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Analyzing Visual Arguments

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A doctor's body inside large, bleeding ears with large money bags against a blood-red backdrop seen behind the mirror images of the enlarged close up of a man's ears.
Image Credit: 

somewhere on Facebook... Unfortunately, this is from a Facebook upload. I didn't keep track of where on Facebook I found the photo, and I can't remember now. I'm also unable to find this image on the web again.

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students practice closely describing and analyzing an image for its argument and rhetorical impact.

Type of Assignment: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

1. To apply the concepts from Everything's An Argument and practice closely analyzing an image for its rhetorical features

2. To practice analyzing the framing of an image

3. To practice writing a detailed description of an image in preparation for a "Research Summary" paper on a piece of visual rhetoric

Required Materials: 

1. An image relevant to your course topic

2. Questions to prompt student analysis

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

After reading selections from Chapters 1 and 15 in Everything's An Argument, and the section on visual rhetoric in Chapter 8 of Critical Situations (the University of Texas at Austin's Custom Edition) for homework, students discuss what they learned about how images can function as arguments, how the framing of an image can alter or shape our perception of it, and how to approach analyzing and describing such visual arguments.

Following this discussion, I explain that students will break into groups of 4 or 5 and practice summarizing and analyzing a visual argument in preparation for their second Research Summary, which must be a visual viewpoint source. I also explain that this in-class activity is preparation for our next unit on Visual Rhetoric in which they will analyze the visual rhetoric in a pop culture source of their choice. Because this unit focuses on the rhetoric of terminology, students are to pay special attention to the words that frame an image but to also analyze the relevant contexts and controversies that an image may evoke or speak to. Finally, I explain that students should spend a good amount of time summarizing the image with as much detail as possible--as if they were describing the image for a blind person. I encourage them to use the vocabulary from their reading assignment (i.e. foreground, background, etc).

Because I teach in a computer classroom and use the PBWorks platform, each group creates one wiki page in a public group activities folder and names it with all their group member's names. I explain that only one person can type on the page at a time, but if they save the page, another person may begin typing or "steal the lock" on a wiki page to begin typing.

However, this activity could be done in a room without technology if the image students are to analyze is projected onto a screen, or if each student has a paper copy of the screen. Students could then hand-write their summaries and analyses. With the benefit of a computer classroom, I'm able to read student writing once they save the page. It is also available for all students to see on the projector/read along on their own computer screen.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Instructors may decide to use any image--whether seemingly benign or provocative. The image on this page could be used in any class, or you may decide to choose an image relevant to your course topic and class discussions so that students are better able to analyze the social, political, and historical contexts. I had notes prepared to flesh out any gaps in the students analysis as I did not presume knowledge on cochlear implant surgeries, Deaf Studies, or Deaf culture and peoples. I also, however, did not want one group to be full of students who knew about Deaf people, so I asked in advance. In one class, I had four students who knew about Deaf people, so I had one person in each group. In another class, only one student professed knowledge, so I let students determine their groups on their own. 

Instructions For Students: 

Break up into groups of 4 or 5 people. Each group may have only one person knowledgeable about Deaf people/Deaf culture. You do not have to have a person who feels knowledgeable of this group to conduct this analysis.

1. What argument does this photo make?
2. How would you summarize (i.e. describe) this photo (without editorializing)?
3. Analyze the pathos, ethos, and logos of this photo. What rhetorical effect does the visual argument have?
4. Analyze the word choice in the title of the image. How does the title frame the visual argument?
5. What questions does this visual argument raise about the political, social, and/or historical contexts surrounding Deaf bodies? Or, if you have some knowledge of these contexts, where does it fit with regards to these contexts? What conversations might the image be speaking for or against?
6. Who are the stakeholders? Which audiences/stakeholders would be persuaded by this viewpoint? Which audiences/stakeholders might disagree with this viewpoint/choice of images and words? Why?

Evaluation Suggestions: 

Since this activity is practice for future writing assignments, I give feedback on each group's summary and analysis as we read and discuss each group's work as a class. This way, the entire class has the benefit of knowing how to improve their summaries and analysis by listening to what each group did well and what each group could have improved upon.

Students also have this document as a piece of evidence of their collaborative work and can write an observation on the activity to use in their Learning Record portfolio at the midterm when they analyze their individual development along the course strands of argumentation and/or writing process and the dimensions of knowledge and understanding, skills and strategies, prior and emergence experience, and/or reflection .

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

I'm always impressed at students ability to analyze the image even without professing any knowledge of the historical, social, and political contexts surrounding Deaf people. Students also enjoy the shift from individual/whole class work and having the opportunity to do group work.

Additional Resources: 

Critical Situations: A Rhetoric for Writing in Communities with Additional Material (Custom Edition for the University of Texas at Austin), Sharon Crowley and Michael Stancliff

Everything's An Argument by Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz

Course Description: 

Rhetoric and Writing (RHE 309K): Disability in Pop Culture

In this course, students focus on analyzing the relationship between pop culture and rhetoric. Their analyses examine public disagreements about various issues such as: How do popular (mis)representations of "the supercrip" convince us to make political decisions regarding accessibility, advocacy, education, and/or social policy? How can we evaluate arguments that not only depict (dis)abled people as "heroic" but also those that portray the converse: the "grotesque unfortunate" deserving of "pity" and "help"? How do these arguments address questions of basic human rights, needs, drives and "eugenics rhetoric"? Will children (and adults) make political decisions based on recurrent thematic representations of "disability" in pop culture, and, is that a good or bad influence?Beginning with a selection of readings that introduce disability theory, students conduct research to explore a controversy of their  choice on (dis)ability in pop culture.  Throughout, students engage with their controversy, analyzing editorials, print and video advertisements, and other contemporary portrayals of “the supercrip” or of (dis)ability in pop culture. The last unit focuses on multimodal arguments; students create a multimodal composition that takes a position on the representations of bodies and abilities.

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