A Case for Comics in College

I frequently use comics as part of the assigned reading in my courses. I use them primarily as a way of engaging students in discussions of class themes, but because geography is a strongly visual field of study, I also get some opportunity to talk about form, too.

I use comics in my classrooms because I take seriously the idea that people learn differently, and that there are people who are, particularly, visual learners. The declaration, “I’m a visual learner”, is one that is subject to abuse by students, and dismissal by teachers and parents, all of whom read it as an excuse not to engage with material or to complete work. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that there are people who learn better with images just as there people who learn well from listening, or reading prose, or by doing.

Of course, very few, if any of us, only learn one way. However, I know that some students are more visually-oriented not only from observing those who clearly do learn better when we can talk about images or pictures, but also from seeing individuals who can’t track why I assign a comic in the first place, let alone learn better from the book than they do from other texts or class discussions and lectures.

The misunderstanding or misuse of, “I’m a visual learner”, rests on the assumption that pictures are easy and words are hard. This is why my observation of students who get very little from the comics I assign is interesting. It suggests that for some, images are easy, but for others, they are not.

While comics communicate much of their ideas and information visually, they are not picture books. Comics are about words and images. Comics tell stories, or at least, construct complete thoughts not only with pictures, but also with words and from the relationships between different sets of words and images.

Whether someone is a ‘visual learner’, or not, should not be determinative of whether they get something of substance from a comic, or not. I don’t assign comics simply as a means to promote learning among my more image-oriented students. My assumption is that there are people who will get more from a comic because of how they learn, while others may, in turn, get more from discussion or from prose texts, not that I have different books, or modalities, which are exclusive to different students.

Take, for example, this image from Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Pantheon, 2004), which I have referenced previously (“Capturing the abstract in the concrete”, 18 December 2008).

Of course, someone who reads images with confidence and skill will understand how this panel fits into a class discussion of, say, nationalism, much more readily than will someone who doesn’t.

At the same time, someone who can also track Satrapi’s narrative will be better able to place the image in the context of the book as a whole, and someone who grasps class themes and concepts will be able to place it readily in relationship to other discussions. Hopefully, by the end of our discussion of the panel, everyone will have a better idea of whatever it is I have in mind when I assign the book and select the panel for closer consideration.

Ultimately, it’s a student’s depth of and long-term understanding and retention that I am thinking about when I choose materials, and different teaching methods, for my classes. Some students will promptly put the above panel in the back of their minds, while others will hold onto it in the fore, and it will play a prominent role in how they understand the course.

Traditionally, learning in American higher education is assumed to take place through listening, that is, lectures, and reading, that is, from prose. In many classrooms and at many colleges and universities this is still the main way learning happens. It is this presumptive model that makes some academics and parents (and students) skeptical of tools like comics; it goes against the grain of what college is supposed to be for many.

As undergraduate teaching has come to be understood as more than a simple of matter of bringing faculty expertise into the classroom for transmission to (empty-headed) students, this model has become less useful and prevalent, opening opportunities for classes that are more discussion and multi-media based, than they are, simply, read (prose), chalk, and talk (if you’re the professor).

The fact that I have students who demonstrably benefit from having a comic to read and reference alongside other books and what we do in class and in assignments suggests to me not that I have students who are somehow ‘dumber’ than other students, but that I have students who are ‘smart’ in ways that others are not. And very few of my students are either/or learners; while many may learn more readily from certain methods, few learn exclusively by one means or another. Both I and my students benefit from efforts I can make to tap into what helps different people learn. Whatever it’s merits, and however it’s abused, the statement, “I’m a visual learner”, does presuppose learning. Comics is one way to put that learning to the test.