Syllabus: New Forms, New Technologies Enrich the Classroom

Posted: February 8, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 11:01 am

By Art Taylor

English professor Mark Sample had included Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers” and Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman’s “Shooting War” in his courses in 20th- and 21st-century literature, but until last fall, he had never devoted an entire semester to studying the graphic novel.

Taking the plunge with a completely new course devoted exclusively to the form, Sample also decided to present the material with new technology — using social media as teaching tools.

“I’d wanted to try using blogs and Twitter more extensively in the classroom,” Sample says, “and since this class was already experimental, I thought I’d do it all at once. We’ve done all the traditional stuff, so maybe it’s time to do something a little more unconventional — to push both our students and us a little bit.”

The result? An approach that taps into students’ own reading preferences and builds on them, and a series of innovations that already promises to influence other courses throughout the department.

“A lot of these students grew up reading manga,” explains Sample, referring to the popular Japanese comics.

“They’ve had greater exposure to the art of the comic book than ever before. Art Spiegelman has even said that comic books have ‘shifted from being an icon of illiteracy to becoming one of the last bastions of literacy.’”

Spiegelman’s “Maus” has long been taught in English classes and history classes focused on the Holocaust. Some of the other titles on Sample’s syllabus will be familiar, including Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and a pair of superhero favorites: Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

Other titles, however, may be less well -known: Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese,” a novel about a young man caught between cultures; Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy,” a memoir about a young woman struggling with her sexuality and a distant, difficult father; and Junji Ito’s “Uzumaki,” a dark fantasy that completely challenges American reading habits because it is read from back to front, right to left.

“Most of us will agree that images are a form of narrative,” says Sample, “and graphic novels are doing some of the most interesting things with narrative and storytelling. We focus on storytelling and form and how they work together. But we have to slow down how students read these books. So I ask the students to consider the transitions between panels, the relationship between words and images on the page, the decision the artist makes in framing and perspective and color.”

One assignment, for example, requires each student to do a close-reading presentation, relying on the Pecha Kucha format, which was originally used for the exhibition of architecture designs. Each student analyzes a single page of a novel through a PowerPoint slideshow consisting of 20 slides, shown at a rate of 20 seconds per slide.

But if Pecha Kucha offers a twist on PowerPoint presentations, it’s the course’s reliance on blogs, wikis and Twitter that mark the greatest technological advancements.

“When I first started teaching college classes, I would use listservs, having people post messages before class,” says Sample.

“Now almost all the students have blogged in their courses, and a lot of students know the concept of the wiki — from Wikipedia if nothing else. But this is the first time any of us have used it this extensively in the classroom.”

Students rotate through four groups from week to week. One group collectively writes up the class notes on a wiki page, and three groups handle aspects of the class blog, depending on their role: the “first readers” post questions and comments on each week’s reading assignment; the “respondents” continue the discussion, offering answers or additional questions; and the “searchers” find relevant and interesting content elsewhere on the web to bring into the discussion.

Twitter, with its limit of 140 characters per post, encourages a different type of discussion — “snarkier,” according to Sample. Students post short takes on the reading, using hashtags (words or phrases preceded by a # symbol to connect discussions) to link up online with quick questions, comments or even complaints.

“They can spit something out and don’t have to feel the pressure of backing it up,” he says. “Or they can just express frustration. It’s liberating.”

But Sample emphasizes that this is not an Internet-only course.

“The face to face is crucial, but these other media keep the discussion going on many levels at one time. It reinforces the importance of an idea if it comes up in three different media. It’s not redundancy as much as emphasis.”

At a recent faculty forum, Sample introduced some of these ideas to other professors considering incorporating these tactics into their own classroom. Even more telling was an anecdote he shared on how his graphic novel students were taking these ideas out of that classroom and incorporating blogs and Twitter into other courses themselves.

“Students are increasingly using all this technology in their everyday lives,” concludes Sample, “and I’m not fooling around with it because I think these are neat toys. There’s real value here.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

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