Comics Evangelism: Strategies for Encouraging Students to Love Comics

This is my MPCA/ACA paper: “Comics Evangelism: Strategies for Encouraging Students to Love Comics.” The accompanying Google Drive presentation is here:

I’m grateful to the conference staff for willing to accommodate my rescheduling request. I was supposed to give this paper on Friday but that time was unworkable for me because of my teaching

So this paper is called “Comics Evangelism” and it’s about how to get students to love comics, especially if they don’t come from the demographics that the American comics industry has historically targeted. To explain my personal stake in this, I’m a visiting assistant professor in rhetoric and composition at Miami University, and I previously taught at Georgia Tech and I received my Ph.D. from the University of Florida. One of the primary reasons I became an academic in the first place is because I have a lifelong passion for comics and I always wanted to read and write about comics as a profession. Since getting my Ph.D., I’ve taught primarily composition, ENG 111 and 112, and I’ve used comics in nearly every course I’ve taught. I’ve worked with widely varying student populations. And I’ve found that all these student populations have vastly different ideas and expectations about comics, and approaches to teaching comics need to differ accordingly.

So the challenge I face when working with these different student populations is how to get them to share my love of comics. These students are never going to love my topic as much as I do, except in a very few cases, but I want them to at least understand why I love comics so much and to see why comics are relevant to their future academic and professional lives. Surprisingly, this is basically the same challenge faced by a professor who tries to teach Shakespeare or Milton or Cervantes or whatever. There is a common perception that comics are an easier subject to teach compared to more traditional forms of literature, because comics are fun and because students naturally gravitate to them, but this is only partially true; among some students there is a surprising amount of resistance to comics. This is partly because of apathy and also partly because of cultural prejudices that say that comics are for social misfits. SLIDE Also, again surprisingly, some students believe that in English class you’re supposed to be reading things like The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird and Ulysses, and they feel disappointed when they learn that they’re going to be reading comics instead. So getting students to love comics is a harder task than you might expect. So this presentation is a description of how I’ve tried to adapt my comics pedagogy, not always successfully, to overcome students’ resistance to comics and to encourage them to love comics. It’s going to be based mostly on anecdotal evidence, but hopefully it will be useful to others who are in the same position. And in this presentation I’m basically taking it as a given that you want to teach comics, and I’m not going to discuss why you might want to do this – the question I’m asking is, assuming you do want to teach comics, what’s the best way to get the students excited. And I realize that this may not necessarily be a safe assumption because this panel is mostly about television and so it’s possible that some of you are not interested in comics, but if you want to know why teaching comics is a good idea in the first place, I’d be happy to talk about that afterward or in the Q&A.

And I’m going to proceed by discussing various different types of students and how you can adapt your pedagogy in order to reach them. I can’t say that I’ve always implemented these recommendations successfully myself, so this paper is partly a description of what I should be doing rather than what I actually do.

Now in a class focused on comics, perhaps the easiest group of students to work with is what we might call the comic geeks, the students who already know everything about comics. This type of student might already read comics outside of class and might have signed up for your class specifically because it’s about comics. At Georgia Tech I had a lot of students like this; at Miami, significantly fewer. Now with these students, you don’t need to worry about encouraging them to love comics, because they already do. The first thing to keep in mind is that even if students already have a deep knowledge of certain types of comics, that knowledge is often limited. Students who are already comics fans are much more likely to have read Captain America or Thor or The Walking Dead than Fun Home or Persepolis or Maus, which are the kinds of texts that are usually taught in comics courses at the university level. With students who already think they know about comics, your job is to expose them to other kinds of comics and to expand their knowledge of the field. The other important consideration is to not allow these students to dominate the discussion and to make sure that the other students know what they’re talking about. Don’t let the class become a dialogue between you and that one student. Like, if one student starts talking about the new female Thor, you need to ask them to tell the rest of the class what they’re talking about.

Now there are other students who don’t specifically read comics but who are interested in other areas of what we might call geek culture, such as video games, anime, and science fiction. And at Georgia Tech, students like these represented the bulk of my domestic students. Again, these students tend to be fairly easy to reach because they’re already predisposed to be interested in comics, and they often are glad that they get to read comics for English class because they could have been reading something much less interesting. At Georgia Tech, obviously, most of the students are going into STEM professions and English may not have been their best subject in high school.

But when I moved from Georgia Tech to Miami, I encountered a very different student population in which most of my students had no knowledge of or interest in comics at all. At Miami, I encountered many students who had no particular interest in geek culture and who had literally never read a comic in their lives – at least they didn’t think they had, and I’ll explain that point in a minute. Many of these students have internalized the prejudice that all comics are superhero comics SLIDE and that all comics fans are like the Comic Book Guy SLIDE. Also, these students are often skeptical about the notion of studying comics in English class. ENG 112 at Miami is called Composition and Literature, and when these students hear “literature” they think of books that consist entirely of words with no pictures and that you read because they’re good for you, not because they’re fun. I assume that’s because this is the view of literature that their high school teachers have drilled into them – and also they’ve been told that you need to read Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Wordsworth as preparation for college English courses. As a result, these students are often surprised by the idea of an English class that focuses on comics rather than traditional literature, and they don’t necessarily believe that comics can be educational. Last semester I asked my students what they thought about using comics as a teaching tool in elementary school or high school, and some of them said that they didn’t think this was appropriate because English class is where you read things like Shakespeare and Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

So the first and most obvious way to deal with this belief is to explain the pedagogical rationale for why you’re using comics, and this is something I haven’t always done effectively. It’s useful to say, like, we’re using comics because of what they teach us about multimodal communication, or because comics help us interrogate the concept of literature and expand our understanding of what literature means, which is the way I’ve been trying to frame it this semester. But another important move to make is to realize that most students already do read comics, they just don’t realize it. If you ask a random domestic Miami student what his or her favorite comic is, the most likely answer will not be a comic book like Superman or Batman or Watchmen SLIDE, but a comic strip like Calvin & Hobbes or Peanuts or Fox Trot. It’s just that students don’t always identify comic strips and comic books as the same thing – they don’t realize that Calvin & Hobbes is a comic book in the same way as Superman is. Also, they believe that comic strips like Calvin & Hobbes are only for kids, even though empirically this is not true. And I think this is a common cultural prejudice. In Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical YA comic Sisters, she includes a scene where she at fourteen years old is talking to her cousins Josh and Jeremy, and she says she likes comics, and Josh asks “Yeah? Like Batman, Hulk, X-Men?” and Raina says, “I like Calvin and Hobbes, For Better or for Worse, Fox Trot” and Josh replies “Pssh. Those aren’t real comics.” So her cousin believes that only superhero comics like Batman and Hulk are “real” comic books, and comic strips like Fox Trot or For Better or for Worse are fake comic books, they’re just for girls. And many people have internalized this mentality, which is an example of a fairly widespread mentality which says that only the types of popular culture that appeal to men are truly valid. This is the same logic that says that chick lit and chick flicks are not “real” literature or “real” films. SLIDE I think this perception is going to change because currently young adult comics are extremely popular, and in a few years, many students will have grown up reading the work of Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi and Cece Bell. And even superhero comics are becoming much more diverse, as I’ve talked about elsewhere. But for now, there is still this prejudice that “comics” only means superhero comics which are only for boys. So the important thing to do here is make students realize that they already read and enjoy comics, and that the comics they already read are just as valid as what they think of when they think of comics. And that the analytical skills they already have from reading Calvin & Hobbes or Garfield can be applied to longer examples of comics. Similarly, lots of students read webcomics like xkcd or Cyanide & Happiness SLIDE, or websites like The Oatmeal or Hyperbole and a Half that blur the lines between comics and other kinds of texts. SLIDE I would guess that far more students read webcomics than printed comics, and even if they don’t intentionally seek out webcomics, it’s basically impossible to avoid seeing webcomics on social media. And again, these students need to realize that those are just as valid examples of comics as anything else.

A related issue is with international students – this semester I’m teaching a significant number of international students all of whom are from China. Now these students also have preconceptions about comics, but those preconceptions are completely different from those of domestic students. My knowledge about the comics scene in Mainland China is rather limited, and so I don’t know what specifically these students are likely to think of first when they hear the word “comics.” But in a Hooded Utilitarian blog post, Nadim Damluji writes that “besides […] a few rare exceptions, there aren’t any contemporary Chinese artists producing comics. However, this doesn’t mean that Chinese people aren’t avidly consuming comics on their iPhones and knock off iPhones alike. You see, the comics that are popular in China aren’t made in China, they’re translated Japanese imports.” And I have the impression that that’s true of my Chinese students – that the comics they’re likely to be familiar with are things like Naruto and One Piece and Attack on Titan. SLIDE There is a substantial comics industry in Hong Kong and I have no idea if my Chinese students are familiar with those kinds of comics.

Now here again it’s important to have some basic familiarity with and openness to manga, because the prejudice I mentioned earlier, about comic strips not being “real” comics, applies to manga as well. Among American comics fans and even journalists and some scholars, there is a widespread lack of knowledge about and/or resistance to manga. As Shea Hennum points out in an article called “What Our Failure to Cover Attack on Titan Says about the Comics Industry,” “Book after book continues to regularly dwarf the sales of Marvel and DC output … but their success is overlooked. Regardless of how many units are sold, Marvel and DC are mainstream and everything else is “other.”” And manga is perhaps the most common victim of this sort of othering. The antidote to this mentality is just to realize, and to reassure students, that comics are a global phenomenon and that North American and East Asian comics are two different versions of the same thing, and that as with comic strips, students can apply the analytical skills they’ve learned from reading manga to reading American comics. It’s important to have an expansive view of comics and to communicate that view to your students.

And another part of that is to have a basic knowledge of comics on a global level. Here’s an example of why that’s important. In class the other day, one of my students mentioned that he wanted to write his paper about a comic book called “Clump Hair” and I Googled that phrase and couldn’t find anything, but then he told me that it was about an orphan growing up in Shanghai in the ‘30s, and I Googled that phrase and realized he was referring to Sanmao, a very famous Chinese comic by Zhang Leping. SLIDE This comic has never been translated into English but I’ve heard of it because I’ve read about Chinese comics. So just doing some basic research can help you understand what your international students are talking about and can also help you build a rapport with them.

So again, I haven’t always implemented all these recommendations successfully in my own classes, but I think the basic recommendation here is that you need to be open-minded about comics yourself in order to be able to share that open-mindedness with your students. And next semester I will try to adopt this approach when I teach a section of ENG 122, Popular Literature, with the topic of Graphic Novels and Comic Books, and I’m excited to see how well that works out.

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