Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Graphic Lit: Comics in the classroom

This was a big Arts package that ran last Sunday and which I had been working on (or struggling over depending on the day) for several weeks. I think it turned out pretty well. I wish I could show you the actual newspaper page or had permission to post some of the great photos that ran with the piece because they really added to the text.

I'll post the second part of the story, which includes quotes from students in the class mentioned below and a short interview with a local CCS student tomorrow.

Historical relevance. Artistic self-awareness. Aesthetic beauty. Intertextuality. Epistemology.

These are the types of topics you might find students discussing in your average college-entry English literature class.

The students in Dickinson College professor David Ball’s class aren’t dissecting Faulkner or Joyce, however, but comic books.

More specifically, they’re dissecting the stories found in “McSweeney’s Vol. 13,” a Chris Ware-edited — and highly acclaimed — anthology of work by various alternative and independent cartoonists.

Welcome to “Graphic Narratives,” a new course on “an emerging genre in contemporary American literature” as the syllabus states, that treats artists like Ware, Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”) with the same level of inquiry that is normally reserved for Shakespeare and Hemingway.

“Some of the most exciting work that’s been done in the last five years has been done in this interdisciplinary medium,” Ball said. “My interest is both in the quality of the work itself, the way it’s being produced, and in the way that it stretches your brain in different ways.

Ball’s class is just one example of the many ways comics — or “graphic novels” as they’re being called these days — have infiltrated the academic world.

Long regarded — even feared — as a hindrance to literacy, comics are now seen as not only worthy of inclusion in college classrooms but also as an excellent educational tool in K-12 classes and public libraries across the country.

Teaching tool

The notion that comics might have not only a literary but also educational value might be surprising to those whose knowledge of the medium is limited to the funny pages in their newspaper. But those who have labored in its trenches are well aware of its potential.

“If you’re trying to use comics to educate someone or convey ideas, using pictures helps get information into the head very quickly,” said Juniata College biology professor Jay Hosler, who moonlights as a cartoonist and has produced such acclaimed graphic novels as “Clan Apis” and “The Sandwalk Adventures.”

Hosler, whose new book, “Optical Allusions” takes readers on a tour of how the human eye works, cites other things that comics do well, such as acting as an intermediate step to learning difficult concepts, or being able to control the rate at which you move through the story.

“What I’ve always found is that a lot of times educators are really excited about another tool,” he said. “They’re facing struggle on the ground and they know through experience they have to continually find ... innovative ways to engage the student. That’s the real challenge.”

It’s a tool that Scott Shaffer uses frequently. A reading teacher at Southeastern Middle School West in Fawn Grove, he recently formed an after-school comics club where students learn how to make and eventually even print their own comic book stories.

“I tell the kids you don’t have to be the best artist. We have kids coming in drawing stick figures,” Shaffer said.

A longtime comics fan, Shaffer is well aware of the medium’s educational potential.

“I could list for you a dozen reading skills that could be taught in isolation out of a comic book,” he said, “such as making predictions ... making inferences [between panels], ... sequence of events, cause and effect, character, onomatopoeia — really I use them not only in the club, but I also use them as a teaching tool in my own instruction in my classroom.”

In the library near you

It’s not just schools that have hopped on the graphic novel bandwagon. Public libraries have been incorporating them into their shelves to draw younger and wayward readers through their doors.

The Elizabethtown Public Library, for example, recently held a “Teen Anime and Manga Night” (manga being the term for Japanese comics) that drew 31 attendees.

“If you’ve seen teenagers on the bus and they’re reading anything, that’s something a teen librarian is going to notice and want to have in their collection,” said youth services librarian Mary Anne Stanley, who has been active in getting graphic novels into the Elizabethtown library.

“There are certain specific customer groups who are primarily interested in that material who aren’t necessarily drawn to novels of Jane Austen, she said. “Teenage boys and young men are often very happy to have graphic novels and comics available for them to read.”

What’s more, she added, comics “have some very challenging vocabulary and concepts even when you’re talking about things that people don’t ordinarily think of in that way, like superhero comics. You can get some pretty heady vocabulary out of that.”

Comics helps a person not only become a better reader but a smarter one as well.

“I want students to become intelligent readers of a number of different manifestations media, from Super Bowl ads to Shakespeare,” Ball said. “The analytical and critical thinking skills that you apply to comics are ones that can be used when you’re watching an ad of someone trying to sell you something, when you’re reading a book of American literature. They are skills that are transferable.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008



At 4:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
Many schools in the UK too are using comics/graphic novels to attract reluctant readers and make literature more accessible.
Have a look and let me know what you think


Post a Comment

<< Home