Comics in Education: Jean Braithewaite
Graphic Novels have had a historical year in literary acclaim with John Lewis' graphic novel memoir, March, winning the prestigious National Book Award. But even before this celebrated win, professors have been including graphic novels in their curriculum even in higher education courses. BookShelf Editor, Ashley Kronsberg, talks with educators about their use of graphic novels in their classrooms and the benefits they have in their curriculum. In this edition, we speak with Jean Braithwaite, a professor at the University of Texas Rio-Grande Valley.
Ashley Kronsberg (AK): First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching college courses, what do you teach, etc.?
Jean Braithwaite (JB): I’ve been teaching since the 1990s, but not the same thing all the time; at a certain point I switched fields from linguistics to literature. At UTRGV, where I work now, I was hired to help start the MFA program as the “creative nonfiction” person. So nonfiction writing is currently one of my most frequently taught courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as a variety of other creative writing or literature courses.
AK: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum?
JB: As soon as I had the freedom to do it. In my very earliest teaching jobs, I wasn’t the person who picked the textbooks. Now that I am, I slip in a graphic novel (a term I prefer to restrict to works of fiction), or graphic memoir, or graphic journalism piece into the required reading for all sorts of different courses. And I also teach at least one or two courses each year that are specifically devoted to either the creation or appreciation of “graphic literature.” Terminology is tricky and always up for grabs; for personal use I prefer to say “comics,” but it seems best to play it conservative when dealing with university administrators. Comics still have a stigma with people who are out of the loop: my mother remembers them being as forbidden as junk food in her childhood and for similar reasons. And I’ve had at least one colleague and at least one student complain that I was dumbing down the local education. They’re wrong, by the way: my taste runs to the highest of highbrow comics, and that’s what I try to pass on to my students, too. (I know “highbrow” is problematic, but I can’t think of a better way to say what I mean; just read it a little ironically, okay?)
AK: Were you an avid graphic novel reader prior to teaching them in your classroom? And now that you have taught them, do you find yourself reading them more outside of the classroom?
JB: My private reading pleasure and my professional development as a teacher certainly influence each other, but most of the influence probably runs from personal excitement in a classroom, rather than the other way around. I always loved comics starting in earliest childhood, even though I was also an early and enthusiastic reader of chapter books and grownup stuff with no pictures at all. I would read absolutely anything in comics form, from Superman to MAD magazine; I even enjoyed the “Classics Illustrated” that I encountered at my grandmother’s house, whose alleged dullness some other comics artists and critics have sneered at. I knew even then that it was the medium itself which appealed to me. In the 1980s, like a lot of people, I read The Dark Knight Returns and Maus, and that was it: at that point I knew that significant work—we might as well call it literature—I mean writing of deep intellectual and emotional engagement—could be done and was being done in comics form. And the curve of fine work has been rising exponentially ever since. Anyone who continues to dismiss all comics as fluff or an agent of brain-rot is either a bigot or an ignoramus. Don’t tell them I said so.
AK: How has working with graphic novels evolved or changed your way of teaching?
JB: Well… I need an overhead projector more, so I can point to details of the pictures, whereas with a words-only textbook, you can get along without it, just saying, “Now, class, turn to page number…” whatever, and reading out the relevant phrases. And I think that because of the broad innate appeal of comics, I maybe win a few more converts to the cause of literature than I would if I didn’t use them. Other than that, no. I always view my job as a teacher to expand students’ intellectual appetites and coax them to raise their standards both for their own writing and what they expect from other people’s writing. I do that regardless of the subject matter.
AK: Do you notice any differences among students’ interest or responsiveness to a topic working with a graphic novel as opposed to another literary format?
JB: I think there’s something about the human brain that naturally resonates to comics. There are types of information which can be expressed very efficiently and vividly in image form and other types where you really need the precision of words. When you put the two together, they pack an amazing punch. Perhaps words + pictures together light up more parts of the brain simultaneously than either one can normally do alone?
Frequently I’ll get a comment in my end-of-semester evaluations that says something like: “Wow, I thought I didn’t like to read, but maybe there’s something to this book stuff after all.” But sometimes that happens with my pure-prose textbook choices too. I guess we’d need to have a double-blind statistical study to be sure.
AK: Is there a specific lesson plan that has become your “go-to” when teaching graphic novels?
JB: Not really. I do broadly the same thing in every class. We all read stuff in tandem; in class we discuss it. I provide some terminology and analytic tools and let my own readerly passion show. Sometimes I give a test or quiz or worksheet for the benefit of students whose own appetite for learning may not yet be developed to its fullest potential. They write stuff. I press them to revise their writing for greater subtlety, depth, and/or clarity.
AK: What are the major differences you’ve experienced with teaching a graphic novel as opposed to other formats?
JB: In some cases, students who enter with highbrow expectations are initially taken aback by my text choices. Often they’re won over by the end of the semester. In some other cases, students who revel in popular culture are dismayed to discover that the standards of rigor in this class are no more relaxed than the typical college class. Most often, though, people are happy to see comics on the reading list and they remain happy as they’re asked to look into them more deeply.
English majors who have practiced close reading often have very little vocabulary for discussing visual elements and they struggle at first to even be able to talk about them. I usually use McCloud’s *Understanding Comics* to provide a basic understanding of page and panel structures. And then my art majors have the opposite problem: they need to learn to talk about characterization, setting, plot structure, and so forth. Not very many people have equal strengths in both dimensions, but I think that enriches a seminar discussion.
AK: Have there been any big challenges with using graphic novels? What have been the major rewards of teaching them?
JB: I’ve largely covered this ground. Once I was walking down the hallway and I overheard a colleague saying “Jean wants to teach comic books!” in tones of deep contempt. So that undercurrent exists, but I don’t really think it’s all that wide or strong. When people talk to me directly about my work, they’re supportive, so I choose to assume this is the dominant tone behind my back too. Another time, I was teaching Chester Brown’s *Paying for It*, with its explicit representations of sex with prostitutes, and I got called into a meeting in the dean’s office to discuss it with her and the student-rights rep, and a few other administrators. It turned out that one of my students was a) a devout Christian and b) registered with a disability requiring the dean’s office to photocopy all her textbooks and provide a tutor to discuss their contents with her. The dean was concerned about the sensibilities of the tutor/photocopyist who would thus be involuntarily exposed to Brown’s graphic materials. I offered to give the student an alternate reading assignment and everybody visibly relaxed; that crisis was over.
AK: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?
JB: My handful of favorites certainly includes Maus, Persepolis, Building Stories, and David Small’s Stitches. McCloud for a starting foundation. In advanced classes, I’ll generally assign the current Best American Comics, and I’m proud whenever that year’s selections include excerpts from something I myself already admired and/or assigned, like Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant or Adrian Tomnie’s Killing and Dying. I assign Lynda Barry’s “Two Questions” in almost every class I teach, and I announce it as being “for the refreshment of your spirits” (a phrase I borrowed from C. S. Lewis). In undergraduate classes I often use Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese and Jessica Abel’s Life Sucks, which are always crowd pleasers. Lila Quintero Weaver’s memoir Darkroom resonates with my students. (I teach at a majority-Hispanic institution.) I almost hate to mention specific artists and titles, because there’s *so much great stuff* and more all the time. Inevitably I’m leaving out important things. I’m always trying out new texts. Sometimes I retire them after just one semester, sometimes I rotate them back in. I’ll often teach whatever Joe Sacco has done recently, or Alison Bechdel, or Lynda Barry, or Chris Ware, or Craig Thompson. A few semesters back, with Planned Parenthood in the news because of those doctored videos (the fetal tissue “scandal”), I threw Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel onto my textbook list for my graduate nonfiction workshop, undergraduate memoir class, and freshman composition course. It worked well as a teaching tool for different reasons in all those different environments and I enjoyed it, but by the end of the semester, I’d had enough of it for a while. I like teaching Chester Brown’s autobiographic stuff, but I probably won’t teach Paying for It again: because of the dogmatic libertarianism, not the sex.
AK: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built in to your curriculum for the upcoming semesters?
JB: Killing and Dying, Best American Comics 2016, Understanding Comics, and Paper Girls, which I’m trying out for the first time.
AK: For college professors looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?
JB: Here at UTRGV I’ve started a faculty group I call the Words + Pictures group, to promote comics studies both for creative writing/studio art teachers and for literature/art appreciation teachers. I’ve got, like, one-sheet starter bibliographies that I’m willing to give to whoever asks. As for publishers, I have warm feelings about everyone who publishes comics. Unfailingly people have been very decent to me with sending desk copies when I assign something new in class. Some publishers have lots and lots of stuff I want and some only a few things catch my eye. Fantagraphics and Pantheon have high production standards. I also approve of Drawn and Quarterly’s taste, except for their name. First Second. Again, I’m sure I’m leaving out important names and will kick myself later.
AK: And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?
JB: I’m a fan of Chris Ware, and recently had the honor of editing a book of interviews with him (University of Mississippi Press Conversations series). He’s one of a handful of authors that I want to see everything they do. I’ve mentioned a few others above, including Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi. Art Spiegelman (does a person even have to say that?)….
So here’s something a little different: maybe you won’t even think this is a graphic novel at all, but-- when I was young, I bought a copy of Codex Seraphinianus from the clearance table at my local independent bookstore, reduced from like $125 (or thereabouts) to $36 (this figure I can vouch for exactly). This strange and indescribably wonderful book was a prized possession for ten years, and then it was lost in 1993 during a move when a packed box of art books burst open in transit. Most of them were repackaged and returned to me in post-office baggies, but I can only assume that some unscrupulous postal employee filched my Codex. The dustjacket showed a humanoid couple making love and gradually turning into an alligator-like creature. It must have looked very alluring. Over the next few decades I would occasionally look for a copy on ebay etc., but they always wanted many hundreds of dollars. Just think what that 1983 edition I once owned would now be worth if I still had it! Curse you, postal-employee thief! But anyway, I was hanging around [gigantic chain bookstore] at Christmastime and saw a Codex Seraphinianus calendar, so I investigated further and found out that Rizzoli has reissued the Codex. The cover is different but I ordered one anyway. Look for that particular hole in my heart to be plugged up real soon.
To join the converstaion, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE PROFESSOR
Jean Braithewaite is an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio-Grande Valley. With a PhD in English and a Masters in Linguistics, Braithwaite teaches several creative non-fiction and thesis classes, with professional interests in graphic literature, science writing, and children's literature.
Braithewaite is also the author of FAT: The Story of My Life with My Body as well as several journal articles including "Happily-Ever-After: Personal Narratives in WLD Advertising" and "Dupont Circle."