Making Curriculum Pop

What is a "good" graphic novel and why should we use comics in the classroom?

I do some of my best thinking when I first wake up in the morning. This morning I woke up in Burlington, Vermont and decided that I would write something today about  comics as a medium of storytelling and about comics in education.

So here are my thoughts....

Some of my graphic novel cohorts have expressed concern about a backlash against the comics in education movement.  Coincidentally enough, I am  teaching Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics right now to my students. We just finished talking about the fact that McCloud emphasizes in chapter 6 that comics cannot possibly be judged or valued as strictly writing or analyzed by the standards of graphic art because the medium is a combination of both-- pictures and words and their lovely, extensive, various combinations. Comics is not a genre! If we keep saying it is or letting critics say it is, their arguments will appear reasonable and credible. This is such an important point because critics of comics use in the classroom sometimes judge the medium as poorly written literature or pop culture forms of stories that have little historical value as high art etc.. etc... Well, my point which is really McCloud's point is that comics need only be judged or critiqued according to the standards of its unique media form-- that is, as comics!

Much of new media is similarly criticized, that is, by traditional standards that do not completely or accurately apply to the medium.

I have news for you-- comics will never measure up to Shakespeare because it ain't the same medium. The grammar and vocabulary of the Bard is not the same as the grammar and vocabulary of comics. Both media contain wonderful and crappy. Would you judge or criticize a film studies course according to the standards of a literature course? Would a film course in the language arts curriculum be valuable only if it co-opted itself to fulfill literary expectations? 

My graphic novel course is similar in some respects to a literature course, but it does something different and good too-- students also learn about another medium, as a medium. I can teach the graphic novels as literature, but I don't, not with all of the texts. Once kids get McCloud, they analyze and criticize the stories they read in the comics medium according to their understanding of the medium, not merely literary concerns or graphic art concerns. I assess their ability to do apply these measurements-- I make the distinction clear. (They are the next generation of educators after all!)

So, the critics are right-- comics won't measure up when compared to the "great" literature  traditionally taught in education, nor will its graphic art ever compete with the standards used to measure Picasso or the standards used to judge graphic art. It won't measure up because that would be like measuring apples and oranges.

I think our argument for comics in education critics then is about showing the kinds of learning that happens by studying the comics medium as a unique form of media (rather than co-opting it to be taught as just another literary genre-- we have to stop allowing academic journals to call it a genre as well!)

In a world of multiple forms of media (and who knows how many more media may be created in the future), knowledge transfer that comes from understanding another medium to understand what media is is sufficient. In addition to this, however, there are several other valuable skills and concepts students can acquire through understanding comics and reading sequential art narratives in school (and I emphasize IN SCHOOL because some concepts need to be taught or skills facilitated with instruction). These include: thinking about thinking/metacognition. Knowing yourself as a learner and understanding your own mental processes especially reflecting on how you understand perception, and perception of images is applicable to life in general and other academic study. And what about analysis of form and content? Understanding relationships between form and content is also applicable to reading the world and other media. Collaboration, discussion skills, visual literacy...the list goes on, but this is not a dissertation  (yet?).

When my students write their papers next week critiquing American Born Chinese as a "good graphic novel," they'll be expected to judge it according to the criteria of comics, not merely literary standards (not that it couldn't kick ass according to those standards as well!) 

Anyway, this comics in education issue has been on my mind, so I needed to just share my thoughts with you. Please  feel free to argue and/or comment accordingly. If I contradict myself or propose inaccuracies, please point them out. I'd sure appreciate it.

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Comment by Todd Finley on December 21, 2011 at 5:12pm

I'm in complete agreement with you on this. Comics are attacked, yet they have easily dominated pop culture to a staggering degree. 

Comment by Ryan Goble on December 7, 2011 at 10:07am

Maureen - you should really copy and paste this post into the GN group - because I set the site up around groups floating discussions don't get a lot of action - when you post in those group forums people get an update e-mail (or most of them).  Just a thought! Plus if it is in a group I can share on the blog broadcasts!


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