Teaching Critical Analysis in Times of Peril: A Rhetorical Model of Social Change

Teaching Critical Analysis in Times of Peril: A Rhetorical Model of Social Change

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Nan Johnson with Gavin P. Johnson


Part I: Nan Johnson, Feminist Teaching, and Modeling Rhetoric

This brief article is an attempt to pull back the curtain on Nan Johnson, the teacher. Nan taught writing since she was 21 years old, and she taught at colleges and universities in Kansas, California, British Columbia, and Ohio. From 1990 until her retirement in 2018, Nan taught graduate and undergraduate courses in rhetoric, writing, and feminism as Professor of English at The Ohio State University. She once told me that if she had to only teach one class it’d be first-year writing because she enjoyed learning with freshman students as they discovered that they were already “serious practitioners of rhetoric.”

I had the amazing opportunity of learning from and teaching with Nan during the fall of 2016 as part of a teacher mentoring experience required of Ph.D. students at Ohio State. I worked closely with Nan in an undergraduate introduction to rhetorical studies course titled “Arts of Persuasion.” Nan taught the class as a rhetorical criticism course, and her goal was to equip students with a range of analytical frameworks and critical terms—the canons, dramatism, ideograph—to analyze the rhetoric “out there” in the world. Watching Nan teach was like watching a seasoned thespian command a stage. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her. She performed the role of rhetor, rhetorician, and teacher with ease and unwavering dedication. She easily discussed, for example, Kenneth Burke’s terministic screens abstractly and then grounded it in an example relevant to students—usually with a story she pulled from the morning news or a flyer she found in the hall on the way to class. The interaction between Nan and students was always lively, thoughtful, and focused. Her ability to help students connect to the material was absolutely incredible. She worked very hard to understand students, speak to their interests, and encourage their rhetorical skills.

It was in the Arts of Persuasion class that Nan introduced me and the students to her “Rhetorical Model of Social Change.” The model, she explained, developed over years of studying and teaching rhetoric through a historical and feminist perspective. She would draw the three circles on the board, add multi-directional arrows between the circles, and label the circles with what she saw as the three stages of social change: Articulation/Definition, Debate, Institutionalization/Cultural Inscription. Then she’d ask students to track the history of an artifact or cultural conversation (based on assigned readings) through the three main stages of social change and a possible fourth stage of Cultural Upheaval she referred to as the Backwave. Students worked together filling in the model—often drawing their own models on pieces of paper or digitally on tablets. In small groups they would carefully discuss each stage and the possible points within a historical account of specific rhetorical action.

In the spring of 2017, Nan taught an upper-division course titled “Rhetoric of Social Movements.” She further developed the model in that course, and that experience inspired her to prepare the model for publication. She presented the model to an enthusiastic audience at the Women/Rhetoric/Writing symposium at the University of Maryland in April 2017. The model was a hit, with distinguished scholars like Andrea Lunsford and Cheryl Glenn reflecting on how other teachers might incorporate the model into their teaching of rhetoric and social change. Andrea A. Lunsford, on her blog, writes:

What appeals to me so much about Nan Johnson’s model—and what I see as its brilliance—is its ability to focus students not on arguing over whether an issue is “right” or “wrong” or getting stuck in the “debate” stage. Rather, working through this model focuses attention on how an issue gets defined, circulated, and sometimes eventually enacted into policy—and then possibly called into question again. It focuses on the process of social change rather than on any particular ideology. In one way, this rhetorical model of social change seems to me a streamlined and very contemporary version of stasis theory.

(Lunsford, “A Great Analytic”)

Similarly, Cheryl Glenn, in her recent book Rhetorical Feminism and this Thing Called Hope, offers these thoughts on Nan’s model:

Her pedagogy offers a process for students to think critically, carefully, and together—with time to pause and reflect on issues. Johnson does not have to state her own opinion (let alone persuade students) to guide her students to their recognition of inequalities and injustices. She taps the resource that is rhetorical feminism—a clear understanding of marginalization, a promotion of dialogue and mutual understanding, for instance—in the process of helping students track the power of sociocultural forces and come to their own conclusions.


Following this warm reception, Nan asked me to work as her research assistant to digitally render the model. She had been using a rudimentary model designed in Microsoft Word, but she really wanted the model “to move.” I happily agreed, and we spent the summer of 2017 working on the model, preparing it for presentation at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in Dayton, OH, and, hopefully, eventual publication in Peitho. I further outline this research and production process later in this article, but, here, I want to note just how excited Nan was about sharing this model with fellow feminist teacher-scholars. Nan’s presentation at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference was well attended and very energetic (Figure 1). She was so very encouraged by the reception she received. Unfortunately, Nan didn’t get the chance to publish the model—she retired in the spring of 2018 and entered intensive cancer treatment months later.

Photo shows Nan at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference standing in front of a projection of her Rhetorical Model of Social Change. The projection shows an example of the third stage of social change, Institutionalization/Cultural Inscription.
Figure 1. Nan Johnson presents her Rhetorical Model of Social Change at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in Dayton, Ohio. Not pictured: Gavin Johnson coordinating the model’s movement and feeling very much like Vanna White. Photo credit: Gavin P. Johnson.

Thus far, I have introduced you to Nan Johnson, the teacher, and her Rhetorical Model of Social Change. In Part II of this article, I offer a visual history and brief narrative of the development of a digital rendering of the Rhetorical Model of Social Change. It is important to me that the intensive process of composing and revising that Nan and I undertook to prepare the model for the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference talk and future publication is made visible. I undertake this in the same spirit, albeit briefer, as Susan H. Delegrange’s “When Revision is Redesign” in which she writes, “Reflections on our own scholarship […] not only improve our own practice, but provide a context within which interactive digital media can be more productively read and viewed by our colleagues.” It is worth noting that Nan was Susan’s dissertation director and long-time colleague at Ohio State.

In Part III of this article, I present an edited version of Nan’s 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference talk as well as the last rendering of the model we worked on together. I have tried my best to edit lightly—offering a little polish to a conference presentation version of an ongoing project. Please keep this context in mind as you read. My hope in editing this piece for posthumous publication is to, as Nan’s partner Abby put it, “close the circle.” Of course, from this closure, new openings become possible. Nan was very eager to put this piece out into the world so that teachers could have an analytical tool to better explain the rhetorical nature of social change over time. She wholeheartedly believed that a feminist understanding of rhetoric and social change was necessary for us to continue learning, living, and pushing forward. In that spirit, I hope that teachers and scholars will use this model in their writing and rhetoric courses and inspire students to advocate for social change in these perilous times.

Part II: A Rhetorical-Historical Stance and Visualizing the Process of Social Change

In our conversations, Nan and I often reflected on the importance of a rhetorical stance to the process of composing and the teaching of writing. The concept of the rhetorical stance comes from Wayne Boothe’s 1963 essay in which he defines it as “a stance which depends on discovering and maintaining in any writing situation a proper balance among the three elements that are at work in any communicative effort: the available arguments about the subject itself, the interests and peculiarities of the audience, and the voice, the implied character, of the speaker” (141). In concert with a rhetorical stance, Nan also valued a historical view:

When we are using a historical view, we are tracking change. And without a historical view we don’t have perspective on the change or current situation.

(Johnson and Johnson)

The rhetorical-historical stance, therefore, asks us to not only be aware of our rhetorical practices but also of how those practices have shifted and evolved over time. A rhetorical-historical stance, Nan would remind me, is what we aim to embody as rhetoricians, rhetors, and teachers.

While working with Nan as she composed, revised, and reimagined her Rhetorical Model of Social Change, I witnessed her attempts to find an appropriate rhetorical-historical stance on two levels. First, she needed to balance the argument she was composing with the model. Second, she needed the model to balance the rhetorical and historical aspects of social change. In balancing her goals as a feminist, teacher, historian, and rhetorician, Nan actively developed a rhetorical-historical stance that could be mimicked when using the Rhetorical Model of Social Change. She and I worked through different examples—often examples she used in her classroom—to see how the model was working, if certain elements were missing, if clarification was needed for the guiding terms, and if we could find exceptions to the process.

Below is an early rendering of the Rhetorical Model of Social Change (Figure 2). This version of the model is what Nan presented at the University of Maryland symposium (and, therefore, the version of the model that Lunsford and Glenn discuss in their writings). In this version of the model, we can notice the use of primary colors (blue for the Stages; red for Backwave; green for Rhetorical Time [not labeled]). The model relies on the visual cue of the multidirectional arrows to demonstrate movement. Additionally, Cultural Upheaval, the inciting factor for Backwave, is placed directly under Institutionalization/Cultural Inscription, which gives the false notion that Backwave can only be generated at the end of a seemingly linear process.

A screenshot from Microsoft Word showing the first version of Nan's Rhetorical Model of Social Change. There are three blue circles indicating stages, one smaller red circle indicating cultural upheaval, and green and red arrows indicating how the model "moves."
Figure 2. The Rhetorical Model of Social Change, version 1.0. Created in Microsoft Word, this version relies solely on arrows to demonstrate movement.

As we discussed how we might revise the model for digital rendering, I became particularly interested in what Nan was terming Rhetorical Time. Within the model, Rhetorical Time is the spatial-temporal distance between each stage of social change. Rhetorical Time varies greatly between stages and across social movements, and thus, cannot be reliably predicted but must be historically traced through rhetorical practices and/or artifacts (i.e., documents, events, people). Such an in flux concept is not easily captured in static visual terms and, we realized, required a sense of movement in addition to some type of visual cue. To emphasize the varying lengths of Rhetorical Time, Nan drew me this version of the model (Figure 3).

Photo of Nan's hand-drawn version of the Model demonstrating Rhetorical Time. It is written in pencil on a sheet of legal paper. At the top of the image there are three circles labeled 1, 2, 3 representing the main stages of social change with the multidirectional arrows of Rhetorical Time between each stage. There is one column directly under Stage 1 and Stage 3 ,with multidirectional arrows connecting the events under Stage 2. Left column representing Articulation: Carson's Silent Spring (1963); Seneca Falls Convention (1848); Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” (1963); FDR Executive Order 9066 (internment order 100,000 Japanese Americans). Right column representing Institutionalization: EPA Founding 1970, DDT Ban 1972; 18th Amendment 1920; Civil Rights Amendment 1964; 1988 Reagan Civil Liberties Act (recognition + compensation).
Figure 3. Nan’s hand-drawn version of the Model emphasizing the varying expanses of Rhetorical Time. The left column (under Stage 1 circle) represents Articulation and reads: Carson’s Silent Spring (1963); Seneca Falls Convention (1848); Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” (1963); FDR Executive Order 9066 (internment order 100,000 Japanese Americans). The right column (under Stage 3 circle) represents Institutionalization and reads: EPA Founding 1970; DDT Ban 1972; 19th Amendment 1920; Civil Rights Amendment 1964; 1988 Reagan Civil Liberties Act (recognition + compensation).

Finally, we landed on this version of the model, which was presented at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference (Figure 4). Here you will notice three major edits. First, the multidirectional arrows between the main stages are now labeled as Rhetorical Time to better represent the interplay between rhetoric, time, and space. Second, Cultural Upheaval becomes centered in the model. Third, Backwave, its relationship to Cultural Upheaval, and their combined impact on the main stages of social change are made clearer through the addition of multidirectional arrows and a wave-like graphic element across the entire model. The wave graphic, hopefully, conveys a sense of constant motion that the combined forces of Backwave and Cultural Upheaval contribute to social movement. The model is built in the online software Prezi. As a platform, Prezi allows users to “Grab [an audience’s] attention and keep it. Deliver stunning interactive visual experiences that let you adapt on the fly and zoom in on the topics that matter most to any audience” (“Product”). Beyond the sales-oriented rhetoric, this short quote sums up the key reasons I believed Prezi could help capture the sometimes-glacial, sometimes-frenetic movements of social change with which Nan was fascinated. First, the movement is attention grabbing, and asks the audience to think beyond linear notions of argument, rhetoric, and change. Second, the “adapt on the fly” ability seems to make this model a great teaching tool. I can easily envision teachers asking students to adapt this model using individual research topics in class or as a small project.

An image of the final version of Nan's model. This version has significant changes in colors, labeling, and demonstration of movement compared to earlier versions.
Figure 4. The final version of the model includes a different color palette (light orange for the Stages, light turquoise for Rhetorical Time and Backwave, light grey for Cultural Upheaval and background waves); more accurate labels of Rhetorical Time and Backwave; and a wave graphic coordinating with Cultural Upheaval to demonstrate movement through and around the Stages.

Part III: Nan Johnson at Feminisms and Rhetorics 2017 in Dayton, Ohio

Note: This address was given by Nan Johnson on Friday, October 6, 2017, at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference. The text has been edited for publication; however, no major changes in argument or organization were made. This was a work-in-progress draft which was to be expanded before publication.

In my remarks this afternoon, I would like to share my present perspective on how being a feminist historian influences the way I teach topics in rhetoric studies. In this time of peril for so many, I believe that students feel distressed, alarmed, and overwhelmed by national and global events. I am currently teaching an advanced undergraduate course titled “Rhetoric and Social Action.” My overall pedagogical goal in this class is a feminist one: to put into student’s hands the critical tools to make sense and establish agency over the tide of disquieting discourse and events that seem to rush at them every time they check their social media.

As a feminist, I seek to protect the rights of women and all persons at the margins and to empower voices and action in any way I can. As a historian, I believe we can uncover the past and we can describe and characterize the events and the attitudes of the past for the information, lessons, and exemplars it reveals. In looking forward to my conversation with you today, I thought a great deal about how being a feminist historian influences my pedagogical perspective. The feminist goal of empowerment, one that has shaped my approach to writing classes and to research for decades, also influences my goals in a class like “Rhetoric and Social Action.”

There are two important goals in this class as I have explained to 30 students every Tuesday and Thursday morning. First, we want to understand how rhetoric has shaped social change and action. Second, we want to be able to see how social action arguments work and have worked overtime to affect social change. I would describe this understanding as a form of critical rhetorical consciousness giving students the ability to see social action movements and results as arguments and to trace how these arguments have met with success and if not, to ask, “why not?” Students today are so tuned-in to their world through social media in ways that continually baffle rhetoricians of my generation. I always tell students that they are really smart about rhetoric, they just don’t know that they are. This is why I stress the development of rhetorical analysis in a class like the “Rhetoric of Social Action” as a set of skills that connect up to what they already implicitly know or intuit. I strive for students to recognize their practices in the rhetorical vocabulary.

I would expect that what I am outlining here is very familiar to you. As feminist rhetoricians and writing teachers, we have put goals like critical rhetorical skills at the top of our pedagogical list for a very long time. So, I am confident that describing feminist goals for teaching rhetorical analysis as critical empowerment is not a new topic but simply an affirming one to this audience. I imagine that many share my feeling that in these times, we simply cannot say “empowerment” loudly enough or pursue it often enough. For example, it is empowering for students to observe the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s 54 tweets in response to the judicial striking down of his immigration ban and be able to analyze, with the tools of rhetorical analysis, that Trump’s tweeted arguments contain no logos whatsoever. In this discouraging and even shattering national context, I can truly say that to teach students that they can actually get a handle on political rhetoric gives the students in my class a sense of agency—a kind of rhetorical compass to sort through political discourse that threatens the balance of fairness and equality in our world.

This is why in a class like “Rhetoric and Social Action,” I first teach theoretical principles like logos, pathos, ethos, the canons, metaphor analysis, and how to recognize and track how argumentative themes, or what Burke calls terministic screens, get put in place. Again, these are familiar rhetorical principles. I do find, however, that over the years I have begun to teach these principles more and more consistently as empowering critical tools for students thus moving more and more to practice, assignments, and small group discussions that focus on applying principles like the canons and terministic screens to understand “right now” discourse and rhetorical acts. The current political context only encourages me in this feminist commitment all the more.

My experience and orientation as a feminist historian of rhetoric also helps me in this pedagogical effort to help students see how rhetoric, writ large, causes social change. In addition to an on-going weekly focus on unfolding rhetorical events, such as the International Women’s March of January 2017 or the rhetorical drama in the NFL, I organize the class in terms of three topics: Environmental Action, Civil Rights, and Immigration Policy. I tell the students at the outset that a rhetorical-historical understanding of how movements of social action have arisen and defined themselves will be a crucial underpinning of the course. We, for example, read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to set the context for our discussions of Environmental Action. Silent Spring rushed into public consciousness in 1963, and Carson’s argument prompted such a powerful response to the pesticides and chemicals threatening the environment and our very well being that the EPA was founded less than a decade later, by Richard Nixon no less.

As a feminist historian, I am interested in and dedicated to students understanding how social action and change happen in historical terms. That is, in terms of sustained efforts and acts of advocacy that can span decades and even centuries before ultimately achieving the goal of cultural and institutional inscription. To that pedagogical end, I share a Rhetorical Model of Social Action (Figure 5) that I have developed over the years that I hope captures for students the dynamics of rhetorical arguments. My rhetorical model of social change allows us to track how these social movements move from an initial stage of Articulation, to the second stage/s of Debate, to the third stage of Institutionalization. This model is adapted from the very familiar process graph of Purpose, Textual Strategies, and Audience, a model that has been a foundational model in composition teaching and in explaining how argument works for decades. The model I offer students relies on the same assumption that rhetoric can be characterized as a process and on my belief as a historian that we can and should account for how social, cultural, and legal values get put in place and how they can be changed.

What is particularly feminist about this mode, beyond my standard agenda of empowerment, is the all-important characterization of the third stage as Institutionalization. In my classes, we discuss Institutionalization as something that can be both fought far and fought against depending on the rhetorical tools at play. The stress that this definition places helps students understand exactly how cultural power is achieved. Cultural power, social action, and change happen when the power of institutionalization is established and arguments either become the law of the land, Civil Rights for example, or find other ways to become part of the ongoing discourse.

Figure 5. Video tracking various examples of social action through the Model. Click the video to play.

To use the model, we can plot and track the appearance and progression of a social change/action issue by using the Stage 1-2-3 rubric to locate where a social change/action issue is at any given time. Some examples, tracked and visualized in Figure 5, include:

Publication of Silent Spring, 1963 ---------------------------------------------------------> EPA Founded, 1970
Seneca Falls Convention, 1848 --------------------------------------------------------------> 19th Amendment, 1920
FDR Executive Order 9066 (Internment of Japanese Americans), 1942  -------------------------> Reagan Civil Liberties Act, 1988
Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream,” 1963   ----------------------------------------------> Civil Rights Amendment, 1964

The successful progression of a social change/action issue to the third stage of Institutionalization does not mean that argument and protest cease about the issue. Black Lives Matter is a good example of the Reactivation of Stage 1 and Stage 2 dynamics: the need to rearticulate and debate the civil rights issue of race in America. We can think of this rearticulation dynamic as created by a Backwave of Cultural Upheaval that puts the social action issue “back in play.” In rhetorical terms, advocates are then required to go through Stage 1 and Stage 2 again to reassert Stage 3 status. Two recent examples include the Women’s March and the ongoing series of acts of protest against racial discrimination staged on the NFL playing fields with the rhetoric of kneeling, sitting, or linking arms of the players during the playing of the National Anthem. These two important examples demonstrate how the Backwave of Cultural Upheaval can disrupt institutionalized issues (women’s rights and civil rights) and bring us back to the previous stages of Debate and Articulation.

As recent political events have revealed, the understanding of the Backwave dynamic is a crucial one. Without it we cannot see that Institutionalization is not only something to strive for but can also be a state of political affairs that must be argued against. Rhetorical forces must mobilize or remobilize to argue against the laws that are unfair and the attitudes that are corrupt even if those discourses currently enjoy wide dominion in the popular conscience. Studying history as a feminist taught me over and over again that what we might call the positive achievement of Institutionalization does not always fill a vacuum where legal protections and cultural attitudes do not yet exist. Often rhetorical mobilization is acquired to pull down and replace anti-democratic inscriptions or barriers to other forms of protections under the law. On what we might call the positive side of Stage 3 is the legal and cultural coverage Institutionalization gives to certain precepts such as “equal protection under the law” that allows an ongoing advocacy for social action issues that can be defined, by Stage 1 advocacy and articulation, to fall under what I describe to students as the “umbrella coverage of Stage 3.”

This Rhetorical Model of Social Change, which is usually put on the blackboard in freehand, comes up in almost every class as we discuss where social change is or is not happening and how we can understand the dynamics and modes of social action. For example, it is very typical for me to bring in an artifact of a news story that is a right-now-happening-thing, such as this cover from Time magazine from March 27, 2017, profiling the transgender movement (Figure 6). I do this because I actually want them to use the model not just learn the terms.

The cover of Time magazine featuring a queer and gender noncomforming. person named Marie. Marie has red shoulder-length hair, is wearing a denim jacket, and has their hand brought up to their chin. Next to Marie is the superimposed title of the cover story: “Beyond he or she: How a new generation is redefining the meaning of gender” by Katy Steinmetz.
Figure 6. Cover of Time magazine featuring “Marie, 26, [who] identifies as queer and gender noncomforming.” During the presentation and in class, Nan had a physical copy of the magazine to lift up and pass around.

I ask students, “Where on our model of social change could this movement could be plotted? Can we get ahold of what is happening in rhetorical terms?” The students have a range of insights: Laila suggests that the transgender movement is an equal rights movement that was “firing on all three stages at once.” Chase observes that he thinks we can see the movement as having reached Stage 3. He cited the furor over the “bathroom legislation” with federal and state guidelines and noted these sites of the argument are “duking it out rhetorically.” This level of engagement tells me that they are using the model and understanding the movement of social change.

Of course, in earlier weeks of this course last semester (Spring 2017), we discussed the Trump Travel Ban as a Stage 3 imposition of executive power and the powerful judicial Stage 3 response that thwarted the President’s agenda. In terms of the model, we were able to trace the huge Backwave of rhetorical debate and rearticulation of Civil Rights that this rhetorical drama caused, encouraging new definitions and claims about refugee status and citizenship and exposing in yet another scenario the inherent racial bigotry of American’s historic discomfort with “the Other.”

When I see students critically tracking these and other social issues and using their insights to see the rhetorical landscape of social change, or what one student named Sharazad called, “What the heck is going on!,” I feel affirmed and encouraged about the feminist enterprise of empowerment. In helping students gain insight into how we argue in America, students can rhetorically analyze discourses and actions to better question what kind of country we want to be, and fight for it. That’s what a class in the “Rhetoric of Social Change” is all about.

Works Cited

Boothe, Wayne. “The Rhetorical Stance.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 14, no. 3, 1963, pp. 139-145.

Delegrange, Susan H. “When Revision is Redesign: Key Questions for Digital Scholarship.Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, vol. 14, no. 1, 2009.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2018.

Johnson, Gavin P. Nan Johnson Presenting at Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference. 2017, Dayton, OH. Digital Image.

Johnson, Nan. “Teaching Critical Analysis in Times of Peril.” Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference, 6 Oct. 2017, University of Dayton, Dayton, OH. Presentation.

—. “A Rhetorical Model of Social Change.” Women/Writing/Rhetoric Conference, 7 Apr. 2017, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Lecture.

Johnson, Nan and Gavin P. Johnson. Personal communication. 31 May 2017.

Lunsford, Andrea A. “A Great Analytic Assignment on Social Change.Andrea Lunsford, Teach to Teacher, Bedford Bits, 20 Apr. 2017.

Product.” Prezi. Accessed 25 Oct. 2019.

Rogac, Jody. Photograph of Marie.Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality.Time, 16 Mar. 2017.

return to top