Ignorance Can Hurt Your Ethos:
How Attacking the Teaching Comic Books and Graphic Novels Without Understanding Them Can Make You Look Like a Hack
I am a comic book fan and an academic scholar. I see nothing mutually exclusive about either. In fact, I am beginning my journey to becoming a comic book and graphic novel scholar as well. Without shame or regret, I am also a supporter of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund as well. I believe that they do excellent work. Recently, they posted an article entitled “College Courses of Graphic Novels Criticized as Less ‘Intellectually Demanding’” by Maren Williams on the CBLDF’s website that caught my eye and not in a good way (it usually is never in a good way). Under discussion was an article by a Mrs. Watkins that laid out some criticisms and asserted a “tone” in the presentation of that criticism that the CBLDF was taking note that made we want to look closer myself.
The CBLDF article pointed out two critics, in fact, one building off the other: Shannon Watkins of the James G. Martin Center (where her article was posted online via their institution and the original critic) and George Leef, director of research at the Martin Center who published a summarized Watkins’ article in National Review’s “The Corner.” After reading both criticisms, I decided to address Shannon Watkins’ article because, one, it was the original point of criticism, and two, Leef’s shorter summarization read like political junk.
Of course it is always stronger and more prudent in rebuttal to deal directly with the original source of the opposition, as well as the main points of the opposition. Another good starting point is looking closely at where the article was published too. I have to admit, I am unfamiliar with the work of the Martin Center, so decided to look a bit closer. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal feels a bit strange as a name to my ears. In its “About” section it claims to be “a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation” with a stated aim of wanting to “Increase the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus” (“About”). What is strange though is that there is a subtle undertone of conservative push back within the actual article. This does not feel that it matches the above stated aim, so I went back and looked again. What I found a bit further down was this statement: “All too often, universities allow teaching to become shallow and trendy, failing to challenge students intellectually and disparaging traditional principles of justice, ethics, and liberal education” (“About”). It was noting of “trendy” and perceived low value of graphic novels that Watkins’ criticizes that then started to make things crystalize a bit more. Whether or not the James G. Martin Center was actually conservative in the larger political sense may or may not be the case, but it was definitely “conservative” in the academic, traditionalist sense. This made the perceived “push back” of Watkins’ article make more sense.
The first part of the push back from the institution becomes obvious when one looks at way that the James Martin Center website sub-listed the article. Watkins’ article was not listed under the “More in Academics” but rather under the “More in Politicization” sub-headings that followed the article on the website.
This was rather off-putting in its choice. The second part comes from the way that George Leef “slanted” the article in his summarization in the National Review Corner piece. It is he, not Watkins, who in recounting the major points levels the charge that graphic novels (which his title intentionally makes a shot at) are part of an “evident dumbing down of the college curriculum” and later pointing out that many of them have a “leftist slant.” Neither of these are explicit points made by Watkins, perhaps they might be inferred, but considering where Leef is publishing his summarization, the National Review, and its conservative audience perhaps fudging and misrepresentation are okay to do. Not academically though. Academically, this explicit bias and ignorance causes me view the James G. Martin Center’s language about “academic renewal” as some kind of conservative code language against liberal decadence or hyperbolic paranoia about changes in academic disciplines.
Returning to Watkins’ original article, because being the original text it’s the only one worth my time discussing, I would like to provide some constructive feedback on her assertions and positions considering she appears new to comic scene. I say new to the scene because upon reading her article it is clear that though she is apprehensive and not overreaching (signs of her newness) in her positions, it is also clear that she has not read Scott McCloud or any other scholars or scholarship surrounding comics, graphic novels, sequential art, etc.
I would like to take a moment and recommend that Mrs. Watkins read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics if she wants to ground any further discussion surrounding comics and sequential art in the future. Not to give it away, but if anyone wants to understand just how truly deep and complex comics can be and the forms they express, one should probably give it a read. Other recommendations to consider, and this would apply to those who can possibly note the there differences between reading Shakespeare and performing (or seeing it performed) Shakespeare invoke different critical and cognitive responses in readers/viewers might want to consider the work Neil Cohen and his work with cognitive responses to the use of visuals and words. Finally, some simple consideration of this and any number of other works out there by the likes of those such as Nick Sousanis, who commented on Watkins’ own post originally, might reveal that there is far more depth here than what many who make generalized assumptions might initially see.
Of course, I come at this all from the perspective of a growing comic’s scholar who is conducting research on visual engagement and responses of student’s to visual stimulus as additive to the composition and literature classroom, but also as a holder of a PhD in Rhetoric. It is from the discipline of Rhetoric that I found myself looking at Watkins’ article and to which I would like to now return.
Though I want to say up front that I do not use graphic novels and comic books (they are different though Mr. Leef fails to get that point) exclusively in my classes, I do find that they could be in some cases, and do, make bold points of engagement with students. Mrs. Watkins appears to recognize this approach and give it some credence, as do I. However, I disagree that their rise in undergraduate courses is “problematic” or as Mr. Leef appears to put it in his article, “a disturbing trend” (Watkins; Leef).
Mrs. Watkins’ first point in what she sees a “problematic” is the idea “that the majority of graphic novels tend to advance political agendas” (Watkins). This assertion is a generalization and overreach because considering her limited conception and examples she is only skimming the surface of graphic novel literature. Perhaps she would be better served if she had written: “that the majority of graphic novels used [or utilized or taught] in the classrooms I’ve observed tend to advance political agendas.” I suggest the re-write because though many times comic books and graphic novels do serve as a platform for political agendas, they primarily are reflections and metaphorical explorations of agendas, ideologies, utopian and dystopian narratives, action, adventure, drama, and experiences of our world. In other words, basically anything one could find expressed in classical or modern literature already in the cannon. The primary difference between the two being that the ideas and concepts found in graphic novels might represent viewpoints that are more diverse or perhaps more touching on modernity that the literature of the cannon does not. Some scholars and academics do not care for this, but as a rhetorician I tend to seek out value and engagement by meeting my audience where they are already.
I will not deny that the conception and use of comic books to advance political agendas does exist. It exists and cuts both conservative and liberal “slants” and perhaps liberal “slants” out weigh the conservative ones. I had an encounter last year with an individual, a Mr. Jace Lington, who published an article via The Federalist website entitled “Superman Unconsciously Fights Relativism in One of His Most-Popular Adventures.” The article took aim at an examination of
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman and how the depiction of Superman found within expresses a contradiction between the powers that Superman wields and the words he uses. Now, the article was accurate in many of its assertions and quite positively discussed the need for such metaphorical starters of conversation. I myself took issue with the rather conservative bent the author used in interpreting All-Star Superman because his and my own interpretations differed in scope and perspective. Lington, though quite astute in his observations, misses out on the nuance behind Morrison and Quitely’s homage to the Superman of the Silver Age of Comics (1956-1970) as a philosophical exploration of modern philosophy and an entry point into the “Superman universe” (Lington). However, Lington too misses out for knowing the background and evolution of Superman who started out as what we would call today a “social justice warrior.” It was this whole in the knowledge that stood out to me and I reached out to Mr. Lington via Twitter. He wrote back noting he had little knowledge of Superman’s past incarnations and I suggested further investigation to help him refine his argument. It is similarly this same advise I would like to pass on to Mrs. Watkins, because those Mr. Lington and I disagreed on perspectives about Superman, Lington’s article and I agree in his conclusion:
The increasing popularity of comic book properties calls for a defense of the comic book as a potent medium for good art. As a blended visual and narrative print [and digital now] medium, comic books and graphic novels represent an opportunity for artists to engage audiences in unique ways. Comic books can give more to readers than chase scenes, tights, and onomatopoeia. Done well, the comic book can reveal important truths about the world around us and raise important moral questions, like any good art. (Lington)
Or for that matter, good literature too. Reading of Scott McCloud can help inform one that the roles of writer and artist are closer more parallel than some sometimes realize.
Returning to Watkins specifically, I want to ask: Is it not the purpose of literature to reflect the human condition? Is it not the job of college instructors to engage students in “real life” issues, or as Watkins puts it “controversial issues” surrounding topics of “social justice, immigration, gay rights, etc.” (Watkins). She does go on to mention that this is a trend in the humanities and throws in that favorite of all conservative (as I have noticed it bandied about) buzzword “identity politics” (Watkins). I would respond by asking: “What is wrong with exploring identity politics?” If you want to have your “culture wars,” we can include that too, why can we not explore the diversity that surrounds us in order to help us move forward as more unified? I believe debate and discussion of diverse issues has become part of what the college learning environment is all about.
Now, I understand that Mrs. Watkins is trying to make a case for this (college literature and literature appreciation classrooms) not being the place for such debates. In fact, she offers up the idea that such use of graphic novels would be more appropriate in “upper division elective courses,” and they are, but with the caveat of not undermining a “firm foundation” for the students at the entry level (Watkins). My response is this: what are they doing in High School English then? High school environments and curriculum exposes students to literature as well, are we forgetting this? Perhaps the problem may require us to take a look at what goes on in primary and secondary education, but that is an adventure for another quest.
It is interesting that Mrs. Watkins chooses to lead with this point: that graphic novels being taught advances political agendas, because one might think that this choice, rhetorically, belies a particular agenda. When she chooses to use “etc.” after “social justice, immigration, gay rights” (that one might note as being “liberal agendas”) why does she fail or only include via “etc.” topics like civil rights, civility, man vs. self, etc. (Watkins). Is it because they topics do not fit her purpose or agenda? Something to consider, and rather obvious at that too.
Mrs. Watkins moves on to highlighting Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet as two controversial examples of political agenda driven graphic novels that are becoming popular in college classrooms. What I was struck about most, and believe me I see a great deal of literary merit in Fun Home but that is almost an entirely different point by point argument that Watkins, was how, in her ignorance, Watkins boiled all of this down to simply being some form of “identity politics.” Now Fun Home is and has been in its own line of fire as a point of controversy and reactions. I even talk about this controversy with my own students.
To skim over like this strikes me as belittling (she appears to have never read it). Her summation of (or quoted from somewhere not sourced) notes that the theme of Bitch Planet centers upon “patriarchal oppression” and somehow represents a blatant “push [of] a social justice agenda” (Watkins). I do not get that. I find Watkins’s scope and perspective even more limiting here because how is DeConnick’s representation not unlike Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984. Those books push “oppression” but because the oppressor and oppressed are male that is somehow non-threatening? Why not try to generate what Kenneth Burke would call identification and actually try to engage a more diverse audience? We want to students to think, we want them to challenge and explore things. Yes they can do that with traditional literature, but all this “hand wringing” about graphic novels is just poorly veiled hysteria.
Perhaps Watkins most sharp misfire is how she fails to even really address any of her point’s head on or directly. She leaves most sitting there like some open-ended assertion, some enthymeme where her audience should infer that liberal professors with social justice desires to bring down the cannon of literature look to undermine it through back door use of graphic novels. I call hogwash. This is just failure to deliver any real point to this argument other than glossy but reasonable overriding generalities or broad strokes that appeal to a very limited and already predisposed to agree audience.
The assertion I found most offensive, one that obviously belies Watkins’ lack of knowledge about the subject under discussion, follows when she drags out the same old, and I do mean “old” notion that graphic novels (inserted in place of comic books here) not only are used and promulgated in order “to further a political agenda”–it appears now she is changing her tone and leaning right a bit more–but they also, and she is very un-assertive here with her “it seems,” do not “possess the same merit as traditional literature” (Watkins). I find this line of argument a tired one. I feel compelled here to direct Mrs. Watkins to one Sterling North and his attacks on comic books in the 1940s because he saw them as harmful to children. Her argument is tamer by comparison and with less merit than the one that North made seventy plus years ago when comic books were new, not always of high quality, and did actually represent some exploitative elements. Interestingly though, comic books were also havens at that time for minorities and women who could actually work and create. That came to an end in the 1950s though when the Comic Code Authority drove almost all but white men out of the comic book business (see David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague). So, Mrs. Watkins argument is not a new one by any stretch. It is an old and tired one that now has to stand on even more poorly constructed generalities, like the ones that Watkins offers, such as the limitation of students’ “time in college” being a need for students to encounter “more intellectually demanding readings” (Watkins). There is a twist of irony here in that I agree with Mrs. Watkins conclusion, but not her premises.
That’s right, I agree with her conclusion…just not her method or means. I firmly believe that her assertion, one that she does not really appear to follow through up on, lacks any actual evidence or example. She immediately lays into an excuse by saying that “Grappling with a text to understand its meaning is a more intellectually demanding task, and requires a greater use of one’s reasoning skills” turning off to quote Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death book. That is where she leaves me, holding the bag and wondering, how is only focusing on a text only based close reading or analysis “more” intellectually challenging? If Mrs. Watkins had bothered to read any of the countless amounts of literature and research out there on the process she would realize that the mind is challenged “more” by the close examinations by which words and images work together in semiotic fashion to create layers of meaning that when analyzed can go deeper than simply words alone. McCloud talks about this not only in his discussion of Perceptive vs. Receptive forms of knowledge (Understanding Comics 49) but also in his discussion of the evolution of Text and Imagery (140-51) and discussions of any number of topics like space and time relations of panels to the types of word and image combinations that can be deployed (152-5). For those who teach or use comic books and graphic novels in the classroom McCloud represents a typical foundational text. If you want to know what you are talking about, understanding McCloud is practically a prerequisite.
Even more so, if we want to call for high academic standards, is it not true that we should be applying it ourselves to the things we are writing and discussing?
Watkins does continue though but the pursuit is grounded in the idea that somehow comic books do not require “reading.” This seems absurd, but I guess we might have to assume Watkins means: “close reading” or “reading alone without the guidance of visuals.” She then equates the idea that it is “difficult to believe that reading a graphic novel could do the same in this [developing reasoning skills] regard as have to digest, say, The Iliad” (Watkins). This is just flimsy generalization here. It is interesting her choice of words “digest” because to some that might be the case with the works of Homer (difficult to read and understand, academic rigor and all). But the same can be said for graphic novels too, particularly works like Alan Moore’s From Hell. Also the generalization of “graphic novel” is unfocused. In fact, you can read The Iliad and The Odyssey both in graphic novel form in both college, secondary, and elementary classrooms. So, Watkins assertions, which are themselves incomplete and lacking strong ethos, really do not hold up when challenged by details. To understand the discussions about the actual debates in and around comic books and graphic novels, Watkins might want to dig deeper into the scholarship and study around comic books and graphic novels. Library research has changed course in recent decades to recognize just how important a role comic books can play in the learning process. Even the National Council of Teachers of English has addressed this issue.
At one point Watkins offers up the film Life is Beautiful as somehow comparable to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel (memoir) Maus in that it depicts Holocaust survival. This is just another of many short-sighted misconceptions about the graphic novel but also about distinguishing “theme” from “source material.” This is sad in its shortcomings that misses out that while Life is Beautiful is modern and fictional, Maus is a real survivors tale told by son about his father. Though surface wise one might see them as similar, in their ability to dig deep into the real experiences and aftermath of the Holocaust and survival they are miles apart. I see the comparison as superficial and borderline insulting.
Mrs. Watkins’ conclusion, here in its whole, and one that George Leef quotes and agrees with in his National Review short posting is worth noting and accounting for in the idea that:
Graphic novels should not substitute written texts in satisfying students’ literary arts requirements, especially when the motive behind the assignments is often political in nature. Universities should instead present students with works of literature that will truly challenge their minds and strengthen their ability to reason. Graphic novels can complement, but cannot replace, the canon in fulfilling this role. (Watkins)
I would like to say that, once more, I agree with Mrs. Watkins in that graphic novels should not ALWAYS be substituted as the written texts in satisfying literary arts requirements for students. However, I would note that those who think taking a comic book or graphic novel course often enter with misconceptions that it is a “blow off class,” as it appears that Watkins assumes, only to learn its more than they bargained for in it. I have personally watched this happen to fellow students who took Dr. Shaun Treat’s “Superheroes and Rhetoric” course at University of North Texas. Much of what took place in the class, conducted in part via his blog, was far more challenging and I saw many a student drop out or by the way side quickly as they realized how serious he applied graphic novel reading to the promotion and examination of cultural studies.
It is worth mentioning that students who appreciate literature would not simply take only one course also, they would take several. A lot of generalizations at work here, not to mention the fact that the “motive behind the assignments is often political” is false too. I do not know what sample-size Watkins is pulling from because that is not my motivation in any way. When I teach using graphic novels I specifically allow students to, for instance in my Comp II course, select graphic novels that interest them but that I have pulled from a list of award-winning, critical, diverse, and metaphorical representations of the world aimed at broadening my students’ minds. My aim is not openly political but rather an attempt to move away from the overtly and politically charged arguments I have read in the past that my students’ have written by using graphic novels as a conduit to deeper metaphorical exploration and a reprieve from the blunt force opinions and claims of the everyday world–just like one would use any literature.
Finally, I would assert that graphic novels can and do act as “works of literature that will truly challenge their [students’] minds and strengthen their ability to reason” (Watkins). Watkins does not assert this, but I feel they can meet the criteria of the assertion she makes about traditional literature. To challenge and strengthen reason is not the mutually exclusive purview of traditional literature. Just like graphic novels, they represent but one potential way. Of course, in her final statement is one that I again agree with in the desire of graphic novels to be a compliment to the textual readings of the cannon. I practice this approach in my British literature courses. This being said, I think that Watkins’ hyperbolic and generalized assertions undermine her own rational note here at the end and ultimately make her argument weak on substance and milk-toast in strength of assertion.
George Leef’s article in the National Review’s the Corner, “Comic Books (Excuse Me — ‘Graphic Novels’) Invade the College Curriculum” is little more than an open political hack job that almost blatantly misrepresents Watkins original article. The title alone is a direct insult to the opposition he is in disagreement with that signals, to me, that he does not want to debate but rather get “clicks” for his article instead. Leef’s article represents an agenda first take that is not even worth noting further.
Leef, George. “Comic Books (Excuse Me — ‘Graphic Novels’) Invade the College Curriculum”National Reviews The Corner. 16 May 2017. http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/447676/martin-center-article-comic-books-college. Accessed 21 May 2017.
Lington, Jace. “Superman Unconsciously Fights Relativism in One of His Most-Popular Adventures.” 25 September 2016. http://thefederalist.com/2016/09/25/superman-unconsciously-fights- relativism-one-popular-adventures/ Accessed 23 May 2017.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1993.
Watkins, Shannon. Graphic Novels Are Trending in English Departments, and That’s a Problem.” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. 5 May 2017. https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2017/05/graphic-novels-trending-english-departments-thats-problem/. Accessed 21 May 2017.
Grant Morrison, in describing, in a bit of existential retrospection, how people come to perceive or interact with the 2D world of superheroes and comic books from the “higher dimension” of the real world recounts how:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could send drawn versions of themselves into the created world of Fantastic Four, and those little drawings of Stan and Jack were like angels, UFOs, avatars from a higher universe, entering a world they’d made to interact with its inhabitants. They created, as I cam to call them, ‘fiction suits,’ like space suits for sending yourself into stories. (Supergods 226-7)
Let’s be honest…this sounds pretty freaking awesome. Morrison enacted a similar feat of sorts at the end of his run on Animal Man for DC Comics from 1988-90. The final story saw the character of Animal Man, who had already experienced (while on peyote) a breaking down of the 4th wall in his reality and realizing that he was a character of fiction, had the character arriving at Grant Morrison’s very door-step to confront his own creator. This meta-confrontation/discussion was the final issue of Morrison’s run and ended with the character of Animal Man receiving his life back, including his murdered family.
To step beyond Morrison’s “meta-narrative” a bit more, one can find a similar discussion perpetuated by Nick Sousanis. In his work Unflattening, describes the way humanity perceives things, in his opening, by recounting how:
…flatness permeates the landscape. This flatness is not literal… No. It cloaks its true nature under a hyper-real façade. This is a flatness of sight, a contraction of possibilities…where the inhabitants conform to what Marcuse called ‘a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior.’ Lacking ‘a critical dimension’ of potentialities to transcend their existing state, everything has its place. Here, even choices (of which there are seemingly many), are predefined. Forgotten is wonder of what might be. In this place, a single chorus… (Sousanis 5-7)
Sousanis’ Unflattening is a publication of his doctoral dissertation that is actually done in the form of a graphic novel. His statement appears in the vein of a warning about how human’s can and do limit ourselves in thought and ideas. This is something we need to break free. We have become the limited two-dimensional creations in how we think and the lack of any critical examination. We have forgotten Socrates and the need to examine life.
Of course, these are two different writers looking at similar material, but in two philosophically different ways. Morrison is looking towards a means of interacting with the comic book world by “entering it” on a hypothetical level. Sousanis on the other hand is speaking of an almost two-dimensional way that humanity, perhaps, has come to perceive the world around it.
Interestingly enough, one can argue that both are talking about the same thing. Morrison’s notion of the “fiction suits” is meant to express an idea of interaction and communication between the world of our reality and the world of the comic books and their characters. Sousanis speaks of the ways humanity is limiting its perceptions through a “flatness” or 2D method of thought. Both men are talking about perception; both men are talking about opening up the human capacity for expression, thought, and communication.
Its time we embrace more steadily the opening of the book on not only how we perceive the world, but also how we communicate in it. It’s not really a new idea. It’s just an old idea that needs revisiting, re-examination.
One approach already in existence is the one laid out by Scott McCloud in his work Understanding Comics.
“Amplification through simplification” is a key tenant of McCloud’s short hand for our cultural obsession with cartoons and the potential they have (30). He states that “When we abstract an image . . . we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focus on specific details by stripping down and image to its essential ‘meaning’” (30).
Later on McCloud points out that the simplification leads us, often in our younger years to identify with cartoons and their essential messages (36). He even illustrates this in the following image:
He follows this up by expounding, “I doubt it! You would have been far too aware of the messenger to fully receive the message!” (37). What he is pointing out is that through the route of simplification, cartoons and comics are able to deliver messages visually in a way that amplifies the message without complicating it or letting the visuals get in the way.
APPLYING IT TO STUDENTS
So, what does any of this have to do with engaging students? Well, it goes back to what I called my idea for using images to engage students in the classroom: The Adaptation Approach. This approach centers upon:
Utilizing the creation of Graphic Narratives and other forms of Visual Rhetoric to communicate concepts, ideas, etc. found in the Composition classroom
This approach has been something under thought and gradual process for several years now. Originally it was born out of a desire to convey or get across to my students the genres I was having them write about, in both Comp 1 and 2, out the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing during my PhD studies at TWU.
Initially I wanted to partner up with an artist, such as my friend Dave Andrews, but I dragged my feet on writing the scripts. The project eventually took a back burner to my dissertation.
However, I have now been looking to revive this project and apply my own artistic skills (dust them off from my high school days) and take it on both as an aid to students and as part of an overall visual rhetoric approach to the First Year Composition classroom that more or less defines part of my pedagogical identity.
Here are some sample images I am using, as well as an example of some of my creations:
STAY TUNED to find out how this goes over when I apply it this Spring.
One of the genres, one that I used to use a minor writing assignment to cover and to “contrast” against Essay 2: Article Analysis, is that of Evaluations.
Now, one of the reasons I dropped this as a minor writing assignment in conjunction with the genre of Article Analysis was specifically because it appeared to leave students confused. One of the reasons I presented and used it originally was because the Article Analysis called for something of an evaluation in it and it helped, I thought, for students to understand how to evaluate. In addition, having both assignments helped set up a contrast in the difference between evaluating and analyzing an object or subject. However, I ended up finding out that most of my time was being taken up with students finding it difficult to wrap their heads around the genre completely, getting the two (Evaluations and Article Analysis) confused, and causing me a tone of frustration.
So, a change was needed.
To accomplish this I changed this from a minor writing assignment to an in-class lecture and group work project instead. This was to take some of the pressure off (and confusion hopefully), and also, because I still felt the students needed exposure to this genre (particularly in the upcoming work on Essay 2: Article Analysis).
STEP 1: In-Class Lecture
For this I simply looked over the chapter, Ch. 13 (3rd edition) that I primed the students to have read and come with questions and/or comments before the class met.
The PowerPoint of the Lecture covers the chapter and key features while making heavy use of the sample review (evaluation) provided in the text: Ali Heinekamp’s “Juno: Not Just Another Teen Movie.” We walk through the PowerPoint and as we hit the key features: Concise description of the subject, clearly defined criteria, a knowledgeable discussion of the subject, a balanced and fair assessment, and well-supported reasons. As we look at each feature we reference back and I ask the students to pull the support from the sample review, often posed as a question.
At the end of the article I discuss how I want to extend this discussion on evaluations by having the students engage in Group Work (Projects).
STEP 2: Group Work
ALL groups were given the following elements to divide up among their members:
Concise Description: Provide us with a 2-3 sentence summary of the scene depicted
Discussion of Subject: Discuss and apply criteria found in the question based on information given
Balanced and Fair Assessment: Assess your review and stance in answering the question
Well-Supported Reasons: Use evidence from comic page and description and discussion after to support your position.
For CLEAR CRITERIA, EACH group was then given and individual question they were to answer, pertaining to their specific image and text, and then use the reasoning for their ANSWER as a means to uncover their CRITERIA.
They were provided with the following image and text:
Returning to the example of Superman saving the young girl on page 96 in All-Star Superman, the page opens with a long shot of a young woman on the edge of a building. The obvious implication presented visually here is that she is thinking of jumping to her death. There is no need for text here; the audience can clearly see and interpret the scene visually of a young girl in distress, with tears in her eyes. Rather than seeing Superman swoop in and save her after she jumps (a stereotypical and expected superhero trope) the audience witnesses something new and even more powerful. In a series of vertical panels (running parallel to the original long shot), Superman lands behind the young woman, puts his hand on her shoulder, and reassuringly tells her that her doctor really was “held up” and that “It’s never as bad as it seems . . . You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” (All-Star Superman, Vol. 2 96). Superman is letting this girl, who obviously appears to suffer from some form of mental illness, that suicide is not the way out, she is stronger than her pain. Superman demonstrates his ability as a messenger of hope here. Superman not only models strength that can be seen by others, but he also attempts, as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca note, “to incite to an action inspired by it” (The New Rhetoric 362). Superman could have saved the young woman after she jumped, while she was falling, and then imparted to her the lesson, like some father figure “wagging his finger” at her telling her “now don’t do that again” (also an argument of authority), but he does not. Instead, Superman provides a concrete demonstration of his own abstract principles of his excellence. In fact, he does more than model it; he shares it with someone, as an equal, rather than “lording it over” them in some form of superiority. Superman is indicating to the young woman, and to the audience, that he is like us. More so, he imparts his belief of the greatness and good we are capable of and expresses his wish, by his example, to help us see it for ourselves.
Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:
Is this a good example or representation of “what” Superman is all about, his essence?
Superman was the hero of those who had been hit the worst by the Great Depression. This Superman was also “outside” the law, and this was evident from his very first story. In Action Comics #1, Superman made his first appearance, and it was a first appearance that was engaging, provocative, and ambiguous. The very cover of Action Comics #1 set the tone for the ambiguity of the story. The story within gave a brief, one page explanation of “where” Superman comes from and his powers, along with a scientific explanation of his powers, before launching right into what appears to be the middle of a narrative already in progress (Siegel and Shuster 4-5). With almost no real context or set up, the audience witnesses Superman leaping out of the sky with a woman under his arm. It’s not a woman he’s rescued from some nefarious crime, but, rather, someone who is perhaps a criminal. Over the next 3 pages, after Superman deposits the woman on the lawn, declaring as he dashes away, “Make yourself comfortable! I haven’t the time to attend to it” (6). This scene on page 3 is immediately followed by the depiction of Superman forcing his way into the governor’s mansion. Inside, he manhandles the butler, breaks down a steal door, harmlessly absorbs a point-blank gunshot, and provides evidence that saves a woman from being executed in the electric chair (5-7). Only four pages into the story, one can imagine some young kid being completely engrossed in what they have just read and viewed. Still, we (the audience) really are not one hundred percent sure who this “Superman” figure really is yet.
Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:
How engaging or enticing might it be to read on in Action Comics #1 if all one has to go on is the cover?
They were provided with the following image and text:
Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is one of those stories that just tends to “trip you out” if one is unprepared for reading it. Knowing something of Grant Morrison’s life and feelings about superheroes, one cannot escape the strange feeling that Flex Mentallo is part meta-narrative of Morrison’s own life (fictionalized) mixed in with wish fulfillment of superheroes being “real.” The scene above appears to represent something other than the normal version of “wish fulfillment” though. In the usual account or narrative, what is fictional and not real “appears” to become real in our world. This page from Flex Mentallo appears to demonstrate the exact opposite. Rather than becoming real from an incorporeal, fictional existence, the characters (superheroes?) slam into ground, one declaring as they do “It’s not death. Prepare to become fictional” as they appear to “die” in order to return to some kind of incorporeal, fictional state.
In “Comics You Should Own – Flex Mentallo” George Burgas exclaims: “This blending of fiction and reality allows Morrison to examine how we deal with fiction and imagination” (Burgas).
“This lack of imagination in the modern world is tied to maturity, as other Morrison projects are, but what he wants us to consider is that in growing up, we perhaps inhabit an entire different universe than the one in which we lived when we were young.”
Wallace Sage, a character in the narrative, who all of this occurring might very well be the product of his imagination makes the point of saying to some person on the phone: “‘They talk to you all the time when you’re little. They live in … I don’t know … it’s like a factory where ideas are made. They escaped from ‘the Absolute’ but the plan went wrong. Reality was flawed from the beginning. I mean, haven’t you ever felt like there’s something missing? They want to come back home. We can save the world if we can just … If I can just remember my magic word … What? No, the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. We can be them’” (Burgas).
Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:
Working with the comments made by Sage (voicing Morrison himself), do you find this page of imagery above to be compelling or persuasive in any way?
They were provided with the following image and text:
Batman: Year One still remains one of the very best ways of entering into the “Batman” universe. This is not to take away from Batman: Zero Year (crafted recently by Zack Snyder and Greg Capullo), but Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli story remains the cornerstone for how many people imagine the origins of Batman becoming Batman. In particular, there is this scene found in the first issue. This is where, after a night out fighting crime without a disguise, Bruce Wayne decides he needs to become something more. It is from this scene, depicted here for the first time in image form (previously only described in passing) that Bruce Wayne is seen coming to the realization that to strike fear into criminals, he must become something that preys upon their fears and “frightens” them. This comes on the heels of having gone out on his own that evening, in a mask, and almost being killed by both criminals and cops alike. Book Smugglers lays out the situation in summary stating:
“Bruce, stabbed and then shot in the back by some crooked cops manages to escape to his manor, and begs for inspiration on how to fight back against the injustices of Gotham, and how to strike fear into the hearts of those who would cause fear in others. And he sees it–a bat. It flies before Bruce, breaking through the glass window. And Bruce understands–he speaks, ‘Yes father. I will become the bat.'” (booksmugglers.com)
Becoming something “more than a man” appears to be required to actually make an impact.
Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:
Is this a good depiction of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman?
They were provided with the following image and text:
A central element in Johns and Frank’s narrative is the visual homage and re-accentuation of Richard Donner’s vision of Superman in his films: Superman: The Movie (1978) and Superman II (1980). In particular, Geoff Johns, who worked for Richard Donner before becoming a writer at DC, along with Gary Frank, craft their Superman in the likeness of Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in the Donner films.
Superman holds Lois Lane above Metropolis, one can see an illustration of the principles of Greenblatt’s self-fashioning at work. Superman’s likeness, the drawing of that re-accentuation, serves as the identifying element for the audience. Looking more closely at Lois in this image, a division occurs. More important in this scene of Superman embracing Lois Lane is the expression found upon her face. The expression appears to be filled, in contrast to Superman’s calming face, with mixed emotions: anxiety, surprise, astonishment, and even a little fear. Considering that the third governing condition laid out by Greenblatt for self-fashioning notes that it “is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile,” one must consider that Superman’s appearance to Lois represents quite a shock (Renaissance Self-Fashioning 9). Superman comes off as definitely alien and strange by the manner of dress (his costume), but also through the display superhuman powers. The same knee-jerk reaction can be construed all the way back in Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. Here, the cover of the issue provided no context for the perceived damage and chaos Superman inflicted by slamming a car into a boulder. One had to read the issue to uncover the context. For without it, one might easily misperceive Superman as a hostile threat or even a criminal. That same sense of ambiguity and tension emerges here via Lois’ response and expression.
Then they were given the following question to answer to determine criteria:
Knowing that the way Superman is depicted here is supposed to resemble the familiar version, the Christopher Reeve version, of Superman, how does Lois Lane’s reaction of shock, perhaps at flying, identify or connect with the audience, say if one were to find themselves all of sudden suspended in the air held up by a stranger in a colorful outfit?
Looking at the STEPS and the OUTCOMES:
Two Ways Divide the Work:
Depending on the group’s size, I aimed for members with between 4-5, how they distributed each key factor was determined. Groups of 4 allowed for each member to take a key feature, minus the CLEAR CRITERIA, that was the responsibility of everyone. Groups of 5 I simply designated that one member be placed in charge of recording the groups decisions and findings.
I find that Step 2 in this process was the one most interesting to see WHAT exactly the students were able to come up with.
The first piece of criteria, the Concise Description, was perhaps the easiest element for the group. This was a requirement that only asked students to come up with enough summarization in order to communicate the image and text to us in brief.
Each group was given the following additional guidelines with regards to their development and reaching of conclusions. I have relayed them here and added my own annotations:
1. Make sure you are ALL working from established and agreed upon key criteria for your evaluation. This should be derived from the question each group receives.
Students were specifically required to agree upon the criteria they were to use in the evaluation. This key criteria was to be agreed upon by everyone. Depending on group size, one person would be in charge of recording this or the whole group would record it as a whole. This is essential since, if, members of the group are to be able to work together and apart, depending on time demands.
2. In Discussion of Subject, this is where you should be using the key criteria to make an evaluation of the image (taking into account the context and explanation of back side of the page).
This was explained to students as where they were to talk about the way the criteria operated or worked within the subject, in this case their image and text.
3. With your Fair and Balanced Assessment, keep in mind that you want to clearly indicate that you are working from only the page and context provided. Tell this to your audience.
Students were asked to look at what works and does not work with the information they were given. Students are encouraged to look at it and criticize the image and text. In particular, students were prompted to acknowledge the limitations of the material at hand in their evaluation.
4. In your Well-Supported Reasons, make sure you make use of and pull from the actual material – the comic book page and discussion on the back side – to support your evaluation via the criteria.
Each group was reminded that their support and reasons were to come from the image and text provided to them. In particular, they should make use of a direct citation from the text or image as part of this step.
The key element in all the outcomes, the key element at the heart of pushing this kind of assignment was to have students engage in critical thinking through mixed media presentations. Each group had access to comic book pages (all but one with text in it) and text that accompanied and contextualized the comic book page.
The focal point for this critical thinking centered round the CLEAR CRITERIA that is required by the evaluation, and to promote this students were forced to use the material given to them to ANSWER a question.
Each group had a different question. The group had to answer the question; in particular they had to decide on a shared answer. However, this did not give them their CRITERIA. To find that, they had to look at the reason WHY they chose the answer they chose and come up with their criteria there.
GROUP 1 was given Superman rescuing a girl on a rooftop and the question: Is this a good example or representation of “what” Superman is all about, his essence?
Group answers overwhelmingly asserted that the image and accompanying text did offer an expression of Superman’s essence because regardless he meets our expectations, just in a different way, but still meets or exceeds the expectations nonetheless. His essence is about saving people. That is still at work here. There is his symbolic nature on display here as well. One particular group opted to look at three pieces of criteria they saw as present in the page and context. These criteria upheld that “Superman had super-human abilities, had a larger than life figure, and that he was a good-hearted person. We believe that this comic strip of Superman saving this girl from falling to her death embodies all three of these ideals.”
GROUP 2 was presented with the cover of Action Comics #1 and asked: How engaging or enticing might it be to read on in Action Comics #1 if all one has to go on is the cover?
It was compelling because of how it recreated for the young audience “a scene that contains destruction, chaos, explosions, and conflict in the book.” There was also the view that the story cover encapsulated the essence or general “feeling” of the story. It was also viewed as being compelling as well.
GROUP 3 was given the image a large aircraft slamming into a cityscape and given the question, intricately connected to the text also given: Working with the comments made by Sage (voicing Morrison himself), do you find this page of imagery above to be compelling or persuasive in any way?
One group made note that Flex Mentallo represented “a powerful representation of what meets the eye and what is underneath. This story compares and contrasts the idea society has of reality, and how it is perceived.” There is, and was noted by several groups, the idea of the twist at play in the scene depicted as well.
This one group who focused on the “compelling” aspect pointed out that Flex Mentallo page under evaluation was “compelling because it brings an unexpected twist from the common comic book hero tropes most people are familiar. In most superhero stories, the heroes themselves become who they are due to an incorporeal event. But this comic strip takes that into reverse, where the heroes in the plane are ‘real’ and will are breaking the fourth wall by acknowledging that they will become “incorporeal” ideas once the plane crashes into the building . . . With the unexpected twist in the dialogue, it subtlety encourages them to ponder what truly makes comic characters ‘real’ or ‘fictional’.”
One group also found that imagery itself was far more compelling then Sage’s words.
GROUP 4 was given a scene from Batman: Year One where Batman decides to become Batman after an encounter with a bat and is asked: Is this a good depiction of Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman?
Most of discussion around this depiction centered upon the place of how the “bat” played off against a lack of a larger context.
GROUP 5 is shown an image with NO words but with Superman and Lois Lane hovering above Metropolis and given the question: Knowing that the way Superman is depicted here is supposed to resemble the familiar version, the Christopher Reeve version, of Superman, how does Lois Lane’s reaction of shock, perhaps at flying, identify or connect with the audience, say if one were to find themselves all of sudden suspended in the air held up by a stranger in a colorful outfit?
One particular group focused in on Lois Lane’s body language as giving off a more classical and recognized version of Lois and her “crush” on Superman. Another group made note that Lois’s reaction is amplified by “the fact that the person who is holding you in mid-air is a complete stranger adds to the shock factor.”
Overall, most of the groups were able to understand and source out the required criteria using the question and applying critical reasoning to their own answer. Looking at the 5 examples I used, I can draw the conclusion that students appear to be most engaged and spirited when put up against imagery and material that acted in the most abstract manner – such as Group 3’s assigned image. This appears to have generated the most conversation and diversity of opinion overall (this was expected). Additionally, perhaps the most challenging one other than Group 3’s image and material was Group 5’s.
In general, I liked the way this assignment played out with the students. I think it challenged them and helped them better understand the elements and needs of evaluation that will be of direct use of them in Essay 2, the Article Analysis.
Depending upon whether or not you teach this genre, a lot of times it can serve as an introduction genre for Comp 1 students, perhaps some of this will be useful to you.
I find the Literacy Narrative to be challenging to students in the sense that they have to think and give careful focus to what the genre requires of them, while at the same time helping them take baby steps into the conventions and expectations of college writing.
Now, I work out of the Norton’s Field Guide to Writing 3rd Edition when I teach this genre. Literacy Narratives, from my point of view, provide an excellent, no pressure way to have new students dip their toes into the waters of college writing. Not quite academic writing, yet, but I do ask students to begin working with MLA formatting, but again, I want students to get comfortable with writing, writing as a process, writing on deadlines, and performing peer reviews and receiving instructor feedback (what will happen for the rest of their papers).
Literacy Narratives, I find, often challenge students as much as they might appear to be “easy” assignments by instructors some times. Students often are forced to embark on mission(s) of exploration and excavation of their past experiences with reading and/or writing. To help students get started on this process I have taken what I used to treat as a first day icebreaker, “your feelings about writing,” into a informal first writing assignment: “Tell me how you feel about writing.”
I do this to see if I can, perhaps, help the students jog their memory and start thinking about “their current feelings” about the subject and this might lead them to something they can expand for Essay 1: The Literacy Narrative.
Models and Examples
The process I lead students through, to start off, by looking at, reading over, and discussing at least ONE example from the book of the Literacy Narrative. The Norton’s Field Guide usually provides several great examples, usually the first one is annotated, for the students to model off of and base their decisions for writing their own narratives.
The key features, a common element of most genre writing, for Literacy Narratives calls for 1) a well-told story, 2) vivid detail, and 3) a indication of the narratives significance.
This usually leads us; next, into the process of writing and to the Guide to Writing… section that follows the examples (good for modeling). When I lead students into this wonderful section, I start by walking them through the ENTIRE process and as we do so, I note the THREE divisions of the process I want them to note, and as we proceed, note where we are: Pre-Writing/Pre-Drafting, Drafting, and Revision/Post-Drafting Stage.
I primarily focus this on the first essay, the Literacy Narrative, to help set up a standard for approach I want students to use ALL of their essays.
The Literacy Narrative begins this part by offering up suggestions to help students “Choosing a Topic.”
This is where I point out my reasoning for having students do that informal writing assignment: “Tell me how you feel about writing.” I want to, hopefully, jog a student a little and help them get into the process of self-discovery.
“Considering the Rhetorical Situation”
This, like most other assignments, is something I select from and cover (discuss) in ALL assignment sheets with the students. I put them to primarily thinking about and focusing on THREE: Purpose, Audience, and Stance.
For this assignment, Purpose is already to a degree explained to them by me. I want to help expose them to college level writing, have them write about something from their own life.
Audience, with all other assignments in my class is set at the level of college-aged (approximately), mature, well-educated audience.
Stance, for this assignment, is entirely left to the student to depict their experience as it happened and how they feel now about it, looking back, it being reading and/or writing.
“Generating Ideas and Text”
To help students get started with this, particularly with coming up with their “hook” I offered them the visual example found in Alexis Bechdel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
I am a big fan of Bechdel’s humor, intelligence, and honesty. I usually present students the example of her opening of Fun Home as a way of showing them a good opening aimed at hooking the reader and one that is at least focused on someone’s own (though constructed) memoir or personal narrative. The images I use are the first page and half of the opening of the graphic novel.
This opening page does a fantastic job of presenting the story’s beginning as one of innocence, of almost benign normalcy. That of course, helps make the remaining set up even more dramatic. There is of course a sense, spelled out by the author, of a slightly (appearing to be) distant relationship between father and daughter. However, the focus comes in on a typical parent to child game of playing “airplane.” At the bottom of the page, the author sets up this simple scenario by adding to it the title of “Icarian Games” to what father and daughter are engaged in in acrobatic terms.
Icarian is of course a reference to the myth of Icarus. This becomes more clear on the next page where the reader is assumed to be at least passingly familiar with the tale of Icarus and his father’s Daedalus’ escape via wings made by Daedalus had made.
So, why does Bechdel share this myth? In the story of Daedalus and Icarus, Icarus disregards his father’s warning and flies too high to the sun, the wax melts, and he plummets to his death in the sea. For Bechdel the story is one she sets up in order to juxtapose it with that of her father. Rather than being Daedalus, her father is the Icarus of the story. The “mythic relationship” is reversed and this is Bechdel’s “hook” to draw the audience in to “find out” what happened.