By Ellen Ma
Rex Ganding teaches college-level English, from freshman to second year composition students. He has done so since Fall 2009. Just recently, Ganding has picked up a few graphic novels for his classroom (FAHRENHEIT 451, Y: THE LAST MAN Vol. 1, THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS, and UNDERSTANDING COMICS) and was kind enough to spare some of his time for a quick interview about his experience.
EM: What did you want your students to achieve with the graphic novel that you didn't think you could do with a traditional text-based novel?
RG: I have a few answers to this. I hope this makes sense.
I'd like them to get a sense of who they are as learners. I also want them to recognize that we are living in a culture based on ‘screens’ and images. Learning to make sense out of images, verbally describe and analyze them, and create their own images is going to be critical for them whatever their field of study or career path. While being able to read and write traditional text is and will continue to be important, it is no longer the primary or the best way of conveying information. I think they need to be more aware of this, and I am taking the opportunity to raise and train that awareness in a college classroom.
I think I'm able to engage more learning styles using a graphic novel. Because of the 'hybrid' form of reading that is required, I'm able to get more productive and efficient collaborative learning. Because of increased access to the Internet, television, iPhones, etc., I believe that a majority of my students are visual learners. Students who are more skilled at text-based reading bring their literary knowledge to the table. Non-native speakers of English also feel much more comfortable reading a graphic novel and participating. My objective to create deep analysis in discussion and writing is not as difficult as text-based work because the graphic novel is helping me tap into all these different modes of learning. Put simply, I am able draw on the variety of strengths in the classroom.
Further, the graphic novel serves as a great way to negotiate what they bring as students and what I'm trying to accomplish as a writing teacher.
EM: What difference did you notice within your classroom when you used a graphic novel compared to a text-based novel?
RG: During the past two semesters, I've brought in a graphic novel at different times during the semester. Last summer, I brought it in at the very beginning as the first text (FAHRENHEIT 451). I've never seen students as engaged in text as I did then. When going over the visual grammar that you helped me with using power point slides, the level of engagement was amazing. I think students really appreciate being introduced to a new way of looking at the medium. Using 451 early really set a tone for the rest of the semester and became even more rich when comparing to the original text. Since summer session is short, I had to build community, trust and a healthy learning environment in the classroom quickly. I think bringing in the graphic novel really helped facilitate that.
This semester I brought in graphic novels at about the halfway point of the semester. From past semesters, I've come to learn that energy drops significantly at about that point. This not only happens to my students, but I feel it as well. Students have put in a lot of work at this point, and tend to start dragging. I wanted to bring in a text that broke structure, yet at the same time could be very productive to meet the objectives of the course. In my freshman comp courses, I feel that going through Y: THE LAST MAN has been refreshing for all. Again, trust has been re-established if not initially generated between the students and me. I'm hoping to ride that new energy to the end of the semester.
EM: Speaking of Y, I’ve heard a few instructors mention that they had difficultly trying to use a graphic novel that had multiple volumes but it seems like you have a very focused way of looking at this particular graphic novel.
GD: As far teaching Y: THE LAST MAN vol. 1, students loved it. Y was the completion of a unit on gender and language. We really spent time looking at the implied messages throughout the book. Further, Y serves as a nice transition into a mini-unit on communication and the language of images. After telling them we wouldn't read the next volumes, many ended up going out and buying some of the following volumes anyway. Seeing that happen was all worth it.
EM: What are you most proud of, from either your students or yourself, that you've discovered with using the graphic novel?
I'm proud that I've established a bond and common interest with my students. Last spring was the first time I picked up a graphic novel/comic since I was 11 years old. In preparing lessons (with your help of course) and working with students to make sense of these texts, I've not only rekindled an old hobby, but have also found a way generate a high level mode of discourse in a classroom. I've changed students' minds who were skeptical. As mentioned, I've had students buy the next volumes of Y. Another student brought in a comic book for me to read. One student went out and bought UNDERSTANDING COMICS. Student response has blown me away.
EM: What advice or suggestions would you give to an instructor thinking about using a graphic novel for the first time in their classroom?
What I told my graduate class yesterday was that if you ever need a pick-me-up, bring in a graphic novel. Seriously though, I would suggest either Will Eisner's COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART or McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS to help ground lesson planning. Further, as you recommended to me, the “Political Cartoons Persuasive Techniques" have been great teaching PERSEPOLIS. I'm thinking of using AMERICAN BORN CHINESE next semester, and will use those techniques again. Finally, I would tell instructors to just go for it. I was a little nervous when I first used it, but once I saw the response, I really started to think of creative ways to use the medium in the classroom.