Bringing Comics into the Classroom

bcc-header.jpgSteve Higgins, a frequent PLAYBACK:stl contributor and English instructor at Lewis and Clark Community College, gives the ins and outs of his experience in crafting a course in Comic Books as Literature.

 

 

Comics played a formative role in my life from a very early age, just as I’m sure they did for many other fans. One of the earliest reading experiences I can remember involves my dad bringing home issues of Superman and Justice League of America (notably issue 200 of the latter series) that he had bought at the grocery store and the two of us reading them together, him helping me with the bigger words. Comics instilled in me a love for reading that stayed with me throughout school and led to a deep appreciation of literature in all its forms.

The cover to Watchmen. Click for a larger image.This great affection I have for the written word led me to pursue a career in education, and today I am an English instructor at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, IL. In many ways I am living my dream, spending my days conveying my love of reading to others and hopefully instilling the same feelings in my students. I am very fortunate that I have been given the opportunity to share literature with them no matter what form it might take, for my school has allowed me to teach a course entitled Comic Books as Literature.

When I first taught this course several years ago at another college (Olney Central College, a community college on the east side of Illinois), it was a bit more rare then to see comics as part of an academic curriculum. The National Association of Comics Arts Educators was just forming, bringing together the handful of educators around the country who dealt with comics in their classrooms in some way, and their website (http://www.teachingcomics.org/) proved an invaluable resource to me in convincing my dean at the time to allow me to teach the course.

Today, however, comics have a firm foothold in academia, with schools around the country from Yale down to our area’s own SIU-Edwardsville offering courses solely in comics. Many individual courses from various disciplines are also including a graphic novel into their curriculum; Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in particular is popular in courses on women’s lit and was already being taught at my school when I was hired.

The cover to Sin City: The Hard Goodbye. Click for a larger image.So it was not difficult for me to convince my dean at Lewis and Clark of the value of this course. I did have to send my proposed syllabus through several committees, both of my peers and of administrators, before it was finally approved and placed on the course schedule, and I had to seek approval from the Illinois Articulation Initiative board. But this procedure is normal for any new class, and I had no difficulty getting it through the committee. At present, the course does not have IAI approval, which means in essence that the course is offered purely as a non-transferrable elective course. But I feel as courses such as these grow in popularity in the next decade, they will eventually become as popular as film classes on college campuses, and they will eventually receive full accreditation from this organization.

The format of the course itself is rather simple and much like any other literature course focusing on a certain era or locale. We read a total of five graphic novels, each from a different genre so as to expose the students to a wide variety of material. These graphic novels are Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (in the superhero genre), Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller (crime), Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes (realism), V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (science-fiction), and Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman, Kelley Jones, et al. (fantasy). After each selection the students read, we come to class to discuss what we read as we would any other piece of literature. We analyze the plot and characters, deconstruct the symbols, and explore the themes. Occasionally they have in-class writing assignments over the material as well.

The cover to Jar of Fools. Click for a larger image.Discussion is always enlightening for me as much as it is for them, for I try to come to the class with merely a few questions for them to ponder, rather than lecturing the whole time, so that the learning experience is something they take control of. Last year we had a very interesting discussion on an unpublished Hellblazer short story entitled "Shoot," which was perhaps one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve ever had.

Eventually the students are tested over the material, but rather than ask them simple true-false comprehensive questions about the story’s details, I administer essay exams which require them to seek out the deeper meanings of the stories. The questions on these tests are always drawn specifically from our in-class discussion, so it again reinforces their roles as active learners. There are two such tests, at midterm and in the last week of class, and for each one they have a portion that they must do during class time and a portion which must be taken home and completed. For the most part students do very well on these tests, always surprising me with the insights they have gleamed from reading these works.

The cover to V for Vendetta. Click for a larger image.Apart from the tests, there are three other major assignments. First, the students have to read a sixth graphic novel on their own, one they choose from a list I provide. They must then write an analytical paper on the book’s meaning, while also presenting to the rest of the class a book report which summarizes and evaluates the books each one read. This assignment exposes the class as a whole to other material we would not have time to read otherwise, and it’s always fun to see how fired up they get about what they have read. Last year when I taught this course, some of the presentations were especially elaborate, such as the student who spoke on Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum. This year the students were asked to present on works with a cultural significance, and the student who presented on Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi earlier this week did an especially excellent job of presenting the material.

The students are also required to get involved in a collaborative note-taking effort I have set up for them via a wiki. Once every three or four weeks, a student is designated the official note-taker for the day, and after class the student must log into a public website (http://litt200.pbwiki.com/) and post about what happened in class on that day. To be honest, this semester is the first time I’ve attempted such an assignment, and I’m still working some of the bugs out of it. But if you visit the site, you can see how their efforts have shaped up so far.

The cover to Sandman: Season of Mists. Click for a larger image.Finally in the latter half of each semester I teach the course, I bring in a group of comic creators to speak to the class about what they do. The students are required to attend this guest lecture and to write a brief response essay about what they learned from the experience. What the students tend to enjoy most about this assignment is that it allows them to ask questions of professionals working in the field of comics and thus get an insider’s view on the process of comics publishing. This event is also open to the public as well, so the students are able to bring in their friends and family members to check out what the class is all about (just as other curious students from the college do as well).

This year the guest speakers will be artist Jeremy Haun and writers B. Clay Moore and Cullen Bunn. They will be coming to the school on Friday, April 4 at 2:00 pm for a one-hour panel discussion on comics, as well as a brief book signing afterwards, and I invite anyone reading this article to come out and join us to get a firsthand look at what my course is like. The event will be held in the reading room of Reid Memorial Library on the campus of Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, IL. (Should you need further details, including directions, please contact me at shiggins@lc.edu for more information.) | Steve Higgins

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