read the attachments and write about it and show the connection between themAmerican Library Association
Graphic Novels in Curriculum and Instruction Collections
Author(s): Elizabeth M. Downey
Source: Reference & User Services Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Winter 2009), pp. 181-188
Published by: American Library Association
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Graphic Novels in Curriculum and
Instruction Collections
Graphic novel collection and use has he
come a popular topic in the library com
munity; most oj the literature has focused
about graphic novel collections in aca
Elizabeth M. Downey
investigating the genre as either rec
Elizabeth M. Downey is Assistant
demic libraries has been limited to
on collecting in school and public libraries.
reational reading for busy college stu
The number of academic libraries that car
dents or as part of the cultural and
ry graphic novels has increased, but those
Libraries, Mississippi State, Mississippi.
Submitted for review January 4,2009;
accepted for publication March 3,
collections and the few articles addressing
to the genre in some circles; combin
ing text and images is considered fine
for children’s books, but children are
reader or the pop culture historian. Mean
expected to “grow out of it” and start
reading “real books.”1 The experienced
gun to embrace graphic novels as a way
to reach reluctant readers; engage visual
learners; and improve comprehension and
interpretation of themes, literary devices,
and social issues, among other topics. As
graphic novels are increasingly used in the
classroom, students majoring in elemen
tary and secondary education should have
access to these materials as they prepare
for their future careers. Making graphic
text and image in their reading, cogni
tion, and translation of the work, but
those unfamiliar with the format and
how it is read will more likely skim the
novel, focus more on the images them
selves than the context of those images,
and misinterpret the intent of the artist
and author. This leads to complaints
about portrayals of violence, sex, mi
sogyny, antiauthoritarianism, and other
controversial or sensitive topics, as well
research and training needs of the faculty,
cess to such.2 There also is the assump
staff and students.
tion that graphic novels are too “easy,”
or that pictures detract from what the
as concern about underage patrons’ ac
While there has been a authors could have expressed in words
much greater focus on alone.3
graphic novels in the li
last decade, most coverage has been
limited to school media centers and
graphic novel enthusiast will use both
novels a specific part of the curriculum
and instruction collection supports the
academic library’s mission to meet the
brary literature over the
Librarian, Mississippi State University
historical record. There is still resistance
graphic novels in academic librarianship
have focused on serving the recreational
while, the education community has be
Professor and Instructional Services
However, graphic novels today are
being used increasingly by educators to
engage reluctant readers, reach out to
visual learners, and illustrate social and
public libraries. Published research cultural themes and topics. Districts are
Reference & User Services Quarterly,
vol.49, no. 2 pp. 181-188
? 2009 American Library Association.
All rights reserved.
Permission granted to reproduce for
nonprofit, educational use.
volume 49, issue 2 I 181
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now seeing the benefits of these tools: The New ed a content analysis, examining the collections
York City Department of Education began pro
of academic institutions that supported National
Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education
moting and supporting graphic novel use in their
classrooms in spring 2008 by training hundreds of
the city’s school media specialists. The in-service
and American Library Association-accredited pro
grams. The authors checked for works appearing
sessions focused on selection, lesson plans, and in the 2007 and 2008 “Great Graphic Novels for
graphic novels as a tool to draw students to the Teens” list released annually by the Young Adult
library4 Part of the academic library’s mission is Library Services Association (YALSA). They also
to provide materials and resources for future edu
looked for variations in the collections by geog
cators. Academic libraries should carry graphic raphy, collection size, and Carnegie institution
novels in their collections for pleasure reading classification. Their study showed that larger
by students and faculty, to serve as examples of
modern art and graphic design, and for historical
value; but they also should be included in subject
institutions on average held more graphic novels
on the YALSA lists and that graphic novels were
more likely to be in the holdings of doctoral and
specific curriculum and instruction collections research universities, schools with library science
programs, or institutions located in the western
for education majors preparing for practicum and
developing lesson plans.
A review of the library and information science
literature indicates that not much has been pub
lished in regards to graphic novels in academic
libraries outside of the occasional book review or
United States. However, it also revealed that a
considerable number of institutions supporting
library science or education programs aren’t ac
tively collecting graphic novels for teens. While
the parameters of the study did not include older
titles not appearing on the YALSA lists, the results
illustrate the need for those libraries to evaluate
their current holdings.7
Most of the library literature that addresses
highlight of a special collection. There are a few
novels appears in journals whose primary
notable exceptions: O’English, Matthews, and
Lindsay provide an overview that covers several
subtopics and issues, including graphic novels as
literature, their increasing popularity in libraries,
audience is school media center, young adult, and
children’s services librarians. An additional assess
ment of the primary and secondary education and
endorsement of the format as pleasure reading
curriculum literature produced many more results
for students and faculty, collection development,
dealing with the use of graphic novels in K-12
cataloging and classification, and promotion and
outreach in academia. There is one section devoted
classrooms. In these articles, some distinct themes
came to the surface: the concept of “visual literacy,”
to outreach to preservice teachers, which encour
the use of graphic novels in reading comprehen
ages marketing the format to education depart
ments and colleges. It states that graphic novels
appeal to the visually literate and the reluctant
sion, the graphic novel as a comparative tool
paired with traditional texts, and the graphic novel
as a lens to examine topics of conflict, culture, and
reader, and are useful in illustrating story structure
prejudice. Many examples of these themes, includ
in writing exercises.5
A short piece published in Indiana Libraries
describes a collaborative research project between
Avon (Ind.) High School’s library media specialist
ing specific descriptions of how graphic novels
have been utilized in lesson planning, are detailed
further in this article.
Robyn Young and the library school at Indiana
University-Indianapolis. Young wanted to see if
reading graphic novels improved “overall aca
demic achievement and reading comprehension,”
which might lead to higher overall scores on the
Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress
There are several arguments for introducing graph
(ISTEP), the statewide standardized exit exam.6
She teamed with a faculty member from her for
mer SLIS program to conduct a study with special
education students. While the article is not about
ic novels into the classroom. Teachers can use
them as stand-alone texts or as part of a larger
curriculum by connecting the themes and ideas in
graphic novels to bigger topics and making those
connections more effective.8 The graphic novel
itself has educational value as a pop culture medi
collections in an academic library, it does illustrate
um. Schwarz writes, “In any subject area, studying
the value of partnerships between the academic
and school library community.
More recently, Williams and Peterson conduct
a graphic novel can bring media literacy into the
curriculum as students examine the medium itself.
Students can explore such questions as how color
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Graphic Novels in Curriculum and Instruction Collections
affects emotions, how pictures can stereotype peo
skills. When Will Eisner, thought of in the comic
ple, how angles of viewing affect perception, and world as the father of the graphic novel, invented
how realism or the lack of it plays into the message the term “sequential art” to describe comic books,
of a work.”9 In a broader sense, writes Allender,
the implication was that “the perception of se
“popular culture has affective and academic value.
It should be used in a variety of ways as one would
quential art requires more complex cognitive skills
than the reading of text alone.”18 To that end Lyga
use texts generally in a constructivist, cultural
and Lyga argue that of the seven multiple intelli
gences identified by Harvard psychologist Howard
ment and transformative learning.”10 More specifi
cally, graphic novels are useful tools in classrooms
Gardner, three of them (linguistic, spatial, and
studies classroom concerned with student achieve
where students are primarily visual learners. They
illustrate cognitive and literary concepts resulting
in stronger comprehension of the materials. They
also have a social use, introducing students to di
verse peoples and cultures they might otherwise
not encounter. Ultimately, the main goal is to grow
a literate populace by using inventive methods to
promote a lifetime reading habit.11
Today’s students have had a childhood filled
with the rapid pace and visual stimulation of tele
vision and video games, and they therefore seek
the same characteristics in their reading materials:
interpersonal) can benefit from the use of graphic
novels.19 The most recent “best practices” in lit
eracy acknowledge the value of reading in a wide
variety of styles and levels on comprehension.20
Graphic novels are also helpful in examining lit
erary elements such as plot, scenery, character,
premise, conflict, as well as devices such as simile,
metaphor, and exaggeration. They can be used to
develop deductive reasoning abilities, an advanced
thinking level according to Bloom’s taxonomy21
They also are perceived as less threatening by
overwhelmed students, and the pictures can help
them grasp the meaning of the content, learn new
vocabulary words, advance the narrative, and be
and graphic indicators.12 Educators are adapting to more motivated to read.22 The novels can illustrate
this new reality: Laura Mullen, an English profes
sequencing, placement, and timing of dialogue;
a scaled-down approach featuring short narratives
sor at Louisiana State University, was quoted in
the campus newspaper as saying “We’re all of the
Internet now. … we never get a word without an
image going with it, so in fact I think this is the
they also may introduce students to new subjects,
leading them to seek out other similarly themed
nonpicture books on the same topic.23 In the same
vein, graphic novel versions of famous literary
direction of our future reading comprehension.
It will include both visual literacy and verbal lit
eracy.”13 In addition to this excess of images and
works may spur students to seek out the original
prose version.24
graphics within the media in young people’s lives,
standardized tests include visual elements as part
that can be enhanced by the use of graphic novels
in the classroom, broader social lessons can be il
In addition to the technical aspects of learning
of assessment. Some students simply are not ca
lustrated. Graphic novels and comics are often a
pable of conjuring images in their mind from read
reflection of the creator’s culture and upbringing.
ing the text and therefore are dependent on visual
cues; graphic novels provide images that help the
students interpret the text as well as denote par
ticular thematic connotations, purposes, or ideas.14
Traditional storytelling elements are not lost within
these novels, but improved by the moral founda
tion and unique viewpoint of the artist. In numer
To take this idea further, Thompson writes that
one of the chief rewards of using these books is
they otherwise may not find in a traditional text.25
ous cases, students find a personal connection
Graphic novels grab the attention of students by
how the images actually model the visualization staying on the cutting edge and often reflect cur
most text-based learners do while reading; they
rent events and societal changes before other forms
“work interdependently with the text and offer
of media can. For instance, within a month after
a symbiotic example of what good readers do to
the events of September 11, Marvel Comics an
create mental images as they read.”15 Leckbee adds nounced that it would release a commemorative
that the graphic novel is a distinctive tool teachers magazine titled Heroes, and that all of the proceeds
can use to spark interest in learning and facilitate would benefit the families of fallen firefighters.26
functional literacy.16 Gretchen Schwarz has written Graphic novels put forward different opinions and
extensively on the topic and calls the genre “a new
medium for literacy that acknowledges the impact
of visuals.”17
Beyond simply offering an option to visual
learners, all students may benefit from the effect
reading graphic novels has on comprehension
notions of society, history, traditions, and life in a
more straightforward manner and give minority
viewpoints a voice.27 They also can assist in filling
disparities in academic achievement between dif
ferent races, ages, and genders.28 Graphic novels
also may serve as models for the realistic use of
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colloquial phrases and slang terms for new learn
ers of English.29
high school, and college students, and how it
He also discusses the use of Maus, specifically how
other teachers have drawn on its themes in differ
There are numerous examples of graphic novels
being used in middle and high school curricula.
Leckbee uses the Art Spiegelman graphic novel
Maus as part of a unit she teaches on the Holo
serves as a metaphor for the onset of adolescence,
leading to lengthy discussions at all class levels.35
ent subject areas.36 He notes that Barbara Brown
used panels that discussed and portrayed racism
to facilitate an analysis of race relations in William
Faulkner’s Light in August and in the students’ day
to day lives.37 Andrea Freud Loewenstein used
in Austin, Texas. The students are given a “bro Maus to explain hostility between the African Ca
chure assignment” where they are asked to put ribbean and Lubavitcher Jewish communities in
caust in her English classes at Akins High School
themselves in the shoes of one of the characters;
the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.38
they are to follow that character, draw compari
sons and similarities to their own lives, and write
In addition to teaching in the K-12 system, Carter
diary entries for that character that are based on
also is a college instructor in English education.
He has used graphic novels in the context of vo
cabulary, composition, and comprehension for
events in the book. The purpose of this assign
ment is to bring the Holocaust experience closer younger students, and he imparts those lessons to
to the student.30 She also teaches a section on his licensure students?altering their notions and
compassion using the graphic novel Family Mat definitions of literacy?and teaches them how to
ter written by Will Eisner paired with John Stein use graphic novels in the classroom.39
beck’s novel Of Mice and Men, and she uses tra
Carter recommends three approaches for Eng
ditional superhero comics to illustrate the Hero lish teachers who want to incorporate graphic nov
els into their classes. One is the cross-curricular
Cycle and demonstrate the concepts of genre
and subgenre. Leckbee points out that graphic
novels present opportunities to examine differ
ent types of reading. For example, the Japanese
style known as Manga is read from bottom right
approach, pairing with a history or social studies
class and using titles that discuss political or social
issues.40 Another approach is the use of graphic
novels to complement traditional texts to enhance
to upper left, the exact opposite of traditional comprehension and analysis?one could link Na
thaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with Kath
English panel comics. She gave her students a
Arnoldi’s The Amazing True Story of a Single
“multiple intelligences project” to carry out on
a graphic novel of their choosing; the students Teenage Mom; or assign Ralph Ellison’s Invisible
could then consider how they are written, the Man with the comic Truth: Red, White and Black, a
artistic method, and the author’s aim.31
Frey and Fisher documented their experi
ences using graphic novels as well as other popu
reimagining of the Captain America saga where the
formula that made Steve Roger into a superhero
was first tested on African American soldiers and
lar media while teaching a ninth-grade writing that the first captain was a black man.41 The third
course in a primarily urban setting. They began approach is to use “contact zone theory”; in this,
by using Will Eisner’s work New York: The Big teachers and students are asked to look at current
events and controversial topics from a variety of
City as a group reading, showing visual storytell
ing techniques and coming up with descriptors viewpoints and belief systems and then engage
in a discussion utilizing those views; Carter has
while discussing the work. The students were
then told to write the story they saw, resulting in used novels by Alan Moore to discuss terrorism
many interpretations and responses.32 Encour and September 11, and Chris Ware to explore the
concept of family.42
aged, they continued this method of instruction
Ian Carlson uses comics in his Advanced Place
with more graphic novel excerpts, teaching ways
English classes. He begins his graphic nov
to indicate speech, convey “shades of meaning,”
and effectively express several ideas within just a els sections by first showing them an image from
a graphic novel outside the context of the novel
couple of sentences.33 This method of “scaffolding”
itself, and asks the students their observations.
writing projects was useful in giving the students
questions he posits are comparable to those
opportunities to hone their writing craft leading
in traditional literary analysis, and once the
up to their ending project, an original illustrated
make that connection, they are given the
narrative using original art and photographs they
took themselves.34
full graphic novel (or passage) from which the im
Carter recounts teaching Ultimate Spider-Man
Volume 1: Power and Responsibility to middle school,
age was taken, which leads to further discussion
and analysis.43
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Graphic Novels in Curriculum and Instruction Collections
The use of graphic novels is not limited to
English writing and literature courses. Craw
ford recommends graphic novels as supplemental
reading to help meet social studies standards: “A
central purpose of social studies is to promote
civic competence and provide young people with
Selection criteria for a graphic novel collection
geared toward supporting curriculum and instruc
tion programs will be somewhat different from
the criteria used for a collection for recreational
informed citizens.”44 The National Council of So
or special collections/historical use. Materials in
an educational collection will be used to famil
cial Studies (NCSS) developed a set of standards
for teachers to meet that purpose?they are ten
themed multidisciplinary subjects that include
either required or supplemental reading and for
constructing lesson plans. For starters, collection
the necessary skills and knowledge to become
iarize student teachers with graphic novels as
social sciences, humanities, and hard sciences. Two
development librarians should read the K-12
of those NCSS standards are “Individual Develop education literature, specifically looking for lesson
ment and Identity” and “Power, Authority and plans based on graphic novels, and learn not only
Governance.”45 Crawford suggests titles that aim what graphic novel titles are being utilized in the
classroom, but how they are being utilized. In ad
for those standards, including novels dealing with
war, bigotry, homophobia, HIV, anti-Semitism, and dition to graphic novels themselves, supplemental
materials such as books and websites containing
identity issues.46
The idea of using graphic novels within cur specific lesson plans or traditional texts that pair
riculum also is expanding beyond the K-12 com well with graphic books should be considered.
Michael Lavin, in a 1998 Serials Review article,
munity. Universities are adopting graphic novels
in different ways, from summer reading programs
to composition courses. In March 2008, Louisiana
offered ten basic rules for collection development
librarians to consider when selecting graphic nov
State University announced that their Summer
els for a collection. These rules were broad and
Reading Program selection, a suggested book for
incoming freshmen in addition to other students,
geared toward general collections, but some of his
faculty, and staff, would be a graphic novel. Mar
jane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis, an autobi
ography about the author’s childhood in Iran after
the 1979 Islamic revolution, was chosen by a com
mittee of more than twenty faculty and students. A
faculty member said that one intention of choosing
a graphic novel was precisely because it was differ
criteria (such as suitability, age level, genre, and
awards received) can specifically be tailored for
curriculum and instruction collections.51 Lavin’s
suggestions can be combined with those from Lyga
and Lyga?they also list grade, reading level, age
appropriateness, and suitability as key guidelines
in selecting titles.52 Many graphic novels are geared
toward students in middle and high school, and
ent, and that “that’s part of reading in college and
learning to read different texts.”47
certain concepts or plot points that aren’t consid
ered explicit in the written word, may seem more
cess of using graphic novels in the classroom,
els Core Collection database includes notations
In addition to anecdotal evidence of the suc
scientific data is supporting the value in using the
format. Research studies have been conducted to
determine the effectiveness of graphic novels’ use:
so when illustrated.53 H.W Wilson’s Graphic Nov
in the abstracts indicating appropriateness for
certain ages and the presence of adult language,
violence, and sexual themes or images.54 The qual
Young’s study of test scores and graphic novels
ity of the graphic novel also is an important trait to
previously discussed is just one example.48 Mallia
consider?both writing and artistic quality should
conducted experiments to determine if “comics
be examined, and reputation of the author or il
could be a cognitive tool as effective as text and
illustrated text” by making three different render
ings of the same story: a version with only text,
one with a few illustrations to complement the
text, and one in a traditional paneled comic style.49
Thirty students each were given the text-only text
with-illustration, or comic versions and then asked
a series of questions to test their recall, retention,
and comprehension of the story; the data analyzed
showed no significant difference in the test scores
and that the comic version was just as effective in
conveying the story as the two more traditional
lustrator and awards also may be factors.55 Subject
matter and curricular connections in particular
are of extreme importance to a curriculum and
instruction collection.56 Consider the popularity
of the title in question in lesson plans and school
media centers.
Some appropriate selection tools are specifi
cally recommended to educators. Daniel Barron, in
a 1991 article, suggests materials to teachers who
want to incorporate comics into their lesson plans,
such as articles on the use of comics and graphic
novels in teaching reading comprehension, cul
tural criticism, and promotion of nongraphic ma
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in the past suggested going to local comic book
specialty stores and comic publishers; however,
now vendors such as Baker and Taylor, Brodart,
toons and Comics in the Classroom: A Reference for
and Ingram include graphic novels in their of
Teachers and Librarians, which includes techniques
to further cultural, informational, and functional
ferings and may even be able to provide MARC
literacy and creative thinking in subjects such as
records for cataloging and access.66 Academic
“economics, Latin and French, science, writing,
vendors like Blackwell and YBP also are feeling
art, and history,” and ways that comics can be used increasing demand for graphic novels from their
academic clients (YBP customers can go through
to teach special-needs students.58
There are many tools available on the Web and Baker and Taylor).67 Blackwell reports that it can
through paid subscription databases to assist in create approval profiles for graphic novels from
its own subject code or Library of Congress Code
selecting graphic novel titles. H.W Wilson offers
its Graphic Novels Core Collection subscription Z692.67; there are currently no selection lists
based on award winners (the Eisners, Harveys,
database to public libraries, colleges, universities,
Ignatzs, etc.) or YALSAs Great Graphic Novels for
and school media centers. It includes approxi
mately two thousand suggested titles with brief Teens list.68 But those award and recommendation
lists can serve as practical selection tools when or
descriptions, annotations, partial reviews, awards,
and images, and the entries are searchable “by dering. Diamond Comic Distributors works with
author, title, subject, genre and grade [or read book vendors and sells directly to school libraries,
ing] level.”59 Graphic Novels Core Collection was maintaining a website specific to schools (http://
named one of the “10 Best Digital Resources” by that, in addition
terials. Many of these materials are very relevant
today.57 He also recommends Jim Thomas’s Car
School Library Journal in 2008.60 Reviews of graphic
novel titles also are available in publications such
as School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Li
brary Journal, and Teacher Librarian?these and
other titles are indexed in H.W Wilson’s Library
Literature and Information Science Full Text and
EBSCO’s Library, Information Science and Tech
nology Abstracts (LISTA).61 Articles recommending
both print and online resources also are plentiful
in the literature.62
Several free resources are available online to aid
in the selection of graphic novels and supporting
materials, including research and subject guides
to ordering information, contains reviews and les
son plans for educators.69
Graphic novels have become mainstream and are
gaining increasing acceptance in the academy In
the last twenty years the literature in support of
graphic novels in academic collections has grown,
and the reasoning behind such collections has be
come more complex. What was once disregarded
as a lower form of literature has evolved into pop
culture artifact, then into a tool to lure the reluc
from university library webpages. These guides in
clude recommended review sites, discussion lists,
tant reader, and now a medium to increase literacy,
graphic novels also should contain supplemental
materials, including reference books. Lesson plans
are included in Lyga and Lyga’s Graphic Novels in
Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide, and a few
sample lesson plans can be found in education
novels may be included in state textbook plans
and curriculum standards. As school districts,
comprehension, knowledge, and creative thinking.
publishers, and bibliographies.63 The discussion Perhaps the realization that there are different ways
of learning has contributed to this rethinking of
list GNLIB: Graphic Novels in Libraries, is a good
way to stay current with graphic novels news and the graphic novel. As the literature shows, more
network with other librarians who use them.64 A teachers are discovering graphic novels and incor
curriculum and instruction collection that includes porating them into their lessons. Someday graphic
journals such as Knowledge Quest, English Journal,
the Journal of Basic Writing, and Instructor. Carter,
educators, and school librarians promote the use
of graphic novels as part of the K-12 curriculum,
academic libraries need to be adding graphic nov
els and supporting reference materials specifically
to their curriculum and instruction collections as
however, says there is a “dearth of essays on spe
well as provide outreach, collaboration, and in
cific graphic novel titles in . . . journals” and that
“more teachers and scholars need to publish lesson
struction opportunities to provide for the training
of future educators.
plans and articles on their experiences with these
books and recommend other acceptable titles as
they try them.”65
When it comes to sources for purchasing
graphic novels, much of the literature offerings
1. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
(New York: HarperPerennial, 1994): 139-40.
2. Francesca Goldsmith, Graphic Novels Now: Building,
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Graphic Novels in Curriculum and Instruction Collections
Managing, and Marketing a Dynamic Collection (Chi
cago: ALA, 2005): 86.
Novels, Anime, and the Internet in an Urban High
School,” English Journal 93 no. 3 (Jan. 2004): 20-21.
3. Jodi Leckbee, “I Got Graphic! Using Visual Literature
Works!” Young Adult Library Services 3, no. 4 (Summer
2005): 30.
33. Ibid., 21-22.
34. Ibid., 23-24.
35. Carter, “Transforming English with Graphic Novels,”
4. “Cred for Comics,” School Library Journal 54 no. 6
Qun. 2008): 16.
5. Lorena O’English, J. Gregory Matthews, and Eliza
beth Blakesley Lindsay, “Graphic Novels in Academic
Libraries: From Maus to Manga and Beyond,” Journal
of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 2 (Mar. 2006): 179.
6. Robyn Young, “A Collaborative Effort: Importance of
the Relationship Between School Libraries and The
University,” Indiana Libraries 25, no. 3 (2006): 16.
7. Virginia Kay Williams and Damen V Peterson,
“Graphic Novels in Libraries Supporting Teacher Edu
cation and Librarianship Programs,” Library Resources
and Technical Services 53 no. 3 Quy 2009): 166-73.
8. Allison A. W Lyga and Barry Lyga, Graphic Novels
in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide (Westport,
Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2004): 11.
9. Gretchen E. Schwarz, “Graphic Novels for Multiple
Literacies,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46,
no. 3 (Nov. 2002): 263.
10. Dale Allender, “Popular Culture in the Classroom,”
English Journal 93 no. 3 (Jan. 2004): 13.
11. Mary Jane Heaney “Graphic Novels: A Sure Bet for
Your Library,” Collection Building 26 no. 3 (2007): 72.
12. Katherine T. Bucher and M. Lee Manning, “Bringing
Graphic Novels into a School’s Curriculum,” Clearing
House 78 no. 2 (Nov./Dec. 2004): 67.
13. Angelle Barbazon, “University Selects Graphic Novel
for Summer Reading,” The Daily Reveille, Mar. 28,
2008, 4.
14. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
36. Ibid., 51.
37. Barbara Brown, “Pairing William Faulkner’s Light in
August and Art Spiegelman’s Maus,” in Making Ameri
can Literatures in High School and College, ed. Anne
Ruggles Gere and Peter Shaheen (Urbana, IL: National
Council of Teachers of English, 2001): 148-55.
38. Andrea Freud Loewenstein, “Confronting Stereotypes:
Maus in Crown Heights,” College English 60, no. 4
(Apr. 1998): 396-420.
39. Carter, “Transforming English with Graphic Novels,”
40. Ibid., 51.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid., 51-52
43. Ian Carlson, “Graphic Novels in the Classroom,”
School Librarians Workshop (special supplement) 29,
no. 1 (2008): 22-23.
44. Phillip Crawford, “Beyond Maus: Using Graphic Nov
els to Support Social Studies Standards,” Knowledge
Quest 31, no. 4 (Mar./Apr. 2003): 41.
45. National Council for the Social Studies, “Ten The
matic Strands in Social Studies,” 2002, http://www (accessed Jan. 4,
46. Crawford, “Beyond Maus,” 41.
47. Barbazon, “University Selects Graphic Novel for Sum
mer Reading,” 4.
48. Young, “A Collaborative Effort,” 16.
49. Gorg Mallia, “Learning from the Sequence: The Use
of Comics in Instruction,” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary
15. Terry Thompson, “Embracing Reluctance When
Comics Studies 3, no. 3 (2007),
Classroom Teachers Shy Away from Graphic Books,”
Library Media Connection 25, no. 4 (Jan. 2007): 29.
16. Leckbee, “1 Got Graphic,” 31.
Apr. 28, 2008).
imagetext/archives/v3_3/mallia/index.shtml (accessed
50. Ibid.
17. Schwarz, “Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies,”
51. Lavin, “Comic Books and Graphic Novels for Librar
ies,” 43.
18. Michael R. Lavin, “Comic Books and Graphic Novels
for Libraries: What to Buy” Serials Review 24 no. 2
(Summer 1998): 32.
52. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
19. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
54. Dan Firrincili, The Wilson Core Collections, 9 min., 15
53. Ibid.
sec; WilsonWeb Learning Center, Adobe Captivate,
20. Thompson, “Embracing Reluctance,” 29.
21. Heaney, “Graphic Novels,” 74; Leckbee, “I Got
Graphic,” 30.
22. Thompson, “Embracing Reluctance,” 29.
23. Maureen Mooney “Graphic Novels for the Elementary
School Audience,” Library Media Connection 23 no. 4
(Jan. 2005): 20.
24. Schwarz, “Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies,”
25. Leckbee, “I Got Graphic,” 30.
26. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
training/Demos/Core/Core_demo.htm (accessed June
30, 2009).
55. Lavin, “Comic Books and Graphic Novels for Librar
ies,” 43.
56. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
57. Daniel D. Barron, “Zap! Pow! Wham!: Comics,
Graphic Novels, and Education,” School Library Media
Activities Monthly 8, no. 3 (Nov. 1991): 50.
27. Schwarz, “Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies,”
58. Barron, “Zap! Pow! Wham!” 48.
59. Shonda Brisco, “Are Graphic Novels Giving You a
Headache?” School Library Journal 54, no. 3 (Mar.
28. James Bucky Carter, “Transforming English with
60. Shonda Brisco, “10 Best Digital Resources,” School
Graphic Novels: Moving Toward Our ‘Optimus
Prime,'” English Journal 97, no. 2 (Nov. 2007): 50.
29. Thompson, “Embracing Reluctance,” 29.
30. Leckbee, “I Got Graphic,” 30-31.
31. Ibid., 31.
32. Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, “Using Graphic
2008): 93.
Library Journal 54, no. 5 (May 2008): 54-55.
61. Hollis Margaret Rudiger, “Graphic Novels: Resources,”
Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Educa
tion, University of Wisconsin-Madison, www.educa (accessed
Apr. 28, 2008).
volume 49, issue 2 I 187
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62. Leslie Bussert, “Comic Books and Graphic Novels:
Digital Resources for an Evolving Form of Art and
Literature,” College & Research Libraries News 66, no.
2 (Feb. 2005): 103-06, 113; Anne Behler, “Getting
Started with Graphic Novels: A Guide for the Begin
ner,” Reference & User Services Quarterly 46, no. 2
(Winter 2006): 16-21.
63. Rudiger, “Graphic Novels: Resources”; Karen Green,
“Columbia University’s Graphic Novels Page,” Colum
bia University Libraries,
eguides/graphic_novels/index.html (accessed Oct.
24, 2008); Diane Schrecker, “Graphic Novels Lib
Guide,” Ashland (Ohio) University Libraries, http://lib
guides. ashland. edu/content. php?pid=2 5 787&hs=w
(accessed Dec. 12, 2008).
64. GNLIB: Graphic Novels In Libraries, www.angelfire
65. Carter, “Transforming English with Graphic Novels,”
66. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
67. “LES Collections Discussion Group,” rec. Faye Chris
tenberry 2008 American Library Association Annual
Conference, Anaheim, California, http://literatures
inenglish. pb works. com/f/Collections+Discussion+2 0
08+Annual+.pdf (accessed Oct. 8, 2009).
68. Ryan O’Connor, e-mail message to author, July 2,
2009; Young Adult Library Services Association,
“Great Graphic Novels for Teens,” American Library
Association, (accessed May 4,
69. Lyga and Lyga, Graphic Novels in Your Media Center,
105; Rudiger, “Graphic Novels: Resources,” 2.
.com/comics/gnlib (accessed April 28, 2008).
188 | Reference & User Services Quarterly
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How Stories Argue: The Deep Roots of Storytelling in Political Rhetoric
Author(s): Andrew Leslie
Source: Storytelling, Self, Society , Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 66-84
Published by: Wayne State University Press
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Storytelling, Self, Society
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How Stories Argue
The Deep Roots of Storytelling in Political Rhetoric
Andrew Leslie
Storytelling has long been an important part of both campaigning and
creating and maintaining community. However, the relationship between
stories and rational argument has been problematic in the study of public
moral debate. The question remains unsettled: How do stories argue? How
do stories have a persuasive role in political rhetoric? Rather than the view
that narrative reasoning is based in a different paradigm of reasoning, I
argue that the persuasive use of stories goes back to early rhetorical training
and that stories have always been used along with rhetorical argument as
part of persuasive discourse. Vladimir Propp’s work on the morphology
of folk- and fairy tales demonstrates that stories use topics, or topoi, in a
manner similar to those used to generate lines of argument in rhetoric. I
offer four aspects of narrative that affect the persuasive reception of stories:
performance, adaptation, context, and iconicity. These aspects of rhetorical
storytelling, combined with the topoi of the story, give us a new analytical
framework for evaluating the persuasive potential of political storytelling.
It was said in the old days that every year Thor made a circle around Middle
Earth, beating back the enemies of order. Thor got older every year, and the
circle occupied by gods and men grew smaller. The wisdom god, ‘Woden,’ went
out to the king of the trolls, got him in an arm lock, and demanded to know of
Storytelling, Self, Society, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2015), pp. 66–84. Copyright © 2016 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 48201
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Leslie n 67
him how order might triumph over chaos.
“Give me your left eye,” said the king of the trolls, “and I’ll tell you.”
Without hesitation, Woden gave up his left eye. “Now tell me.”
The troll said, “The secret is, Watch with both eyes!”1
he author and critic John Gardner used this mythic anecdote as an allegory
of art and criticism. The artist and critic beat back the forces of chaos, but
those multiply while Thor’s hammer gets heavier to wield every year. In On
Moral Fiction, Gardner uses the hammer on postmodern writers such as William
Gass for spending their talents on fiction that glories only in self-referential irony,
undercutting characters and themes that might strike an ethical chord in their
audience—that might, in short, have a persuasive moral effect.
There has been much speculation over the years about how stories function
persuasively, that is, how they argue. That stories, or to use the more academic
term “narratives,” have persuasive impact has long been understood.2 Yet the
relationship of stories to rational argument structures has to date been rather
muddled. There are a number of ways to approach this relationship, which I
explore in this essay.
There is also broad agreement that narrative is important in politics, though
just exactly how may be somewhat uncertain. In its recent preliminary analysis
of the 2014 election, the Democratic Party found that, while their policies find
favor with the American people, the Republicans create a better narrative, which
makes them more attractive. Thus the analysis suggests the creation of a “national
narrative project” that will “create a strong values-based national narrative that
will engage, inspire, and motivate voters to identify with and support Democrats”
(“Democratic National Committee”). Narrative seems to be the balm in Gilead
that will heal all political ills.
Stories have long been used for persuasive intent, yet the relationship of narrative to argument in public moral debate has remained unsettled. How do stories
argue? This essay addresses that question starting from Walter Fisher’s influential
essay “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm.” Fisher, drawing from
Kenneth Burke, posits two dimensions of judgment that audiences use in evaluating whether narratives offer “good reasons” for the action or motives depicted
in the story. Fisher suggests that narrative is a different way of reasoning from
rational argument: a paradigm of its own. In contrast, I argue that the persuasive
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68 n How Stories Argue
use of stories goes back to early rhetorical training and that stories have always
been used along with rhetorical argument as part of persuasive discourse. Vladimir
Propp’s work on the morphology of folk- and fairy tales demonstrates that stories
use topics, or topoi, in a manner similar to those used to generate lines of argument
in rhetoric. Extending Fisher’s analysis, I offer four other aspects of narrative that
affect the persuasive reception of stories: performance, adaptation, context, and
iconicity. These aspects of rhetorical storytelling, combined with the topoi of the
story, give us a new analytical framework for evaluating the persuasive potential
of political storytelling.
Narrative, Community, and Politics
Narrative is broadly seen to be necessary to forming and maintaining community. For Hannah Arendt, the connection between individual consciousness and
the public of the community is through shared narrative. It is the storyteller, as
historian, who makes public the stories by which the members of a community
understand themselves as a we, a body politic. For the ancient Greeks, the stories
of a heroic past served as a model for the virtues of civic life. Alistair MacIntyre
rejects modernistic subjectivity through an appeal to Aristotelian virtue, in which
communal values are sustained by public narratives that tell us the nature of the
good. The philosopher Jean-François Lyotard abandons any hope of progress
through politics and rejects the meta-narratives espoused by MacIntyre as hegemonic domination. For Lyotard, the postmodern condition means the celebration
of subjectivity through personal stories rather than the communal narratives of
the polis.
Jürgen Habermas contradicts this purely negative critique, demonstrating a
belief in the possibility of a politics that can achieve understanding and consensus
about crucial issues through ethical discussion. Although he focuses on rational
argument, Habermas implies a constructive role for aesthetics and, by implication,
for stories. A story may serve to thematize an issue: that is, to make an issue visible
to a community—to frame it in such a way that it can become the subject of
public debate and argument. Habermas explains modern alienation in terms of a
decoupling of people’s lived experience, their lifeworld, from the abstract rational
systems that steer society, such as the law. Stories are a natural way that people
relate and understand their experiences; thematization is a way of connecting
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Leslie n 69
stories to rational argument. An example of the power of thematization was the
1984 movie The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett. Based on a true story, it
depicted a battered woman who burned her husband to death in their bed while
he was passed out from drinking. The movie appeared during a period when some
legal theorists were advocating reform of the rules for pleading self-defense in
cases where a woman killed her husband or boyfriend, even though that person
did not have a weapon and was not immediately threatening the woman’s life.
It no doubt contributed to making public issues of domestic violence for those
who were not reading the more technical arguments in law journals (Dowd, 570).
This brief background merely underscores the complex relationship of narrative to rational argumentation. No review of the rhetorical role of narrative
would be complete, however, without mentioning the theorist Kenneth Burke.
Burke took drama as the foundational metaphor for rhetorical action because
the study of drama allows us to understand the motives behind discourse. His
dramatistic “method” allows us to unpack the hidden motives of ontological
systems and the discourses generated by them. Drawing on Burke’s insights,
Walter Fisher published an essay thirty years ago titled “Narration as a Human
Communication Paradigm.” Fisher sought to show that stories also engage in
offering an audience good reasons for the actions and motives depicted within
the story, although these reasons are grounded differently from those offered in
rational arguments. The persuasive aspect of stories, according to Fisher, lies in
two areas of judgment: whether the narrative arc of the story seems coherent and
probable (coherence), and whether it seems to correspond with other narratives
or experiences: fidelity. One important focus of Fisher’s narrative theory is that
judgment is placed squarely with the audience. In this the narrative paradigm is
in agreement with theories of rhetorical argument: that storytelling is an audience-centered art. If the story seems believable to an audience, then the motives
and reasons for human action depicted within it will constitute “good reasons”
that function persuasively like arguments. Fisher’s narrative theory inspired much
scholarship on narrative in the field of communication studies and resituated the
relationship between narrative and argument as a sort of separate-but-equal set
of intertwined grounds of authority.
Fisher’s work also raises problems for understanding the persuasiveness
of stories, however. The attractiveness of narrative as paradigm derived from
Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigmatic shifts in knowledge following new scientific discoveries. Fisher’s adoption of the idea of a paradigm ignores the long
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70 n How Stories Argue
history of the persuasive use of stories in the teaching of rhetoric. Everyone I know
can tell stories and make arguments interchangeably; why would the grounds
of believability for stories constitute a different paradigm from the grounds of
argument? Here we get to the philosophical nub of the issue. Fisher’s idea of
Homo narrans, people as storytelling beings, as the root metaphor for defining
humanity, is a very attractive one. Certainly storytelling is one of the oldest uses
of language, and it is a natural capacity of all people. Propositional logic, which
Fisher takes to be the heart of the “rational world paradigm,” must be learned.
What is at stake in comparing these two “paradigms” is the nature of rationality
itself. Fisher notes that “humans as rhetorical beings are as much valuing as they
are reasoning animals” (emphasis his) and that reasoning “may be discovered in
all sorts of symbolic action—discursive as well as non-discursive” (1). Reason,
in short, is broader than rationality. This has been a long-standing principle in
the teaching of rhetoric. For Aristotle, rhetoric was an art directed to general
audiences about matters of human action, which differentiated it from the more
specific forms of what today we would call “scientific” or “philosophical” discourse
that rely on strict propositional logic. When we discuss politics, the grounds of
arguments are certainly not restricted to strict propositional logic: appeals to
the audience are based on emotions, on character, and on popular beliefs. Even
Fisher’s opposition of values to rationality does not ring true: We express and
evaluate values in arguments just as we do in stories. The notion of narrative being
a different, although equal, paradigm of understanding from argumentation thus
seems a bit strained.
If we leave parts of Fisher’s paradigm behind, he still offers us two useful
principles of judgment for gauging the persuasiveness of stories: coherence and
fidelity. In the next section of this essay, I explore the connection of these two
principles with the classical practice of rhetoric and with the source of their
inspiration, the Russian theorists of discourse, particularly Vladimir Propp. But
in so doing, I do not want to lose sight of the central philosophical issue: In considering the discursive practices of politics, how is the polis/public/community
constructed through discourse, and how can reasons derived from the rhetorical
use of stories serve as justifications for action? If we see that stories and arguments
interact in the public imagination, thereby constituting “good reasons” for action,
we will be closer to understanding how narrative functions persuasively.
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Leslie n 71
The Topoi of the Storyteller
In a seminar at Northwestern University taught by Lee Roloff, more years ago
than I care to remember, I proposed in a short paper that storytelling depends on
topoi, just as does classical rhetorical argument. The concept of topoi, or topics,
is itself a rather difficult one. The first confusion comes from our colloquial use
of topic and subject interchangeably. Topical invention is used to generate things
to say, or lines of argument, concerning a subject. Numerous systems of topical
invention have been created across the history of rhetoric. General topics are
called commonplaces (koinos topos or locus communus), although the meaning
of “place” is problematic: It could mean a conceptual space, such as that created
by asking a question of the subject, or a place in memory (akin to accessing
a computer file), or a metaphorical place, such as imagining a place where all
matters of degree could be contained. Commonplaces are generic materials used
for creating specific discourses.
In classical rhetorical education, students were taught to compose a number
of different genres, and each genre had topics particular to it. For example, for an
encomium—a speech of praise (typically of a person)—the topics include origin
and birth, nurture and education, accomplishments and deeds, and comparison
with others. These topics are further divided; for example, deeds are composed of
deeds of the body, deeds of the soul, and deeds of fortune. Because the encomium
is a speech of praise, these topics can be interpreted as virtues: physical virtues
(e.g., strength and beauty), intangible virtues (wit, courage), and virtues of luck
(fame, wealth, friends, children, a good death). Furthermore, these topics were
deployed in order, so that they became the arrangement for explaining a life. Some
of the genres taught were basically stories, such as anecdote (chreia), narrative,
fable, and maxim. Aristotle listed maxim as a logical proof but had little to say
about it except that it should only be used by someone of advanced age, since
wise sayings are more credible from elders. What is often forgotten about maxims
is that they are usually morals taken from stories, particularly from fables such
as Aesop’s. The story itself may be long forgotten. How many times have people
called something “sour grapes” without knowing the fable of the fox and the bunch
of grapes? Composing an anecdote was usually based on a famous saying or action;
the anecdote would illustrate the validity of the saying or action. A narrative was
a story that would move the content of the speech forward: It was supposed to
be concise, persuasive, and perceptive and demonstrate good (clever, engaging)
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72 n How Stories Argue
style. A fable was a story ending with a definite moral. All of these story forms
were intended to be deployed persuasively in conjunction with arguments to
make a convincing overall composition.
How are these rhetorical topics related to other kinds of stories, those not
composed for rhetorical effect? In answer, I turn to the work of Vladimir Propp.
Russian and Eastern European theorists, including Mikhail Bakhtin and Tzvetan
Todorov, had a tremendous influence on twentieth-century theories of narrative.
Propp’s analysis of the morphology of folktales focused on two dimensions:
syuzhet and fabula. These are usually translated as “theme” and “motif.” They come
from the French sujet (subject) and Latin fabula (fable). This dichotomy, like many
similar dichotomies of discourse (e.g., langue/parole; syntax/semantics; énoncé/
enunciation, etc.), has entered into the study of narrative in some confusing ways.
Following Bordwell, syuzhet is thought of as plot while fabula is considered the
story being represented, that is, the “backstory,” or the implications of events not
depicted. Theme and motif make the use of these concepts plainer: Motifs are the
elements of plots, whereas the theme is the sequential ordering of these elements.
Propp’s insight into traditional stories was this: Whereas different versions
of a story may use different motifs, the order in which those motifs are deployed
stays the same. One can think of the stereotype of Broadway musicals: boy finds
girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. The motifs can be varied—for example,
girl finds boy, girl finds girl, boy finds boy—but these elements must follow the
same order because to have the girl lose the girl before she first finds her will
violate the principle of coherence. The fabula are then often misinterpreted as the
“real” story being represented, but this is to make a leap of inference. The motifs
themselves must correspond either to experiences the audience has had in the
world—meeting one’s eventual spouse, for example—or to other stories that are
stored in public memory. The link is thus not necessarily to events in the world
but to conventions of narrative that are accepted as plausible. It becomes apparent
that Propp’s categories of theme and motif map neatly onto Fisher’s dimensions
of coherence and fidelity. What may be less apparent is that the motifs, which
Propp called “functions,” are a set of topics applied to traditional narratives.
For example, many fairy stories include a transformation made by a magical
object. There are many different such objects with different specific effects, but
the magical transformation is like a topos, an inventive resource that can generate
many different specific plot turns. Themes are arrangements of topics, very similar
to the example of the encomium given above.
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Leslie n 73
While arguments often use examples or stories as support, many stories use
oratory to make a point. Most movie dramas and stage plays rely on a scene in
which the hero/heroine makes a speech that relays the central message of the
drama. One notable example is that of Euripides’ Trojan Women. First produced
in 415 BCE, the play depicts the fates of four noble women who have become
slaves of their Achaean victors. Each woman gives a speech lamenting her fate
from her own perspective. Andromache, the loyal wife of Hector, is concerned
for her honor—she has always striven to be the model wife and mother, and
now that she has lost her husband and is about to lose her son, she still worries
about how to uphold her dignity as property of a new man. Cassandra raves with
mad joy at the fate she foresees: the murder of her captor and herself by his wife
Clytemnestra. Helen blames everyone else for her fate and attempts to seduce
her husband Menelaus now that he has recaptured her. Treating her captors with
fine contempt while threatened with death, she alone escapes a horrible fate.
Hecuba, wife of the dead king Priam, saves her anger for Helen, blaming her for
Troy’s catastrophe and demanding her death. Each woman represents a type: the
conventional wife, the prophetess, the seducer, and the wise and noble queen.
The play is widely seen as Euripides’ commentary on the tragedy of war, written
in reaction to Athens’s callous destruction of their erstwhile ally Milos earlier in
that year. Rather than directly criticizing the leadership of Athens, Euripides uses
a classical story from the mythical past to show the horrors of their actions; the
speeches of these Trojan women mirror the oratorical practice of agora—from
which, ironically, all women were excluded.3
Another rhetorical use of stories is as exemplars: analogies to the present
case. A pre-eminent example is Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli’s masterwork
is often interpreted as the first modern treatise of political theory. It would be
more fitting to call it the first handbook for “spin-doctoring.” Machiavelli offers
the prince of a “new state” (a republic) advice on how to govern, in large part
through managing his image. As evidence for his advice he offers many examples,
little stories, drawn from the ancient past and from contemporaneous politics.
Furthermore, The Prince is constructed very much like a rhetorical handbook,
often with paired topics for debate—as if for student exercises. For example, in
chapter 17 Machiavelli sets a debate as to whether it is better for a leader to be
feared than to be loved. In typical fashion, his answer is: It depends on the context.
It is desirable to be loved but more reliable to be feared as long as it does not
inspire hatred. His example is that of Hannibal waging war against Rome; his men
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74 n How Stories Argue
loved him because of both his valor and his cruelty, yet without cruelty his other
virtues would not have sufficed. He compares Hannibal to Scipio, the general who
defeated him, as an example of a general with many fine qualities but who lacked
cruelty, being too generous to his underlings. This was Scipio’s downfall, as the
insubordination of his officers led to his recall (Machiavelli 132–33). These little
stories allow Machiavelli to tailor his political advice to particular circumstances,
which was no doubt a result of his own rhetorical training.
If the elements of narrative provide topics that can be used persuasively,
then we have the foundation for an understanding of how stories argue. In the
following section I set out some key elements for persuasive storytelling and offer
examples of stories that have had political impact.
The Argumentative Dimensions of Narrative in Politics
As I mentioned above, one of the most persuasive aspects of stories is that they
help us understand the motives for action. Following Burke, the principle mechanism connecting the audience to the characters’ motives is identification. It
has been argued that Burke adopts identification from Freud (Wright), but it
seems just as likely to me that he hit on the concept from his reading of George
H. Mead. For Mead, identification was a key process of empathy that is the basis
of the communicative gesture. One person’s gesture elicits a response from the
other; in the context of stories, the relationship of story to audience is dialogic:
The listener identifies with the intention or motive of the gesture and responds
appropriately (I am in mind of the Punch and Judy shows, in which the children
are encouraged to cheer or boo in response to the characters’ acts). Theorists of
narrative sometimes seem to forget that stories are performed: Whether written,
told, or enacted, the performative dimension of narrative is crucial—something
equally true of rhetoric.
Of the key dimensions of persuasive storytelling, I first turn to performance.
Following performance, the adaptation of stories from one context to another is
an important consideration, as well as the nature of the specific context. Finally,
some stories or images from stories achieve a certain iconic status: Iconicity is
the final dimension I will address.
The charm of a story is in the telling. With a vast literature on performance
available, I will only stress a couple of points. Performance includes oral, written,
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Leslie n 75
and visual storytelling. Regardless of the medium, the topics of the plot are expressed through gestures: symbolic acts that elicit a sympathetic response from the
audience. The performative aspects of discourse create the tone of the discourse.
Tonality reveals the speaker’s/author’s/character’s attitude toward what is being
presented. It gives the audience cues to a meta-discourse: How are they to judge
what is being presented? Is this text comic, or dramatic, or ironic? Quick twists in
tonality achieve comic effect by surprising the audience’s assumptions. Recently
I heard a comic open his act by saying, “My grandparents have been married
for sixty years.” The audience predictably begins to applaud, at which point he
says, “No, no, not happily!” If the story builds to a slow turn in tonality, it can
produce a sense of dramatic suspense, even horror. What at first appears normal
is gradually perceived to conceal threat. Ironic tonality juxtaposes the speaker’s
depiction of positive or idyllic events with cues to her disdain for those events.
While it is necessary to analyze stories in terms of their formal characteristics, it
is a mistake to ignore the tonality of specific performances of the story, since one
teller may bring a different tone to a story than would another.
Adaptation is another crucial dimension of storytelling. Of course stories are
adapted from one medium to another. Outside of remaining, and dwindling, oral
cultures, most of our interactions with stories are through print. Oral storytelling
largely relies on adaptation of printed stories, as does most visual storytelling. As
Bordwell would put it, the elements of narration are changed to tell the “same”
story. But there is another aspect to adaptation: the audience’s adaptation of the
story to their own uses. The traditions of oral storytelling depend upon people
learning stories from hearing them and retelling them. Stories in print are adapted
from one context and placed in another, giving the story a different salience.
Take the example of the Bluebeard fairy tale genre. Jack Zipes points out that
Bluebeard stories have been adapted thousands of times in various media and to
various purposes, from a basic horror/suspense story to feminist tale. He uses this
dizzyingly prolific tale as an example of the concept of mimetic evolution: cultural
change through imitation. The idea of the meme was coined by Richard Dawkins
as a cultural analogue to the gene. It is supposed to be a “unit” of cultural behavior
which is replicated through imitation. While the meme is an interesting idea, its
use has become overblown and is not necessary to theorize cultural reproduction.
Audiences and storytellers are not imitating stories or motifs; they are interpreting
them and adapting them to various purposes.4 A neglected theory of rhetorical
adaptation would be more useful here: that of Ernst Bormann’s unfortunately
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76 n How Stories Argue
named “fantasy theme analysis.” Bormann posited that stories and metaphors are
adapted by hearers and chained out through retellings and elaborations, much
like the game of telephone. When a story enchants the listener’s imagination it
has an echoing effect as it is passed along. Years before the Internet, Bormann
anticipated the phenomenon of a discourse going “viral” and being mashed up
with other images/texts/discourses. Bormann’s idea of chains of fantasy spreading
across rhetorical space is in accord with Douglas Hofstadter’s notion of theme and
variation as the basis of creative adaptation. We all take themes and motifs from
our experience and adapt them across contexts: It is the very heart of invention.
Although context is perhaps the broadest of concepts, it will be the briefest
here. For persuasive storytelling, the context of the story involves its use for persuasive ends. A story may be included within a persuasive discourse as evidence,
as in the example from Machiavelli above. It may also exist in complementarity
with other discourses, as the movie The Burning Bed existed in popular discourse
alongside psychological discussions of battered woman syndrome and legal discourses about a battered woman defense. It could further be constructed as a
didactic tale in a series of discourses concerning a subject; I offer an example of
such a story below. Context of performance is always important for judging the
persuasive aspect of a story.
Finally I address the dimension of iconicity. An icon is something that represents something else through resemblance, what Nelson Goodman in Languages
of Art called “exemplification.” In language iconicity can function either through
style or through content. One example from Kenneth Burke is the representative
anecdote: a little story that represents a complex situation or attitude. Its iconicity
rests in the resemblance of the story to the set of attitudes it depicts. Barbara Tuchman, in a wonderful article about Speaker of the House and raconteur Thomas
Bracket Reed, relates that in an after-dinner story he claimed he’d had a dream in
which the Constitution had been changed so that the president was to be elected
by the Senate, from among its members. They held the first such election and,
said Reed, “each senator received one vote” (Tuchman 34). A staunch partisan
of the House and critic of the Senate, Reed crystalized his impression of senators
with that story—and many would still agree with him.5 Michael Leff (no small
storyteller himself ) pointed out that style can function iconically, as in an example
from Longinus’s On the Sublime. Longinus uses a passage from Homer to illustrate
stylistic iconicity:
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Leslie n 77
He rushed upon them, as a wave storm driven,
Boisterous beneath black clouds, on a swift ship
Will burst, and all is hidden in the foam;
Meanwhile the wind tears thundering at the mast,
And all hands tremble, pale and sore afraid,
As they are carried from under death.
(qtd. in Leff and Sachs 259)
Leff notes that Longinus explains how the style imitates the experience of the
waves: The wave-like syntax imitates what the words describe (Leff and Sachs
259). In analyzing a political speech by Edmund Burke, Leff demonstrates that
the interplay of style and content opens up a range of persuasion that a purely
rational analysis of argument misses. It illustrates “the power of discourse to blend
form and meaning into local unities that ‘textualize’ the public world and invite
audiences to experience that world as the text represents it” (Leff and Sachs 270).
In short, the iconic dimension of stories affects the audience through showing,
depicting, rather than explaining.
With the elements of motifs and with the dimensions of performance, adaptation, context, and iconicity, we have an adequate theoretical framework
for understanding how stories function persuasively. I now turn to some short
examples of persuasive political storytelling in order to demonstrate the pertinence of this framework.
In American politics, the candidate biography has been a standard of campaigning since early in the republic. The topoi or motifs of the biography are
similar in some ways to those of the encomium. They touch on the ancestry and
parents of the candidate, on her youth and simple hopes and dreams, the challenges that the youth must overcome, military service, preparation for statecraft,
and character traits of a devout citizen. For the nineteenth century, the motif of
birth in a log cabin was de rigueur—regardless of the background of the candidate.
Humble birth generates a thematic line for the everyman: the politician as ideal
citizen. The story of the candidate’s life is not an argument; it is a framing device for
arguments about character and fitness. It may thematize issues that the audience
has experienced.
The 20-minute biographical film made for the 1992 Democratic convention,
The Man from Hope, which told the story of Bill Clinton’s life, utilizes several of
these motifs (Clinton). The log cabin is replaced by a “house with an outhouse.”
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78 n How Stories Argue
His ancestry is touched on—his grandmother and parents. Among the obstacles
faced by the young Clinton is his stepfather’s alcoholism and occasional abuse
of his mother. The most dramatic moment of the story is when the teenaged Bill
confronts his stepfather after one such episode and tells him that he will never
let him do it again. The drama is heightened by the dual telling of the story by
both candidate Bill and his mother in sequential scenes. This performance of
the story by different voices and perspectives increases the heroic quality of the
anecdote. The young man drives supplies into the city of Washington after Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s death and the city “burned”: the motif, briefly deployed, of the
hero’s journey into danger. The courtship with Hillary Rodham and birth of the
princess—or, rather, Chelsea—come next: Bill as father compared with his own
father who died when Bill was an infant and, pointedly, not compared with his
somewhat deficient stepfather.
Finally, the film addresses the most challenging moment of the primary
campaign: the moment when Bill and Hillary were interviewed on 60 Minutes to
dispel the effects of allegations of infidelity by Gennifer Flowers. The interview
had righted the campaign ship, and in the video biography he called it “pretty
painful,” especially since Chelsea had watched the program with her parents.
Bill Clinton relates that he asked Chelsea, “Whattaya think?” and she replies,
“I think I’m glad you’re my parents.”
“After that I knew whatever happens it would be all right,” concludes the
The performative dimension of this motif—it becomes another challenge
faced and overcome—is extraordinary. Just before Bill says “Whattaya think?” he
pauses dramatically to build the tension of the scene; it is masterful storytelling.
The video finally segues into a bit of rhetorical argument: clips from Clinton
campaign speeches. “The hits I’ve took [sic] in this election are nothing compared
to the hits the people of this state and this country are taking every day of their
lives from this administration.”
While the motifs deployed in this short campaign biography are standard
and traditional, the specific stories generated are unique to Clinton’s life. In the
thematic plot, the first moment of crisis—standing up to the alcoholic stepfather—mirrors the tonality of the campaign in which the youthful Clinton was
hammering the older George H. W. Bush: It reprised the conflict of generations
and stood as an iconic representation of principled youth opposing an erring if
kindly elder.6 In Fisher’s terms, the film supplies “good reasons” why Clinton
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Leslie n 79
would make a virtuous president and frames arguments that can be made based
on the principles and virtues he evinced. The motifs of the fairy tale to some
extent fulfill the same functions in the campaign biography: the hero’s journey,
the moment of transformation, a magical inheritance given by a powerful spirit
(Clinton praises Martin Luther King and the “I Have a Dream” speech, which,
Clinton’s brother relates, Bill learned and recited by heart while a teenager). The
elements are adapted to a new context: the political campaign.
Campaign narratives are one context of persuasive political storytelling. There
are many others. I want to briefly mention two. Asymmetrical power differentials
across class and ethnic lines mean that those in subordinate social positions may
not feel that they can make overt claims criticizing the powerful. James C. Scott
studied political dynamics in Malaysia and realized that those who have less power
will say one thing to the face of those in charge and another among their peers.
He calls these “public transcripts” displayed by subordinates in the face of power
and “hidden transcripts” shared only among the poor. He notes that elements of
folk or popular culture can make public acts of ideologic insubordination and
that people draw upon folk materials, gestures, and metaphors to indirectly, and
sometimes directly, manifest criticism of the powerful:
Their members, in effect, select those songs, tales, dances, texts and rituals that
they choose to emphasize, they adopt them for their own use, and they of course
create new cultural practices and artifacts to meet their felt needs. (Scott 157)
Recently in Ferguson, Missouri, a gesture of resistance has achieved iconic status:
“Hands up, don’t shoot.” While not an argument, it visually frames a motif, a
storyline that becomes the basis for making arguments about justice, authority,
and resistance. It is part of a story, abstracted and unelaborated, but clear and
powerful nonetheless. It too offers “good reasons” for action.
Lest we think that narrative always has a positive role in relation to rational
argumentation, it is important to note that it has a dark side. Apocalyptic storytelling has been a powerful engine, especially in the history of Western religions.
Stephen O’Leary argues that the influence of apocalyptic narrative can hardly be
overstated. The principal topoi of apocalyptic eschatology are time and evil: Time
must come to an end, and evil—the suffering of the innocent—must be eradicated
or redeemed at the end of time (O’Leary 31). The motifs of these narratives usually
include a divinely inspired charismatic leader who has a moment of revelation,
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80 n How Stories Argue
evil authority figure(s) who block the path of the righteous and inflict suffering
on the innocent, signs of the end-times, and a final battle between good and evil.
Currently, the group ISIS (Islamic State in Syria) is fighting with fair success
across Syria and Iraq, driven by an apocalyptic narrative to acts of horrific brutality. Malise Ruthven in a post on the New York Review of Books blog describes the
stories of French Muslim parents whose children slip away to join ISIS’s struggle.
Through the stories of these parents we see the anguish and confusion faced by
the families of teenagers who have been seduced by the ISIS narrative.
It is impossible for most of us to understand how there could be any appeal
to a group that commits such barbarous acts, but the appeal of ISIS especially to
some younger European Muslims is manifest. According to Graeme Wood in an
article in the Atlantic, the particular motifs of this apocalyptic narrative include
the proclamation of the Caliphate, which is an area of righteous rule by the true
leader, the chosen one, and which presages the end times and final battle. How is
this narrative persuasive? It may be useful to remember Victor Turner’s model of
interaction between social and ritual drama. In an essay in Critical Inquiry, Turner
described his theory of social stress, threatened schism, and ritual reconciliation
in an African community. He supplied a diagram (see fig. 1) to illustrate a kind of
feedback loop in which fictional dramas supply motives and roles as resources
to social actors, who can then take them up and act out a plot that reifies the
fictional narrative.
Figure 1. Turner 154.
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Leslie n 81
Turner gives us model for understanding how narrative elements interact
with public events to produce a community that understands itself in terms of the
narrative’s thematics.7 Perhaps something similar is driving the persuasiveness
of ISIS’s apocalyptic vision. Turner supplies another way of thinking about Bormann’s fantasy chains: As people take up the roles made available by narrative,
they reenact a story, within their own specific context, that has been enacted by
others in their social sphere.
When we ask how stories argue, we open a complex set of relationships involving
narrative elements and themes, audience judgment, and performative aspects of
telling, making, and adapting stories. Stories can frame or thematize an issue, and
their “good reasons” can open the way for more rational arguments. Stories can
make us more receptive to persuasion—for better and for worse. Although stories
and storytelling have been around, no doubt, since we thought of ourselves as
human beings, there is a new force in world culture that serves as a reservoir of
stories: the Internet. Conspiracy theories and apocalyptic narratives can thrive
within online communities without having to compete in a truly public sphere.
The politics inspired by these stories has dark and sometimes horrific implications.
Yet the Internet is also a conduit for people to share stories that bring us to a better
understanding of ourselves and one another, especially through sharing video
stories—a subject for another day.
Narrative does not stand in opposition to rhetorical argument. Rather, the
two have a complementary relationship going back to the earliest days of rhetorical practice. Storytelling and oratory share a broad spectrum of aesthetics and
rationality in which both are necessary: Both interact to form the basis of human
understanding and political community.
Andrew Leslie is adjunct assistant professor of communication studies at Davidson College
and of communication at Wake Forest University. He is also a storyteller.
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82 n How Stories Argue
1. Gardner 3.
2. I will not here deal with the difference between “narrative” and “stories.” In general,
“narrative” has been considered a term that dominates or overpowers stories, in the
sense that narrative is a scheme that subsumes stories for an overarching purpose.
While this may be an interesting difference, it is not germane to this essay.
3. I am grateful to Professor John Poulakos for these insights into the speeches of the
Trojan Women. Any faults in interpretation are strictly mine.
4. It would be a serious digression to formulate here a criticism of Dawkins’s notions
of both mimetic and genetic evolution. I will simply note that Dawkins’s model of
evolution is based on competition between genes, rather than the standard neoDarwinian model of competition between organisms. To say that stories or motifs,
as memes, compete against one another for successful colonization of cultural
environments seems to me to be an inadequate account of cultural adaptation, which
depends more on variation and recombination than on imitation.
5. Stories by and about Speaker Reed are a favorite of mine. When a Democratic
member of the House was appointed to fill the term of a senator from his state, Reed
bid him farewell on the floor, saying that his appointment would raise the average IQ
of both bodies.
6. I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Thomas Farrell of Northwestern
University, now deceased, who first expressed this interpretation in conversation
back in 1992.
7. My thanks to Meg Zulick for reminding me of Turner’s essay and of its salience to
Arendt, Hannah. “On Hannah Arendt.” Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public
World. Ed. Melvyn A. Hill. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979. Print.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Feature Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.
Bormann, Ernst. “Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social
Reality.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 58.4 (1972): 396–407. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.
The Burning Bed. Dir. Robert Green. NBC, 1993. Film.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
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“Democratic National Committee Releases Victory Task Force Preliminary Report.”
21 Feb. 2015. Democrats Press. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Dowd, Michael. “Dispelling the Myths about the ‘Battered Woman’s Defense’: Toward
a New Understanding.” Fordham Urban Law Journal 19.3 (1991): 567–83. Print.
Fisher, Walter. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public
Moral Argument.” Communication Monographs 51.1 (1984): 1–22. Print.
Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic, 1978. Print.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1976. Print.
Habermas, Jürgen. Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Trans. Thomas
McCarthy. Boston: Beacon, 1984. Print. Vol. 1 of The Theory of Communicative
Action. 2 vols. 1984–87.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind. New
York: Basic, 1985. Print.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: U of Chicago P,
1970. Print.
Leff, Michael, and Andrew Sachs. “Words the Most Like Things: Iconicity and the
Rhetorical Text.” Western Journal of Speech Communication 54.3 (1990): 252–73.
Leslie, Andrew. “The Topoi of the Storyteller.” n.d. In the author’s possession. MS.
Lyotard, Jean-François. Just Gaming. Trans. Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: U of
Minnesota P, 1985. Print.
Machiavelli, Nicolo. The Prince. Trans. W. K. Marriot. New York: Dutton, 1908. Print.
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The Man from Hope. Dir. Jeffrey Tuchman. Clinton Presidential Campaign, 1992. VHS.
Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967. Print.
O’Leary, Stephen. Arguing the Apocalypse: A Theory of Millennial Rhetoric. New York:
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Propp, Vladimir. The Morphology of the Folktale. Austin: U of Texas P, 1968. Print.
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Tuchman, Barbara. “Czar of the House.” American Heritage 14.1 (1962): 33–35. Print.
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Communication Teacher
ISSN: 1740-4622 (Print) 1740-4630 (Online) Journal homepage:
“Nobody puts baby in a binder”: Using memes to
teach visual reason
Emily Stones
To cite this article: Emily Stones (2017) “Nobody puts baby in a binder”: Using memes to teach
visual reason, Communication Teacher, 31:3, 137-142, DOI: 10.1080/17404622.2017.1314525
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VOL. 31, NO. 3, 137–142
“Nobody puts baby in a binder”: Using memes to teach visual
Emily Stones
Department of Communication, Regis University, Denver, Colorado, USA
Courses: Visual Rhetoric, Political Communication, Media and
Society, Argumentation
Objective: Students trace a social hierarchy created through the
visual reason of memes.
Received 6 May 2016
Accepted 22 July 2016
Introduction and rationale
Images are the foundation of contemporary life, and the communication field is frequently
called upon to make sense of how images affect our sociopolitical environment. Our students possess valuable skills and knowledge of social media and other new technologies,
but because of their intimacy with these technologies, they sometimes lack the reflective
space that is needed to assess them critically.
Visual rhetoric scholarship offers us a rich and nuanced understanding of visual
culture, as academics have vigorously responded to what Mitchell (1994) calls the “pictorial turn” in Western societies, one that alters not just our modes of representation (from a
primarily linguistic/written culture to a highly visual one), but also changes the nature of
power structures, ways of knowing, and our means of communicating with others. Indeed,
scholars often emphasize the primacy of images in our meaning-making activities of
everyday life and the visual imperative such actions demand (Birdsell & Groarke,
2007; Debord, 1994; Finn, 2012; Hartley, 1992; Hill & Helmers, 2004; Olson, Finnegan,
& Hope, 2008; Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 2002).
Hariman and Lucaites’ (2007) articulation in No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs,
Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy of how a visual democracy functions best captures
the concept of visual reason.1 They claim that democratic discussion and decision-making
takes an epideictic form, and political issues must be negotiated through the social
relations we imagine ourselves as part of, even if we never come face to face with those
we perceive as fellow members. The authors explain,
The visual public sphere activates public identity as a web of associations rather than as structure of arguments. Arguments are not erased, but they have to work through social networks
… One sees who is being discussed, and the act of seeing them activates one’s own sense of
social awareness. Critical reason is intertwined with social reflection. Images become mirrors,
arguments are set in the context of social knowledge, and conclusions have to fit with or
motivate adjustment of one’s own relationships with others. (p. 301)
CONTACT Emily Stones
© 2017 National Communication Association
Their assertions about societal dynamics magnify the importance of viewer-viewed
relationships and expand on the notion that images “choreograph a space between the
observer and what is observed” (Garland-Thomson, 2001, p. 339), or what Mitchell
calls the “recognition scene” that frames much of the discipline’s analysis and theory
(p. 33). The concept of visual reason also articulates the connections between social
order, the performance of mainstream values, and the complexity of verbal-visual
When initially presented, visual reason can appear abstract and amorphous, and therefore potentially confusing to students. Concretizing this concept through a hands-on
activity helps students explore the impact of perceived relations and social order in political discourse. It also enhances student reflection about the interplay of cultural knowledge
and visual communication in their own decoding of political issues and events.
The activity
Prior to class, the instructor spends some time browsing sites such as Know Your Meme to
get a sense of political meme series that are familiar to the students. Two meme series that
have proven to work well in past iterations of this exercise include “Binders Full of
Women” ( and “Casually
Pepper Spray Everything Cop” ( The instructor makes copies of 8–10 memes in each series to distribute during the activity.
In class
The activity typically takes 45 minutes from start to end. Using “Binders Full of
Women” as an initial example, the instructor shows a clip from a 2012 presidential
debate to contextualize Mitt Romney’s controversial response to a question about
pay equity for women ( The
instructor asks students to speculate why some critics deemed his statement about
“binders full of women” inappropriate. Students may struggle at first, as the
comment does not sound overtly offensive in the original context. They will eventually
suggest it is somewhat objectifying or does not pay homage to the skills these female
employees had to offer.
One way to introduce the meme series (see Figure 1) is to describe the images as individual interpretations of Romney’s statement, contextualized within mainstream cultural
knowledge. The instructor emphasizes that the purpose of the exercise is not to judge
Romney’s statement as prejudicial or not, but to see how members of the public made
sense of Romney’s statement by imagining him within a particular social order. To start
the analysis, the instructor distributes the memes to groups of three or four students
and asks them to rank Romney’s “treatment of women” in comparison to other cultural
figures. Students can create a numbered list or lay out the images in a visual hierarchy.
When the class reconvenes, they compare their rankings. Students will organize the
figures differently, depending on their age, knowledge, and differences in perceptions,
Figure 1. Example memes from “Binders Full of Women” series.
but certain themes will emerge, especially in the upper and lower echelons of their hierarchies (see Appendix A). The instructor asks students to explain their rationale and
debriefs the exercise (see the next section).
The second meme series is inspired by a 2011 incident at the University of California,
Davis, in which campus police officers pepper sprayed Occupy UC Davis student
protesters that refused to leave the campus. The instructor shows students a video of
the events ( and explains the
context. The instructor asks students to formulate an argument against Officer Pike’s
actions, which transpires as something similar to “his actions are an unnecessarily
cruel retaliation against a peaceful protest.” The instructor gives each group sample
memes from the series and asks them to create a hierarchy that charts “how cruel”
his actions were compared to other cultural figures. Many memes will show Officer
Pike spraying children and animals, emphasizing his abuse of power on “innocent”
victims. The more remarkable memes will feature Pike in an already distressing
picture (such as in a WWII concentration camp), spraying someone who has already
been wronged and therefore suggesting that Pike is even worse than the original
Binders full of women
After completing the first activity, the instructor asks students to revisit their initial assessment of Romney’s statement. What do students learn from the meme series in regards to
valuing, respecting, and empowering women in meaningful ways? Compared to someone
like Ryan Gosling, where did Romney go wrong with his comments? The instructor points
out that the memes make Romney’s statement seem more offensive than they originally
perceived. Are the memes a fair representation of his comment or his character? What
happens when we use cultural figures and create social order to “discuss” women’s
rights? What gets left out of this conversation?
Pepper spray cop
After students complete the second activity, the instructor informs students of how the
incident played out, with Officer Pike receiving countless emails and phone calls, many
of them death threats ( and that UC Davis spent $175,000 to clean up their
online presence after the incident ( The instructor asks students if they are surprised at the contempt Pike received after seeing the memes in which Pike is portrayed
as worse than, for example, Godzilla, Hitler, and Pontius Pilate. The instructor questions
if the memes helped to clarify or expand the students’ own thinking on the events. Does
Officer Pike’s punishment (i.e. social castigation) fit the crime? Did the meme take on a life
of its own? When are the memes more about injustice and the abuse of power and less
about Officer Pike’s specific actions? The instructor spends time reflecting about how political issues are expressed in contemporary culture and the benefits and drawbacks of using
memes—and the relations they (re)create—to inform political discussion and decision
General debriefing
In addition to teaching visual reason and how arguments travel through and by the
relations articulated in these images, this debriefing is an excellent opportunity to reinforce
concepts the instructor may have covered in class.
Images act as enthymemes, in which the audience fills in reasoning, claims, and evidence to make sense of an implied argument (Blair, 2004).
The movement and dissemination of images are important, as circulation changes the
messages’ meaning and impact (Finnegan, 2003; Johnson, 2007).
Memetic arguments stem from “visual commonplaces” and “digital topoi,” or the represented collective memories and cultural knowledge the public is presumed to understand (Hariman & Lucaites, 2007, p. 2; Sci & Dewberry, 2014, p. 232).
In political communication contexts, the claim that logic and rationality assist, but do not
determine political decision making sets the stage for perspectives that start with similar
proclamations, such as Lakoff’s (2004) emphasis on metaphors and framing.
The meme exercise allows the instructor to “bring it all together” and cement the paradigmatic shift students need to experience in order to process the implications of our
visual culture.
Memes are banal and humorous, and their significance sneaks up on students. After this
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