Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Teaching Comics

If you weren't at the Norman Rockwell Museum on Saturday, you missed out on a great day of comics and education. In fact, I think it's safe to say that the "Graphic Novels in the Classroom" Symposium, which you missed (unless you were there, and if you were, then "hey, nice to see you again!"), was the Malcolm Gladwellesque Tipping Point for the comics in the classroom movement. The assembled multitude of (at least) fifty educators, gathered together in the name of comics awesomeness, learning about what these fancy newfangled graphic narratives are all about, will be seen as the first wave of the paradigm shift. No more will comics be relegated to the young, to the homeless, to the insane. From this moment forward, comics will permeate the walls of every school in the country, radically shifting the way students learn.

Comics, and education, will never be the same again.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, a lot. But the Rockwell Symposium, which I was lucky enough to be a part of (I presented a well-attended workshop on "Graphic Novels and Literature" as part of the afternoon session), was symbolic of something more. Think about it: not only is the Norman Rockwell Museum embracing comics as an art form, and as a legitimate, and essential, part of the history of American Illustration, but the teachers who showed up on Saturday (who ranged from new teachers quite familiar with comics to experienced teachers who knew that Beetle Bailey used to be in the newspapers) were enthusiastic about the potential of the medium. These teachers wanted to find out why they should use comics and how they should use comics. And, based on what I saw and heard, they left the building at 4:45 PM with exciting new ideas about the role comics can play in a teaching environment. It was exciting to be involved in.

Thirteen years ago, when I first received my teaching certification in Massachusetts, when I was younger, had slightly more hair, and thought that new was inherently better than old, I failed to get hired. I had good credentials, and I would always be one of the finalists interviewed for every job, but I couldn't close the deal that summer. In retrospect, I know exactly why. I sat in those interviews and talked about the changing face of English instruction. I talked about the shift toward visual narrative and the inevitable change in the way English is taught. I discussed the incorporation of film and comics into the curriculum as modes of narrative, and I talked myself out of every one of those jobs by doing so.

They didn't want to hear that stuff. They wanted to hear that I was going to teach Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, and I was going to assign a lot of essays using "process writing," and that I wasn't going to put up with any crap from the students. They didn't want to hear how things were going to change.

When I finally DID get hired, well that was the interview where I didn't talk about any of that visual narrative stuff. I had learned my lesson.

But damn it if I wasn't right, and the reaction to the Rockwell Symposium only confirms the ideas I was mentioning over a decade ago. The thing those schools didn't realize back then, and it was my fault for not expressing myself clearly, I suppose, is that I think there's more than enough room for Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, AND films AND comics. As much as I'm on the so-called "cutting edge" (at least in this relatively rural area of the state) with my Cinema class (which has been in place for over six years now, and had produced several award-winning filmmakers already) and my advocacy of comics in the classroom, the truth is that I am pretty "old school." I believe in teaching Shakespeare, frequently. And without using one of those so-called "modern translations" which others find so helpful. That's bullshit as far as I'm concerned. When you teach Shakespeare plays, you teach the blank verse or you don't teach it. The language IS the meaning, and that's why you won't find me using "classics illustrated"-style comics in the classroom. The comics don't replace the important literary texts, and they aren't modes to "simplify" meaning for students. The comics worth teaching are the ones that can stand next to a literary work and offer some basis for thematic comparison, or some interesting similarity (or difference) in the way a different medium shapes narrative technique.

I might use John Barth's "Autobiography" (prose), Chuck Jones's "Duck Amuck" (film), and Grant Morrison and Charles Truog's "The Coyote Gospel" (comics) as three texts in a short unit on metafiction. Perhaps if I had clearly explained why those three texts are equally valid and useful as instructional tools, I wouldn't have gotten those condescending stares in those interviews thirteen years ago. It probably wouldn't have mattered. Schools, even that recently, weren't ready for the shift. If the Rockwell Symposium is any indication, they are now. And, honestly, it's about time.

By the way, the image at the top of this post is from Jay Hosler's Clan Apis, which is a great example of a comic that's a teaching tool but also an engaging read by itself. Plus, Jay is a fantastic advocate of comics in the classroom and a brilliant speaker on the topic. His slideshow and lecture which kicked off the Symposium was one of the most informative and enjoyable two hours of my life. That's what learning should feel like, at its best.

Comics in education. Finally.

1 comment:

Marc Caputo said...

Excellent post, Timothy. I especially like how you are judicious in your selection of when and what to use in your classes.

As a fellow educator (of Math, though) I hate how education has become so "cookie-cutter" that anyone can do it, provided that they follow the rule books. There's no room for the art of teaching the science of Math anymore. I try to expand on things where I can or provide some real-world context, but when you're up against a harsh and punishing pacing calendar, there's no time.

I commend what you're doing - that's the true definition of "higher education".