PWR 2LFA: The Rhetoric of Nonverbal Communication
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 and nonverbal behavior?
In this writing and public speaking course, we will consider the place of the body in rhetoric, and how the presence, form and performance of a body impacts the shape of our arguments. In particular, we will explore how speakers and writers use their bodies to challenge communication norms, such as dancer Alice Sheppard’s use of her wheelchair and crutches as choreographic props for storytelling, or Alice Wong’s audio essay on her life as a nonspeaking person who communicates through a text-to-voice synthesizer.
This course is an invitation to study nonverbal communication, including but not limited to stuttering, sign language, stimming, tics, augmented and alternative communication (AAC), and other 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. So doing, we will reflect on alternative communicative repertoires and develop our self-aware practice of our own bodily rhetorics in public speaking.
Examples of Research Topics
For this course, you will engage in a quarter-long in-depth research project. Sample research topics you might pursue are looking at sign language poetry and Deaf storytelling practices, queer constructions of drag in popular culture, or motion-capture generated characters in film. You might choose to explore how body language intersects with activist rhetoric such as Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the NFL National Anthem protests, or the medical applications of AI to analyze patients’ nonverbal cues.
PWR 2 Assignment Sequence
(5-minute live presentation; written text of 1200-1600 words; reflective memo of 250 words) You will develop a research project that explores the gesture, performance or non-verbal behavior of a body or community, and the social, technological, cultural, or political dimensions of this body language.
Written Research-Based Argument
(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages; reflective memo of 250 words) 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 body language and nonverbal communication.
(10-minutes live oral presentation with multimedia support; reflective memo of 250 words) 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.
In this two-part reflective assignment, you will keep a writing log or video log narrative over the quarter that explains how your body contributes to your communication in academic and personal contexts. In the second part, you will develop and share an animated GIF of your cultural artifact from your research project that conveys some story about embodied communication.