Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Year End Roundup Part 1: Teaching

I’ve been incredibly neglectful of my blog this year, and in general I’ve been less productive as a writer. Not that I didn’t do anything, but I was feeling a little burnt out in terms of topics in this forum. I wrote and submitted a couple of pieces of creative nonfiction (that were rejected), that might end up here, unless I can find another place to submit. One of the longer pieces that was originally planned for the blog ended up being a part of a much larger work that also may be serialized here at some point. I wrote a couple of book reviews for the Post Gazette, and had a couple of pull quotes from previous reviews published in the paperback editions of the books I reviewed. I wrote a memoriam for Stan Lee for Legacy.com. The most unexpected piece of professional writing I did was to contribute the new, official entry for the character of the Black Panther for World Book Encyclopedia.

But, my blog suffered. It’s been a more introverted year for me in general, so I guess I just haven’t had much to say in public.

My biggest achievement of 2018 was that I taught an Introduction to the Graphic Novel class at the University of Pittsburgh as an adjunct professor this fall. Though I have been making contacts and seeding my name there for a few years now, when it happened it happened very quickly.

I was asked if I was interested in teaching this class about three weeks before the semester began. The class had been offered by another professor (I don’t know who), in the spring. It was on the fall schedule, a room and time had been assigned, and thirty-five students had signed up for the class. For some reason, in July, the original professor was unable to teach the class. A good friend of mine who is a full time professor there has taught this class in the past, and he was asked if he could do it. He already had a full semester of classes scheduled, including designing a new class he had never taught before. He graciously suggested me. In an example of great timing I had met the woman whose job it was to find someone only a month before and had had a brief conversation with her about my desire to teach at Pitt.

So, with only three weeks before the semester began, the day after a serious car accident (which I’ll talk about in another post), a week before I left for a vacation on the other side of the country, I signed my contract and joined the adjunct faculty of the University of Pittsburgh.

No pressure, right?

Now, it’s not like I had never thought of teaching a graphic novel class before. I’ve been making notes and collecting images and reading articles and books on the topic for years. Still, I had very little time to prepare. Luckily, the friend I mentioned earlier gave me all of his class materials from when he taught it. This gave me a solid base to build on, and was helpful and essential, especially in the first few weeks as I found my footing. I tweaked his syllabus, dropped a couple of the books he used, added some new ones I was interested in teaching, and jumped in head first.

I admit that the first month felt rocky to me. The class met three times a week (and enormous thanks to my coworkers at Phantom of the Attic for juggling the schedule there to allow this to happen). I had a little difficulty finding my rhythm and figuring out how much I had time for in any given class. A couple of times early in the semester I was caught short and dismissed class early. Eventually I figured it out. I spent a tremendous amount of time prepping for class. I reread books I hadn’t read in years. I made lecture notes. I compiled slideshows of images to complement the lectures. I read academic reviews of the books I assigned and tried to figure out what I wanted to talk about and teach. I love doing this, so it didn’t feel like a chore, but it took time. At any given moment during the semester I was only about a week ahead of where I needed to be, sometimes less.

The class was a mix. I had freshmen through seniors, so there was a wide gap among many of them in terms of writing skills and abilities. About a third of them had regular prior experience with reading comics and graphic novels, and about a third who admitted they had never read anything. There were those who participated regularly in class discussions, and those who never said a word. By the end, based on their papers and responses on tests, most of them seemed genuinely engaged in the material and I think they learned things.

A big part of my goal was to expose them to a variety of material and show that graphic novels have a diversity of content. In looking at other professor’s syllabi online I saw a pattern. There are the canonical works that everyone seems to teach. These are all works that I agree with and understand why they have become the academic canon of graphic novels. Then it seemed that each professor filled out the schedule with a variety of books that they liked and found valuable to teach. The syllabus I inherited was much like this. I swapped out a few of the books he taught for ones I was more interested in, but kept the overall structure of the class.
So, what did I teach?

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud is the closest thing to a textbook that exists for a class of this type. We didn’t read and analyze all of it class the way we did other texts, but there are concepts from this at are fairly essential to the topic. As such, a lot of this book’s ideas provided an underpinning for everything else we did, especially early on. I spent a couple of weeks talking about how to read comics (which isn’t as obvious as one might think), and teaching some of the basic concepts of page analysis.
(Here’s where I hype up a YouTube channel called Strip Panel Naked. Watch some of these to get an idea of the kinds of things we covered in class).

I started with A Contract With God by Will Eisner, mainly for it’s historical significance, but also because it challenges a lot of preconceived notions about layout, design, and storytelling. I wasn’t sure if a young audience could appreciate the stories but it proved to be a very successful choice. One student, an avowed superhero fan who had never read any other kind of comic, chose it as his favorite thing we read all semester.

This was followed by an extended section on autobiographical comics, (‟I didn’t even know there was such a thing as autobiographical comics,” one student told me). In addition to Maus, Persepolis, and Fun Home, three of the most canonical graphic novels in academia we also read short excerpts from Chester Brown, Seth, Derf, Joe Matt, Lynda Barry, Julia Wertz, and Harvey Pekar. Of these Fun Home was the most fun and productive. There is a lot to talk about with that book, and I feel like that was the week where I finally found my groove in this class.

I followed this with excerpts from Love & Rockets, extended stories from bith Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. This was the first place I broke from the former teacher’s plan and did something of my own. L&R is not only one of my all time favorite books, it is well-regarded, influential, and rich with ideas and topics to explore and analyze. I spent a lot of time building lessons from scratch for this one. Another of my die-hard superhero fans told me this was their favorite book of the semester.

After this we spent a month on superheroes. It is still the dominant genre in American comics, so it deserves a lot of time. Like all of the topics I presented I spent some time with an historical overview, then introduced a couple of analytical frameworks, in this case the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell and the Thematic Paradigm of Robert Ray. We jumped in with Batman: Year One as a more traditional look at the modern version of the super hero (one student who been completely disinterested and resistant to the genre told me this was one of her favorite books of the semester and changed her entire attitude toward superheroes). This was followed by Watchmen, a deconstruction of the genre and one of the canonical works. I wrapped this section up with another of my favorite titles, Mage: The Hero Discovered. This is a book that presents the tropes of the superhero in a very different fashion than we usually see and provides something of a reconstruction of the genre. It is full of literary and mythic references, as well as being a fictionalized autobiography, thereby tying it to our earlier topic. It was the perfect palette cleanser after Watchmen.

From there I wanted to move to something more contemporary, so I assigned This One Summer, a young adult coming of age story that has won the Caldecott Medal and appears on many banned book lists from the last few years. This was one of the most successful graphic novels of the semester. My students were not that far removed in age from the man characters of the book, so related to their experiences closely. Our discussion about censorship and banned books was probably the single best day of class all semester.

Following that I presented them with excerpts from a number of more experimental comics, including some genuinely surreal short pieces, both contemporary and from the golden age of underground comix. The issue of Hawkeye told from the point of view of the dog was a big hit, and I managed to make a couple of new fans for Larry Marder’s Beanworld.

After a stressful start, I feel like the semester went well, and the students seemed to not only enjoy the class but to have actually learned something as well. my end-of-semester reviews from them were very positive. I learned a lot and will certainly make adjustments if I ever get the chance to teach this class again. While it’s not being offered again in the spring semester I think there is a chance I will be asked back at some point in the future.
Since the semester ended I’ve had a tough time getting my head back to this world. It’s like I’m not sure what I did with myself when I wasn’t prepping for class. I was certainly ready for a break, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the experience and miss it already.

I hope to get back to the blog this year. I have a couple more short year-end roundups I want to get to soon.

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