Activity Showcase: Illustrating Arguments (Paula Patch and Jean Schwind)

Feb 10 2010

Activity Showcase: Illustrating Arguments (Paula Patch and Jean Schwind)

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Overview of Activity

This activity aims to help students understand that 21st-century “writing” often goes beyond words, sentences, and paragraphs to include visuals. Evidence to support written arguments is sometimes most effectively presented in pictures, graphs, tables, charts, maps, and other types of illustrations.

The exercise requires students to examine the role of illustration in an article recently published in the New York Times. It then asks students to produce a brief illustrated argument of their own in response to the article. They will need to (a) determine what kind of image will most effectively illustrate their response, (b) find the image, (c) insert the image into their written text, and (d) caption the image using MLA documentation style.

Connection to ENG 110 Objectives

The exercise helps students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between purpose, audience, and voice, and an awareness that writing expectations and conventions vary within the academy and in professional and public discourse.


This exercise works best mid-semester, after students have some experience in making effective rhetorical choices in written arguments. It takes about 50 minutes. (Part II can be finished as homework.) Because students tend to be careless about proper captioning and source citation, we recommend integrating illustration into subsequent classroom exercises and/or assignments to give them additional practice after they have completed this initial exercise.

Part I: Examining an Illustrated Argument (whole-class activity)

  1. Show pre- and post-make over photos of Susan Boyle, published in the April 29, 2009, issue of the New York Times, via PowerPoint. Don’t label or identify the photos as you show them; see if students can do this. Then, ask students to explain the significance of the two images.
  2. Have students read the New York Times article from which these illustrations were taken, “Yes, Looks Do Matter” by Pam Belluck <>.  Discuss the relationship between the illustrations and the argument, using the following questions as prompts:
  • How does Belluck explain the meaning of these images of Susan Boyle? How does her analysis of their significance compare with what we had to say about them?
  • Are these pictures an essential part of Belluck’s argument? Or are they superfluous and expendable? (Would a “text-only” version of this essay be as effective as the illustrated original?)

3. Have students find the article using the Newsbank database, where it appears without the illustrations. Ask students, has anything essential been lost?

Part II: Producing an Illustrated Argument (individual assignment)

Assignment: Write one or two paragraphs in which you:

  1. Describe a particular stereotype that has influenced the way you view others or the way others view you. (This stereotype can be based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, occupation, or other characteristics.)
  2. Explain the personal and cultural significance of this stereotype.
  3. Follow the “Guidelines for Using Illustrations” to present an image (e.g., a photo, cartoon, ad, or painting) within your paragraph(s) that vividly captures the stereotype you’re examining.

Suggested Process:
1. Show sample images of different kinds of stereotypes to get them started. (Create PowerPoint slides to show sample images.) Three that we might write about:

  • President Sarkozy of France standing on his tiptoes (because Jean is short):

  • stats from a recent article on living in retirement that illustrate stereotypes of the elderly (because Jean has parents in their 80s whom she worries about): (Peter Keating, “The New Retirement: Hanging on at Home,” SmartMoney, Aug. 2009: 38-39).

2.  Suggest good image sources other than Google: Flickr, photobucket, Artstor, and other Art/Art History databases, etc.

3.  Review “Guidelines of Illustrating Arguments” (Post to the class Blackboard account before class if you’re in a computer classroom; otherwise, distribute hard copies.)

4.  Ask a tech-savvy volunteer to demonstrate how to insert images and captions in Word. (Have the volunteer insert the publicity poster for The Ugly Truth into the “Guidelines for Illustrating Arguments” document.) Pods should collaborate and help one another do this as they work on their own mini- illustrated arguments.

5. Students create their own illustrated paragraph(s) about a stereotype that affects the way they see or the way others see them and post it (as a Word attachment) to a forum on Discussion Board.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Ask students the review the postings of their pod members. Which of these mini-illustrated arguments is most interesting and effective? Why? Have a pod secretary answer these questions in a posted reply to the author of the best-in-pod.
  2. Have students answer this question in a posted reply to their own illustrated argument: What did you learn about visual arguments that you can use for other assignments in this class or any other classes?

Follow-up exercises and applications to build on this workshop in later classes:

  1. How to create charts, tables, and graphs using Word tools
  2. How to format illustrations (and embed them within written text) using Word;
  3. How to copy/save pictures from an article in PDF form;
  4. Require students to illustrate at least one of the arguments that they present in a paper required for the course.

Guidelines for Illustrating Written Arguments

I. Introduction

Visuals can sometimes convey or illustrate points that are central to your argument better than words. Color photographs of melting glaciers and shrinking mountain snowcaps powerfully enhance Al Gore’s presentation of the “inconvenient truth” of global warming, for example, just as the dynamic charts designed by physics professor Tony Crider dramatically demonstrate grade inflation at Elon over the last 30 years. (See .)

Internet databases (free search engines like Google and Flickr and subscription databases such as Artstor, which is accessible through Elon’s library website) make it easy to locate and reproduce images. And software enables us to produce original graphics and insert images into the text of papers or PowerPoint presentations with a few clicks of the mouse.  As you research and write about a subject, be attentive to ways in which visuals—pictures, charts, tables, maps, cartoons, and so on—might advance your argument.  Be careful to incorporate graphics into a written text only when they serve a clear and explicit purpose, however. Otherwise, they’ll simply distract readers and waste space.

II. Criteria for illustrating an argument

In deciding about whether a written argument might be enhanced by illustration, consider these aspects of your rhetorical situation:

  • Your subject: Is it visual in nature, such as an analysis of a magazine or television ad, an explanation of the difference between burqa and hijab in Islamic culture, or an interpretation of the strange Indian in Benjamin West’s painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1771)? Illustrations may help you to write effectively about subjects with strong visual dimensions.
  • Your audience: Are you presenting data (e.g., the results of a survey or observational records) that you collected in research conducted for a psychology, sociology, biology, or environmental studies class?  Research data in the natural sciences, social sciences, and other academic disciplines are often most efficiently presented in a graph, chart, diagram, or table. Visuals are less common in many kinds of writing that you’ll do in the humanities, especially interpretations of print texts.
  • The medium or form of your writing: Are you writing for a medium that typically includes visuals and/or audio components as well as written text, like the Internet? Presentational media like PowerPoint also lend themselves well to visuals.

III. Captioning and citing visual images

In academic writing, illustrations should be captioned with both numerical and descriptive labels. Captions should also cite the source of the illustration. For example, if you were to use the promotional poster for The Ugly Truth in a study of gender stereotyping in recent romantic comedies, the caption would be:

Fig. 1: Poster for The Ugly Truth (Sony Pictures, 2009).  Source: FilmOFilia. Web. 12 Oct. 2009. <>.

Required parts of this caption are:

1)      Numerical label: Fig.1. Fig. (short for figure) is used to label all illustrations  (pictures, maps, graphs, charts, etc.) except tables (which are labeled Table.)

2)      Descriptive label: Poster for The Ugly Truth (Sony Pictures, 2009).

3)      Source citation: Source: FilmOFilia. Web. 12 Oct. 2009. <>.

Other rules for using illustrations in academic writing:

  • You must refer to the illustration within your text to clarify the connection between the image and your argument. In this case, for instance: “The promotional poster for The Ugly Truth (Figure 1) emphasizes the stereotypical assumption that women want love and men want sex.”
  • Place the illustration as close as possible to your first reference to it.
  • You do not need to repeat the citation for illustrations in your works-cited or references list.

If you are writing for a nonacademic audience, captions include a descriptive label and the source of the image. Using the same example, the full caption for The Ugly Truth graphic in a nonacademic piece of writing would be:

Poster for The Ugly Truth (Sony Pictures, 2009). Source: FilmOFilia <>.

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