Becoming Academically Respectable: Notes on Comics from MLA 2016

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The gap between the study of comics and the study of serious literature within academia has been shrinking in recent years, as campuses include more graphic novels in their first-year composition courses and in “one book” programs.  The “highbrow”/”lowbrow” divide has also been diminishing as works in comics format win prestigious literary prizes and rave reviews.  This year at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association a dozen sessions were devoted to panels on comics and graphic novels, including a panel held in a guarded room about the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirically depicting the prophet Mohammed.

For those teaching writing courses, the session I participated in on Developments in Comics Pedagogy drew a particularly lively crowd, despite its early morning slot on the first day of the conference.  The panel had been organized by Derek McGrath of Stony Brook University, who has been championing comics in his regional MLA NEMLA for many years.  You can read the way he frames the session here: Primer for “Developments in Comics Pedagogy.”

McGrath opened the session with a discussion of two-way communication with fans that seems to be central to the cultural conversation about manga, comics produced in Japan or in the style of Japanese comics. He noted that the process of “scanlation” encourages rich forms of engagement in which readers of comics may develop or enhance story lines as they participate in the scanning, translation, and editing of comics from one language into another language, as in the case of an issue from Soul Eater. He also talked about the way that comics functioned as “tangible objects,” even as the rise of e-books might dematerialize the text.

Co-organizer Keith McCleary of the University of California, San Diego, showed several impressive examples of comics developed by his students, and he emphasized how instructors needed to manage the “high anxiety” that students have about performing as artists and how digital retracing and other computational tools might assist students worried about reproducing unrealistically dexterous production.  Those interested in McCleary’s comics pedagogy can check out his online teaching portfolio, which is packed with prompts and examples. He also chortled about his own naiveté in underestimating “the very strong political feelings that they had” and the frankness of opinions that students might express, even about superhero comics like Batwoman: Elegy and Marvel’s Civil War:   “I thought we would be on the same page.” But he acknowledged that comics helped them engage in more substantive political debate and grapple with real disagreements more than they might otherwise.  McCleary warned that too often college courses assigned the same “politically correct” memoirs in graphic novel formats, which might enforce uniformity in classroom discussion.

Nick Sousanis of the University of Calgary continued the theme of ameliorating student fears, particularly among undergraduates who might identify as “non-drawers.”  Sousanis has been getting a lot of attention of late for his innovative graphic dissertation, Unflattening, which is now available from Harvard University Press.  He has been praised by luminaries such as Cathy Davidson for producing a document pointing toward avenues for completely reinventing the deliverables of a Ph.D., and by Andrea Lunsford for advancing multimodal composition.  Like McCleary, Sousanis showed the prolific work of his own students, particularly as a venue for health graphics, including a publication-worthy comic on depression.   He noted that emphasizing a full range of narrative techniques could be important and praised Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story as a useful pedagogical graphic text.  In talking about the value of sketch notes and visual analysis and annotation, he also showed the results of assigned exercises for using tracing paper atop a comics layout as a way to demonstrate graphically “how much they can notice.”  As an instructor, he characterized his task as helping students to “figure out what they don’t know that they know.”

Susan E. Kirtley of Portland State University described some of the unique challenges that she faced as an administrator developing the PSU post-baccalaureate Certificate in Comic Studies and her successes recruiting faculty from multiple disciplines to teach elective courses such as Jewish comics or manga that rounded out a curriculum requiring rigorous preparation in theory and history.  She observed that participation from the local comics community had also enriched the program.  Kirtley also laughed about a student initially querying if “you want to get fired?” She credited the program’s continued good health to “speaking the administrative language” and navigating “the sheer amount of red tape,” as well as benefiting from wise counsel from peers in similar positions championing the academic value of comics, such as Ben Saunders of the University of Oregon.

Maria Elsy Cardona of Saint Louis University talked about teaching Spanish literature with comics and the benefits of advertising courses with disarming cartoons.  In addition to using comics as a means to introduce students to Spanish Literature, she uses comics to address difficult issues of social justice such as gender discrimination.  In her course "Between Laughter and Tears, Gender Stereotypes in Spanish Comics"—a cross-listed course with the Department of Women and Gender Studies at SLU—she uses Spanish comics to talk about issues of gender discrimination. The course, thus, looks at gender inequality both at the local and the global level.

As an expert in children’s literature, Joe Sutliff Saunders talked about the value of a comparative exercise with comics and picture books in a graduate course. He noted the value of teaching a comics course not firmly within the established body of knowledge, but at the edge of disciplinary exploration.  Eventually he dedicated a whole course to examining comics and picture books alongside each other and asking how the theory of each illuminated the other. 

Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam of the University of Michigan, who has taught writing with Understanding Rhetoric, described a variety of uses for comic books in the college classroom.  She argued that teaching history with comics could be an extremely effective way to use them pedagogically, particularly in the case of covering photographic and visual representations of the Holocaust.  Like Cardona, she has used comics for teaching a foreign language, and like Sousanis and McCleary she has found herself attending to lowering classroom anxiety about artistic competence.  She plugged the online software package Pixton as a helpful tool and distributed one of her own comics to attendees.

In the question and answer portion of the panel there was a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from questions about assessment (and a possible answer in contract grading) to questions about containing textbook costs.  Of course, given the intensive review and production processes of traditional textbooks, there can be plenty of sticker shock to go around. Given this lively panel, I am pleased to have McCleary on board for the instructors’ manual of the forthcoming edition of Understanding Rhetoric.

About the Author
Elizabeth Losh is a Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego. Elizabeth is collaborating with Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.