By Peter Gutiérrez
Here’s an idea, perhaps simultaneously refreshing and depressing, for K-12 educators and department heads to consider: pay a visit to the foreign realm of higher ed and check out how it handles curriculum.
There the concept still often seems to be approached with an eye to original thinking and cross-disciplinary opportunities as the rule rather than the exception. But is this true when it comes to comics and graphic novels? Well, yes and no. While academic research and critical analysis of the medium seems to be stronger than ever, even starting to rub shoulders with the rest of comics culture (witness the presence of the Comic Studies Conference at C2E2 and New York Comic Con this year), how many typical college professors consider graphic texts as legitimate — and valuable — resources to include in their syllabi?
Not enough as there should be, it seems. At least that’s the sense one gets from an eye-opening exhibit that opened this spring at Columbia University and will continue to run throughout the summer. Spotlighting specific titles from a wide range of time periods and formats — serial comics, mini-comics, graphic novels, manga, and more — the exhibit, entitled “Comics in the Curriculum,” shows how such texts can “be incorporated into research and curricula to illustrate a variety of themes.”
A partial view of the exhibit in Butler Library.
It’s not a huge exhibit by any means, especially given the sweep of its topic. There are only about half a dozen tall display cases to work your way through, but each one is bursting with ideas guaranteed to make your brain hyperventilate. Which is largely the purpose of the exhibit: not to recap how comics are being used in curricula, but to suggest how they might be. “This exhibit is an argument,” says its curator, Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian Karen Green.
And it’s an argument that’s hard to refute because graphica isn’t simply presented in isolation, but rather as part of a tradition of visual media, a tradition that few would hold as academically inappropriate. For each of the exhibit’s topical categories, an initial key image is provided that proves this point—and to which the graphica excerpts then stand as historical/aesthetic echoes or even cousins.
"Perceptions of War" section pairing Guernica and TWO-FISTED TALES.
So in this way we see Guernica starting off a “Perceptions of War” section that also includes Harvey Kurtzman, and “Heroes and Antiheroes” featuring an illuminated manuscript depicting the Antichrist side-by-side with Brian Bolland and Alan Moore’s Batman/Joker dichotomy.
"Heroes and Antiheroes" section featuring Hortus Deliciarum with THE KILLING JOKE.
Even more inspired are William Hogarth paired with Scott McCloud (under “Didacticism and Pedagogy”), and Otto Dix with THE WALKING DEAD (“Society in Crisis”). What gradually becomes clear, then, is that the comics works on display are not just vehicles for content but as media artifacts themselves, as reflections of the times that produced them––a strategy that secondary teachers might consider to leverage this high-interest medium to teach media literacy and cultural studies.
The comics featured in the exhibit are informed by Columbia’s graphic novel holdings, a collection that Green herself is responsible for developing over the past several years. In addition to her university duties, she writes a widely read column at ComiXology, “Comic Adventures in Academia,” and is frequent speaker at both academic and comic conventions. We’re grateful that she was able to spend a few minutes answering our questions about this unique exhibit.
Graphic Classroom: Have there been any "Aha!" moments on the part of Columbia faculty or students? Have any told you about specific ways in which the exhibit is inspiring them to incorporate graphica into their work?
Karen Green: I haven't really had “Aha!” moments per se. That's not so much how faculty operates here. I was contacted by a lovely woman who's a professor in our East Asian Languages and Cultures (aka EALAC) department; she is currently working on an article that focuses on a manga series called OOKU. She wrote to ask if she could meet with me, and we had a long conversation about the possibility of my working with her and her students — and with the East Asian Library, where manga really belongs but which hasn't set about to collect it seriously — in the future. Also about planning a possible conference.
I have gotten several emails from students thanking me for the collection — people who hadn't known who was responsible for it before. But faculty and students are very... self-sufficient here. I'm gradually becoming aware of who is using these materials in classes, and sometimes they know about others, and it becomes a daisy chain. I'm pretty happy for this to happen slowly and organically, actually. Change is coming. I can wait!
The curriculum referenced in the title is at the university level, so how many of the featured titles do you think would work at 9-12 or 6-12? Are there ones that you feel are particularly promising for secondary educators that they might not be aware of... or ones that they might find problematic including in their curricula?
Well, I think you'd definitely want to avoid the collection of Tijuana bibles! But other than that... I'm not sure that I would shield any of the 9-12 kids from any of these titles. Actually, I recently visited a high school class and wrote about it in my column this month. I took THE ALCOHOLIC and FISHTOWN and THE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS to talk to ninth and tenth graders about substance abuse narratives in comic books. I asked the teacher if the material was too... strong, but he seemed to think it was okay. I think most high school kids are a lot more prepared for intense materials than parents and policy-makers want to believe.
Grades 6-8 — well, that's another story. A book like ARAB IN AMERICA has some strong language, but its story is a powerful one, and encountering that kind of narrative early on seems right to me. My twin nephews are in sixth grade and, while I wouldn't necessarily want them to read THE WALKING DEAD on their own, without someone to give them a context and a structure and things to think about, I don't think they need to be protected from it. ARMY@LOVE I'd reserve for the older kids. But other than that? Not really.
Of course, I've got no training in secondary-school pedagogy, so my opinions are not to be trusted!
Yes, but as a librarian yourself, what might teaching librarians or school librarians at K-12 learn from the exhibit? For example, do you think it might shed light on new ways to approach superheroes, or to look differently at the kinds of graphic nonfiction they add to their collections?
Well, I don't know that I would say they should/could collect differently, but I'd love for them to find in it a useful way to open up lines of communication with teachers. Now, for all I know, K-12 librarians and teachers are already using comics in exactly this way, and my advice sounds just patronizing! But I hope that, for all the spectacular work that public/school librarians have done in using comics as literacy gateways, they're also thinking about ways to use them in the classroom.
If you had more room in the display cases what are some works that you might have included under the same thematic/topical categories?
Yikes. I think I had 5-7 titles for each category before I winnowed through and picked the best. For example, in “Racism and Ethnicity” (which began, simply, as “Racism”), I realized that my first set of choices all dealt with African Americans. I had SENTENCES: THE LIFE OF M.F. GRIMM and something else, I can't remember now what. But I wanted to make clear that racism hits a lot of different groups in a lot of different guises in this country. And there were more that I could have used. [Will] Eisner's THE PLOT, for example. Perhaps a better heading would have been "Hatred of 'The Other'"!
I'll also forever be sorry that I didn't get my hands on the Department of Health's store of "Decision" subway posters... [These were comics-style serialized posters about AIDS and HIV awareness that appeared in the New York City subways in the 1980s. -PG]
In a similar vein, if you had a lot more space — or were simply asked to do this kind of exhibit in the future — what are some other areas or curricular topics that you might explore?
I'd love to have done a “History of NYC” theme. Or a theme that picked up on the two recent classes I've done: one on illness narratives and another on substance abuse. I still think that, eventually, I could have come up with a better set of images for “Religion” — or, perhaps, a better way to frame that topic than simply "Religion" — than the ones I eventually abandoned. I'd also like to have done something on unconventional narrative — maybe looking at the way WATCHMEN includes the chapter-ending narratives along with the nested pirates story, or the multiple Bryan Talbot narrators that appear in ALICE IN SUNDERLAND. And another theme that I let go for space was “Reportage”: that would have started with the Bayeux Tapestry and included things like JOURNEY INTO MOHAWK COUNTRY and BURMA CHRONICLES.
The Graphic Classroom: Well, I’d love to see you get a chance to do this again sometime, maybe on a larger scale. Anyway, thanks so much for your time.
Comics in the Curriculum is open to all, with free admission, at Columbia University’s Butler Library until Labor Day. The hours are really the hours of the Library Information Office, which visitors have to stop at in order to get a pass to get in; in the summer, it’ll be open 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. every weekday, 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Saturdays, and noon to 4:45 p.m. on Sundays. Karen Green can be reached for questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Gutiérrez writes on graphica and education for publications such as BookShelf, School Library Journal, and Graphic Novel Reporter. If you’ll be at ALA, drop by on Monday, June 28 (1:30-2:30 p.m.) to see him moderate a session on navigating teaching resources for graphic novels with a panel that includes David Serchay, Sari Wilson, and Katie Monnin. He can be reached at email@example.com.