Anime Expo 2016 recap: “Using Anime and Manga in Education” (AUDIO)

I was at Anime Expo in Los Angeles this week, participating in a successful panel on options for using Japanese animation and comics in the classroom.

I recorded the following, which you can listen to here.

This was my first out-of-town fan convention, and my first academic presentation at a fan convention. I want to start by first thanking Mikhail Koulikov and Brent Allison with the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation for organizing our panel, “Using Anime and Manga in Education.”

Anime Expo was a packed convention, with more than 100,000 attendees at panels, workshops, and events happening almost back-to-back from morning to night. Our panel, as part of the Anime Symposium educational series, had almost a full audience throughout our 50-minute or so running time, with more than 100 people in attendance, all of which demonstrates how well all three of us who presented did to inform an audience of teachers and students about options for using Japanese animation and comics in classrooms–and also managing to accomplish so much when about a quarter of our panel’s time was cut.

“Using Anime and Manga in Education” was supposed to be 60 minutes, allowing 20 minutes per presentation. While at Anime Expo, I had attended two of the previous sessions of the Anime Symposium educational series, and the trend I noticed was that there was no time for audience participation: no questions were taken, it was just one presentation after another. And credit to my fellow panelists, Alexandra Dean at Eastern Illinois University, and Stevi Grimm at Jefferson Union High School District in California, who noticed this same flaw: if we’re here to present to an audience, we’re not there just to present our own research but also to get feedback from the audience. I forget whether it was Alexandra or Stevi, but one of them suggested shortening our presentations. I knew I had my presentation to a point that I could do it in 15 minutes without rushing, and we all agreed we would try to finish in 10 minutes each–which, given how much each of us had in our presentations, was a lot to condense. But Alexandra and Stevi gave excellent presentations: they were clear, they didn’t rush through content, and I appreciated so much of what they had to share.

The problem was that we went in thinking we’d have the whole hour–and that’s not what happened. Most conventions I attend, whether academic or fan-oriented, tend to put in 15- to 30-minute breaks between panels–to clear the room, to let audience members mill about and exit or arrive. Anime Expo instead has zero time scheduled between sessions–and they make attendees line up outside to do head-counts and cap the line when they reach maximum occupancy. These delays were going to cut our time by five minutes, maybe.

But I think we were actually more than ten minutes late starting, because of who preceded us: the previous panel was around the animated series Miraculous Ladybug, already a super-popular and well-done show. The panel featured voice actors–I know I spotted Keith Silverstein at the table when we entered, and I know other actors like Bryce Papenbrook and Michael Sinterklaas were at the con, maybe at this panel…and none of them would leave the room. And for good reason: Miraculous Ladybug has a much wider age range of viewers, and the panel’s audience, which was not leaving the room no matter how much Anime Expo volunteer staff insisted they disperse, had some of the youngest audience members. And here are three teachers, looking at this young audience–and we’re not about to tell them, “Hey, go get these actors, illustrators, and animators’ autographs elsewhere–we’re doing our panel now!” I’m not about to tell an elementary school student to leave!

So, our session started at least 10 minutes late, which meant after very quick introductions by the moderator Brent Allison, Alexandra gave her presentation very quickly, Stevi wrapped up her presentation quickly, and I…probably took a little more than ten minutes, maybe 12? In any case, that left us with five minutes for audience questions, which is still far more minutes than other panels had.

As for the presentations themselves, I am grateful to Mikhail and Brent for putting me on this panel, as I think all three papers worked well together at covering various paths of pulling content from popular culture into classrooms.

I really liked how Alexandra’s primary texts for her classes tended to be slice-of-life manga like Bakuman that address common concerns for students, and focus on timeless topics that last far longer than whatever is the next trend in anime.

Alexandra’s presentation also started with a very clear teaching philosophy for building upon students’ skills at communication and writing, especially in terms of digital pedagogy. Her focus was on using online and electronic platforms in which manga series can serve as primary texts, and her sample assignments were fascinating–and ones that actually use the same approaches that industry professionals are using to market anime and manga. For example, Alexandra has students create the equivalent of movie trailers for popular manga series–which is exactly what students are doing already! I don’t remember Alexandra using the term, but what she was proposing was that students make AMVs (anime music videos), which fans have been doing for decades. Heck, Anime Expo hosts an entire contest each year for making and showing AMVs, and North American anime and manga distributors like Funimation and Viz were using AMVs at their Anime Expo panel to publicize series such as My Hero Academia.

Stevi’s presentation then built upon Alexandra’s with a key focus: that students are readers, even when they don’t realize it. Whereas Alexandra was directing her remarks largely to college students, Stevi teaches high school history, and hardly dumbing down her content, she uses pop culture to show students how they are already critical, thorough readers of numerous texts around them, whether online writing, television, or film. As Stevi argued, students are thrown into a classroom where they are encountering new ideas and new approaches to writing and research–and on top of that, many of us as teachers give them new, unfamiliar texts. To improve students’ retention, Stevi substitutes unfamiliar texts with familiar ones, using the manga students already read as the primary texts for new approaches to history. To expand reading options for students, Stevi shares her manga as part of a lending library, where students check out volumes to read and write about. And I don’t want to give too much away, but Stevi also had one of the funniest, most intuitive approaches for teaching the history of war–through use of Pokemon. If Stevi gives a presentation at a convention near you, or if she is publishing on this topic, check it out–it is worth considering.  

As for my presentation, whereas Alexandra and Stevi were starting from the point of view of what teachers can do to draw students into the classroom via anime, I was taking a different approach, about how students can bring anime into their own assignments. Alexandra was focusing on writing, Stevi was focused on history, and I was focused on gender studies. For the last three years, I have been invested in the manga Soul Eater, created by Atsushi Ohkubo and running from 2007 to 2013. The series is both appealing and frustrating from a gender studies perspective. On the one hand, it includes complex characters of various genders and sexualities, with some respectful portrayals of characters who are gender neutral or lesbian, but at the same time, as a shonen series intended to appeal to young boys, it indulges in sexual objectification of female bodies. I develop sample lessons based on this series, approaching Soul Eater as a fan myself and from what I would want to write about as a student. In my courses, I focus on how students can be creators themselves in response to the texts they encounter. Rather than only point out the problems in the text, my approach was to find solutions to fix those problems and offer alternative approaches to the same text. This process is beneficial as it helps students think through the creative process themselves–about the challenges writers and illustrators like the creator of Soul Eater face on a tight publishing schedule. When students have course assignments to re-design characters’ revealing costumes or re-write poorly written scenes, while also submitting short essays explaining their revisions, teachers show fans that they too are creators, and that their roles as fans mean they are not passive recipients of the pop culture they consume, but that they are actively interpreting those texts and finding roads not taken.

I want to wrap up with two points that came up in the question and answer session after the presentations. First, I want to thank illustrator EZ-Art on Tumblr for giving me permission to share their artwork inspired by the character Momo from My Hero Academia. I’ve been writing a lot about that anime lately, as it is one of the most optimistic superhero stories out there right now, and its emergence out of Japan identifies the bidirectional influences United States and Japanese comics have had on each other. While My Hero Academia is thoroughly enjoyable, there is a problem regarding how the show presents Momo: her abilities are that she can generate any object out of her skin–so it makes sense that, with more exposed skin, she can produce larger weapons in combat. The problem is that it takes a female character and continues that long-trend in many superhero comics in having her wear an outfit that is revealing–which suits her abilities–but which is not pragmatic in combat. In comments that they included with their artwork posted to Tumblr, EZ-Art does not simply criticize the outfit as revealing: they show in re-design how Momo’s skin still can be exposed, while her outfit can instead look like something that would be functional in combat, almost like an outfit someone would wear when sparring or running. EZ-Art did a great job identifying how to revise a character’s design without constraining her to cover up more skin and with a focus on functionality over fanservice.

The second point I want to make regards a question someone had for me after the panel. This audience member identified to me that there is a problem with insisting that a character’s costume be changed out of a concern for covering up skin. I was trying to make the point in my presentation that the goal of costume revisions is not to condemn any character themselves for how they dress. This point is especially important regarding fans’ ownership of these texts: there are fans who cosplay as these characters, and certainly their choice for how they dress is beyond my criticism–those fans chose such attire, and their practices of wearing it are going to create interpretations far different than how the original creator intended. Whereas a creator illustrating a revealing costume for a character, I think, tends to do so for mere titillation at the expense of their characters’ agency, when a cosplayer dresses a certain way, they do so by choice, and that action of putting on that outfit at no point merits criticism, lest such criticism serve to mock, judge, or condemn that person’s choices of what to do with their body and with what they wear: I have no right to criticize any person for how they dress, and I am sorry that my presentation at all suggested that argument. Rather, I want to re-emphasize that a cosplayer, as a creator, in taking on that outfit, is lending a significance to that attire that goes beyond what the original anime or manga suggested: their wearing of that outfit demonstrates how that clothing functions and what it means to them and other fans. That is the goal, to let fan creators like cosplayers wear as they desire to, and I hope such cosplay lends an interpretation to that outfit that shows something more than what it did in the original anime or manga.

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