One of the most neglected form of analysis in my school is of visual arguments. Sure, students might look briefly at an historical photograph or a political cartoon now and then. There are so many other visuals, though, that students may encounter in their college and professional work. I️ love to use artwork, charts, and graphs paired with literature.

First, the product: I️ typically give students guiding questions for analysis (TRT_Analyzing Visual Text Freebie!). They will write their answers on paper, share them in discussion, or write online discussion board posts. I️ also like silent discussions, where students write their comments on an image as annotations without talking to each other. It is vital to model how to respond to these questions (here’s where political cartoons are super useful because they’re so accessible).

Here are a few of my favorite visuals, paired with some texts that I️ teach.

Racial Dot Map/Native Son by Richard Wright

The racial dot map shocks students. If you live in a city, it’s particularly powerful to zoom in on the neighborhoods in your area. You will have to help students talk about their observations academically.

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugene Delacroix /Excerpts from Orientalism by Edward Said

One of my favorite college professors paired these texts in a course called Confluence of Cultures. I love using Said’s work because it introduces students to the concept of the Other. They can apply this anthropological understanding to virtually any text. Delacroix’s painting allows students to examine stereotypes of the Middle East and of women. Bonus Freebie: If you click on the link above, you can access the handout I use with my students.

IPA Vowel Chart/”Five Events That Shaped English” by Philip Durkin

This is part of my opening unit for the year. For about two weeks, my students explore the history of English. I project the vowel chart, sans captions, and ask them to tell me what it represents. Once they figure it out, we talk about the process of reading a visual. I connect to this Oxford Dictionary article about events that shaped English by talking about how vowel pronunciation tends to change over time. (This is a good time to establish that Shakespeare did not write in Old English!)

“La Caverne Moderne”/Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

Okay, it’s a cartoon, but it’s great for a warm-up. Students need to read the text first to understand the visual. It’s a good discussion starter.

The Great Chain of Being/Hamlet by William Shakespeare (or any text, really)

There are several versions of this chart out there. Many of them are specific to religion in the Elizabethan era. I prefer the version that represents many religions. It it a visual we can come back to in multiple situations; it gives my religiously diverse student body a common understanding of religious world views.

Johari Window/”I Am a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs

For many years, this was my first assignment for students. They read the text and examined the author by filling in the window. They then had to label themselves and craft/deliver a speech “owning” the label. The window became a reflective tool for them as they explored who they wanted to be. I rearranged my curriculum, but I’m planning on using this toward the end of the year.

If you’re looking for visuals to pair with texts you teach in your class, I strongly urge you to check out the Library of Congress website.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the Political Cartoon: Rhetorical Analysis of Visuals

  1. Hello! I’ve been teaching AP Lang for 10 years, and your site has been a wonderful resource as I work on freshening up my curriculum. Thank you for sharing! I am interested in hearing more about the piece you had students create after reading “I Am a Cripple” and using the Johari Window. Do you mind sharing the guidelines you provided as students entered that writing?

  2. As a practicing author, I have always followed an intuitive logic it felt normal to focus on the
    topic -> develop with ideas/answers -> put it on paper.

    However, nothing can save me when I was writing regarding thermodynamics,
    by way of instance, which, as you can guess, is not my principal field of
    expertise. Anyway, I took some great tips from your writing style,
    thanks for that:slightly_smiling_face:

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