Teaching Visual Rhetoric with Word Clouds

Visual rhetoric—how visuals communicate meaning—is often equal to or even more important than the actual words on the page.  The design and visual features often determine whether an audience chooses to read a document, and visuals can be used to increase the audience’s interest and comprehension.  Arola, Ball, and Sheppard write, “Writing affords many things that, say, visuals do not. But, visuals afford many opportunities that writing does not.”  As such, visual elements are communicative, persuasive tools that can work in conjunction with or even in place of written words.  In teaching rhetoric classes, incorporating design is essential for giving students a complete understanding of how their choices in words, visuals, and design can affect the meaning of their document.   Teaching visual rhetoric  prepares students for real world multimodal writing experiences, and I use word clouds as a tool for teaching visual rhetoric.

Even though design and rhetoric often seem to go hand-in-hand, the two have traditionally been regarded as separate fields.  Current rhetoricians, however, are recognizing their connectedness.  Hill and Helmers write, “…through analysis of photographs and drawings, graphs and tables, and motion pictures, scholars are exploring the many ways in which visual elements are used to influence people’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs” (2).  As such, visual rhetoric goes beyond the aesthetics of visuals, focusing on the “practicality, relevancy, and functionality” of visual elements (Welch, Lee, & Shuman, 256).  Many current definitions of rhetoric even include visuals, such as Northern Arizona University’s Interdisciplinary Writing Program, whose definition begins, “Rhetoric is the art and study of communicative acts, including writing, speech, images, gestures, symbols, and designs.”  By incorporating visuals into the definition of rhetoric, the applicability and usefulness of the rhetorical principles thus expands to visuals, and failing to teach visual rhetoric in rhetoric and writing courses puts students at a disadvantage for many real world writing situations they may encounter.  John Trimbur supports the importance of teaching visual rhetoric, discussing how “visual communication constitutes part of the available means of persuasion” (106). I use word clouds to help teach students how the rhetorical principles they learn about in my class extend beyond discourse, and into visuals and design.   By encouraging students to consider their audience, purpose, and credibility, students learn to create word clouds that effectively communicate meaning.

Students in my interdisciplinary writing course, like I discussed in my previous blog, use word clouds to help them write thesis driven essays. But word clouds also provide an opportunity for me to teach students how the design of their word clouds can affect the word cloud’s meaning. Considering the design of the word cloud requires students to further consider their audience, purpose and credibility to make effective design choices. Arola, Sheppard, and Ball discuss using five key design concepts—emphasis, contrast, organization, alignment, and proximity—to support the rhetorical situation (31). So, I begin by having students analyze the rhetorical situation then using design concepts to make effective choices. A few key factors students consider to guide their design choices include audience, purpose, and credibility:
• By learning about their audience, students can make design choices that effectively communicate meaning. I have students primarily consider their primary audience, but also keep their secondary and tertiary audiences in mind. To help them start researching their audience, I suggest students consider their audience’s knowledge about the subject; their level of education and (if applicable) degree(s); their expectations of the document; their beliefs, values, and opinions; and any other pertinent information. From there, students can assess how their document fits into their audience’s mindset and expectations, and thus make decisions about effective design and visuals.
• By identifying the multiple purposes that their document may encompass, students can make design choices that appropriately convey those intentions. I encourage students to explore not only the multiple intentions that they may have as the author, but also the intentions that their audience may have as a result of using their document. In most cases, upon further analysis, students recognize that their documents serve multiple purposes, and it is important that the design reflects these various purposes.
• By focusing on their credibility, students can help ensure that they are presenting themselves and their topics professionally through design and visuals. I have students consider what their designs and visuals convey about their credibility by addressing questions such as: is my data from a credible source, does my visual/design conform to the audience’s expectations, does my design look professional in terms of font and color, is my visual well placed on the page, do I use white space appropriately, does my their design and visual make my document look inviting for my intended audience, etc. These and similar questions help students convey their credibility through their design choices.

After considering these areas, students are able to understand how the rhetorical principles play a role in the design choices and visuals they use. Having students apply this to their word clouds requires them to critically consider not only the words emphasized in the word clouds, but the appearance of the word cloud.
I have students begin by plugging in the text from their research papers into a word cloud generator and auto-generating word clouds without setting any design parameters.

Below is an example of an auto-generated word cloud created by one of my students in Spring 2017:

Word cloud osteoperosis 1

After auto-generating their initial word cloud, students analyze the rhetorical situation and make changes to the words emphasized and also to the design. This is where they make choices in font, color, shape, spacing, etc., to support the rhetorical situation, thus applying Arola, Sheppard, and Ball’s key design concepts.

After her analysis and design revisions, this student designed her word cloud as such:

Word cloud osteoperosis 2

I asked this student to write about the design changes she made and why she made those change based on the rhetorical situation.  She wrote:

“I edited three visual aspects of my word cloud to better reflect the rhetoric of my research paper about osteoporosis. I altered the shape of the word art from a leaf to a ribbon, which represents the fight against osteoporosis and awareness of the disease. Ribbons often symbolize awareness of a prevalent incident within society, such as a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness or a blue ribbon for child abuse awareness. I decided to stay with the same color combination of green, red and purple; however, I decreased the frequency of green to create a cozier appearance. I choose to use the color red to accentuate the negative aspects of osteoporosis, words like pain, disease, and weak. The last alteration I made to the word cloud was the orientation of words from completely horizontal to multidirectional. This enabled more words to fit into the specific ribbon shape.”

By considering her audience, purpose, and credibility, this student was able to take a generic word cloud, and make it into a visually appealing graphic that helped convey the purpose of her document.  She applied the design concepts—emphasis, contrast, organization, alignment, and proximity—to support the rhetorical situation.   As such, the word cloud became a means of persuasion, communicating meaning.

Though a rather simple application, this word cloud design activity is an engaging way to implicitly teach visual rhetoric by emphasizing critical thinking and agency in choices.   Most students who take my class have little design experience, so this activity provides them an accessible and user friendly platform where they can analyze the rhetorical situation, make deliberate design choices, and simply adjust settings to create word clouds that—through content and design—effectively  communicate the meaning of their research papers.  Students tend to enjoy this assignment and demonstrate pride in their finished word clouds. They often use their word clouds in their final presentations of their research and/or in their projects related to their research, which demonstrates the effectiveness and larger applicability of the word cloud assignment.  Word clouds have become a popular multi-purpose and multimodal activity in my class, and this assignment can be incorporated in other writing and rhetoric classes as an engaging hands-on approach to teaching visual rhetoric.

Works Cited

Arola, Kristin L., Cheryl E. Ball, and Jennifer Sheppard. “Multimodality as a Frame for  Individual and Institutional Change.” Digital Pedagogy Lab, 2014. http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/multimodality-frame-individual-institutional-change/. Accessed 6 July, 2017.

Arola, Kristin L,. Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball. Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. Bedford/St. Martins, 2014.

Galanti, Sarah. “Osteoarthritis Word Cloud.” Assignment. ENG 305w: Writing in Disciplinary Communities. (Instructor Alana Kuhlman.) Northern Arizona University. April 2017.

Hill, Charles A. and Marguerite Helmers. “Introduction.” Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004, pp. 1-24.

Trimbur, John. “Theory of Visual Design.” Coming of Age: The Advanced Writing Curriculum, edited by Linda K. Shamoon, Rebecca Moore Howard, Sandra Jamieson, and Robert A. Schwegler. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2000, pp. 106-113.

Welch, Kristen, Nicholas Lee, and Dustin Shuman. “Teaching Visual Rhetoric in the First-Year Composition Classroom.”  Teaching English in the Two-Year College. March 2010. http://www.michelepolak.com/205spring12/Weekly_Schedule_files/Welch.pdf. Accessed 6 June 2017.