and Grodal, “Embodiment and Interface”
Discussion leaders: Don and Mary Grace
April 28          Virtual communities.
Read Sturken and Cartwright, “Postmodernism, Indie Media, and Popular Culture”
Discussion leaders: Harrison and Alfredo

Week 16
May 3             Revisiting mythos, what is “myth today”?
May 5             Course evaluations, closing remarks, portfolio submission.
Exhibition and Learning Record due.


Department Course Policy Statement, 2015-2016


Questions about these policies should be addressed to:
Department of Rhetoric & Writing
The University of Texas at Austin
Parlin Hall, Room 3
(512) 471-6109



Rhetoric & Writing has established this attendance policy for all RHE courses. Any questions or appeals concerning this policy must be made directly to the department Associate Chair. You are expected to attend class, to arrive on time, to have prepared assigned reading and writing, and to participate in all in-class editing, revising, and discussion sessions. Should you miss the equivalent of five TTH or MW class sessions or seven MWF sessions this semester, excused or not, you will fail the course. If you find that an unavoidable problem prevents you from attending class, you should contact your instructor as soon as possible, preferably ahead of time, to let him or her know.

You will not be penalized for missing class on religious holy days. A student who misses classes or other required activities, including examinations, for the observance of a religious holy day should inform the instructor, in writing, well in advance of the absence, so that alternative arrangements can be made to complete work. If you know you will have to miss class(es) for this reason, provide your instructor with the date(s) as early as possible. Please note that the University specifies very few other excused absences (e.g., jury duty).

When you must miss a class, you are responsible for getting notes and assignments from a classmate.


Turning in work that is not your own, or any other form of scholastic dishonesty, will result in a major course penalty, possibly failure of the course. This standard applies to all drafts and assignments, and a report of the incident will be submitted to the Office of the Dean of Students and filed in your permanent UT record. Under certain circumstances, the Dean of Students will initiate proceedings to expel you from the University. So, take care to read and understand the Statement on Scholastic Responsibility, which can be found online at If you have any doubts about your use of sources, ask your instructor for help before handing in the assignment.


Any student with a documented disability who requires academic accommodations should contact Services for Students with Disabilities at 512-471-6259 (voice) or 512-410-6644 (video phone) as soon as possible to request an official letter outlining authorized accommodations. More information is available online at


Email is an official means of communication at UT-Austin, and your instructor will use this medium to communicate class information. You are therefore required to obtain a UT email account and to check it daily. All students may claim an email address at no cost by going to


Occupants of buildings on The University of Texas at Austin campus are required to evacuate buildings when a fire alarm is activated.  Alarm activation or announcement requires exiting and assembling outside.

Familiarize yourself with all exit doors of each classroom and building you may occupy.  Remember that the nearest exit door may not be the one you used when entering the building.

Students requiring assistance in evacuation shall inform their instructor in writing during the first week of class.

In the event of an evacuation, follow the instruction of faculty or class instructors.

Do not re-enter a building unless given instructions by the following: The University of Texas at Austin Police Department, or Fire Prevention Services office.

Information regarding emergency evacuation routes and emergency procedures can be found at

Behavior Concerns Advice Line (BCAL): 512-232-5050.