English 550: Digital Rhetorics (Spring 2012)

Photo Credit: "Composition 5.01" by Burtonwood+Holmes

Aristotle describes rhetoric as the faculty of observing, in any particular case, the available means of persuasion. Digital technologies have expanded these available means, calling for new ways of understanding rhetorical theory and rhetorical expression. This course will investigate two emerging modes of expression: videogames and sequential art (comics). The course includes a discussion of the history of rhetoric and its contemporary applications, and students will then both analyze and produce videogames and comics. In the course of creating and critiquing digital objects and environments, we will also build new theoretical approaches for reading and writing digitally. We will be asking: How do we cultivate a rhetorical sensibility for digital environments? What new rhetorical theories do we need for digital technologies? What are the available means of persuasion when using such technologies? No specific technical expertise is required for this course.


Professor: Jim Brown
Teaching Assistant: Eric Alexander
Class Meeting Place: 2191E Helen C. White
Class Time: Wednesday, 6:00-8:30pm

Jim's Office: 6187E Helen C. White
Jim's Office Hours: Monday 12:30-2:30pm, Wednesday 4:00-6:00pm [Make an Appointment]
Jim's Email: brownjr [at] wisc [dot] edu

Eric's Office: 7184 Helen C. White
Eric's Office Hours: [Make an Appointment]
Eric's Email: ealexand [at] cs [dot] wisc [dot] edu

Course Website: http://courses.jamesjbrownjr.net/550_spring2012

Required Texts
Texts available for purchase at University Book Store:

Texts Available for Download:

  • Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost (excerpts)
  • Making Comics and Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud (excerpts)

Optional Resource

  • ComicLife Software

Course Objectives

Our work in this course will address four main objectives:

  • Rhetorical Theory: Read and analyze classical and contemporary rhetorical theories.
  • Rhetorical Practice: Use rhetorical theory to create digital objects.
  • Writing and Design Process: Develop sustainable writing and design processes when creating traditional writing assignments and digital projects.
  • Collaboration: Effectively collaborate with your peers by sharing ideas and efficiently managing tasks.

Course Work
In this class, the following work will be evaluated:

  • Attendance and Participation
  • Comic Tracings
  • Group Comics Project [graduate students complete this project individually]
  • Graduate Students only: Individual presentation on a chapter of
    Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students
  • Group Videogame Project

Learning Record
Grades in this class will be determined by the Learning Record Online (LRO). The LRO will require you to observe your own learning and construct an argument for your grade based on evidence that you accumulate throughout the semester. You will record weekly observations and you will synthesize your work into an argument for your grade. You will construct this argument twice - once at the midterm and once at the end of the course. We will be discussing the LR) at length during the first week of class. See below for more details.

Success in this class will require regular attendance. I will take attendance at each class meeting, and your Learning Record will include a discussion of attendance. You are required to attend class daily, arrive on time, do assigned reading and writing, and participate in all in-class work. Please save absences for when you are sick or have a personal emergency. If you find that an unavoidable problem prevents you from attending class or from arriving on time, please discuss the problem with me.

If you are more than 10 minutes late for class, you will be considered absent. If there is something keeping you from getting to class on time (i.e., you have a long trek across campus right before our class), please let me know during the first week of class.

Computers and Cell Phones
Please feel free to use your computer or mobile phone during class, provided that your use of it is related to what we are working on in class. Please silence mobile phones during class.

Grades in this course will be determined by use of the Learning Record, a system which requires students to compile a portfolio of work at the midterm and at the end of the semester. These portfolios present a selection of your work, both formal and informal, plus ongoing observations about your learning, plus an analysis of your work in terms of the five dimensions of learning and the goals for this course. You will evaluate your work in terms of the grade criteria posted on the LRO site, and you will provide a grade estimate at the midterm and final.

The dimensions of learning have been developed by teachers and researchers, and they represent what learners experience in any learning situation:

1) Confidence and independence
2) Knowledge and understanding
3) Skills and strategies
4) Use of prior and emerging experience
5) Reflectiveness

In addition to analyzing your work in terms of these dimensions of learning, your argument will also consider the specific goals for this course. These goals are also listed above under "Course Objectives," and for the purposes of the Learning Record they are called the Course Strands:

1) Rhetorical Theory
2) Rhetorical Practice
3) Writing and Design Process
4) Collaboration

The LRO website provides detailed descriptions of the Course Strands and the Dimensions of Learning.

Your work in class (and in other classes during this semester) along with the observations you record throughout the semester will help you build an argument in terms of the dimensions of learning and the course strands. We will discuss the LRO in detail at the beginning of the semester, and we will have various conversations about compiling the LRO as the semester progresses.

Late Assignments
Due dates for assignments are posted on the course schedule. While I will not be grading your assignments, I will be providing comments and feedback. I will not provide feedback on late assignments. Also, late assignments will be factored into your argument in the LR (see the grade criteria for more details).

Intellectual Property
Much of what we'll be working on this semester involves the appropriation of existing texts. This is no different than any other type of writing - all writing involves appropriation. The key will be to make new meaning with the texts that you appropriate. Copying and pasting existing texts without attribution does not make new meaning. Some of your work will make use of different materials (text, video, audio, image), and you will have to be mindful of intellectual property issues as you create texts for this class. If you have questions about the University of Wisconsin's Academic Misconduct policy, please see the Student Assistance and Judicial Affairs website.

Technology Policy
We will use technology frequently in this class. Although I am assuming that you have some basic knowledge of computers, such as how to use a keyboard and mouse, and how to use the Web and check e-mail, most things will be explained in class. If you don’t understand what we are doing, please ask for help. If you are familiar with the technology we are using please lend a helping hand to your classmates.

Course Website and Email
You should check your email daily. Class announcements and assignments may be distributed through email. The course website will also have important information about assignments and policies. Pay close attention to the course calendar as we move through the semester. I reserve the right to move things around if necessary.

Emails to me must come from your wisc.edu email address. They must include a title explaining the email, a salutation (for example, "Dear Jim"), a clear explanation of what the email is about, and a signature.



  • Crowley and Hawhee, Chapters 1 and 2 (pp 1-55)


No Class Meeting

    Tracing #2 Due (submitted to Eric's office before 6:00pm)
  • Y: The Last Man, Cycles
  • Read and take notes on your group's chapter for sequential art group project

LRO Part A due by noon

Tracing Synthesis Paper Due

  • McCloud, "The Power of Words" (available for download via Dropbox)
  • ComicLife workshop
  • Set up Basecamp sites


  • Crowley and Hawhee, Chapter 3 (pp56-87) [Prezi by Rasmus]
  • ComicLife workshop
  • Group project workshop [progress report to class]


  • Crowley and Hawhee, Chapter 4 (pp88-117) [Presentation by Ashley]
  • Group project workshop [progress report to class]


  • Crowley and Hawhee, Chapter 5 (pp118-145) [Presentation by Wade]
  • Peer Review Session
  • Group project workshop [progress report to class]




  • Crowley and Hawhee, Chapter 8 (pp200-221) [Presentation by Elisabeth]
  • Group project workshop [progress report to class]

Group Comic Project Due by noon


  • Read Bogost Introduction (in Dropbox), Braid


  • Braid (finish game)
  • Short Response paper due


  • Read Bogost Chapter on Political Games (in Dropbox)
  • Scratch Workshop
  • Group Project Workshop


  • Scratch Workshop
  • Group Project Workshop [progress report to class]


  • Scratch Workshop
  • Group Project Workshop, [progress report to class]
  • User tests

Videogame 1.0 due by noon


  • Scratch Workshop
  • Group Project Workshop, [progress report to class]
  • User tests

Videogame 2.0 due by noon


  • Videogame 3.0 due prior to beginning of class
  • Group videogame presentations
  • Videogame salon




The pages below describe the assignments for this course.

Tracing Project

[This project is an adapted version of one designed by Mark Sample]

Due Dates
2/1: Tracing #1 Due
2/8: Tracing #2 Due
2/15: Synthesis and Reflection Paper Due

You'll need tracing paper to complete this project. Tracing paper is available at most office or art supply stores.

You will trace two different pages from Y: The Last Man for this project, one from Unmanned and one from Cycles. A "page" means a single verso or recto page. You may do a two-page spread only if that spread forms a coherent unit. A two-page spread will count as one "page."

First Tracing

Pick a compelling page from the graphic narrative and trace it. Your goal is not to create a look-alike reproduction of the original page. Rather, it is to distill the original page into a simplified line drawing. If there are caption bubbles or boxes, you should trace their outline, but please do not copy the text within.

Annotate your traced page with "gutter text"—your own text, written into the gutters and empty captions of the pages. Think of your gutter text as a rhetorical dissection of the page, in which you highlight the characteristics of the page's panels using some of the rhetorical concepts we've discussed in class. What rhetorical choices did the creators make? What are the effects of those choices?

Consider the various formal features of the drawing: color, saturation, shading, line styles, shapes and sizes, angles and placement, perspective and framing, layering and blocking. Consider the relationship between the elements on the page: the transitions between panels, the interplay between words and images, the way time and motion are conveyed. Consider overall layout of the page: the use of gutters and margins, the arrangement of panels, the flow of narrative or imagery. Tip: Photocopy your tracing onto regular paper before you begin annotating it in order to preserve your original tracing. You may need several copies, in fact, in order to have room for all of your annotations.

Second Tracing

For the second tracing select a page that feels distinctly different from the page you traced earlier. Maybe there's something about the overall layout, or the artistic style, or the tone of the page. In any case, select a page that provides tension with your first tracing. After you have traced this page, again annotate it using the terms of rhetorical theory, this time with an eye toward what makes this page different from your first selection.

Synthesis and Reflection

The synthesis and reflection is a single document in which you work through the process and product of the tracing activity. I recommend that you take notes for your synthesis and reflection as you work, instead of waiting until you've finished tracing. You will probably discover much during the actual process of tracing that you'll want to talk about for the reflection.

Your synthesis and reflection should weigh in at no more than five pages (1250 words max). You shouldn't organize this document as a typical research essay. It can be more open-ended and tentative than the usual essay in which you are expected to conclusively "prove" a claim. Think of it as a "tour" of your tracings---but a tour that goes well beyond highlighting what is "interesting" about the pages you selected or your tracings of those pages. Your synthesis and reflection can address questions such as: What did this exercise in "imitation" reveal about the rhetorical attributes of these pages? What rhetorical tactics were employed in the pages you selected? How were these tactics similar or different? How do text and image work to persuade in your selected pages? To what rhetorical ends are they used?

These are just some of the questions you can ask. You should not be trying to address all of these questions.

When providing feedback, I will be looking for the following:

  • Have you observed the constraints of the assignment?
  • Is your gutter text detailed, and does it demonstrate careful thinking about the rhetorical attributes of these pages?
  • Does your synthesis and reflection provide an accurate and carefully considered discussion of the rhetorical tactics and attributes of these pages?
  • Is your project written effectively and coherently with very few grammatical errors?
  • Were the project's various components turned in on time? (Reminder: I do not accept late work.)

Group Project: Comic Version of Crowley and Hawhee

[Note: Graduate Students complete this project individually. Each graduate student will be assigned their own chapter of Crowley and Hawhee]

Due Dates
2/15: Set up Basecamp project management website
2/22, 2/29, 3/7, 3/14: Progress reports
3/7: Project 1.0 (peer review)
3/14: Project 2.0 (peer review)
3/16: Project 3.0

In reading Y: The Last Man and the work of Scott McCloud, we've worked to understand the rhetoric sequential art: How is it constructed? How does it persuade? What are its commonplaces? How does it respond to a rhetorical situation? We've done this by using the terms and concepts in Crowley and Hawhee's Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students.

For this project, you will work in groups, using ComicLife software to create a comic version of one chapter of Crowley and Hawhee's text. In order to do this, you will need to become experts in your group's assigned chapter. You will decide how to best remake this chapter as a comic, and you will do so using the rhetorical tactics laid out by Crowley and Hawhee and by McCloud.

We will have ComicLife tutorial sessions along with a good deal of class time devoted to working on this project. You will also have opportunities to share drafts of your chapter with your peers in order to get feedback. In addition, you will be using Basecamp project management software in order to schedule your work and coordinate tasks. As you move through the project, you'll share your progress with the rest of the class.

When providing feedback, I will be looking for the following:

  • Have you capitalized on the rhetorical techniques of sequential art in order to remake your assigned chapter? Your project should find a unique way of retelling the "story" of your assigned chapter.
  • Does your project effectively incorporate image and text?
  • Does your project demonstrate an understanding of the class readings and an application of their terms and concepts? You should be applying what you've learned in other Crowley and Hawhee chapters along with what you've learned in Y: The Last Man and the McCloud readings.
  • Has your group effectively managed the project, using Basecamp to schedule milestones and develop to-do lists?
  • Is your project free from grammatical errors and generally well written?

Braid: Short Response Paper

Due Date
4/11: Paper Due

After reading excerpts of Persuasive Games, you should be able to analyze the procedural arguments made by videogames. We'll put those skills to the test by conducting a rhetorical analysis of Braid that focuses on how its procedures make arguments.

We'll be asking this: How do the game's mechanics make arguments? What are those arguments? What is the significance of those arguments, and how are the connected to the game's story? Remember that procedural rhetoric is different from verbal rhetoric, visual rhetoric, or textual rhetoric. The images and text of the game do in fact make arguments, but that is not what we're focused on here. Instead, your task is to examine the procedures of the game and to explain how those procedures mount arguments.

Specifically, you'll look at one gameplay world. Each gameplay world has a title, and that title is presented on a black screen as you enter the world. For instance, the first gameplay world is called "Three Easy Pieces." Your job is to identify and explain the procedural argument being made in that gameplay world and then to link that argument to the story expressed in the "Clouds" portion of the game. Your paper should make it clear which gameplay world and which "Clouds" section you're discussing (each "Clouds" section has a title as well, such as "Time and Forgiveness).

The question you'll address in your brief response paper is: How does the procedural rhetoric of the gameplay world you've chosen relate to the story being told in the "Clouds"? The story portion of Braid expresses ideas with words, and the game portion expresses ideas with procedures. Your job is to link these two types of expression together, explaining how they intersect.

Papers should be no longer than 500 words (roughly: Times New Roman, 12 point font, two double-spaced pages) and should be uploaded to Dropbox prior to our class meeting on 3/28.

When providing feedback, we will be looking for the following:

  • Is your paper formatted correctly (double-spaced, observes the word limit, name in upper-left-hand corner)?
  • Does your paper make it clear which gameplay world and which "Clouds" section you're referencing?
  • Does your paper identify and explain how your chosen gameplay world uses procedures to mount arguments?
  • Does your paper link the procedural argument of the gameplay world you've chosen with the "Clouds" story?
  • Is your paper written effectively and coherently with very few grammatical errors?
  • Was the paper turned in on time? (Reminder: We do not accept late work.)

Group Project: Videogame

Due Dates
4/27 Videogame 1.0
5/4 Videogame 2.0
5/9 Videogame 3.0

In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost argues that most political videogames have failed to take advantage of the procedural affordances of the medium. Instead of using procedures to make arguments, political games have put new skins on old games or have merely used games to deliver textual arguments.

This project will provide you with the opportunity to create a political videogame that answers Bogost's challenge. In groups, you'll use the programming language Scratch to create a game that makes a procedural argument. Your game will deal with Wisconsin politics in some way. Your game can address an issue in Madison, but it does not have to. The only requirement is that the game address a political issue that impacts and/or is being debated by the citizens of Wisconsin. This will require that you research the issue.

You will have ample class time to learn Scratch during workshops and to work with your group members to build your game. You will also have opportunities to test your games by having classmates outside of your group play versions of your game.

When providing feedback, Eric and I will be looking for the following:

  • Does your game make an effective procedural argument about your chosen issue?
  • Does your game provide sufficient context for the issue?
  • Does your project demonstrate an understanding of the class readings and an application of their terms and concepts? You should be applying what you've learned in the Bogost readings and in our discussions about Braid.
  • Has your group effectively managed the project, using Basecamp to schedule milestones and develop to-do lists?
  • Has your group incorporated feedback from others in the class?
  • Is your project free from grammatical errors and generally well written?

Presentation on Crowley and Hawhee (Graduate Students)

Once during the semester, each graduate student will deliver a 25-minute presentation on their assigned chapter from Crowley and Hawhee. That presentation will include:

  • A Pecha Kucha presentation created with Prezi, Keynote, PowerPoint, or some other presentation software (A presentation including 20 slides that are each displayed for 20 seconds)
  • A class activity that involves the participation of all students

The presentation should clearly and concisely explain the terms and concepts of your assigned chapter. You are required to read at least two of the works included in the Works Cited portion of your chapter and to incorporate these works into your Pecha Kucha. This will be difficult to do with only 20 slides and a strict time limit of 20 seconds per slide. So, you should plan on rehearsing your presentation.

In addition to the presentation, you'll be designing an in-class activity that calls on everyone in the class to participate. This activity should link your chapter to our discussion of ComicLife in some way. For instance, an activity on the "Ethos" chapter would attempt to demonstrate how a user of ComicLife would establish credibility or how situated and constructed ethos play when using ComicLife. Regardless of how you design this activity, it should engage students and should demonstrate how your chapter would help the user of ComicLife take full advantage of the "available means of persuasion."

I will provide feedback on these presentations. When writing that feedback, I will be asking:

  • Have you observed the constraints of the assignment?
  • Have you successfully incorporated two secondary sources into your presentation?
  • Does your pecha kucha demonstrate that you've thought carefully about it's design and that you've rehearsed the presentation?
  • Does your activity effectively connect your chapter to ComicLife?
  • Did you manage your time effectively?