“Developments in Comics Pedagogy” (MLA 2016): Roundtable Panelists and Abstracts

I am proud to announce the line-up for the roundtable “Developments in Comics Pedagogy” that I am co-organizing at the 2016 meeting of the Modern Language Association in Austin, Texas. The session will take place on Friday, January 8, at 8:30 AM, and will feature a lively discussion among eight scholars and teachers on the innovative practices they use in the classroom to teach with comics in a variety of disciplines and courses. This roundtable is an opportunity for our panelists to share their creative approaches to teaching, with half of the allotted session time focused on discussion with audience members on their own innovative teaching practices with comics. We welcome attendees to engage with us during this discussion, as this session depends on significant audience participation.

Panelists’ bios are below, with abstracts summarizing their teaching practices.

 Thanks to our panelists for their contributions to the content and form of our roundtable. And thanks to Keith McCleary for outlining the goals for this roundtable and for co-organizing this project.

“Developments in Comics Pedagogy” is designed to assemble a complex range of voices invested in the use of comics and graphic texts in the classroom. Hailing from a diverse set of programs of language, composition, cultural studies, literature, new media, and visual arts, our panelists each demonstrate both rich publication histories and innovative approaches to course design within the comics field. We are excited to lead them in an unscripted discussion of their challenges and successes as educators and researchers, and we look forward to broadening our own understanding of the pedagogy of comics both through interactions between our panelists and with our audience participants.

Elizabeth Losh is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is the co-author of the textbook Understanding Rhetoric (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander. She is currently working on a new monograph about ubiquitous computing in the Obama administration. She writes about the digital humanities, new forms of learning, institutions as digital content-creators, the discourses of the “virtual state,” the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday digital practices. She has written a number of frequently cited essays about communities that produce, consume, and circulate online video, video games, digital photographs, text postings, and programming code.   Much of this body of work concerns the legitimation of political institutions through visual evidence, representations of war and violence in global news, and discourses about human rights. This work has appeared in edited collections from MIT Press, Routledge, University of Chicago, Minnesota, Oxford, Continuum, and many other presses. For five years she was Director of the Culture, Art, and Technology program at Sixth College at UC San Diego, where she taught courses on digital rhetoric and new media, and has now joined the faculty at William and Mary.

Abstract: Increasingly, composition instructors and scholars of rhetoric recognize that students must be equipped with a range of literacy skills, including visual and multimodal literacies. As scholars interested in comparative textual media, we recognize the increasing need to train students to meet the challenges of participating in and through multimodal platforms and thinking about graphic design and visual evidence as part of basic toolkits for communication. Unfortunately, these curricula are often constrained by excessive reliance on memoir formatted works that do little to address the needs of students who might be doing different kinds of world analysis, identity work, or iterative design. Furthermore, scaffolding assignments is often hampered by difficulties assessing works that are visual and often collaborative in character. From the perspective of one of the authors of Understanding Rhetoric, this presentation looks at a number of best practices in the area of graphic pedagogy.

Susan E. Kirtley is the creator and Director of the newly instituted Comics Studies program in the English Department at Portland State University, which she is currently expanding to serve both undergraduate and graduate students. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the Modern Language Association’s Comics and Graphic Narratives Discussion Group, as well as Director of Rhetoric and Composition at Portland State University. Her book, Lynda Barry: Girlhood through the Looking Glass, was the 2013 Eisner Comics Award winner for Best Educational/Academic Work. She is currently working on a new book on comics and is serving as a judge for the 2015 Eisner Awards.

Abstract: While the academic study of comics is certainly on the rise, comics still maintains something of an outsider reputation. So what happens when this “rebellious,” subversive form becomes part of an academic institution? What are the advantages and disadvantages of Comics Studies in the university? Susan will explore the creation of a Comics Studies program and speak to the challenges of bringing comics into the university, discussing issues ranging from skepticism from faculty, difficulties working across disciplines, and the levels of bureaucracy and red-tape. As the Director of Comics Studies at PSU, she will also highlight some unexpected allies and surprising supporters before outlining a plan to bring Comics Studies to students from their first-year through graduate school. This presentation will offer a theoretical foundation for Comics Studies in the academy as well as practical support for academics interested in bringing comics programs into their home institutions.

Joe Sutliff Sanders is Associate Professor in Children’s Literature at the English Department at Kansas State University. He is the editor of a new volume on The Adventures of Tintin titled The Comics of Hergé (University Press of Mississippi, 2016). He is also the author of Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011) and the co­editor of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden: A Children’s Classic at 100 (Scarecrow Press, 2011). His work has appeared in The Rise of the American Comics Artist, Children’s Literature, The Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and The Lion and the Unicorn. With Charles Hatfield, he will deliver the Francelia Butler keynote lecture on comics at the 2016 meeting of the Children’s Literature Association.

Abstract: The first time I taught a graduate course on comics, one of the students interrupted me to say, “You’ve given us several ways of defining comics, but every single thing you’re saying about comics is also true of picture books. How do you explain that overlap?”

She was right, of course: comics and picture books both work sequentially; they both combine words and pictures; they have historical similarities in audience; they rely on a bizarre mixture of irony, complementarity, and tension between words and images. I had no idea how to answer her.

So the next time I taught the course, I made the students do it.

For that class, instead of teaching comics as a discrete subject, I taught them as influenced by and influencing picture books. I taught comics that looked like picture books and picture books that looked like comics. I taught French film theory and showed how it had been applied to comics…and then asked how it could be applied to picture books. I taught wordless comics and wordless picture books and asked what about them was significantly different. I explored the publication history of both forms as well as the history of censorship over both forms and asked how the ways that comics and picture books are made and consumed pointed to similarities and, hopefully, differences.

The course was a complete success: I published my own observations at the end of the semester and presented them at the International Bande Dessinée conference; two of my students collaborated on a paper that they published in another peer-reviewed journal; the course evaluations were some of the best I have had.

Since then, an enormous amount of critical attention has been turned to this question (two special issues and a panel at MLA, by my count). The question my student asked turned into one of my best courses, and the explosion of critical interest in the subject means that this is a fecund angle of study for more courses on comics around the world.

Maria Elsy Cardona is Associate Professor of Spanish at Saint Louis University, with secondary appointment in the Women and Gender Studies Program. Her special topics courses include “Between Laughter and Tears: Women and Humor in Spanish Comics” and “Gender Stereotypes in Poetry and the Graphic Novel,” about which she has written in the articles “Estereotipos de género en el humor hispano: Una experiencia pedagógica” (Perspectivas del humor, 2014) and “El humor de Maitena” (Feministas Unidas, 2008). She previously presented her talk “The Anxiety of Density in Graphic Novels: Solutions Based on Genderic Conventions and Creative Collaborations” to the Modern Language Association.

Abstract: Between Laughter and Tears, Gender Stereotypes in Spanish Comics, an undergraduate course, cross-listed with the Women and Gender Studies Program, explores local and universal aspects of male and female stereotypes in the works of four Latin American cartoonists; seeks to inspire an appreciation of the art of comics and of the genre’s use of language and image both for entertainment and subversive purposes; and provides students with a new venue for communicating creatively in Spanish.

Graphic works discussed in the course portray a female character at different stages in life and offer a humorous, self-reflective perspective on routine situations involving gender and cultural issues. Mafalda (Argentina, “Quino”) is a precocious ten-year-old girl who despite her progressive thinking happily falls into the traditional female role of caregiver to her little brother. Magola (Colombia, “Nani” Mosquera) is a young married woman juggling work and family; an outspoken feminist, she also adores her son and husband. Aleida (Colombia, “Vladdo”) is a 40-something divorcée, economically solvent, torn between her desires for independence and a relationship. Maitena (Argentina, Inés Burundarena) is an upper middle-class woman overwhelmed by the societal imperative to stay young and desirable.

Articles on the nature of humor provide students with a philosophical understanding of the nature of laughing and crying as expressions of human behavior. Bergson’s concept of laughter as a social corrective; Morreall’s theories about the “superiority,” “relief,” and “incongruity” of laughter; and Gordon’s definition of aesthetic humor as imaginative, insightful and self-reflective are valuable in framing the discussions and critique of the graphic works studied. Articles concerning the psychological, anthropological and cultural analysis of the traditional gender stereotypes associated with humor deepen the discussion and interpretation of the comics selected. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics provides the basis for the analysis and discussion of drawing techniques in storytelling.

Grading is based on class participation; individual oral presentations; two creative projects (the creation of the students’ own cartoon and a skit or short theatrical representation of selected cartoons by Maitena or Nani; four short essays; and a final research paper.

Nick Sousanis wrote and drew his doctoral dissertation in comics form at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2014. Titled Unflattening, a book version of this dissertation was published by Harvard University Press (2015). He has developed and taught interdisciplinary courses on comics, education, and visual literacy at Teachers College and Parsons College. His courses ground comics theory in hands­on practice and emphasize the form and visual construction of comics to encourage students to be visual communicators. He is currently Eyes High Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies, and his comics and other works are available at http://www.spinweaveandcut.com.

Abstract: From literacy scaffold to literary works, from student engagement to research presentation method, the role of comics in classrooms across all levels is greatly expanding. With this surge in interest, there is a need to bridge the gap between enthusiasm and action to help educators successfully integrate comics into their respective classrooms. That’s the focus of the interdisciplinary course the presenter developed for educators at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and what he will share for this session.

Specifically, we will look at the experiential approach of the course – grounding comics theory in hands-on practice. Regardless of existing drawing skills (most students have been self-professed non-drawers), they need to feel what it’s like to be makers, and their own explorations help facilitate a deeper understanding of the language of comics from the inside out. We learn to think about comics by thinking through comics. Exercises designed to constrain for a particular aspect of comics while allowing space for personal expression, open up readings of comics as richly sophisticated texts. The process of making their own narrative choices in the medium offers students insight into the complex wealth of decisions that go into creating comics.

Furthermore, this emphasis on the form and visual construction of comics fosters reconsiderations of students’ own potential as visual communicators and provides a lived example of the value of incorporating visual literacy in their teaching. Having them carry out their course work in comics and other image-text hybrid forms points towards possibilities beyond traditional papers as the sole means of work and evaluation, (a primary argument of my own scholarly work in comics form). Ultimately, the goal is for them to experience comics as a robust communication tool – and let this serve as a basis from which to develop their own approaches to teaching and exploring the medium with their students. For the roundtable, the presenter will share specific comics-making prompts, visual analysis exercises, and excerpts of student work to foreground discussion.

Keith McCleary is the author and illustrator of the graphic novels Killing Tree Quarterly (2008) and Top of the Heap (2009) from Terminal Press, and co­writer of the teleplay The Gothickers (CCLaP 2012). His prose and comics have appeared in Heavy MetalA capella ZooPseudopodtheNewerYork, and Weave. He writes the ongoing comic book series Curves & Bullets with Eisner Award-­nominated artist Rodolfo Ledesma, and he is the Comics Curator at Entropy. He currently teaches on comics and composition at the University of California, San Diego, and he is the recipient of the Paul and Barbara Saltman Excellent Teaching Award, as well as an UCIRA Open Classroom Challenge Grant for “ComiCraft,” a practicum on comics, composition, and community outreach.

Abstract: Although they may seem disparate in nature, both comics and composition demand a multi-tiered approach to communication, with layered avenues for potential failure or success. The comic page demands an understanding of graphic design, of narrative, of economy, of the spoken word as transcribed through dialogue. For the untrained artist, the page also calls for tenacity and risk—it must be filled, but with what? And how? Similarly, compositional rhetoric demands scholarly research, a convincing authorial voice, the ability to be self-critical, and an understanding of language, form and structure. For the student, even a first-year argumentative paper places incredible demands on an undeveloped skill set they may not even know how to access.

Multimodal literacy and critical thinking are two of the most integral skills we can teach our students—and they’re skills that can’t be assessed through standardized tests, that often don’t ascribe to a defined field of study, or a trade-oriented course track. Comics aren’t just fun to use in the classroom—they’re an essential cornerstone through which we can teach not just lessons on literacy, but culture, media, gender, ethnicity and the history of how our society has reflected these issues through its stories. In this presentation, we’ll look at how to expand on a variety of composition-based modules for application in various disciplines and academic programs.

Derek McGrath completed his doctoral degree in English literature at Stony Brook University. He has presented on and organized numerous panels on comics and graphic narratives at meetings of the Northeast Modern Language Association, the Popular Culture and American Culture Association, and the Modern Language Association. He is currently designing new courses in gender studies and literature focused on bidirectional cultural influences of Japanese comics and United States popular culture, based on his research and engagement in both academic and online fan communities. His publications include “Teaching Bad Romance: Poe’s Women, the Gothic, and Lady Gaga” (University of Iowa Press, 2015) and “Some Assembly Required: Joss Whedon’s Indecisive Gendering in Marvel Films’ The Avengers” (2016).

Abstract: This discussion will show how to incorporate a variety of Japanese comics (manga) and associated Japanese animation (anime) into syllabi on comics, literature, and composition. Because students are reading these comics within a United States setting, course content focuses on engagement with the manga in terms of its moments of representation, production, and reception in order to achieve two goals: first, to make students aware of the cultural and historical moments in which they read these texts; and second, to help students recognize how their perspectives in the United States can foster different interpretations—some out of cultural ignorance, some out of productive ownership of the texts. By adding manga to courses in comics appreciation and creation, students trace the comparatively recent influence of Japanese art and culture on comics in the Americas and Europe in order to read comics within a larger international history. By engaging students in the classroom, through Internet discussions, and even at anime conventions as part of larger fan communities, students come to recognize how their own enjoyment of manga is similar and different from the analytical, interpretative, and creative practices we learn in various traditional and untraditional academic settings.

It is also important to ground the analysis of manga with attention to how differences in time and location affect interpretations: How do readings of manga in the Americas and Europe differ from readings of manga in Japan? As well, how do the laws and cultural practices in the United States allow fans to produce more art, fiction, and related content in more public and online spaces thanks to fair use laws, compared to stricter prohibitions against such fan productions in Europe and Asia?

Elizabeth (Biz) Nijdam is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her dissertation traces East German artistic traditions in post­unification German­speaking comics through the artistic production of three comics collectives that emerged in the 1990s: PGH Glühende Zukunft, Renate, and monogatari. She teaches German language, culture, and comics at the University of Michigan, and has taught Art History at Wayne State University. In addition to publishing on post­unification German film, she has written a chapter on using comics to teach German history in the forthcoming edited volume Graphic Novel Pedagogy, edited by Matthew Miller.

Abstract: In fall 2014, Biz designed and taught a 4th-semester German course (German 232) using German-speaking comics to teach German language, culture and history, and in fall 2015, she is teaching an intro English composition course (English 125) using comics to instruct on academic writing. Unlike most undergraduate syllabi, which may integrate a single comic book or a unit on comics into the class readings, these courses use comic books, comic strips and webcomics exclusively to teach all of the course material. Drawing on these experiences, Biz will discuss the pedagogical merits of integrating comics into the classroom from the perspective of first- and second-language teaching. She will begin by sketching out the theoretical foundation for the use of comics in teaching before turning to the practical applications of integrating comics into the classroom, highlighting some of her most successful activities and offering further syllabus suggestions.

Teaching with comics has become just as important to Biz’s pedagogy as teaching about comics, and she has successfully integrated the production of comics into her courses as homework and group assignments. Introducing the web-based comics software Pixton, the second half of Biz’s comments will focus on her courses’ webcomic assignments that use students’ daily lives as content but also integrate that week’s grammar/writing unit into the language of the strip. The comics began as simple three-panel pieces, but many students’ talent for comics evolved along with their understanding of the course material.

Comics are an invaluable resource for learning and teaching that lower classroom anxiety and improve student engagement, but integrating them into courses can be an intimidating process. Biz seeks to demystify teaching with and about comics through practical strategies that can be adopted into any classroom environment, and her presentation will be accompanied by a comic version of its content to be distributed to the audience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s