Monday, May 2, 2011

Now that it's over: Thoughts on my first semester teaching.

First, let me say that for the most part, I loved it. There was stress, and a lot of work (prep work that I won't have to do over if I get the chance to teach this class again), but the rewards far outweighed the negatives.

For those reading this who haven't talked to me in the past few months, I just finished teaching my first semester as an adjunct professor/guest lecturer at Chatham University. I taught a 300-level English Department Cultural Studies course called “Comics and Pop Culture.” For a general idea of what I did here's the intro paragraph from the course syllabus;

While telling stories with pictures is as least as old as cave paintings, the format known as comics is considered to be one of only two art forms that developed in the United States (Jazz is the other one). In addition to an art form, comics have also been called “the most dismaying mass of undiluted horror and prodigious impossibility ever visited on the sanity of a nation’s youth.” It is only in the last two decades that comics have begun to be looked at as a legitimate art form worthy of academic or artistic analysis. This course is designed as an overview of the topic, providing students with an understanding of the visual language of comics, a basic knowledge of their history and cultural impact, and a lexicon that will allow analysis and discussion of this much maligned and misunderstood art form.”

Yeah, pretty impressive for funnybooks, ain't it?

I really have few regrets about walking away from my more professional career in psychology 20 years ago (though at the time it was more the beginning of a potential career in psychology than an actual career). The one thing that did bother me since is that I've always had some vague notion of wanting to teach at the college level. Professor Wise just has a ring to it. Okay, a very comic book character kind of ring, but still. Without more education teaching Psychology was pretty much out of the question and truthfully not something I was very interested in anymore anyway. While my interests and self-education (I'm auto-didactic, to use a big word) continued, and I accumulated lots of knowledge in a variety of subjects, I really never seriously considered going back to school and getting a doctorate. Very few programs covered the types of things I was really interested in, at least that's the way it seemed. I was also limited by that pesky need-to-make-a-living thing.

Working at Phantom of the Attic Comics in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh was a nice middle ground. We're sandwiched between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University so a large chunk of our customer base is the students. I got to be around academia without being a part of it. It seemed that every year someone was doing a paper or a project on comics and I became the go-to resource person for them. That became even more true when I befriended a couple of professors from these universities (Dr. Mark Best and Dr. Michael Chemers, respectively) and they started directing students to me specifically. These guys also proved to me that Pop Culture is worth teaching at the college level and through them I started to see new possibilities, specifically for teaching comics.

A couple of years ago my friend Tony Norman, columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took a sabbatical from work and took some graduate-level courses, including one on Graphic Novels. He told me about the course, and while I would have killed to have had something like it when I was in college, for the most part I focused on what was missing from what he described. It seemed to me that his course, and in my researches many courses in comics, were being taught by academics who were approaching the topic from outside the world of comics. Now, there's validity to teaching a graphic novel as a work of literature, but I still believe something is lacking. For example, Watchmen should succeed or fail on its own merits as a work of fiction, but it is, inherently, a deconstruction and commentary on the entire history of superhero comics. Without a grounding in that history, without understanding the archetypes and tropes of the superhero, then a deeper understanding of the work just isn't possible. In talking with Tony about how Watchmen was taught in his class, it seemed to me that many of the ideas that I deem essential to understanding Watchmen were not mentioned at all, and it was apparent that the reason for this was that the professor simply didn't know these things.

So I started thinking about how to teach a class that would introduce people to the history, archetypes and tropes of the genre, and not just the superhero genre, but comics as an inclusive art form. Comics are a hot topic in academics but there is just beginning to be a body of work to draw from, and much of it from people who have never really been in the trenches of the comics industry. I've been a fan my entire life. I learned to read from comics. I worked as a professional inker for Malibu Graphics in the 90's. I won the Xeric Grant for a comic called Grey Legacy in 1993 and as a result I have experience as a writer, designer, inker, and publisher (including all of the details that go into publishing, like promotion, advertising, dealing with printers, distributors, retailers, etc). I have worked in comics retail for the last fifteen years, fourteen of them at the Eisner Award-nominated Phantom of the Attic, so I'm pretty in touch with the vicissitudes of the comics retail industry. I also have a masters degree in psychology and undergrad degrees in psych and history. I'm not intimidated talking in front of groups of people, and if you made it this far (and even if you haven't) you can see I'm rarely at a loss for something to say.

In short, I bring a lot of experience to the table. To sound self-aggrandizing for a moment (and it's my blog, so I'm allowed), I really think I'm one of the top five people in Pittsburgh qualified to teach this class.

So, with this new-found sense of purpose and arrogance I embarked on a mission to make this happen.

I did some research, and started cultivating contacts I had with people at various universities around town. I put together a slideshow on “A Brief History of Comics” that served as an introduction and outline of what I wanted my whole course to be and was able to present it at couple of lecture-like functions. With the help and support of the aforementioned Mark and Mike I developed a tentative syllabus and updated my Curriculum Vitae (which up to this point I had called a resume).

Turns out, Tony Norman teaches Journalism as an adjunct professor at Chatham University. About three years ago one of the Deans there wanted to develop a class on comics, but she didn't have time, so she asked Tony. He also didn't have time, so he referred me. She was interested, but as I understand it, right around that time Chatham instituted a hiring freeze for new adjuncts. Two years later, the freeze is lifted, that Dean is no longer there, but Tony gave me the name of a new contact person to submit my proposal to. An interview later and (after securing the budget to pay me) I was offered the opportunity to teach comics at the college level.

I spent last fall and winter fleshing out my syllabus and developing weekly lectures. That alone was a really good experience for me. I know I know a lot about this topic, but having an excuse to organize all the stuff that rattles around in my head was a good thing. I looked at the topic with different eyes, made new connections and new insights, and was more convinced than ever that this is a topic worth teaching. I collected tons of images and put together slide shows to illustrate my lectures. I panicked over figuring out how to test or grade on something like this (I decided on writing assignments exclusively).

And I waited to see if anyone would actually sign up to take my class. I had been told that I needed at least ten students to sign up or they couldn't offer it. Chatham is, at the undergraduate level at least, an all girls school. Now comics have always been something of a boy's club, and while that has changed over the last couple of decades, I still wondered if the interest would be there.

I had twenty-seven girls sign up for my class. I told them on the first day that one of the differences in the comics industry now is that when I was twenty years old there probably weren't twenty-seven girls in the country that read comics, let alone in one room.

They came in with a variety of backgrounds and levels of interest, from those who were really, really into comics to the ones who had only read Japanese Manga (I expected more of those), to a few who had never read comics in their lives but were curious.

It took me a couple of weeks to find my rhythm for teaching, but once I did I think it went really well. I used comics and the history of the comic book as a lens through which talk about a variety of topics: History, mythology, creativity and creator's rights, issues of race, issues of gender, business practices and economics, art and art appreciation, the interplay of text and images, symbolism, propaganda, and how comics, like any art form, both reflect and influence the culture and times of the people who create them.

At the end of it I am very aware of things I need to be better at and things I will do differently next time. I feel I learned a lot from the students. I think they learned a lot from me. In the writing assignments I have received from them I see a level of enthusiasm for the topic that impressed me. Some of them put a tremendous amount of research into their papers, and most were able to to tie the themes of comics and the ideas we talked about in class into much broader issues with a level of critique and insight that pleased me to no end. Several of them took things I said in passing in class and turned them into full-blown themes they explored in greater depth in their projects (it's like they were actually listening in class or something). A few of them wrote simply outstanding, remarkable papers.

And I feel like I met some outstanding, remarkable students. Now, don't get me wrong... the class was a mix of types, but overall they were a good bunch. But like in any situation like this, a few stood out. For the sake of confidentiality I won't name names here, but I feel lucky to have met and befriended several of them. They made the experience much better than it could have been, by their enthusiasm, brilliance, senses of humor, and demeanor. Some of them I will probably never see again, a few will stay in touch, and I already feel like I miss the whole room. Next time I teach I will meet new students and I'm sure will have the same kind of reaction and experience. But this bunch was my first in this context, and will be the standard the others will be measured against. They had to endure my first stumbling semester as I found my professorial voice and style. Many of them have given me incredibly positive feedback (that I'm too humble, believe it or not, to share here) as well as suggestions on how I can do better.

As of right now I don't know for sure if I will get to do this again. It seems likely, based on the success of this class, but there is no firm offer on the table. It is an adjunct position, and Comics isn't a core curriculum for any major, and a budget needs to be secured, or there might be enough interest by the students next year, or whatever... I hope, but I don't know.

I have to say, I felt completely at home in front of the class, like this was something I was meant to do. My writing and my art, my novels and my comics, have always been outlets for the storyteller in me, and that is primarily how I think of myself. My writing and art are in the service of my story. That's how I felt while lecturing. I was telling a story, one that I believe in, one that I have been a part of, and one that more people need to hear. Comics are an art form, and like any art they exist to make us look at the world and ourselves in new ways. I hope I did that for my students. I know they did that for me.


  1. Wayne, I don't know if I congratulated you on your endeavor, but Congrats! I am so glad to hear your semester went well at Chatham, and I really believe you were an excellent fit at that college. When I graduated high school that is where I spent a year or so before going on hiatus. And can I say I am so jealous of those girls! I had an excellent Science Fiction General Lit course with Dr. Bruckner there, but I'm sure your course would have been a blast! Next time I run into you I'd love to hear more about the experience.

    Good luck and I hope you get a chance to hone your professorial craft next semester!

  2. Wow, that semester sure did roll by fast enough. It seems like you were just talking to me about looking forward to getting the position. I'm glad it was challenging for you and yet second natured. You do have a way with the words and delivery. Good job and here's to your next semester!

  3. awesome that the semester went so well for you and i hope you do it some more, i always enjoyed your lectures.