Academic Use of Graphic Novels

There are many good reasons for the use of graphic narratives as tools at all level of education. Not only can they be useful in the instruction of many topics from social studies to physics, they are worthy subjects of instruction in and of themselves, both as art and literature. an increasing number of university classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level have introduced graphic novels into their curriculums, and even a few course have sprung up studying the form itself as a distinct literary and artistic expression.

While libraries and universities have embraced the inclusion of these materials, the public school sector, where graphic narratives potentially stand to do the most good, young people having already shown a strong interest in these materials, have been slow to come onboard. this is at least partially due to the fact that public school curriculum is the product of multiple levels of decision making, often by people who are far removed from the classroom, making the introduction of new curriculum a lengthy and complicated process which may meet opposition at many points along the way. Public schools are further constrained by tight budgetary considerations, making any new acquisitions that much more contentious.

These considerations aside, many “old-school” academics and intellectuals have been resistant to the idea of bringing “comic books” into the classroom. This is mostly the product of outdated notions of comics content, and perhaps even a lingering contention that these material may be “destructive” to young minds, and may corrode the ability to perform serious in-depth text reading.

However to the contrary, graphic narratives can in fact be a vehicle for many students into texts that they would have otherwise had difficulty connecting with. Christensen, in her article "Graphic Global Conflict: graphic novels in the high school social studies classroom," reminds us that many students are cut off from meaningful engagement in classroom learning experiences because of basic difficulties in reading and internalizing dense and often dry textbooks (2006). For many young people, who have a much larger visual vocabulary than previous generations, graphic narratives can create a meaningful connection with characters and content in a way that simple text cannot (Karp, 2011, p1). Having grown up with video games, television, and the internet, contemporary young people are attracted to materials with an equally strong visual impact and are naturally accustomed to interpreting visual cues (O’English, 2006). Graphic narratives like Art Spiegelman's Maus, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, with their often dark and at times frightening illustrations have a strong visual impact that draws readers in, allowing them to connect personally with important historical events through sympathetic characters and visual scenarios without having to wade through pages and pages of dry historical text.

Most public school classroom will be composed of students with a significant range of literacy skills and difficulties, however this in no way indicates that those students with lower literacy skills are not fully capable of participating and contributing in a meaningful and intelligent way to class discussion. Graphic narratives can allow students with operative reading difficulties and low literacy levels to access the content of course lectures and to connect with the main issues in a way that helps to advance their learning without unfairly stigmatizing them.

Another consideration is English second-language students. Most high school and elementary school bodies today are composed of children from a multitude of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For some students, especially new immigrants, overcoming the linguistic barrier to getting their education can slow them down significantly. Children can be required to take many remedial classes, not because they are in any way intellectually challenged, but simply because they have a low level of comprehension of the written course material. Even someone who has attained a relatively high level of auditory and spoken skills in their second language can still find reading in that language to be slow and painful. Here is another place where graphic narratives can help relieve some of the burden of learning a second language. By providing pictures and text, the narratives not only encourage these students’ grasp of the language because when you are struggling to understand something you can look at the picture for further clues, it can also help these students to access course content that might have otherwise been incomprehensible to them, and thus to participate in class discussion.

At the university level graphic narratives can both help to demystify problematic subjects like physics, ESL, statistics, and intro-history classes, classes that many undergraduate students dread taking, while simultaneously providing a source of literary, narrative, and artistic criticism in their own right.

For other useful resources - including lesson plans, exercises, study guides, handouts, and syllabi for prospective educators - check out www.teachingcomics.org

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Sources:

Abbey, E.A. (1901). Anne Hutchinson on Trial [Illustration]. Harvard College Library, MA. Retrieved from http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Edwin_Austin_Abbey/Anne_Hutchinson_on_Trial.htm

Christensen, L. L. (2006). Graphic global conflict: Graphic novels in the high school social studies classroom. Social Studies, 97(6), 227.

Karp, J. (2011). The power of words and pictures: Graphic novels in education. American Libraries, 42(7/8), 33.

Moon, B. M. (2009). Classics revisited. School Library Journal, 55(7), 36.

National Association of Comics Art Educators (NACEA). Retrieved March 4, 2012 from,
http://www.teachingcomics.org

O’English, Lorena, Mathews, J. Gregory, & Blakesley Lindsay, Elizabeth (2006) Graphic novels in academic libraries: From maus to manga and beyond. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 173-182

Rick, J. (2011). Educate the educators about graphic novels: Five tips for success. Library Media Connection, 30(2), 34.