Comic books have long been written off by academics as junk literature best left to convention fanatics and Hollywood directors, but some colleges have found that there is real value between the colorful pages of comic books and graphic novels. Graphic books offer a valuable lesson in story creation, literature studies, and even make for great tools in better understanding subject matter. These colleges are using comic books for learning in some very interesting ways, and we're inspired by their ingenuity.
Teachers College, Columbia University
Since 2001, The Comic Book Project at Columbia University in New York City has brought comic book writing to K-12 schools. Originally started at just one elementary school in Queens, 11 years later there are now more than 850 schools across the country benefiting from the project that brings a love of literature and support for learning through the creation of comic books. The Comic Book Project offers workshops for teaching students how to write and create their very own comic book from start to finish, providing an outlet for creativity and a place to explore issues in their own lives. Organizers have found that pairing visual and written plotlines in this way has been especially helpful for struggling readers who may have trouble bringing it all together. Students who complete comic books with the program also benefit from being able to share their book online through the project's website.
University of North Texas
At the University of North Texas, located near Dallas, professor Shaun Treat offers Mythic Rhetoric of Superheroes, a communications class discussing American comic superheroes at the graduate level. In the course, students read comic books and graphic novels to consider their reflections of politics, culture, attitudes, and more. The course also examines superheroes and how they compare to the heroes of yesteryear. Professor Treat believes that this course offers a "fun way to introduce students to rhetoric and philosophy," and even includes a look at philosopher Friedrich Nietzche's work through the lens of superhero themes including power, leadership, violence, and justice. Those interested in following along with the class can read the course blog, where "Doc T" shares insights discovered through the course's study.
At Texas Tech's Rawls College of Business, graphic novels are now required reading. Author Jeremy Short teaches undergrad and graduate business courses, and his graphic novel, Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed is on the reading list for each course he teaches. Short says that, along with co-authors Talya Bauer and Dave Ketchen (both also professors teaching MBA courses), the book was conceived to help college students grasp information in a new and better way. The authors aimed to fix a "disconnect" often found between traditional textbooks and students, who often have a hard time retaining the information. With Atlas Black, students are able to better apply ideas and concepts to the characters' stories. According to the publisher, "Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed brings concepts to life using a graphic novel format that undergraduates, MBA's, entrepreneurs, and anyone interested in more deeply grasping business is certain to find both educational and entertaining," telling the story of a student, Atlas, who is struggling through college and his plans for a new life. Short has created two other graphic novel textbooks as well: Tales of Garcon: The Franchise Players, and University Life: A College Survival Story.
University of Utah
French students at the University of Utah are benefiting from using comic books for fluency. Dr. Natasha Roegiers' course uses the Belgian comic Les Aventures de Tintin for learning, basing the entire higher level French class on, yes, a comic book written for children. The Utah university's students have found great value in this technique, and report that by studying the comic book, they have built vocabulary, learned about conversational dialogue, studied political propaganda, and even learned about the aspects of Belgian heroism. They have shown that comic books offer a really fun and productive way to learn a new language, and the "comic book theory" has turned even skeptical students around to enjoy comic books as a tool for language learning.
New Zealand students at Alfriston College are learning from comic books as they create derivative works from famous stories. Professor Steve Saville first started out asking students to bring a scene from The Tempest to life, using a "flat old BBC adaptation" as reference to write something more colorful and creative. Saville reports that in doing so, he has been able to transform students who were talented artists into talented storytellers as well. Students collaborated with a local publisher, DMC, to actually create a comic book, which also served to teach them about quality and meeting deadlines in a professional way. The students were able to bring their comic book to Armageddon, the big comic book convention in New Zealand. At least one student has found inspiration from the project: former student Michelle Bai has created a business selling designs and posters at conventions.
Rhode Island College
Jennifer Cook, English and education professor at Rhode Island College, uses several graphic novels in her courses. Specifically, she looks for those that deal with the hardships her students may be facing as they grow up, including Smile, which follows a young girl as she struggles with dental issues, and How I Made it to Eighteen. By using graphic novels students can relate to, Cook offers a way to make literature learning more personal for her students, and likely more engaging and effective. Cook's graphic novel approach has been so successful that, along with high school teacher Michael Gianfrancesco, she organized the first New England Comic Arts in the Classroom Conference, a wildly popular and sold-out event discussing how she and several other educators have put comic books and graphic novels to work in the high school and university classroom.
Students at Seattle University have the opportunity to study graphic novels from a professional comic book author: Peter Bagge. Bagge walks students through the basics of creating comics and the history behind them: "We'll talk about the nuts and bolts of writing a graphic novel, but what I also plan on doing is roughly covering the history of comics." This course offers an incredible opportunity for budding comic book artists in Seattle, as well as those who are interested in learning more about how comic books are created.
Eastern Illinois University
When literature is usually based on the written word, a study of comics and graphic novels can prove to be interesting. At Eastern Illinois University, English students can take the course With or Without Words: Graphic Novels, Memoirs, and Wordless Books to see how images can convey a story with or without the help of words. Through the course, students read graphic novels, memoirs, comic books, and even wordless books to understand the use of images in literature.
It's sometimes hard to personalize medical procedures and experiences, but at Penn State College of Medicine, comic books help to bridge the gap. Fourth-year medical students have the option to take an elective Humanities course, Graphic Storytelling and Medical Narratives, a class taught by Dr. Michael Green that helps to tell stories about some of the serious topics in medicine. Through the course, students create their own graphic stories about a personal experience in medicine, sharing their transformations from novice to doctor, or meaningful patient encounters that influenced their medical interests. But students get so much more than a comic book at the end, as Green shares that students who take the course typically improve their communication and observation skills, as well as patient interaction and compassion.
California State University Long Beach
Professor Shelley Hong Xu at California State University Long Beach uses comics and graphic novels to teach education students about complex reading skills. In her courses, she uses the graphic works as a way to learn about making inferences through a small amount of text and images, as well as examining strategies for comprehending text. Xu says, "I think that every preservice and inservice teacher needs to experience this activity in order to better understand literacy knowledge and skills that students use with reading comics and graphic novels," and she encourages teachers to respect comic books as a tool for bridging literacy in and out of school.
University of Florida
The University of Florida has a rich comic book program, with a large interest in comics studies on campus. The university hosts an annual conference on comics, publishes the ImageTexT journal, and offers several courses employing comics and graphic novels as learning tools. Some specifically deal with comics, like Michael Pemberton's The Comic Book in American Culture, but others bring in comics and graphic novels as supplemental material for other subjects, like Donald Ault's Forms of Narrative, exploring and comparing comics, graphic novels, and other forms of literature and narrative.
University of Waterloo
Like Penn State, the University of Waterloo uses comics to teach something not normally associated with comic books: biology. Using A Graphic Guide to the DNA Molecule That Shook the World, professors at Waterloo are able to present bacteria beyond "boring ovals," instead offering them with faces, feelings, and identities that students can relate to and use to better understand their roles. But biology students aren't the only ones benefiting from comic books at Waterloo; students in English classes enjoy them as well, with courses including The Superhero, Rhetoric in Popular Culture, and even Images of Women in Popular Culture, which examines images of femininity in print media, including comics.