Wednesday, November 14, 2007

presentation 1 -- Fostering Critical Thinking Through Comics

On the afternoon of Friday, October 5th I presented at the Two Year College Association’s Midwest conference in Chicago. About thirty people (which was as many as the room could hold actually; it was a packed house) showed up for my presentation, which was titled “Fostering Critical Thinking Through Comics.” I was allotted thirty-five minutes to speak, but because the guy before me ran a bit short, I actually spoke for about forty minutes to a very interested crowd.

I didn’t write a full paper for the presentation, because I hate when people just read their papers at academic conferences. I typed up a loose outline and then added some handwritten notes, so when it was time to speak I would have a firm framework I could build off of. What follows then is a rough estimation, from my memory, of what I said when I got up there and winged it.

First, I led off with a brief overview of a major problem all English teachers have to deal with, the difficulties we have in getting students to “look closer.” Many students, especially in intro to lit courses or writing about lit courses, have an aversion to reading, and just convincing them to even open the book can be a chore in and of itself.

If they do read the material, they often want to be handed the answers. They don’t want to analyze it themselves; they want their teacher to tell them what the story means. Literature courses challenge them in ways that other classes don’t, because it’s not simply a matter of rote memorization but instead of thinking critically. They’re also guilty of looking at the literature on purely a superficial level, never moving beyond knowledge and comprehension on Bloom’s Taxonomy to deeper levels like analysis or evaluation. When they write about literature, they want to explain the story (summarize the plot or talk about the characters) rather than interpret it (explore symbolism or thematic elements of the story).

So, as I explained, to get my students thinking of literature in a new way, I bring comics into the classroom wherever I can. It’s not a revolutionary concept by any means, because if you look at any freshman composition textbook around, it’s going to have Calvin and Hobbes strips in it (or something similar) illustrating a particular point that an author wants to make. All I’m doing then is taking that same concept and enlarging it, giving them an entire story and exploring its themes.

This technique resonates with students for a number of reasons. First, it challenges their preconceived notions of what literature is. They don’t tend to think of comics as something serious worthy of study in a classroom, so simply passing these out in class does tend to get their attention. Their reactions to comics are often polarized as well. Some students love it and think it’s cool, which gets them engaged in the material, while others hate it and think it’s dumb. To those students I simply pose the question, “why?” to begin the process of metacognition.

The students’ unfamiliarity with the form of comics works to my advantage as well, for it requires them to become more active readers. It takes more effort for them to read a comic page if they’re not used to following the page layout, and sometimes it even necessitates their going back to reread a few pages to grasp. It also engages their imagination more, thanks to the concept of closure that McCloud describes in his “Blood in the Gutter” chapter of Understanding Comics. Because readers of comics must fill in the gaps between the panels, they are less passive and are more involved in creating the narrative in their own minds. They move the characters around; they create the sounds and smells that fill in the background. Finally, reader identification is increased in comics over that in other media, for a cartoonish face could represent anyone, even the readers themselves, whereas a film character portrayed by an actor will always be “other.”

I then addressed those teachers willing to accept comics as part of their academic curriculum who still feel somewhat intimidated by the material due to their own unfamiliarity with the medium. Several of the instructors attending the presentation admitted to using a comic or two in their courses (frequently Persepolis or Maus) despite the fact that they were very anxious about how they approached it. I tried to allay those fears by asking them why they felt the need to be an “expert” on comics to teach them; “do you need to have read everything Faulkner wrote,” I posited, “to teach ‘A Rose for Emily?’” I told them that apprehension was unnecessary, that they should instead treat any comic they teach like it’s just another story. If they are confident in their use of the material, the students would follow suit.

Focusing on form and art style is often a step in the wrong direction, I told them, for it can make students too aware of the fact that they’re looking at artwork and thus detracts from an analysis of the story as a piece of literature. On the other hand, skimming the words in a comic and forgetting to “read” the drawings can cause the students to miss out on important details, so I urged them to make sure the students let their eyes linger a bit and don’t read too fast.

I also recommended that when teachers approach comics, they should couple a different type of literature with new pedagogy as well. Whatever methods they normally use to teach, they should try to shake things up when they bring in comics. If they normally lecture, try putting students in small groups, questioning, or whole-class discussion. Whatever methods they use, when teaching comics I find it’s important to focus on reader response first, and then use their responses as a starting point to dig further.

All of the above was set-up, essentially, for two case studies I presented involving my own experiences teaching comics. First, I discussed a day in one of my classes when I taught the Warren Ellis/Phil Jiminez Hellblazer short story “Shoot.” I had directed them to a website where they could read the story online, and then I went into my classroom the next day, sat down at the head of the class, and said, “So what did you think?” And I then only interjected a few times to call on people and facilitate; for the rest of the class period, a full fifty minutes, they led the discussion.

One of the few times I interjected was to explain the history of the story, how it was shelved by DC/Vertigo following Columbine and how that decision led to Ellis quitting the book. I then asked them how they felt about the decision, and we discussed the ethics of censorship and the restrictions on freedom of speech.

Obviously the story’s content, about an agent of the government seeking to find a cause for the recent rash of school shootings, led to discussions in class of the issues of gun control and violence in the media, especially since these issues are raised themselves by characters in the story. On page 15 of the story these are both rejected by the protagonist of the story as the central cause for the shootings, and my students addressed that dismissal. They talked about using violent video games as a way to unwind and release the tension; they explored how guns in the end are just a means to an end and not the cause of the violence itself.

They talked about who should take responsibility for these kids. Blaming the parents for not knowing what their kids are up to is pointless, my students reasoned. They each related stories of how they had fooled their parents at various times, how they had withheld information or hidden things about their lives. The students eventually came to the conclusion, as supported by the story on pages 10 and 20, that blaming any one thing is ludicrous. A variety of factors that make up the fabric of our society all contribute, and rather than looking at what to remove from their lives to “fix” the problem, we need to be looking at what we can add to their lives to give them more of a reason to live.

I then segued into a discussion of another story I teach, the Doom Patrol story “The Soul of a New Machine” by Grant Morrison and Richard Case. (If you haven’t read it, it defies easy summation, as my attempt during this presentation proved. You can check out this link if you want to read more about what the story’s about. [Long story short, Cliff Steele’s body was destroyed in an accident, and his brain was placed in a robot body. But one day, while the body is in for repairs and Cliff’s brain has been temporarily relocated to a jar, the body spontaneously gains sentience and tries to kill Cliff’s brain so that it can survive. (See what I mean? And that’s just part of the story…)])

When I teach this story I divide them into five groups and assign each group a question about the story which they have to answer among themselves and then present their explanation to their fellow students. They read the story in class, taking about 20 minutes, discuss their question amongst themselves (while I move from group to group to offer guidance) for 15 minutes, and then each group gets about three minutes to present their questions and responses to the class. It’s nowhere near enough time, since these are deep philosophical questions, but that’s kind of the point. They couldn’t answer them no matter how much time they were given; the goal is to get them to keep thinking about it after class.

Group one is assigned the question posed in the story itself: Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? Essentially it’s asking which is more in control, our intellects or our animal instincts. In the story this question is quite literally posed when the robot body comes to life, attacking the brain, but it also is seen in Niles Caulder finding it necessary to quit his scientific work to satisfy a craving for chocolate, in The Brain’s desire to play strip chess. Many students who read the story come to the conclusion that neither one rules, that the brain and body must work in conjunction for us to not be constantly at odds with ourselves.

The second group receives the question “what is the mind?” In the story itself, the robot body asks Cliff on page 8 if his mind will live on if his brain dies or if they’re inextricably linked. This then raises questions about the nature of the soul, if it and the mind are one and the same. Cliff himself wonders this in his hallucination of his accident, as seen in the post-it note stuck to his brain. He wonders if his soul might already have departed for hell and the brain is just going through the motions of life now. My students tend to feel that the brain is the house of the mind, that they are related but distinct.

“What is humanity?” is the question I pose to group three, directing them specifically to Cliff’s character. Is a brain in a jar still a human being? Some will say no, and to those students I then ask “Is a man with a prosthetic limb still human?” When they reply affirmatively, I then ask them how much of the body must a person lose to no longer be a person, since Cliff is still a human brain in what is essentially one giant prosthetic body. I then turn them to Monsieur Mallah, one of the villains of this story, a gorilla which has been given human intelligence. Is Mallah human I ask? A lot of my students tend to say no, that it has merely been taught to mimic human behavior, but then I address them to an incident towards the end of the story in which Mallah and his master, whose brain ends up inside the robot body, kiss. I occasionally get a student who will remark that this kiss is “gay,” to which I reply that in order for it to be “gay” you MUST be thinking of Mallah as human. Otherwise, it’s bestiality.

Is the robot body alive once it can think for itself? How do we define life, simply by its physical characteristics or by sentience and independent thought? It’s a conceit they’re familiar with if they’ve approached science-fiction at all in the past, appearing in everything from The Next Generation to Short Circuit. Since the body does seem to act out of self-preservation, and has fears and desires, most students in the group assigned this question believe it is in fact alive.

The final group is given perhaps the hardest question to answer, “what is real?” In the story Cliff is essentially sensory deprived, being simply a brain in a jar, and he is prone to hallucinations. In the end, he cannot be sure that anything he has witnessed has actually happened, since he cannot trust his senses… for he has none. If the only way we know what is real is by observing the world with our senses, and our senses are damaged in some way, does this in fact alter our reality? Is it all subjective? Descartes is quoted throughout the story and of course his most famous quote is “I think; therefore, I am.” In the end, all we can be sure of is that we ourselves exist, which is why throughout this story Cliff Steele tells himself knock-knock jokes. This thought process is constant proof to him that no matter what else may seem to be happening, real or unreal, he at least still can count on his own cognizance.

I wrapped up then very quickly, as I had almost run out of time, directing those in attendance to Understanding Comics, to, and to my email address, included in all of their handouts, should they have further questions on approaching comics in the classroom. All in all, the presentation was a rousing success, as all in attendance seemed to laugh at the right spots. It also resulted in me being approached to write two different articles for a journal called Teaching English at the Two Year College. The first will be a review of a book on building literacy in high school students by using comics, and the second will be an instructor’s note covering much of the ground this presentation covered, focusing less on the case studies and more on how to teach comics when you yourself don’t know much about them. (Updates on those publications as they happen.)