English 706: Composition, Rhetoric, and the Nonhuman (Spring 2013)


The "Giant Whale" at the St. Louis City Museum
Photo by Jillian Sayre

In recent decades, a number of disciplines have begun to turn attention to the nonhuman. Work on the posthuman, actor-network theory, speculative realism, and animal studies (among numerous other fields and theories) attempts to expand the scope of scholarship in both the humanities and the sciences. This scholarship is looking beyond the human, and Composition and Rhetoric has begun to take this turn as well. This seminar takes up the lines of research that have begun to address writing, rhetoric, and the nonhuman. The course examines recent work in the field that asks: What is the role of the nonhuman in studies of composition, literacy, and in rhetoric? What does a nonhuman theory of composition, literacy, or rhetoric look like? How does accounting for the nonhuman reshape or reimagine the various scholarly agendas of the field?

The course covers work in Composition and Rhetoric that addresses the nonhuman along with the work of scholars outside the field who address these questions. In addition to reading and writing about contemporary scholarship, students in this course will also address these questions in a less traditional way: They will make something. Throughout the semester, students will work toward the construction of some object. This can take a number of forms, including (but not limited to) knitting, carpentry, cooking, and computer programming. We will treat this process of making as an opportunity to meditate on how nonhumans intervene in and shape writing processes and rhetorical action.


English 706: Composition, Rhetoric, and the Nonhuman

Professor: Jim Brown
Class Meeting Place: 2252 Helen C. White
Class Time: Wednesday, 9:00am-11:30am
Office: 6187E Helen C. White
Office Hours: Monday 12:30-2:30 [Make an Appointment]
Email: brownjr [at] wisc [dot] edu
Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/706_fall2012

Course Goals:

  • Read and analyze recent scholarship regarding the role of the nonhuman rhetoric and writing
  • Examine the relationship between work within and outside of the field of Composition and Rhetoric
  • Consider the role of nonhumans in our own creative processes
  • Develop sustainable reading and writing processes

Required Texts:

  • Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press Books, 2010. Print.
  • Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
  • Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects. MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2011. Print. [also available for download]
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Fordham University Press, 2008.
  • Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object. Reprint. John Hunt Publishing, 2011. Print.
  • Latour, Bruno. Aramis, or the Love of Technology. Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.
  • Oliver, Kelly. Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human. Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

Other Readings (available for download):

  • Bay, Jennifer, and Thomas Rickert. “New Media and the Fourfold.” JAC 28.1-2 207-244. Print.
  • Brandt, Deborah, and Katie Clinton. “Limits of the Local: Expanding Perspectives on Literacy as a Social Practice.” Journal of Literacy Research 34.3 (2002): 337-356. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
  • Brown, James and Nathaniel Rivers. "Composing the Carpenter's Workshop." O-zone: A
    Journal of Object-Oriented Studies
    . (forthcoming, January 2013)
  • Davis, Diane. “Creaturely Rhetorics.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 44.1 (2011): 88-94. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and SchizophreniaM. Trans. Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.
  • Hallenbeck, Sarah. “Toward a Posthuman Perspective: Feminist Rhetorical Methodologies and Everyday Practices.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric 15.1 (2012): 9-27. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
  • Hawhee, Debra. “Toward a Bestial Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 44.1 (2011): 81-87. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
  • Hawk, Byron. “Vitalism, Animality, and the Material Grounds of Rhetoric.” Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks. New York: Routledge, 2012. 196-207. Print.
  • Hesse, Doug, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey. “Evocative Objects: Reflections on Teaching, Learning, and Living in Between.” College English 74.4 (2012): 325-350. Print.
  • Kennedy, G. A. “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25.1 (1992): 1–21. Print.
  • Marback, Richard. “Unclenching the Fist: Embodying Rhetoric and Giving Objects Their Due.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38.1 (2008): 46-65.
  • May, Matthew. “Orator-Machine:” Philosophy & Rhetoric 45.4 (2012): 429-451. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
  • Muckelbauer, John. “Domesticating Animal Theory.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 44.1 (2011): 95-100. Web. 1 Nov. 2012.
  • Ng, Julia. “Each Thing a Thief: Walter Benjamin on the Agency of Objects.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 44.4 (2011): 382-402. Print.
  • Spinuzzi, Clay. “Losing by Expanding Corralling the Runaway Object.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25.4 (2011): 449-486. Web. 9 Nov. 2012.

Course Work

  • Attendance (10%)
    Success in this class will require regular attendance as we discuss the readings and share our written work.
  • Questions for Discussion (5%)
    For each assigned reading, I will create a Google Document in which you should post questions for discussion. See the Assignments section for more details.
  • Maker Reports (10%)
    Throughout the semester, you will be working on some sort of "making" project. The form this project takes is up to you, though I will ask that you commit to a project by the end of our second week of class. During weeks in which a paper or project is not due, you will write brief "Maker Reports." These reports are informal, should be 250-500 words, and should be uploaded to Dropbox prior to our class meeting. You will share these with the rest of the class.
  • Alien Phenomenology Project (15%)
    The first major project will be inspired by Ian Bogost's book Alien Phenomenology and will give you an opportunity to begin using the theories we're discussing in your own projects. See the Assignments section for more details.
  • Encomium (20%)
    The second major project will be an experiment in Adoxography. You will write an encomium of a nonhuman that is somehow related to your semester-long making project. See the Assignments section for more details.
  • Summary-Response Papers (40%)
    Your final two papers (each paper is worth 20% of your grade) will summarize one of the theories that we've read this semester and then read that theory across your semester-long project. See the Assignments section for more details.

With the exceptions of Maker Reports and the questions you post to Google Docs, I will provide letter grades on assignments and a letter grade for your final grade. Maker Reports and questions will be graded on a credit/no-credit basis. Unless you hear from you, you should assume that you've received credit for these assignments.

Below are the grade criteria I will use when providing letter grades:

  • A: This is graduate level work. The grade reflects work that is the result of careful thinking. This grade also reflects work that effectively contributes to a scholarly conversation.

  • AB: This is graduate level work, but there are minor problems with your argument and/or with your execution. This grade means that the work would need some revision in order to effectively contribute to a scholarly conversation.

  • B: This is not graduate level work, and there are significant problems with your argument and/or your execution. This grade means that the work has serious flaws or would need significant revision before effectively contributing to a scholarly conversation.

  • BC or below: This is not graduate level work, and there are major problems with the argument and the execution. This grade means that the work does not effectively contribute to a scholarly conversation.


Follow the links below for descriptions of our assignments.

Questions for Discussion (Google Docs)

For each reading, we will have a shared Google Document in which you will post questions prior to class. These contributions will not be graded, but participation is required.

By midnight on Monday, you should post two different kinds of questions to our Google Document:

1) Questions of Clarification
These questions should be about terms or concepts you didn't understand or about moments in the argument you found unclear. These questions are, for the most part, focused on understanding the reading, and we will address these first during class discussion.

2) Questions for Discussion
These questions are more geared toward opening up class discussion, and they can be focused on connections you see to other readings, the implications of the argument we've read, or ways that you think the argument might be applied to research questions.

This document will be open during class discussion, and it will serve as a collaborative note-taking space.

Maker Reports

During weeks when we do not have a project or paper due, you will complete 250-500 word reports about your "making" project. These are informal reports, and they are a space for you report on your progress, discuss anything you've learned about the various nonhumans with which you're interacting, reflect on how your experiences intersect with our readings, or any other information that you think might help you (or the rest of the class) gain insight into your ongoing project.

You should think of these brief snippets of text as opportunities for invention. Ideas that emerge in these papers may find their way into your other assignments (the encomium, the alien phenomenology project, or the summary-response papers), so take advantage of this space as you work through our readings. While we won't read these in class, we will share them in a Dropbox folder. At the beginning of class, I will ask you to give a very brief (no more than 2 minutes) report that condenses some of what you've said in the maker report.

Alien Phenomenology

In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost gives us two methods for engaging with nonhumans: ontography and carpentry. In this first project, you will use one of these methods to make something. The book presents a number of examples, from I am TIA to the photography of Stephen Shore, and your task is to follow these examples, to make something that tries to put some of Bogost's methods to the test.

This project can serve as the launching point for your semester-long making project, or it can be a way of accounting for an object relationship happening within that larger project. For instance, if your semester-long project involves knitting, you could approach the Alien Phenomenology project from a number of angles: you might consider how knitting could be used to create an ontograph, or you could use knitting to simulate the experience of a nonhuman, or you could create something in another medium that accounts for the relationship between needle and yarn. These are just three possibilities, but the example is meant to suggest that this project is pretty much wide open.

In addition to creating a work of carpentry or an ontograph, you will write a 1000-word reflection on the project (this word limit will be strictly enforced). This paper will briefly summarize the concept you've chosen to deploy, explain how you've incorporated the methods laid out in Alien Phenomenology, and lay out what you hope your project accomplishes. You will read this paper aloud in class.

When evaluating these projects and papers, I will be asking the following:

  • Does your project use ontography or carpentry to shed light on nonhumans and their relations?
  • Have you taken full advantage of whatever medium you've chosen to use?
  • Does your paper effectively and briefly the method you've chosen?
  • Does your paper explain your project and what you hope that it accomplishes?
  • Is your paper well-written and free of grammatical errors?


In "Things Without Honor," Arthur Pease gives us a detailed history of adoxography, demonstrating how the encomium was used to praise a number of things, including inanimate objects. Our second major project will operate in this tradition as we compose our own encomia to a nonhuman.

Your encomium can focus on any nonhuman connected with your making project, or with the object that you are making. The ecomium should follow the format detailed in Crowley and Hawhee's Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students (handout provided in class): prologue, birth and upbringing, extraordinary acts of one's life, comparisons used to praise the subject, and an epilogue.

Your encomium should be no longer than 1250 words, and you will read your encomium aloud in class.

When evaluating these papers, I will be asking the following:

  • Have you used the encomium to shed light on your chosen nonhuman?
  • Have you creatively deployed adoxography as you "praise" your chosen nonhuman?
  • Does your encomium follow the required format?
  • Is your paper well-written and free of grammatical errors?

Summary-Response Papers

[This assignment is adapted from Diane Davis' Summary-Response paper assignment]

Your final two papers in the course will be Summary-Response papers that summarize one of the theorists we've read and then use that theorist to "read" or describe some of the nonhumans you've been interacting with during your semester long making project. You will read these papers aloud in class.

The rules for these papers are as follows:

  • Your paper must fit on one side of a 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, using Times New Roman, 11-point font.
  • The first half of each paper should be a concise yet thorough summary of one of the assigned text. Given the space constraints, your summary will have to be carefully crafted and will have to make strategic determinations about what does or does not fit.
  • The second half should be your reading of that work "across" one of the nonhumans with which you've been engaging this semester. This nonhuman might be the object you've been making, or it might be one of the objects you've had to interact with during the making process.

When responding to and grading these papers, I will be asking the following questions;

  • Have you followed the parameters of the assignment and observed the constraints detailed above?
  • Does the first half of your paper provide a tight, thorough, and concise summary your chosen text?
  • Does the second half of your paper use the theory in question to ask interesting and important questions about your chosen nonhuman in an attempt to get us to think differently about both the theory and your chosen nonhuman?
  • Does your paper follow the rules of engagement?
  • Is your paper clearly written and free of grammatical errors?



1/23: Bogost, Brown and Rivers

1/30: Brandt and Clinton, Latour's Aramis (through page 123)

2/6: Hallenbeck, Spinuzzi, Latour's Aramis

2/13: Alien Phenomenology Project Due

2/20: Pease, Bryant (through page 134)

2/27: Hesse et. al., Bryant

3/6: Marback, Bennett

3/13: Encomium Due

3/20: Bay and Rickert, Harman
Browse: Random Shopper, Metaphor-a-Minute, RapBot, Objects in Prince of Networks
[Virtual Visit from Darius Kazemi]


4/3: Hawk; Deleuze and Guattari; P&R Manuscript and Peer Review Docs

4/10: Summary-Response 1 Due


4/17: Davis, Derrida

4/24: Hawhee, Kennedy

5/1: Muckelbauer, Oliver

5/8: Summary-Response 2 Due

Rules of Engagement

What is the purpose of a graduate seminar, and how does one use such a space to usefully engage with texts? I offer this document as an answer to that question and as a kind of constitution for our class.

The military root of the phrase "rules of engagement" is unfortunate because we are actually interested in something as nonviolent as possible. Of course, any interpretation of a text will do violence to it. This is the nature of interpretation. We fit a text or a set of ideas into a pre-existing framework that we already have. This is unavoidable. But we can try our best to forestall that violence or to at least soften the blow. In the interest of this kind of approach, I offer the following rules:

1. Disagreement and agreement are immaterial.

Our primary task is to understand, and this does not require agreement or disagreement. The only agreement the seminar asks of you is this: I agree to read, consider, analyze, and ask questions about these texts.

In his essay "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle," Kenneth Burke presents us with a succinct encapsulation of this first rule of engagement:

The appearance of Mein Kampf in unexpurgated translation has called for far too many vandalistic comments. There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre - and the favorite method of the hasty reviewer is to deprive himself and his readers by inattention. I maintain that it is thoroughly vandalistic for the reviewer to content himself with the mere inflicting of a few symbolic wounds upon this book and its author, of an intensity varying with the resources of the reviewer and the time at his disposal. Hitler's "Battle" is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment" (The Philosophy of Literary Form, 191)

Of course, we will not be reading anything like Mein Kampf, but the principle still stands. We are more interested in enlightenment than gratification.

2. An argument is a machine to think with.

This is another version of I.A. Richards's claim that “a book is a machine to think with." The "with" here should be read in two different ways simultaneously. We read "with" an argument by reading alongside it. We "tarry" with it. We get very close to it and join it during a long walk. Notice that this requires that we stay with the author rather than diverging down a different path, questioning the route, or pulling out our own map. But "with" here also means that the argument is a tool that we must first understand before using. Our job is to learn how this tool works. It has multiple moving parts and purposes. It has multiple audiences. We need to understand all of this before we make any attempt to use the argument, and we certainly need to do all of this before we can even think about disagreeing with it.

3. Ask that question sincerely, or the principle of "generous reading."

Why the hell would s/he argue that? If you find yourself asking this question, then take the next step by answering your own question. Why would s/he argue that? If I am indignant about the argument, does this suggest that I am not the audience? If the argument seems ridiculous, is it relying on definitions that I find foreign? If I think the argument is brilliant, is it because I am in fact the target audience, so much so that I am having a difficult time gaining any kind of critical distance?

The principle of "generous reading" has little to do with being "nice." Instead, it is more about reading in a generative way, in a way that opens the text up rather than closes it down. This requires that we read a text on its own terms, understanding how an argument is deploying certain concepts and ideas (see Rule #2).