Activity: Reading Objects Rhetorically

Downloadable, text-only version of this activity.

Description of Objective

This activity aims to help students think critically about how objects acts as methods for communication, have a rhetorical purposes, and generate meaning within particular cultural contexts. This activity also helps students start recognizing how the medium of a message determines many of its affordances and constraints.

Total time: I have used this activity in a 75-minute class. It usually takes about 50-60 minutes, but depending on the level of detail, this can be adapted for any length class.

Part I: The Theory of Reading Objects
We refresh reading rhetorically, I show them a picture of a plain, plastic water bottle. I ask them if THIS object can be read rhetorically. This one is a bit harder, so we work through it with some questions:

  • How is this an object of communication?

  • What does it communicate?

  • What is its purpose? What audience(s) is this oriented toward? And in what context(s)?

  • (To help them think further about the context and purposes of a plastic bottle) Where did the water bottle (plastic AND water) come from? How might it arrive in the store? And where will it go when it is no longer needed?


Time permitted, I let them do a bit of research on their phones or laptops just to get a sense for the sheer complexity of these answers. If not, you do not have time to do this, might briefly provide an example of the kind of complex research they would find.


Part II: Practice Reading

Bring out a bag of pre-selected items (anything works—I choose books in languages other than English, random articles of clothing, vases and jars, parts of small machines, and anything else that seems interesting to hold or think about). Before breaking them up, I explain the assignment.


In groups (I am partial to 3-4) students select one person from each group to come up and choose an object for their group to analyze. In their groups, students read the objects they have selected rhetorically by answering the following questions. Depending on the engagement arrangement of the class, this can be done in both written and/or verbal form:

  • Purpose: What is/are this object for? Or what is it trying to do? And how do you know?

  • Audience: Who is this object for? Or, who is this object trying to reach? And how do you know?

  • Context: In what context(s) might you find this object? In what context(s) is it relevant or useful?

  • Bonus question: List all the materials that make up your object? Where do these materials come from? (Beginning with the raw materials and as building blocks.)


Note: I always encourage students to research what they don’t know and note the source for discussion.


Post-Activity Notes & Reflection
This activity puts unexpected items into student’s hands and asks them to think about objects as a form of rhetoric and communication. They learn how to identify aesthetic features and base materials as parts of the rhetorical situation. This provides a different way of reading rhetorical messages (as opposed to words being the meaning maker). My students often reflect that in their writing, this activity helped them recognize rhetoric as something they can construct and manipulate. They also reflect that that this activity showed them that humans can read anything (whether its digital or material content) and that when we are “reading” things we are engaging with its rhetorical message.


Activity: Reading (old) Books

Downloadable, text-only version of this page.

Description of Objective

This activity aims to instill a critical way of rhetorically reading the circulation of physical texts throughout time and show how material realities of texts are often reflections of the technological moment in which they are created. This activity works for studies in literature, material book culture, cultures of reading, linguistics, art, history, and of course, rhetoric and composition.


Details on How Students Engage with Activity
Note: 1) This activity can work in the classroom (if the instructor has old books related to the course material) or through an appointment with a librarian or archivist, if available. 2) This activity works best following an activity that asks students to close read a passage from whichever text you plan to us. Have students place this reading in its historical and social context as it relates to your course themes and objectives. Close reading a passage through the lens of some salient historical facts about the author, their location, or the context surrounding the writing or publishing of the text has worked well for me in the past.

Time total: Based on how much you focus on each step and question and how much discussion you have, this is a very flexible activity. I have been a part of this activity in a 3-hour graduate seminar and adapted it for a 75-minute undergrad section. Oh! Pro-tip: Don’t forget to allow time to congregate and settling wherever you will be meeting.

For this activity, I have brought students to a pre-arranged meeting with our school’s archivist to view some of William Morris’s texts published at the Kelmscott Press. Depending on what you are reading in class, you might have them highlight different texts such as Chaucer or News from Nowhere, which is what I have used in the past. Beforehand, we have a whole-class conversation about the basics: clean hands, how to hold the spines of older books, and the best way to turn pages and set the books down.


With our focus on the text we read for class (e.g., News from Nowhere), I encourage them to take notice of the binding and layout of Morris’s original texts. The handcraftedness of the text speaks to the time and labor it took to produce these documents. The careful details from page length to ink density shows the level of intention that went into producing these books. ?

Depending on the layout of the space, let students walk around, look at, pick up and hold (if permissible), and engage with the texts as much as possible. While doing so, I ask them a series of questions (kind of time-released throughout the session). First, I might ask them to notice:

  • The quality of paper and the (un)evenness of the page ends

  • The method for binding the book (i.e., codex)

  • The placement of illuminations to words and other design features


I encourage students to look compare and contrast the materials and design of their modern version of this text with the first edition. I ask them:

  • How do the different objects imply different audiences?

  • How is a book (codex) more than just the text on a page?


Following the visit: I ask students to reflect on how seeing these books in their original material context change or alter their understanding of the modern copy they originally read?


Post-Activity Notes & Reflection
I have seen students genuinely connect and respond critically to holding, touching, and feeling “old books.” It is an incredibly moving experience that is important to any study within the humanities. Having the chance to physically engage with books from the past gives students a connection to texts in a way that screens often obscure. Seeing these books in their original form also helps students think more critically about the rhetorical situation for documents online that may have been scanned and uploaded or archived in a digital form.