Comics in the classroom guest post: Nick Sousanis of Teachers College, New York

American artist and educator Nick Sousanis is one of the experts interviewed in this month’s education article on Comics in the Classroom. Nick made his name on the Detroit art scene before beginning a Ph.D. at Teachers College in New York.

Unusually, Nick’s own doctoral thesis takes the form of a comic book – putting into practice his belief that the medium can be a powerful tool for intellectual inquiry and the communication of complex arguments.

Possibilities comic by Nick Sousanis
A page from Nick Sousanis’ ‘Possibilities’, a philosophical and historical examination of games

Nick is currently speaking at the Rocky Mountain Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels. In today’s guest post, Nick shares his thoughts on making the most of comics in education.

On making comics:

I’ve been making comics my whole life. In junior high and high school, I produced an ongoing superhero comic of sorts. During college and afterwards, I started up a number of different comics projects that all reached various states of (in)completion.  Later, when I was immersed in writing about Detroit’s art community, I was asked to be in a political art show around the 2004 election with extremely short notice. I turned to comics and ended up doing two short comics in a very short time and these kickstarted my more mature, metaphorical approach to comics narratives.

The next piece I did was an essay in comics form in conjunction with an art show about games and education – that piece, “Possibilities”, is a philosophical and historical examination of games. When I set out for Teachers College, I shared this piece as a demonstration of how I thought comics could be used to convey dense and complex subject matter, while retaining an accessible and meaningful manner. That has further evolved to thinking about comics as a sophisticated, multi-layered medium uniquely suited to presenting rich and complex, often non-linear narratives.

On comics as a form of multimodal learning:

Comics certainly appeal to our visual learning aspects, and can serve to engage reluctant readers. Clearly one of the big arguments for comics in the classroom is in terms of aiding in literacy and in some cases transcending literacy barriers – see, for instance, the Comic Book Project and World Comics Finland, respectively.

But I think this is only a starting point. As I said above, comics are capable of presenting and weaving together complex layers of information. Consider the notion of multimodality as referring to the way that things like gesture, image, and action, are not separate and illustrative of the “real” thing – the verbal-linguistic, but equal contributors to how we make meaning. Comics not only blend image and text, but are inherently multimodal in the way they also convey further layers of meaning through the use of such things as color, fonts, balloon shape, panel composition, and further visual cues that can present nuanced meaning to the whole. We process these visual aspects simultaneously (as with a piece of art), and therefore greater meaning is created through the resonance of the different modes than any single mode could achieve alone. So in essence a piece that might seem on its surface simple in appearance, is actually able to deliver complex meaning through a multitude of channels. (I hold up David Mazzucchelli’s ‘Asterios Polyp’ as a fantastic example of comics’ inherent multimodal potential, and ‘Watchmen’ or nearly any comic written by Alan Moore as examples of resonance between visual and verbal on the comics page.)

On the future of comics in the classroom:

I’m thrilled with the increasing integration of comics into all sorts of classrooms at all levels of education, and I’d like to see this pushed still further to consider comics as something more than a gateway to “serious” reading. They are an important medium for thought and expression in their own right. Perhaps in limiting ourselves (especially within the academy) to thinking in text and privileging that over other forms of thinking, we’ve been missing out on a lot of potential in what we can create and how we can express. For me, the comics medium itself – pictures and words composed in space – is a vehicle for serious inquiry. I find the very act of working spatially and visual-verbally facilitates creative discoveries otherwise obscured when limited to a sheet of lined paper or my keyboard. Elevating comics as an essential tool for thinking reaffirms a way we first started making sense of our world – as small children making narratives with pictures and words in page-filling compositions, and a means of expression I think worth being further cultivated alongside other forms of literacy.

Finally, the digital age obviously has an impact on comics – with tablet displays and digital distribution becoming widespread. This has become a great way for new works to be discovered. At the same time comics are a low-tech, easily distributable medium. They can be made for as little budget as the cost of a pen/pencil and something to make marks on. Perhaps more important than digital in this era – is the need for people to be able to tell and share THEIR stories. And I can imagine comics being prominent in that effort – the digital tools only enabling more ways in which that can happen. Certainly, digital tools – comiclife, etc – facilitate easy integration of text and visuals to one regardless of visual skills.

On how to get the most from comics in the classroom:

I teach a course for educators to develop their own approaches for using comics in their particular educational context – these are a few of my thoughts for using comics in education:

Read some comics! Get familiar with the medium in various forms – and get to know it beyond the limits of genre stereotypes. From Calvin and Hobbes to Batman, from Maus to Fun Home and Stitches – tackle things you enjoy, things that frustrate you – looking for commonalities and contrasts in form, styles, and more. Mostly – enjoy the reading!

Check out the work of Scott McCloud. His book Understanding Comics is fantastic and indispensable. He offers a great starting point for articulating this visual language that is comics. Though, as McCloud himself suggests, this should not be your end point for learning about comics – but instead a launch pad to getting to know an expanding world that is the comics medium.

Another essential resource especially for having students make comics would be Matt Madden and Jessica Abel’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (and recently released sequel Mastering Comics) – these are terrific course texts filled with practical means of getting into making. And there are now a whole host of books for teaching comics in the classroom developed by teachers who’ve done just that. While I emphasize theory of how comics work in my college course, I get at this in great deal through practice – my students make comics from day one, which for almost all of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever done such a thing. Even with little background, I find the discoveries they make in their efforts are illuminating and lead back to the theorizing as a way of analyzing what we’ve done. So perhaps it’s best to start by playing, then read, then play, and let that feedback cycle guide your discoveries in the classroom.

Take advantage of the growing online communities for teachers using comics. I’ve been assembling resources like crazy on the links page of my wiki, and one I’d highly recommend is the MCPOP social network for educators, with a group devoted to comics. This site has a host of makers alongside prominent comics educators and teachers everywhere making use of comics in their particular environment. Great place to start seeing what’s being done in other questions and asking questions of your own. Abel and Madden’s site features guest posts from teachers using comics in their classes. And there are many more.

Check out what your students are reading – in terms of comics. This might guide you to the types of materials you can tap into that will resonate with them.

Make your own comics – about your day, your students, whatever. Play with the medium – you won’t learn more about the theory and mechanics of comics (or anything for that matter) than by doing it yourself!

I think it’s important that we broaden our conception of what drawing is beyond notions of the master draftsman, highly detailed, “accurate” rendering. I like all that this suggests, but drawing is a lot more than that, and drawing comics is about creating a visual language – guiding a reader through a spatial narrative – and that can be achieved through a wide variety of ways.

On the practical side – it’s worth it to check out the various stick figure comics that are produced, including the legendary Matt Feazell’s “cynicalman” and XKCD, to name two.

For the non-drawer looking to get over that, I can’t recommend Lynda Barry’s Picture This highly enough. The famed cartoonist takes a look at why we draw and why we stop – as she encourages her readers to dive back in. If we think about storytelling through visual metaphor, there is a wide world of expression possible using simple forms, color, and composition – to this end I also recommend checking out Molly Bang’s similarly titled Picture This in which she explores telling a story using only cutout shapes of colored paper. I’ve used cutouts with my own students, and I think working with a solid, rather than the often timidness of a drawn line, can help students explore their picture-making abilities in a profound way. Furthermore, this is a powerful exploration of visual thinking – and just how much we can express through the (seemingly) simple use of shape, color, and relationships.

Technology can help, too – the ComicLife software lets users compose comic pages with their own photos and other images. Extremely simple to use and produces quick results. I had one student who did all his drawings with the crude tools of PowerPoint – it worked! Finally, there is the potential for collaboration – artists paired with writers – this is typical of mainstream superhero comics but can work nicely in all sorts of situations – especially as educators are increasingly recognizing the positive potential of collaborative learning.

Regardless of one’s drawing skills, I think the experience of working through a narrative or idea visually and verbally, over the space of a page (or pages) can lead to new insights and allow one insights into the medium – and perhaps a satisfying piece to share…

To find out more about Nick’s work, visit his website Spin, Weave and Cut.

For more on comics and education, check out the comicsedu tag on my website.

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