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Bringing Comics to the Classroom

GRAPHIC NOVELS AND COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM is an ambitious book, not simply because it tackles the sometimes tricky topic of using comics for education --- but also because it quite simply covers a lot of comics and comics history. It’s an inclusive academic work featuring essays from more than two dozen educators and experts in the field. It ranges from the scholarly (“Using Graphic Novels to Teach Dystopian Literature”;  “Comics Studies and Research Writing Pedagogy”) to the practical (“Teaching Global Awareness Through the Graphic Novel”; “Multicultural Education Through Graphic Novels”) to the mainstream (“Using Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Mento Teach Feminism”). The book’s two editors,Carrye Kay Syma and Rob Weiner, both work for Texas Tech University (she as the associate librarian for human resources; he as the associate humanities librarian). Together, they’ve assembled a thorough work on how to properly use comics in a scholarly manner. Here is what they had to say about putting the book together. (Photo by Amy Kim/Texas Tech Libraries)


What’s been the reaction to the book so far? Have you talked with some educators and librarians who have been implementing its lessons?

Rob:The reaction to the book has been very positive. We have spoken to a few educators who found the essays to be very useful to their own teaching practices. People seem to like the book, and educators from all parts of the academic spectrum will find something useful within its pages.


Can you talk a little about your individual histories with comics and how you became involved in using them in an academic setting?

Carrye: Rob introduced me to comics when he approached me about creating a graphic novel in a course we were teaching together.

Rob:I go way back to when I was a child. One of the first memories I have is having a Batman bowtie. I had a collection of Batman stories and remember being fascinated by Batmite. I went to a comic store when I was very young and saw Silver Surfer #1 and Tales of Suspense # 39. The cover images stuck in my little young mind and ever since then comics have been a part of my life.

I have always been interested in the intersection between sequential art and academia. One of my goals has been to continually educate both the general public and academics that comics are a form of social history and have just as much artistic merit as other art forms. Comics are one of the purest forms of storytelling and conveying information across cultural boundaries.


You both work for Texas Tech University. How have comics been implemented into teaching there?

Carrye:Rob and I have used comics in our one-hour, for-credit course here in the library, LIBR 1100.

Rob:I have students all the time coming to visit me who are doing research on everything from superheroes to political cartoons to biographic narratives needing help finding research materials. I know there are a number of courses here at Texas Tech that use a graphic novel or two. A few of these include a graduate fandom course; a romantic literature course that uses Watchmen; history and literature courses that use Mausand a hero mythology course that discusses Batman.

I teach an honors class on the Superhero in Film, Television, and Popular Culture and one on Zombie Culture. I have students read graphic novels for both classes and the response has been largely positive. Students don’t often know what to make of some of those pre-Code 1940s and 1950s stories, but I think it is important they be exposed to some of that material in addition to more contemporary narratives. Some of the books I use include The Killing Joke, Marvels, The Dark Phoenix Saga, Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes, Marvel Zombies and Zombies: Chilling Archives of Horror Comics


How did you two begin working together?

Carrye:We began working together when Rob approached me about putting together an edited, peer-reviewed book on graphic novels and comics in the classroom. As we were scheduled to teach together, he also suggested that we try adding a graphic novel component to our course. We wanted to do this to add some meat and variety to the way the course was currently set up and taught. Student responses to the graphic novel were great and they really seemed to enjoy it.

Rob:I had always wanted to approach Carrye about working on something. The process of putting this volume together was a long one. It took more than 4 years from conception to publication. We hope that the volume contributes something applicable and practical to those using comics in the classroom or who are considering using them.


GRAPHIC NOVELS AND COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM covers a lot of ground --- far more than many similar books about teaching comics. What topics were you most interested in covering for this book, and why was it important to address them?

Carrye: I was most interested in covering the historical uses of graphic novels and comics in the classroom as well as the cultural studies that can occur through the use of them.

Rob:We wanted a diverse collection covering the academic spectrum. Like Carrye, I found the historical uses of comics in education enlightening. I also really enjoyed reading about professors’ personal experiences using comics within the classroom. I think those kinds of studies of what worked and what didn’t are practical for today’s educator.


What inspired you to create this book? What niche did you see it serving?

Carrye:We wanted to provide a text that spoke to the value of graphic novels and comics in education. Some in academia do not appreciate their value and we wanted to show that they may be incorporated in virtually any class.

Rob:Well, the idea for this volume came to me while I was finishing up Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries, which I edited. Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom was a natural extension of that project. I know there are many books, scholarly articles, blogs, and websites that talk about comics, teaching, and education, but hopefully there are unique nuggets in our volume that educators will find helpful. At least that was our goal!


You rallied up more than two dozen contributors to work on the articles included in this book. How did you get them all? What were the criteria you used to select contributors?

Carrye: Rob sent out calls for contributors and the criteria used was a peer-review process.

Rob: Yes, the volume was blind peer-reviewed in the truest sense. One of the reasons it took so long to publish is that we sent out each paper to other educators and librarians to review and get their feedback. Then we sent the papers back for revisions to the authors. Hopefully, we have a much tighter book that way.


Given its detailed historical analyses, GRAPHIC NOVELS AND COMICS IN THE CLASSROOM seems like a good blueprint for building a case if a teacher faces a doubting principal, fellow faculty, or parents. Is that one of the strategies you envisioned when you were making this book?

Rob:This is definitely one of the strategies we envisioned when we were making this book. One of the essays discusses the resistance the professor found from a certain colleague about using comics and it became downright nasty. There are still those out there in the wider world who still need to be “educated” about the educational value of sequential art.


Which comics and graphic novels do you each find most educational and most worthy of using in the classroom?

Carrye: For me, the ones that are most educational are the ones that speak to culture and historical events, such as Persepolis and Maus.

Rob:Really, I see all graphic novels/comics as having educational value, whether it’s Archie, Spider-Man, Calvin and Hobbes, orAmerican Born Chinese. There is something to be learned from all of them, given the right educational context.


Which do you just enjoy reading for fun?

Carrye: I really enjoyed readingPersepolis.

Rob:I read a lot of nonfiction. One of my favorite books is Eric Larson’s Devil in the White City. I still love reading spooky stuff like H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. As far as comics go, recently I’ve been reading those old Marvel and Gold Key Star Trek comics from the 1970s. I am looking forward to Sequart Art’s forthcoming book on Star Trekcomics. I also like reading manga on occasion.


Which little-known or offbeat comic do you think should be given more attention for its uses in the classroom?

Rob: Oh, so many! It seems like the same titles get talked about over and over again in educational settings (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, American Born Chinese, Maus, Dark Knight Returns). I like the fact that our book has articles discussing Barefoot Gen, Y the Last Man and other lesser-known works as well as the “standard texts.” Obviously, there is a reason Watchmen, Maus, etc., get used so much. They are obviously extremely important works that have applications in all types of courses.

Personally, I use works like Marvels, which is an invaluable tool in conveying a different perspective on the superhero concept. The first volume of the Silver Surfer Masterworks could be interesting for a philosophy/ethics-type course. Craig Thompson’s Blankets could be used for family studies and adolescent psychology courses. Marisa Acocella Marchetto’sCancer Vixen is one that I think would be beneficial to gender studies, among other subjects.


What are you each working on next?

Carrye: We hope to create a full version of the graphic novel that we used in our LIBR 1100 course to teach information literacy.

Rob:I am working on another coedited volume with Robert Moses Peaslee (whom I worked with on Web-Spinning Heroics), related to the Joker. It’s one of the first academic volumes to focus solely on a supervillain.