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Course Syllabus - Winter 2017

Course Description

WRTG540 Visual Rhetoric and Information Design (3 credits)
Provides an introduction to theories and practices for understanding and creating visual elements commonly used in written communication. Emphasizes the analysis and design of visual rhetoric for effective technical and professional communication.

Course Overview

Over the last two decades, visual rhetoric has matured into a substantial area of scholarly inquiry and activity. Essentially, it is at once both a subfield and a transdiscipline, coalescing interests shared by teachers and researchers in composition and rhetoric/writing studies, and blinkering among numerous other scholarly domains as widely arrayed as radiology and imaging medicine, technical illustration, art history, coatings engineering, environmental ecology, sports marketing, and more. WRTG540 introduces graduate students to theoretical and practical aspects of visual rhetoric, while also providing a groundwork via key concepts, prominent figures, and historical cases in which the role of graphical elements had a profound effect on the development and reception of written communication. Although the course engages interdisciplinary intersections, visual rhetorics continue to have great bearing upon the decisions writers make, particularly for documents composed and read through digital interfaces, or what we might refer to as viewports.

The subtle distinction between transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary formations has to do with how each catalyzes new knowledge. Transdisciplines draw on disciplines to strike off in inventive directions, forging new concepts, new vocabulary, and new insights that do not necessarily fit within the bounds of established disciplines. Interdisciplines thrive on connections, intersections, and juxtapositions among disciplinary epistemologies, and although they generate new knowledge, such knowledge bears traceable lineage back to disciplinary concepts, terms, and schema.

This winter's WRTG540 sets up with a series of projects designed to scale from quick and provisional attempts (short writings, sketches, visual analyses, reading notes, and question formulations, which we will refer to as sténopés, recalling the pinhole camera and its teeny-tiny aperature) to more substantially developed projects--an 11x17 poster, a proposal, a project, and a presentation. Each of these will bear out the influences of new ideas we encounter in reading selections from Lynda Barry, Roland Barthes, Annie Dillard, Johanna Drucker, Sonja Foss, Diana George, Katherine Harmon, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, Susan Sontag, Nick Sousanis, Denis Wood, Anne Wysocki, and more.

Course Goals for WRTG540

Course goals for WRTG540 include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Develop a working knowledge of the evolving, interdependent relationships among selected rhetorical concepts, written communication, and visual objects, including photographs, document design, information graphics, and data visualization.
  2. Compose a series of texts as a distributed, recursive process that adapts to rhetorical contingencies, that responds to distinct audiences and genres, and that requires planning and revision attuned to visual presentation.
  3. Gain fluency with theoretical dimensions of visual rhetoric and information design, with an emphasis on written communication.
  4. Practice annotation, analysis, inquiry, and delivery consistent with graduate-level study in written communication.

Course Texts and Materials

Syllabus - Lynda Barry

Barry, Lynda. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Montréal, QB: Drawn and Quarterly, 2014. ISBN 978-1-77046-161-1. (required) |

Camera Lucida - Roland Barthes

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. ISBN 0-374-52134-4. (required) |

White Space Is Not Your Enemy

Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. ISBN 978-0-674-72493-8. (required) |

Unflattening - Nick Sousanis

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening.Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. ISBN 978-0-674-74443-1. (required) |

Required texts are available at the EMU Bookstore in the Student Center.

Further readings will be available to you as PDFs in Canvas (Files). You should download PDFs for reading on the screen or, if you prefer, for printing and reading. Plan to spend as much as 30 USD on printing and photocopying over the course of the semester.


The work of the course is divided as follows

Sténopé Set, 30%
Poster, 20%
Viz. Invent/Propose (Proposal), 10%
Viz. Write/Make (Project), 30%
Viz. Present/Circulate (Presentation), 10%

I will provide detailed comments in response to your work following deadlines and at any other time you request input from me. Each of the projects will be described fully in separate prompts that I will circulate at an appropriate time in the semester. When necessary or otherwise useful, grade estimates will be posted in the Canvas gradebook associated with this course. You must complete all major projects (i.e., sténopé set, poster, proposal, project, and presentation) to be eligible for a passing grade in WRTG540 this semester.

Turning in Work

For Peers, For Comments, and For Credit
Let's not make this too complicated. First, with the class blog, you have a space for easily sharing your work with peers, but you may also need a second way of doing that, such as a Google Folder when it comes the poster, proposal, and project. Think of such a folder as a collector for your work, a space to develop it as it is in-progress, and above all a space for safe-keeping, as well as for sharing your work with others in the class. Second, you need to have a space for posting your work that you can easily share with me, primarily for receiving feedback. For this I suggest a Google Folder. Third, you need to submit some work for credit in Canvas. With your work posted in other locations, this should be the simplest in that it straightforwardly involves logging on to Canvas and pasting a link to the folder (or specific document) we have shared between us.

To recap (tl;dr), everyone must be able to 1) share work publicly (or semi-publicly) so peers can easily access it, 2) share work with me so I can provide comments that only you and I can see, and 3) submit work (or links to your work) in Canvas to receive credit.

File Naming
When you prepare to turn in electronic files, please adhere to the following conventions. When appropriate, save document files as .doc, .rtf (rich text format), or convert them to Google Docs format. Use the following naming formula: 540-Lastname-Assn.doc. That is, your filenames should always include the course number, your last name, and the abbreviated name of the assignment. For example, my own proposal would be named 540-Mueller-proposal.doc.

Late Work
All work must be submitted before the start of class on the due date to be considered on time and therefore eligible for full credit.

Course Policies

Attendance and Participation

WRTG540 is a graduate-level seminar. Seminars are classes in which dialogue among all class members is constitutive of the learning experience. Absences and lack of preparation for class will affect your colleagues' work as well as your own. The work you do in and in preparation for each class is as important as the polished assignment you turn in for any project. In addition, our syllabus and schedule are only a projection and may be subject to occasional changes and revisions as it seems appropriate, necessary, or just interesting. That is another reason why your attendance is vital.

If you must miss a class, you are still responsible for all work assigned, including turning work in by stated deadlines. Class time cannot be reconstructed or made up, and your performance, your work, and your course grade will be impacted by absences. If you miss more than two classes without any official documented cause, you will not be able to pass the course.

We will meet this semester in Pray Harrold 313, which means we will be surrounded by [non-judgmental adjective] technology. Bring your own laptop or plan to work at one of the computers in the room, when appropriate. You may at times be tempted to use the computers for checking email or mediating your sociality. As a rule of thumb, I ask that your in-class uses of mobile devices (e.g., cell phones) and desktop computers be reasonably focused on class-related activities. Obviously, you should silence your phones before coming to class (exception: caregivers...for you, please reduce audible indicators to vibrate). As long as everyone is respectfully attentive when someone is speaking, in-class technology use will not be a problem.

Computer and Internet Usage

We will be interacting with a variety of sites on the internet during the course. Please let me know if you have not had any experience using a browser such as Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. When using a computer, save your work frequently, always make backup copies, and plan your projects with extra time allowed for unexpected challenges.

You will receive comprehensive instructions for turning in each project. Nevertheless, I strongly urge you to plan ahead, to familiarize yourself with file formats and with the submission process, and to approach me with questions about submissions well in advance of the due dates. Some of the work you do for this class will be composed using a word processing application, such as MS Word, Open Office, or Google Docs. When turning in documents like this, please use an easily readable typeface, such as Times New Roman 12. Assign one inch margins and adhere to MLA page layout and documentation conventions. At times you may be asked to turn in work in other formats (PDFs, images, blog or wiki entries, etc.).

Communication with Peers; Communication with the Instructor

While you can expect a considerable amount of leadership and direction to come from me, you should also make arrangements early in the semester to communicate with your colleagues. In other words, you are strongly encouraged to identify one or two (perhaps more) peers in the class with whom you can discuss readings and assignments, work through questions brought up in the class, and approach when you find something unclear. In short, my hope is that we all will prefer climate in which dialogue and interaction runs between the instructor and students and also between and among students when questions come up. Finally, you should always be proactive about asking questions when you have them, either by raising questions during class or contacting me or one of your peers privately.


To communicate by email we will use our accounts, accessible via You can send email to me or to classmates via the Canvas site associated with this course. You may call and leave a phone message, but you will at times find it more effective to use email to contact me about your work in the course. You can also set up an appointment to meet with me on campus, or to ask a question. With rare exceptions, I will respond to email inquiries within 48 hours.

Academic Integrity

Plagiarism occurs when a writer passes off another's words or ideas without acknowledging their source, whether intentionally or not. For example, turning another's work as your own is plagiarism. If you plagiarize in this class, you will likely fail the assignment on which you are working and your case may be passed to the university for additional disciplinary action. Because of the design and nature of this course, it will take as much (or more) work for you to plagiarize in it than it will to actually complete the work of the class. For a more detailed explanation of Eastern Michigan University's stance on academic integrity, refer to Section V.A. of the Student Conduct Code.

Disability Resource Center (DRC)

If you have a documented disability that affects your work in this (or any other) class, the Disability Resource Center can provide support for you. It is my goal that this class be an accessible and welcoming experience for all students, including those with disabilities that may impact their learning in this class. If anyone believes they may have trouble participating or effectively demonstrating learning in this course, please meet with me (with or without a Disability Resource Center (DRC) accommodation letter) to discuss reasonable options or adjustments. During our conversation, I may suggest the possibility/necessity of your contacting the DRC (240 Student Center; 734-487-2470; to talk about academic accommodations. You are welcome to talk to me at any point in the semester about such issues, but it is always best if we can talk at least one week prior to the need for any modifications.

Academic Projects Center

The Academic Projects Center is located in 116 Halle Library (487-0020, extension 2154). The Center is open M-Th from 10-5 and is staffed by University Writing Center consultants, Halle Librarians, and Information and Communications Technology staff who can help with writing, research, or technology needs. No appointment is necessary. When you visit the Academic Projects Center, be sure to bring a draft of what you're working on and your assignment sheet with you.

University Writing Center

The University Writing Center (115 Halle Library) offers one-to-one consulting for both undergraduate and graduate students. Students can make appointments or drop in between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays. Students should bring a draft of what they’re working on and their assignment. The UWC opens for Winter 2017 on Monday, January 9.

The UWC also offers small group workshops on various topics related to writing (e.g., Strategies for Successful College Reading; Peer Review; Revising and Editing Your Writing). Descriptions of all UWC workshops are posted at Workshops are offered at various times Monday through Friday in the UWC. To register for a workshop, click the "Register for a Workshop" link from the UWC "Workshops" page.

Contact Information

Derek N. Mueller, PhD
Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing
Director of Composition
Department of English
Virginia Tech
Office: 315 Shanks Hall
Spring 2019 Office Hours: T, 12-3
Phone: +1-734-985-0485

"We need to become irritated at our favorite theories and theorists and tired of our usual list of visual objects. Visual studies should be ferrociously difficult, as obdurate and entangled in power as the images themselves. Complacency on that score leads back toward the fun house of aimless impressionistic writing about the joys of contemporary consumerism. There is so much more out there waiting to be understood" (201). James Elkins, "Envoi," Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction

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