Teaching Rhetoric and Cultural Awareness


by Becca Evans

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SUMMARY: Ja'La Wourman, assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric & Technical Communication, is an expert in digital and visual rhetoric who sees herself as a facilitator in every classroom, helping her students share and explore freely as they develop frameworks for writing and communication that honor their identities, backgrounds and cultures.

Ja’La Wourman thinks a lot about public messaging. How do small-business owners and entrepreneurs tailor their design practices to reach particular audiences? What can studying digitized African American print publications and editorials tell us about the changing socio-economic and political landscape of Black communities over time?

As an Assistant Professor of Writing, Rhetoric & Technical Communication (WRTC) who joined JMU in 2021 as part of the College of Arts and Letters’ first-ever cohort hire, Wourman is an expert in digital and visual rhetoric: how design practices, branding and different modes of communication, especially social media and other digital platforms, convey information and connect messenger to audience.

Wourman ALR Article2In the classroom, however, Wourman positions herself as a facilitator rather than the sole expert. “We all have experiences that shape our perspectives and knowledge-making,” she says, so she shares information, cultivates a diverse and respectful class culture and helps students develop frameworks for writing and communication that honor their identities, backgrounds and cultures.

Wourman’s teaching philosophy stems from her experience during graduate school at Eastern Michigan University working as a college-level instructor and advisor in the Trio Student Support Services program. Those students, many first-generation or non-traditional, had been conditionally admitted to the university and, according to Wourman, “really shaped my philosophy without me knowing ... when I became aware of those students’ life experiences and personal situations, that awareness affected my teaching. I wanted to make sure I created a welcoming environment after that experience,” she continued.

She recommends that students seek community on campus for support. When Wourman came to JMU, she found Sisters in Session (SIS), an organization that provides support, professional development and peer mentorship for African, Black, and African American women working across JMU’s campus. Wourman recently gave the session-opening talk at the Black Women in Academica Conference hosted by SIS.

Wourman ALR Article1Wourman integrates her lived experience into her research and classwork and encourages students to do the same. In her Content Strategy course, students select their ideal brand, from luxury designers to ice cream companies, and Wourman teaches them to connect social media strategies and content to a wider cultural context. Last fall, her newly created course called Designing for Cultures, Audiences and Communities invited students to consider how different artifacts — from public art and design to advertisements and even business documents — reflect a broader cultural landscape and reach wider, even global, audiences.

That work begins with each student developing greater cultural awareness in an educational context where they can grow. “I had professors who created spaces in the classroom where I could share and explore those things,” said Wourman, “so I do that for my own students.”

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Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Last Updated: Thursday, February 1, 2024

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