Workshop Review

Designing Comics Courses by Jenny Blenk
Fall 2019, Comics Studies Society

Bringing comics into classrooms in any formal way can be an intimidating process, from knowing where to begin to analyzing impacts and results. In one of two engaging and well-conceived lunchtime seminars at comics Studies Society 2019, Dr. Susan Kirtley (Portland State University) and Jay Olinger (Portland Community College) educated an eager audience on how to effectively plan a classroom curriculum around comics. The thoughtful talk gave equal effort to macro aspects like classroom outcomes and departmental proposals and to more detailed issues like individual lesson plans. Doubtless the information, resources, and suggestions that they provided will prove helpful to many as they develop individual approaches. Some highlights from the seminar are as follows:

Kirtley addressed the specific challenge of institutional resistance to comics inclusion in curricula by relating her experience in getting a comics class approved: when the class title included the word “comics” it was rejected, but when that word was replaced by a description of multimodal narrative storytelling, the exact same class with an identical curriculum was approved. The takeaway: comics themselves are acceptable as long as they’re not perceived as simple comics by the people approving the class. Don’t be afraid to use complex language to describe the format if it allows you to teach comics!

Both instructors guided the audience through the differences between classroom goals, objectives, and outcomes, and how comics can be utilized to achieve all of them. Olinger encouraged instructors to make their expectations regarding learning targets clear to students from the start, to help steer them in the right direction regarding the complex and varied format that comics are, and hopefully open students up to other creative takes on the material to which they’re exposed as class progresses.

Olinger shared that one of her favorite parts of class preparation is selecting texts. She relishes the challenge of providing a wide array of comics in conversation and conflict with one another for students to explore. Constructing and discovering running themes and threads between texts, readings, and other activities is also a constant process of discovery that Olinger uses in planning future classes, too.  She pointed out that important things to consider while choosing texts for a class are availability (Is it out of print? Is it widely available at local comics shops? Local bookstores? To order online?), expense (How many texts are you requiring, and how much does each cost? What is the total financial burden you’re expecting students to shoulder for your class?), library access (Are texts available through your institution or local libraries? Can you put a copy of it on hold at the front desk for class use?), and partnering with local bookstores (Are they available to order large quantities of a given text for your students? Are they able to provide a small discount if students buy their texts from them?). Kirtley also pointed out that if they’re found to have been providing students with free texts, many instructors will get no legal support from their institutions. However, it’s possible that students may spontaneously share PDFs of some materials that are being used for class but not readily available. These things happen!

One important aspect that both Olinger and Kirtley pointed out is to not assume students’ familiarity with the subject matter, even if your class description or even title contains the word “comics.” Students in a given class may range from someone discovering comics for the first time, to someone who anticipates an easy “A,” to someone who can quote you chapter and verse from X-Men lore. A good way to assess your students’ starting points is to design some classroom icebreakers that reveal their areas of interest and levels of immersion in different aspects of comics and the cultures associated with them. From there, instructors can use different kinds of activities and assignments to engage various groups of students and put them in conversation with one another.

Olinger reports positive classroom experiences by introducing aspects of the creative process behind comics to her text and theory courses. By allowing students to spend some time working and experimenting with the tools of the trade, she reports that students have a heightened sense of awareness of the creation process behind comics. An example she gives is having instructed her students in different methods of inking, and having given them time to experiment with them, before teaching “Black Hole” by Charles Burns. Immersing students not only in comics texts but in the artistic processes behind them allows them to form a fuller appreciation for the deliberate nature of creating comics.

Recently when she started instructing graduate students in teaching courses, Kirtley noticed that these students would come up with creative and fascinating lesson plans, but that they in no way intersected with class objectives. In order to measure how her comics-based courses have impacted student achievement and class outcomes, Kirtley asks herself how she will measure those outcomes from the very outset of class planning. In asking this, she says she’s able to form a broader plan for not only what she’s going to teach, but how she will achieve quantifiable results, and then collect that data. Self-assessment rubrics turned in at intervals by students are a helpful part of it, as is creating assessments for growth and comprehension as opposed to judging the formal quality of more creative projects.

To help instructors, scholars, community organizers, and others who want to teach comics come together to share resources and experiences, Olinger has established a website where things like worksheets, lesson plans, and course outlines can be shared. Please check it out an consider contributing!