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Making Things Graphic as a Form of Interpretation

posted: 4.4.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Liz and I recently presented about the process of writing Understanding Rhetoric at the Northeast MLA conference in Boston, where we had the chance to visit with other scholars and teachers who use graphic books to teach a variety of subjects, from literature to art to foreign languages.  We were reminded again of the power of the comics medium not just to interest and engage students but to challenge their thinking about the nature of representation.

One intriguing set of examples came from a professor of German who showed us different graphic renditions of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a startling tale of a man who wakes up transformed into a bug and then has to deal with his transformation the rest of the day.  Rife with visual possibilities, The Metamorphosis as a graphic novel itself metamorphoses from an original print text into different visual versions that each show the artist’s interpretive decisions.  Indeed, artists make choices in rendering The Metamorphosis–What does the bug look like? From whose perspective is the story narrated? How does the visual representation differ from the print? These are interpretive choices because they reveal how the artists understand the original text.  In her classes, the German professor used a German-language comic version of The Metamorphosis not only to teach her students German but to teach them something about the interpretation of literary texts as they are transformed from one medium to another. 

In many ways, such work isn’t far removed from teaching interpretive approaches to texts that have been made into filmic or video “texts.”  Analyzing screenwriters’ and directors’ narrative, visual, and even aural choices in adapting texts is a powerful way to think about how different interpreters understand original texts and choose to highlight, downplay, emphasize, or augment texts for different purposes and effects.  Given the number of literary and nonfiction texts (ranging from the Bible to the 9/11 Report) that have been made into graphic books, many opportunities abound to think critically with students about specific textual and visual choices in adapting texts across media.  Moreover, given that some texts become graphic texts and also films (and some graphic texts become films or television shows that also become books and even video and computer games!), we have many opportunities to think with students about the transmediation of narratives and ideas as they are adapted for different combinations of audiences, genres, media, and purposes.

Indeed, transmediation seems increasingly an important dimension of literacy education around which we can organize our courses.  Directing students’ attention to tracing the movement of ideas across multiple media provides them with greater awareness of how messages adapt–and are adapted to–different media.  Marshall McLuhan famously argued that the “medium is the message.”  Like never before, we have the chance to show how different media shape messages, as well as how different composers consider the rhetorical affordances of the media in which they work as they adapt messages from one medium to another.

Do you have favorite or successful examples of such a transmedia pedagogy in action?  If so, please share!

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Categories: Jonathan Alexander
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