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Part II: Service Learning Through Comics – Final Projects

posted: 7.10.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

A few months ago I posted  about an innovative course that combined the upper-division writing and Service Learning requirements of the college by using comics as a means of teaching and learning. Graphic novelist Keith McCleary and Ethnic Studies professor Wayne Yang had teamed up to teach ComicCraft, a course that teaches students to create and distribute comics that investigate local and contemporary topics, such as social misperceptions of underrepresented communities. The course received a grant from the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts from its Open Classroom Challenge initiative, and I, as a writing program administrator, wanted to support and follow up on McCleary and Yang’s efforts.

ComiCraft culminated in the final Comic Sutra gallery show  and the comics anthology ultimately published by the students.  I particularly wanted to follow up on the gallery show and anthology, especially since I am interested in how faculty can combine digital pedagogies with manufacturing physical book artifacts as final projects.  (See the work of New School professor Trebor Scholz for more.)

In considering how to do comics pedagogy effectively in the context of traditional composition courses, focusing on the capstone experience can be an important first step, before working backwards from what an instructor might hope to achieve in sequencing earlier assignments. 

In an interview, McCleary described how pleased he was with the central docucomics assignment, in which students were asked to “conduct interviews with members of local public outreach organizations” or other community members to create “personal narratives”; then – using their “found dialogue” – students were asked to “uncover a short story that can be recreated through visuals.”  As “the centerpiece of the class,” students focused on the question of identity, although they might identify positions very differently or understand the term in many ways.  Topics in the docucomics varied widely and included discussions of experiences as military personnel, as refugees, and as members of religious communities,  Nonetheless, all were intended to be “digested by a general audience” to meet the public rhetoric requirements of the course, as were the more conventional oral presentations and written personal statements mandated by the syllabus.

McCleary enthused about being “excited by the results” of the docucomics assignment, particularly students’ “approaches in illustrating; since half of students had no art backgrounds, they had to find creative ways to express their ideas.”  Said McCleary, “I was hoping the print anthology would speak directly to the academic and community-based goals of the class, but I was pleased that they also spoke to aesthetic values, and the final work was really impressive.”

To help students without art skills, McCleary built a lot of scaffolding into the curriculum: “We thought the first two projects would set them up for the final projects.  The first project asked them to use public domain comics online and comment on the original using the appropriated artwork as a template, and the second project required making a zine in a group.” McCleary said that students often continued to do collage work as they became more confident artists, but he encouraged them “not to worry about finesse” and “encouraged them to put material together boldly, sometimes in a more slapdash way.” As McCleary explained, “I was never concerned about having a class of people who could draw really well; I was concerned about having people who wanted to develop design and layout skills and to understand what it had to do with storytelling. “  For example, students might create original content by taking pictures or using software that generates cartoon avatars.

In addition to collaborating with Professor Yang, McCleary collaborated with Kim Schwenk, Archives Coordinator at the University of California, San Diego, and zine expert Margarat Nee  for the unit on zines. The women were looking to expand the kind of workshops they usually did, which were involved with dealing with students from various underrepresented communities, particularly LGBT kids in high school, and wanted to branch out from their core work in feminist zines to embrace a variety of quotidian experiences. In a workshop on the past and future of zine production, they directed students through the process of working with the zine form.

According to McCleary, the greatest challenge was the fact that it was such an ambitious course from the perspective of student workload that combined two four-unit courses into one capstone experience that covered learning objectives from the Culture, Art, and Technology writing program and practicum programs together.  Clearly, there was certainly nothing dumbed-down about this comics curriculum!

To keep students on track, McCleary incorporated many peer editing and one-on-one conferencing opportunities, since he expected students to work intensively with scripts, thumbnail drawings, and layouts, since it could be so difficult to apply feedback as students became closer to the final stages of producing a polished finished work.  In order to get them to “analyze their ideas by pushing them to question each other,” McCleary hoped to get them beyond work that  “might make sense to you” to produce work “that makes sense to an outside reader.” Often students worked on a panel-by-panel basis with each other during class time to deconstruct how a story moved. Those who were more versed in comics could thereby help those newer to graphic storytelling.

When asked to comment on his greatest satisfaction from teaching the class, McCleary emphasized how students learned “to develop relationships with each other and to trust their own instincts.”  Sometimes they undertook projects that weren’t assigned, such as the giant murals that they independently undertook creating for the gallery show.   “By the end of the course they had taken a lot of agency,” he observed, “and they had figured out how to work as a collective and how to trust themselves individually.”  His favorite thank you messages from students were those that expressed thanks for “letting me make something really weird and creating a space that let me make something that I didn’t understand while I was making it but that I really wanted to make.”


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