Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

PWR 2LFA: Unruly Bodies: Gesturing toward a New Rhetorics of Body Language

Main content start

Dr. Felt describes the theme of PWR 2LFA.

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s controversial research claims that body language shapes who we are. She explains that “we make sweeping judgments and inferences from body language. Those judgments can predict really meaningful life outcomes like who we hire or promote, who we ask out on a date.” Linguists have proven that nonverbal behavior—gesture, facial expression, eye contact, body language—underpins human language. But how do we understand bodies that deviate from cultural conventions of communication?

In this course, we will consider the place of the body in rhetoric, and how the presence, form and performance of a body and gesture impacts the shape of our arguments. In particular, we will explore how speakers and writers use their bodies to challenge communication norms, such as the “radical raunch” of comedian Ali Wong, who has twice performed a Netflix comedy special in her third trimester of pregnancy, or how paralyzed graffiti artist TEMPT ONE uses a device called the Eyewriter to write and create art using his eye movements.

This course is an invitation to study non-normative forms of communication such as stuttering, sign language, stimming, involuntary movements, tics, augmented and alternative communication (AAC), and other unique forms of embodied performance or difference that convey meaning. Drawing on performance studies, feminist theory, and disability studies, we will use these critical lenses to consider how oral language presumes an abled-body, and the consequences and limitations of this perspective. We will situate body language and gesture at the intersection of technology, gender, race, and ability, looking at excerpts from Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander’s Bodies in Commotion and musician Megan Washington’s TEDtalk “Why I Live in Mortal Dread of Public Speaking.” So doing, we will reflect on alternative communicative repertoires and develop our self-aware practice of our own bodily rhetorics.

Major Assignments

Research Proposal

(5-minute live presentation; written text of 1200-1600 words) You will develop a research project that explores an “unruly” or non-conforming speaker and the social, cultural, or political dimensions of this body language (this may include gesture, performance, and non-verbal behavior). For example, you might examine sign language poetry as a mode of embodied storytelling or the reception of King George VI’s speeches which he delivered with a stutter. You might also choose to explore how body language intersects with activist rhetoric such as Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the NFL National Anthem protests.

Written Research-Based Argument

(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages) You will expand upon your research proposal by curating an interdisciplinary corpus of scholarly sources and cultural artifacts/texts to craft a research-based argument that makes a contribution to the conversation about unruly bodies and non-normative communication.

Delivery of Research

(10-minutes live oral presentation with multimedia support) You will translate your written argument about body languages into an oral presentation that incorporates visual media, thinking carefully about the role of your own body in delivering this presentation.

Genre/Mode Assignment

(600-900 words; video of 3-5 minutes) In this short reflective assignment, you will have a creative opportunity to stage or craft a narrative that explains how your body contributes to your communication in an academic or personal context.