Taken by Bethany Holmstrom, modified at cartoonize.net

Comics & Composition

For this semester’s composition classes, I decided to deviate a bit from my prior offerings. In the past I’ve incorporated anthologies into my composition syllabi, but I am frankly not the biggest fan of anthologies/readers in the context of a writing class: these work very well for some people, they are simply not appealing to me. I need some sort of larger concept to grapple with: a theme we can return to and explore from different positions – and this leaves aside larger questions of what gets included/excluded from such anthologies as well.

There were other considerations to keep in mind. Working within the City University of New York system, classes are incredibly diverse; this is particularly the case at LaGuardia Community College. There are recent high school graduates mixed in with students returning to college after years of being in the work force. Some have lived in New York their whole lives, some have immigrated to the US within the past couple of years. How could I cater to a diverse learning community using content with enough appeal and accessibility to engage as many students as possible, while establishing a common language and theme to approach the material, and – selfishly – make it something I, too, could get excited about?

Graphic narratives seemed to be a viable option. I do not think that reading graphic narratives are necessarily “easier” than reading purely textual material: graphic narratives are multimodal and require an immense amount of inference and unpacking. If the graphic narrative is done well, however, the images and art make decoding and reading seem easier – but the reader must still actively supply meaning. In some ways, I hope to challenge any lingering assumptions on the part of my students that comic books and graphic novels are somehow childish, or that they aren’t real fodder for academic probing. But it is this same bias that perhaps makes comic books seem less intimidating to some students than if I had assigned, say, a lengthy anthology of text-heavy literary works.

Once I decided to go with graphic narratives, I had to deal with that perpetually challenging task one faces when sitting down to write a syllabus: defining and shaping the course readings to create some kind of coherent conversation. I recently read Mark Siegel’s Sailor Twain; Or, The Mermaid in the Hudson  and I was positively itching to teach it, so I had a place to start. Based on that, I could go steampunk and/or Victorian (and then bring in Alan Moore’s From Hell among others), or just stick to 19th century US settings and go truly historical (incorporating Ben Katchor’s Jew of New York, say). I mercilessly harassed colleagues and friends for ideas (A Martini was particularly helpful). As much as the 19th century US option spoke to my personal research interests, I decided to use comic books and graphic novels set in New York City as my criteria and broaden the appeal a bit.

Fortunately, there are many examples of assignments to draw upon when devising a course on graphic narratives. The collection Teaching the Graphic Novel edited by Stephen E. Tabachnick was a good jumping-off point to get a broad sense of how graphic novels have been approached from a variety of disciplines and positions. Mark Sample has several different syllabi available online, but I honed in on his rotating blogging assignment and adapted it slightly. Adeline Koh recently wrote on the Profhacker blog about using Bitstrips as an assignment, and I happily played with the program a bit before deciding it would be useful for informal weekly responses. The first student Bitstrip went up today as a quick response to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them. Billie Hara used graphic novels in her writing class and also wrote up her experiences on using Comic Life for a graphic novella project. I created a page for the course syllabus using Comic Life 2, and my students will also be creating graphic novellas as a final project [later note: I had to abandon this plan, as not all my students had access to a computer to install the program]. Along the way, students will write more traditional research papers – comparing the depictions of political power in the city in Fables, Volume 1 and Ex Machina Volume 1: The First Hundred Days, or developing research papers on Watchmen and another graphic novel, either Strange Attractors, The Couriers, or Sailor Twain.

I’ll reflect at the term’s end on whether or not the course “worked” for students, as gauged by their anonymous feedback and the overall assignment quality alike. In the mean time, I hope to hear more from others who have incorporated graphic narratives into the college classroom and how it has worked for them.

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