Menu Close

TEACHING! POW! COMICS! BAM!: Pedagogical Approaches to Comics in Post-Secondary Classrooms

By Najwa Al-Tabaa

The emergence of formal comics studies in literary and visual arts-related fields has resulted in an upsurge of comics being taught in the post-secondary classroom. This issue seeks to examine not only the ways in which comics are read and taught, but also the ways in which comics lend themselves to diverse, interdisciplinary and experimental curricula. The interdisciplinary nature of comics—the merging of images and text—enables comics to be a useful pedagogical tool for a variety of disciplines. As comics scholars, it is common to think about the interdisciplinary nature and versatility of comics, but how can we best present these aspects of comic texts to students? When faced with a comic for the first time, many students do not know what to do with it or how to “read” it. So, when introducing a comic narrative to students, we must not only provide them with a context for that comic and the skill-set necessary to read it, but also ask them to suspend their preconceived notions of what a comic is and what it can do. The question becomes, how do we teach comics? What does comics study look like in the post-secondary classroom?

While comics are taught with some frequency in literature and art classrooms, the practice of making comics—in addition to reading them—is addressed far less, particularly in post-secondary education. When assigning comic creation to students the responses are mixed—some are excited to make comics, some dread it, and some think they can get away doing very little. The essays collected here ask not only why we teach comics in the classroom, but how we can do it well and in a way that makes sense. The desire to investigate these questions was the impetus for the issue itself. The contributors in this issue collectively emphasize the significance of students both reading and creating comics in order to achieve greater understanding of the genre and sharpen their critical thinking skills.

The approaches to teaching and studying comics in this issue are diverse both in the authors’ disciplines and in their practical approach to implementing comics in the classroom. The first essay, “Comics Poetry: Praxis and Pedagogy” by Tamryn Bennett and Guillermo Batiz, discusses the implementation of “comics poetry” in a month-long workshop series. The specific emphases of the workshop, and thus their essay, are the experimental quality of the work performed, the workshop format, and significantly the workshop location (Mexico City), with particular focus on the landscape and the rich glyphic (and comic) history of local cave markings in the Yucatan region. The inspiration for the course and the material to come out of it were drawn from the cityscape and its many secrets, hence the workshop title, “Secretos de la Ciudad” (“Secrets of the City“).

The next article, “Creating Graphic Nonfiction in the Post-secondary English Classroom to Develop Multimodal Literacies” by Emily A. Wierszewski, discusses not only the importance of students being exposed to multimodal texts in the writing classroom but also the significance that needs to be placed on composing these multimodal texts. Reading comics requires a “complex negotiation” between various modes. Furthermore, not only do multimodalities lend themselves to comics and comics studies but also the very nature of comics reading and analyzing proves to be a vital tool to help students develop multimodal literacy. Wierszewski argues for the importance of both analyzing and creating comics in the post-secondary classroom. She demonstrates how comics build upon the literacy and analytical tools learned from traditional literature and can foster multimodal relationships between texts. In creating comics, her students learn not only about genre conventions but also about the ephemeral nature of the text, which forces students to think critically about meaning making in a text. She provides an approach for implementing this praxis in the classroom.

Comics can appeal to students who want to explore multimodal texts that differ from the standard literature that they so often encounter throughout their secondary and post-secondary educations. Dale Jacob’s essay “Webcomics, Multimodality, and Information Literacy” explores how this need and desire is met in his courses and with his students, particularly with the use of digital texts, such as webcomics, which students encounter every day. Jacob’s essay focuses on the potential for using webcomics to explore multimodal literacies within the classroom. Comics lend themselves well to multimodal thinking, so the added component of a web interface serves to expand and further enrich the already complex comic texts, as well as to provide greater accesses to and possibility through available creator-made comics. Jacobs focuses his discussion on the webcomic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which was produced by SMITH magazine. He explores the ways in which comics are able to engage readers on not only in the “linguistic realm, but also in the visual, the audio, the gestural, and the spatial.” Jacobs provides examples of webcomics that build upon these elements, and in some cases further enhance the reading experience by incorporating more possibilities. For example, a hypertext link to an audio track so the reader can physically hear the music being played in the comic, or hypertext links can take the reader to information about historical, cultural, or social backgrounds.

Comics is a unique medium that allows for innovative ways to present potentially dry material across a variety of disciplines. Robert G. Weiner and Carrye Kay Syma’s article, “Library 1100: Information Literacy, Sequential Art and Introduction to Library Research,” discusses a course that focused on teaching students how to perform library research. Weiner and Syma argue that there is a “precedent for using comics in the classroom and for library instruction.” The authors trace the complicated historical relationship of libraries and comics from the early 1940s, when the use of comics as an educational tool was a new phenomenon, to today. Now, libraries now have extensive comics collections (we even have a comics special collection archive here at the University of Florida) and librarians coordinate workshops to help readers and the community engage with sequential art. Weiner and Syma’s library research course worked with an illustrator to create an information-based graphic novel to promote library research and to serve as a tool for future installments of the course. In their article, the authors outline the ways in which the course was developed and implemented.

Comics is also an art form, so it is crucial, when working with comics, to think about the the relationship between production, design, and creation. Studying these closely-linked elements can help expand the ways in which creators and readers/viewers approach the critical analysis of imagetexts. Erik A. Evensen’s article “Comics as a Design Ecosystem: A Case for Comics in Design Education” focuses on the connections between comics and design, with a particular emphasis on graphic design and narrative. Evensen “explore[s] the connection between several basic, fundamental principles of industrial, interior, and visual communication design, and connect[s] them to the language of comics.” Graphic design functions as narrative, and the evident focus on content and context demonstrates how design is different from other fine arts fields. Evensen discusses how comics and design are naturally related due to the similar thinking involved in their content creation and how that content is then relayed to the reader/viewer. Evensen goes on to describe the theory and praxis of a course in “Graphic Thinking,” which merged the discourse of design and the language of comics.

Similarly, Diana Green’s article “Too Much Reading: Teaching Liberal Arts Comics Courses in A Studio College” focuses on the link between reading (specifically reading comics) and studio art instruction. Her classes and article explore the relationship between the academic study of comics and the practical, mechanical creation of comics, particularly for comics creators and comics illustration students, who can be sometimes resistant to reading comics. This provides an interesting parallel to some of the other pedagogical approaches in this issue, which also address the importance of merging the academic study of comics, and comics literacy, with the creation of comics in the classroom. Green emphasizes the need for the two ends of the spectrum—the academic and the creative—to work in unison in order to create a comprehensive comics literacy and offers a way in which these two sides can be successfully developed in the classroom.

Teaching comics in post-secondary classrooms has become a more common practice, as the articles in this issue demonstrate. Since comics are an interactive medium, it is invaluable to think critically about not just the ways in which readers/viewers engage with comics but also how instructors present this diverse material to students across a variety of disciplines. Introducing comics in the classroom can be challenging to execute in an effective and meaningful way, but as these articles show, comics lend themselves to a variety of disciplines and modes of communication, learning, and reading. So, given the flexible nature of comics, working through pedagogical approaches, recognizing practical difficulties, and implementing experimental possibilities allows educators to teach the multimodal aspects of comics in productive and thought-provoking ways; this, in turn, helps support the utility of comics studies as a vital and innovative field.

Editors’ Notes:

Special Issue Editor Dr. James Bucky Carter would like to make the following acknowledgements:

It was a great pleasure to work with Najwa Al-Tabaa on this project, given I first learned about her amazing potential as a reader on her Masters thesis while we were both at UTEP and know the impact she will have on the field.

Regarding behind-the-scenes aspects of the journal, I was especially thankful for and invigorated by a conversation with Tamryn Bennett on the use of “nonlinear” vs “multi-linear” to describe comics and comics reading, and I urge scholars watch for any future writing Bennett might produce on that subject.

I hope readers will appreciate the praxis on display in the issue, the blend of theory, practice, and reflection. As more teachers and professors attempt teaching with comics or through comics, reflective statements from experienced folks who have taught comics across various fields and domains offer valuable insight, guidance, and prescience.

Being asked to guest-co-edit this volume is one of the great highlights of my career and comes at a time when I feel especially vulnerable so please know I will cherish the experience and am honored.

Special Issue Co-Editor Najwa H. Al-Tabaa would like to make the following acknowledgements:

It was a great experience and pleasure to work with Dr. Carter on this project; his expertise, experience, and patience was invaluable as I learned to navigate my new role as an editor for ImageTexT.

Thank you to all the contributors for their thoughtful academic and intellectual insights that have furthered my thinking about comics and pedagogy across a variety of disciplines. Thank you to Katherine Shaeffer for her work as our ImageTexT production editor, and her helpful brainstorming sessions with me. I’m excited to share this issue with our readers and look forward to using the knowledge I’ve gained in my own teaching practices.

Related Articles