Thursday, October 14, 2004

Comics as Literature

Michael Lopez has some thoughts about a teacher who is using comics to teach literature.

Basically, I have no problem with this. Why not? The best comics can teach a lot about the use of irony in storytelling, about plot structure, about literary allusion, about character development, about setting, about conflict, and so on. These are all literary concerns. Of course, care has to be taken that the comics chosen are worthy in themselves, and not just "Cliff's Notes" in comics form. But then, I'm not terribly worried about the latter: the article mentions the worry that a graphic novel version of The Odyssey may replace the real thing, but I certainly never read the real thing in high school or college; in fact, I didn't read The Odyssey until a year ago, when I just decided to up and read The Iliad and its sequel. My only school-based exposure to Homer came in seventh grade, when we read some kind of abridgement or some such thing. It wasn't the same as reading Homer, obviously, but when I read The Odyssey last year I was struck by how much of it I recalled from that seventh grade abridgement.

As for graphic novel "adaptations" of other famous works, well -- graphic novels and comics simply represent another medium for storytelling, not a replacement for it. I can see using a comics version of Hamlet in tandem with reading the original, in much the same way that schools use films of the plays as teaching aids. The view of comics as "dumbed down" reading is just plain stupid, and the education professor quoted in the news article should be stripped of her academic credentials for even thinking such a thing. Comics represent an entirely different artistic experience. I am sick, sick sick unto death of the idea that one artistic medium is just a "dumbed down" version of another or that one entire area of expression is somehow inherently inferior to another.

There's also the bizarre complaint that somehow, using comics to reach students who are especially resistant to reading constitutes a betrayal of the egalitarian nature of public education. Well, to me, public school should be egalitarian in that it should be available to everyone, and that it should allow everyone to succeed (i.e., learn) to the best of his or her own ability. It does not mean that every student should come out knowing exactly the same amount of stuff or have been exposed to an identical regimen of material. This is why there are honors classes in the first place. (Although, as always, I am reminded that it can err the other way, too. I was in an honors class that read Ordinary People; the same year, the "regular classes" read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ruminate on that for a while.)

Finally, a general thought on teaching literature. I'm no expert, obviously, nor have I ever attempted to teach literature, so this is just armchair theorizing (hmmmm, "armchair theorizing" seems a pretty good definition of "blogging"), but it continues to strike me that in many subjects in school -- mathematics, the sciences, languages -- one starts with something fairly easy and then works up to the harder stuff as one proceeds through the semester, the school year, and one's academic career. We don't teach calculus to high school students who haven't had a lick of algebra; likewise, chemistry classes don't start with balancing complex organic equations or diagramming molecules before they cover what a covalent bond is. But here we are, taking 14-year-olds and expecting them to be able to not just understand Shakespeare, but to actually love his work. This has always bugged me. Now, it doesn't seem to me that the solution is to "dumb down" the classics for the younger readers, or to avoid them entirely, but to redesign things from the curriculum standpoint so kids are building up to reading Shakespeare, not just jumping right in with him because he comes before some other people chronologically.

So maybe I'd suggest starting ninth grade English classes with a graphic novel or two, using them to introduce literary concepts, and then working in highly regarded, but less demanding, material, gradually working backward through the literary landscape. I'm certainly not suggesting that we abandon the "dead white guys"; I firmly believe that they have to be studied. And maybe using graphic novels actually isn't the best way to start teaching this stuff, but the fact that the approach even exists seems to me to be an indictment of sorts of the way we're doing it now.

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