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Making Comics in the Classroom: Success as Process

posted: 6.23.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander


Guest blogger Keith McCleary has an MFA in Creative Writing from UCSD and is the recipient of the Barbara and Paul Saltman Excellent Teaching Award for Graduate Students and a UCIRA Open Classroom Challenge Grant. He is the author of two graphic novels, Killing Tree Quarterly and Top of the Heap, from Terminal Press. 

The past two springs I have taught a course called ComiCraft, which combines an upper-division composition seminar with a hands-on practicum in which students create and then write about their own comics, making for a unique experience that’s both generative and reflexive. The binary works especially well as a reflection of the work the students are already doing to exercise both their textual and visual skills through each assignment.

“Who Are You?” (excerpt) by Andrew Keohane, ComiCraft 2013

Being a combination course, ComiCraft also has two final assignments–participation in an on-campus gallery show of student comics, and a letter of intent from each student in which they must craft a personal statement that leads to an argument for why their work should appear in the gallery space. Many of my students feel intimidated in trying to write about their development as artists in ways that are genuine, since they often do not feel like artists at all. (I make sure to explain to them that this particular strain of impostor syndrome will show up even when applying for jobs or grants in their own fields, and in those situations the stakes will be much higher.)

But this past spring I was pleasantly surprised to see several students declare that they enjoy making comics even when they feel that not every aspect of their finished products are especially “good,” and that they appreciate having several avenues at their disposal to communicate their ideas–text, art, and layout. The fact that none of our students comes in with all the skill sets needed to execute comics at a professional level is very apparent to them—and faced with this relatively even playing field, the students become more willing to try, fail, and try again.

One of the most difficult barricades to break down in my classroom comes in working with students whose honest investment in their own education is complicated by their fear of getting anything less than an “A” on every assignment. Even in a class on comics, in which garnering a basic level of involvement is relatively easy, I’ll still have many students who try to “game the system”–those who seem to learn new material only as a side effect of trying to figure out shortcuts to acing the course. For them, it’s vitally important that failure (which to them means a “B” or less) be seen not as a punishment, but as a very necessary part of a process. I have found that making comics in the classroom is a great way to get this point across.

“Mariele Mondala” (excerpt) by Aimee Ermel, ComiCraft 2014

Whether through 15-minute assignments that demand a full page be drawn in class under a strict prompt, or in a several-week long project that goes through multiple drafts, it becomes obvious to my students that anyone can make comics, with little to no training. It’s also clear the quality of those comics becomes better with practice, and with attention to detail. But it’s a form free of the emotional weight of academic writing–being “bad” at making comics isn’t a big deal, and says nothing about who you are as a student or a person.

Although this is never stated openly during the course, the larger takeaway on using comics in class is the way they reteach us how to be “bad” at something and remind us how we learn to get better. With the proper coaching, I’ve been able to get my students to take the same perspective into their prose–to generate new material without self-editing as they go, to be critical of their work without being judgmental of themselves, and to realize that revision is useful and necessary, but does not need to overwhelm them so completely that it stops them in their tracks.

Of course, these revelations don’t happen for every student. But I think that as an unofficial “graphic novel initiative” is taking over the humanities, it’s worthwhile for instructors to try and make the course assignments match the course readings. It may be scary for teachers who have never drawn comics themselves to ask students to make the attempt, but this inexperience can also be used strategically. My students know I have a background in comics, and yet they have seen me participate in class exercises in which I draw terrible comic strips no better than the ones they’re able to make themselves. The fact that I’m still able to speak articulately about the choices I’m making illustrates all the steps in the process between intention and execution, and it provides a model for students to do the same.

“Worldmaking, Too” (excerpt) by Keith McCleary, for ComiCraft 2014 gallery show

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