By those outside of the community, comics are still often thought of as simple superhero stories for children. This is very far from the truth as the target audience and subject matter is just as varied as any other medium. It’s time to treat comics like any other academic text. And I am not just talking Maus, Fun Home, and Persepolis. There are so many reasons for this. First of all, comics are fantastic for English language learners, whether English is their first language or beyond, because they provide more context clues through which the reader can deduce the meanings of words they previously did not know. Comics also make the reader construct their own meaning at the pace they learn best at making them particularly useful for complex and challenging issues. Some of the issues regularly covered in comics include sexism, drug addiction, nationalism, war, homelessness, mental health, racism, and many others. Combined with icon theory, which posits that the simplification and abstraction seen in comics allow for greater possibilities for identification, comics can be instrumental in building empathy for the people dealing with these issues. This is especially important in conversations about current events. Because of how fast comics can be produced, current events are often a key source and major focus right from the beginning.
Thankfully, this perception is beginning to shift with more and more comics making their way into English classes and beyond. They have even started to sprinkle into the writing classroom. One clear sign of this is the inclusion of an excerpt from “The Influencing Machines,” by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld, in the commonly used They Say/I Say! In it, common criticisms that have been made against various forms of media are explored, which I like to take in a meta direction to talk about how rare it is for there to be an inclusion of a comic into a writing text book and what it means that it is there. One of the things that I feel makes me unique as a college level writing instructor is my background in comics and I love to find ways to bring that in. Excitedly, this is something that my students have really enjoyed as well.
One of the things that is particularly wonderful about our community is our willingness to share. In the hopes that my ideas might be stolen, I am going to share some of my more successful ones. First off, I often use a one panel comic related to the materials we are covering to start the class discussions. I find that giving them a five minute free write focused on the comic makes the rest of the discussion run much more smoothly. As far as the related readings, a consistent favorite is “Why Using the Dictionary Definition of Racism Just Doesn’t Work” (https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/03/dictionary-definition-racism/). The fact that the author is listed as Robot Hugs opens up fabulous discussions about how we read works differently based on various characteristics we assume an author to have. It also makes a reading about the creation of the dictionary and why definitions may or may not applicable into something that students actually want to read. It is one of the most common sources they use in their papers.
Another way I incorporate comics is methodologically based. I am a big believer in copia as it encourages flexibility and experimentation in writing that can result in different ideas and different ways of thinking about them. It also helps students to discover more precise or effective vocabulary and structure as well as forcing them to grapple with what each piece is actually saying instead of just how it is being said. I talk about the multiverse as an example of modern day copia in that many of the heroes in the different universes are essentially the same, but one key aspect in their lives changes the way in which their heroism is expressed. From there, I encourage them to turn their enthymeme into a short comic strip. This can be a very difficult task, but all the students who have attempted it have found it to be very helpful. They go into writing their paper with a much clear idea of what they want to express and that makes their papers better as a whole.
Finally, I was lucky enough attend Nick Sousanis’s “Alternative Formats in Dissertation and Career Paths outside the Academy” where I learned about his grid gestures and modified this concept into my own assignment. The comics making exercise he named grid gestures is designed to make people think about visual communication. To prompt this line of thinking, he had us draw out what our day looked like without the use of words. I took this idea and turned it into a second essay preparatory assignment. After I hand them back their first essays and do a quick review, I ask my students to think about what was more or less successful in their writing process along with what they want to change for their next one. I then give them 10 minuets to draw out what that will look like. Without the use of words, students are prompted to think about their process in a different way than they normally do. It draws attention to each individual step in their essay writing process, helps them visualize and commit to their personal plan for the next essay, and encourages them to think creatively.
We are entering a brave new world in academia and I, for one, am very proud to be a part of it. The more we work to include comics into our pedagogy and into our studies the less resistance future comic scholars will face. There could be a time where we can bring in our favorite X-Men comic and nobody would blink an eye! Great literature is great literature and we can learn just as much from working with comics as we can any other source.
Have any of you incorporated comics into your classroom? I would love to hear what others have come up with in the comments!