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Review of Alec Lapidus’s Second Language Cultural Negotiation and Visual Literacy: Comics in Class

By Michael J. Berntsen

Lapidus, Alec. Second Language Cultural Negotiation and Visual Literacy: Comics in Class. Lexington Books, 2020.

Alec Lapidus’ Second Language Cultural Negotiation and Visual Literacy: Comics in Class is an important addition to the ongoing discussion concerning the place of comics in critical analyses, pedagogical discussions, and intercultural studies. This work will inspire teachers to adjust traditional perspectives on how English Language Learners (ELLs) students learn and will guide students to recognize the value of how theoretical approaches enhance artistic interpretations. Lapidus discusses much throughout this work including how Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) can influence teaching comics to various ages, the issues of studying translations, as well as the connections between translation and adaptation studies to “encourage[ing] cross-cultural contact” within classrooms (52). Relying on Vygotsky’s ZPD as a cognitive path to learning, Lapidus’s incorporation of it is innovative and sensible since most, if not all, students have knowledge concerning how to read comics, the popularity of comics, and a basic understanding of comic history. Teachers can use students’ unaided knowledge of comics to guide them to more sophisticated levels of reading other genres by mirroring the analytical experiences of studying comics to other forms of communications. Lapidus’s robust approach is refreshing rather than uneven since the entire premise of the work is how cultural negotiations overlap and are inherently nonlinear, which is reinforced by showing how comics have the potential to lead students, especially ELLs, to more complex levels of reading.

In essence, Lapidus’ Second Language Cultural Negotiation and Visual Literacy: Comics in Class is a call to embrace ever-changing pedagogical techniques. Pulling from Education and the Significance of Life (1953) and Inward Revolution: Bringing about Radical Change in the World (2005) by Jiddu Krishnamurti, Lapidus quips that “educators often teach the way they were taught and sometimes tend to favor tradition over innovation” (2). This reminder in this work’s beginning should prompt an important self-reflective moment for all educators since self-awareness of personal teaching styles is crucial for successes within the classroom. Regardless of current or possible interactions with ELL students, every instructor should read Lapidus’s work to enhance or rejuvenate their understanding of pedagogical approaches. Even if they never use comics in their classrooms, Lapidus shows how teachers should continually review current research to maintain effective styles within the classroom.

Anticipating skeptics who would see using comics in a classroom as a mere treat rather than a significant learning experience, Lapidus expertly traces the intricate preparation needed to include comics to assist student learning. He successfully includes a balanced amount of teacher scholars who show the benefits and obstacles associated with using comics in the classroom. His reference to “The Effectiveness of Comic Strips in Increasing Students’ Speaking Ability in the Second year of Junior Hight,” by Lailiyah et al. (2015) is important to highlight how using comics can challenge instructors’ impulses to use visual art as a guiding point to language learning just for fun. Relying on an image can be useful, yet instructors must identify scaffolding as a key component to bridge an exciting idea about using vivid visuals with clear, practical learning outcomes (41). His explanation of Sally Brown’s (2013) essay, “A Blended Approach to Reading and Writing Graphic Novels,” further helps to elaborate how bringing comics into the classroom should be serious pedagogical activity rather than a simple fun break from the norm. Brown (2013) asserts that using comics in the classroom can have enormous benefit since she found that English as a second language (ESL) readers gained more understanding about language from comics through their connections to the characters rather than the visuals (53-4). Brown’s (2013) experiences reflect Vygotsky’s ZPD as Lapidus points out how the emotional connection prompted a deeper understanding of the comic’s language, solidifying his premise that “comics promote independent learning” (60). He also uses Jason Ranker’s (2007) “Using Comic Books as Read-Alouds: Insights on Reading Instruction from an English as a Second Language Classroom,” which focuses on how bilingual students improved their grasp of a second language by reading aloud comics. The visual matches with the written texts offered connections that straightforward literary texts lack. Lapidus contends that comics assist in common characterization analysis given how comic book franchises include toys, games, cards, movies, and so on, proving the importance of a character to the story and the audience (87).  Lapidus’s inclusion of research-based and experiential teaching studies serves as a helpful guidebook for teachers at any stage in their career. While more seasoned teachers may still be hesitant in using comics in a classroom, Lapidus underpins how the decades-long scholarly debate on comics substantiates their potential success.

The obvious audience, as inferred by the second half of the title, is teachers; however, English language learners should find immediate connection with this work and may even share similar experiences with comics as a gateway for language acquisition. Lapidus’s personal language journeys are particularly interesting as a foundation for this exploration into interculturality and comics. His reflection that “speaking a second language was the gate to the world” should resonate with anyone learning a new vocabulary (7).  Sharing that he “[grew] up in a remote, provincial place [and] yearned for something more” should immediately connect with many learners and adds a relatable anecdote that personalizes this scholarly work (7). Lapidus’s choice to include a personal narrative works well to include a wider audience beyond educators and researchers.

Cultural and literary scholars will also find much to digest and examine in this work because Lapidus’s breakdown of the philosophical positions of Vygotsky, Evgeniĭ Sergeevich Gromov, and A. A. Brudny will offer thorough explorations into the ramifications of their ideas within various fields of study. His emphasis on “teacher power” and teachers’ abilities to impact people’s learning successfully redefines the purpose for Vygotsky’s ZPD, aiming to motivate teachers to adopt varying classroom habits as a political gesture. In another push for equality, Lapidus defines “hermeneutics” as a form of intellectual discourse that demands layered comprehension of multiple perspectives and then details how such thinking is possible by tracing concrete applications of their ideas (23). After noting how Gromov believes art and hermeneutics are intertwined, Lapidus asserts how the traditional methodology of studying language should be reevaluated since standardization can ignore crucial personal interpretations of language uses. Lapidus borrows the notion from Brudny that understanding is an individual performance and pursuit unites these three critics since they are each devoted to the exploration of how knowledge is created and shared. In Lapidus’s attempts to show how personal and internal cultural negotiations are to the learning process, combining these three critics illuminates the common struggles of ELL students. Moreover, his approach to these critics emphasizes how necessary treating learners as individuals rather than a collective of minds is essential in successful teaching. Ultimately, this work should encourage teachers to add Gromov and Brudny into their pedagogy and motivate scholars to explore theorists who may have been ignored due to lack of translated works.

The most valuable chapter to teachers is his last, “Practical Ramifications.” As the title suggests, here is where Lapidus culminates in an exhibition of exercises and practices that can be converted into most classrooms. He begins with Austin Clarkson’s (2008) five-year study of observing how imagination was activated as 1,700 students viewed visual art then created their own artwork (155-57).  Lapidus then turns his attention to Kerry Freedman (2003) and the New London Group (1996), accentuating how these studies overlap with Clarkson in how students must come to their “own meaning making systems” by educators introducing their pupils to cross-cultural ideas to unite the familiar and unfamiliar (158). Unlike previous chapters, here Lapidus spends much more time on the practices rather than the overall theory. His choice is a great way to connect Vygotsky’s ZPD from previous sections and deliver a comprehensive catalog of how any teacher can develop a course using comics. These moments in the chapter should be exciting to readers who yearn for practical applications of pedagogical theory.

Based on the “Comics in Class” section of title, though, Lapidus, could have included additional chapters outlining practical course design and implementation as well as adding his own teaching experiences to complement his attention to other scholars. At one point, he declares that “[i]n my experience, autoethnographic self-analysis can be of a benefit [since] learners look back at how their identities are shaped by their interests and by their environment” (174). Lapidus could have clarified this insight with an in-depth look into these moments within his own classroom. Doing so would be especially helpful for teachers who may have been in educational courses that neglected such exercises. Even when he provides a description of his experience teaching in Southeast Asia, he rushes any sustained summary of how and why his conversations about hip-hop and computer viruses initiated unique learning experiences (160). These hints into his own teaching act as mere sidenotes when they could reinforce what he is trying to prove throughout the last chapter.

Another minor shortcoming of this work is that Lapidus should take a more confident and direct approach rather than trying to anticipate negative reactions. His defensive justifications broke the power of his assertions whenever they occurred. One of the first could have been entirely bypassed when he suggests that “[a] few words must be said here about the limiting of the primary source material to these three sources” (20). His choice to focus on limited texts is common for any critical work of this length, so this rationalization delays the immediacy of his close readings. These three sources are significant, so he could rephrase this section on why they demand more dedicated exploration rather than viewing it as restrictive. Another break in the flow of his argumentation comes shortly after when he emphasizes that “although oversaturation of a research text such as this book with exceptionally long direct quotes might perhaps be seen as a sign of academic immaturity in a Western context, occasionally I will provide a longer direct quote from one of these sources” (21). These lines seem to stem more from insecurity and anxiety rather than anticipating any counterarguments against his interpretations. Given the sophisticated style and complexity of ideas throughout this work, Lapidus would be wise to maintain an assured stance in future projects.

Aside from these minor elements, this work is a perfect protest text since it unapologetically confronts hegemonic thinking and intolerance for cultural diversity. While it is a useful explorative tool for teachers, students, and critics, it is also a statement about how the world is better when cultural negotiation occurs. The undercurrent throughout this work echoes Gromov’s call for a “respect for plurality of tastes” (qtd. in 83). Lapidus’s purpose for this work is to attack homogenous learning and teaching, which is a crucial position to take to combat insular thinking and closed-minded attitudes. This work is a celebration of cultural communications and cultural diversity, inviting its readers to reconsider biases concerning ELL students, language acquisition, and the nature of learning. Lapidus provides modern solutions to age-old problems and preconceptions. This multifaceted exploration into cultural learning, comics, and classroom practices offers so much to a varied audience and should be an influential work within many scholarly fields, most notably linguistics and education.

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