Comics as Scholarship

I’m becoming a mad, frothing opponent to humanities instructors that allow only text-based scholarship, the term paper being the prime example of enforced mediocrity. I had a few professors who allowed us to incorporate images into our projects, a few who encouraged it, and a few whose parameters for our final projects were “do whatever you want.” A lot of students balk at such broad assignments, and they should – they should balk and bridle and bristle and rear up and freak out a little bit. The loose parameters don’t alarm them, for the most part, because they can’t think of anything to do. It’s because they don’t know if what they’re doing will get them the grade they want.

That’s the part that makes instructors hesitant, too. How to assess work with parameters outside the rubric? I don’t have an answer for that here. What I’ve been thinking about are the projects that can push students out of their comfort zones and into generating something beyond what they thought they could do, extend their thinking, and maybe even make something new.

Comics are one of many types of scholarship in which we can encourage students to engage, and I’ve been scouting around for the best tools to offer students who may not want or be able to draw a comic. I made the following comic using Pixton, a flexible comic -generating tool with an account option specifically for education. Instructors can create assignments in Pixton and share with students, who then may use the account to create their own comics in response to the assignment. Most of the samples I’ve seen so far have been from high school courses, but Pixton is flexible enough that, given the proper instruction and assignment guidelines, students in higher education could make good use of the tool. Barbara Weaver, from Clemson University, used Pixton in her sophomore literature course, with promising results.

Instructors and students may both have to get over the associated superficiality of the word “comics,” which often conjures first the image of grade school boys reading Superman on the stoop, or maybe the bland, blunted offerings of the newspaper funnies. They may also need to contend with the assumption that “comics” have to be funny, or that the medium is meant to make complicated ideas more palatable for less ambitious minds, like in the “Classics Illustrated” series. ┬áThe best evidence against these assumptions, right now, is PhD candidate Nick Sousanis’s dissertation in comic form, which he discusses in his blog, and which I discuss with fellow designer Chris Malmberg in the inaugural edition of his podcast.

The goal of incorporating sequential art as a form of critical inquiry is to create complications between word and image, and from complications come questions, and from these questions arises the possibility of fulfilling the potential of academia, which is the creation of new knowledge. “Funny pages” indeed.

Comic by me, using Pixton.