There’s a graphic novel that I may be teaching in two different courses this fall semester. The first class is devoted solely to comics, while the other is a literature class in which the graphic novel will be the only expression of the form. I’ve been thinking about how my teaching approaches will compare from course to course, so I’ve decided to use my post this week to invite others to share their experiences with these two types of pedagogical situations.
The more obvious differences revolve around time constraints: in a comics course, the students will arrive at the text with a deeper understanding of the history, terminology, and critical theories of comics, along with prior examples to compare. The circumstances change when a comic occupies a single unit in a course dominated by another medium like literatur. The broader history and analytical tools will need to be pared down to accommodate critical dialogue between the comic’s narrative content and the other materials on the syllabus. I’m always excited by the opportunity to devote a full semester to comics studies. But is this second approach really so inferior or less ideal than the first?
Teachers have all sorts of reasons for including just one comic on their required reading list that don’t necessitate a detailed historicization or an in-depth study of debates within the medium. We know colleagues who teach Maus in courses on trauma studies, Jewish literature, or animal studies. Or those use V for Vendetta to generate writing assignments in composition courses. We may worry, of course, that these instructors aren’t taking the study of the form seriously enough. But the single unit approach is one of the most common ways that high school and university students are introduced to the scholarly exploration of comics, with good reason. Do students in these classes need to know about Yellow Kid or the Comics Code? Does it matter whether or not they know where the gutter is?
In the case of Stagger Lee, the graphic novel that I’m assigning in both an African American comics class and a course in postmodern literature, I know the two groups will likely come away from this text with different lessons and reading experiences. I have found, though, that incorporating this graphic novel in a literature class has had a surprising benefit. In past semesters, I noticed that our class discussions are more attentive to cross-disciplinary relationships and students are better prepared to explore how issues such as narrative fragmentation, questions about authenticity, hybrid genres, and other postmodern concepts that we have previously studied in novels and poems are also expressed in the comics form. So perhaps rather than being concerned about the ethics of teaching a lone graphic novel in my literature class, I should try to incorporate more fiction in my courses on comics!
What has been your experience with these two types of teaching approaches when it comes to comics?