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Teaching about Free Speech with Comics

posted: 11.3.14 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Last month Alison Bechdel received a prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program Award.  Known for her comic strip work Dykes to Watch Out For and the acclaimed graphic memoir Fun Home, which is about her experiences growing up in a funeral home fearful of coming out as a lesbian to her closeted gay father, Bechdel was lauded by the foundation for  “redefining paradigms” in autobiographical writing.  Achieving this recognition was particularly notable, because Bechdel had been at the center of a firestorm of controversy after her work had been designated for inclusion in all-college assigned reading at state-funded campuses.  Conservative legislatures objected to subsidizing material that they deemed supposedly promoting “gay lifestyles” and tried to use the power of the purse to block teaching the book.  Particularly vociferous in condemning Bechdel’s work was Representative Garry R. Smith, who used committee procedures to withdraw $52,000 in funding from the College of Charleston, which had arranged to highlight Bechdel’s Fun Home in its summer reading program.

After being threatened with the de-funding of the reading program, both the college and Bechdel responded.  Ultimately funding was restored, but only on the condition that monies be spent on instruction about documents created by the founding fathers.

During Banned Books Week this year, the Bechdel case was still foremost in the minds of organizers who staged a dialogue between two famed cartoonists — Scott McCloud and Larry Marder — held in San Diego, home of Comic-Con, to commemorate the long history of censorship and comics.  I’ve written before about teaching with comics as primary sources in order to understand how comics played into anxieties about nonconformity in the 1950s and earlier censorship debates, but it might be worth discussing classroom materials for discussing attempts to regulate free speech in graphic novels that are situated in the present.

One great resource for instructors is the website of The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which provides a free download to a comic book devoted to Celebrating Banned Books Week.  It details a number of cases in which local schools and libraries have encountered campaigns for book bans and the reasons why other popular comics with literary ambitions, such as Persepolis, Blankets, Bone, and Watchmen, were seen as objectionable.

(The CBLDF also offers a comic book for parents and K-12 teachers about that aims at addressing the stigma associated with comic book literacy, suggesting ways that graphic texts are appropriate for fulfilling new state standards, and defending younger kids “right to read.”)

In our chapter on “Getting Beyond Pro and Con” in Understanding Rhetoric, we argue that it is important to show that there are usually more than two sides in an academic debate, so before introducing this material, you may want to think about possible cases in which there might be legitimate arguments for opposing sponsorship of certain kinds of graphic texts, such as those that promote racist or sexist ideologies, distort facts, or promote values at odds with public funding.  For example, is the depiction of scientists in Evolution vs. God appropriate for a public college campus?

As an instructor, you may also want to talk about the methodologies of analysis that might make a seemingly inappropriate comic appropriate for the classroom.  For example, the anti-Semitic cartoons published by Der Stürmer might appear in a history classroom as a way to discuss the stereotypes perpetuated by the Nazi racial state, but they wouldn’t meet the criteria for redeeming cultural value as assigned reading in a literature course, where Maus might be much more appreciated as an object of study, although the CBDLF notes that Maus itself has been targeted for expulsion from the curriculum.

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Categories: Critical Thinking, Elizabeth Losh, Visual Rhetoric
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