Teaching Political Cartoons

Teaching political cartoons gets students thinking about rhetoric and arguments in visual forms. Walter Werner's "Reading Visual Rhetoric: Political Cartoons" is a particularly useful source, and I created the following PowerPoint based on the article. The PowerPoint was last updated in 2008, so feel free to update it.

Political Cartoon Terminology

Practice Analyzing a Cartoon

To analyze cartoons, I ask students to create a 2 column graph: on the first side they write down a specific visual (or verbal) detail, in the second, they interpret it's meaning.

I explain that describing the visual detail is just like using a quote in an analysis paper of written language--it's the evidence that leads to our interpretations. To be sure that we are not just summarizing these details, we then analyze it's deeper meaning.

In class, my students analyze the cartoon below, which is on slide 15 of the PowerPoint. For more on this cartoon's rhetorical context, see how I use it to teach introductions.

Here's what student's have come up with in the past:

Textual Details

Uncle Sam is large; 3rd world is small


Juxtaposition: Size can mean power
Uncle Sam is an indexical symbol
Culturally recognizable
“3rd World” has a paper sign, iconic image
Not recognizable like Uncle Sam, seen as less important
Uncle Sam is well clothed: hat, cuff links, jacket
Wealth and power
3rd world family is in rags
Poverty, lack of power
Uncle Sam has small, closed eyes
Poor vision is a metaphor for poor understanding
Uncle Sam has a long nose
Cultural association with Pinocchio, he is a liar
Uncle Same has neatly stylized hair
Uncle Same is taken care of, has wealth & power.
3rd world family has no hair
Sign of malnutrition
Uncle Sam has his back to the 3rd world
“turning your back on something” is a cliché for ignoring something
Uncle Sam is white and older
Position of power
3rd world are a family: 2 people (and a difficult to see baby). They are people of color.
Disempowered group. Pathos: we feel sympathy for the family.

Political Cartoon Website

Daryl Cagle's PoliticalCartoons.com.

I also ask students to choose a current cartoon to analyze in groups. At the end of class,  I project their cartoons on the board one at a time, and each group gets a few minutes to present their analyses.

I encourage students to integrate political cartoons and other visual media into their research papers to broaden their range of sources and to create visual interest.

Please share any resources you use for teaching political cartoons!

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