Learning the Medium

Drawn Serious

Teaching comics has become respectable lately. The Modern Language Association has published a volume on the genre in its series of teaching guides; elementary school libraries stock graphic novels and non-fiction texts, with the explicit goal of attracting “reluctant readers”; conferences and critical essays debate terminology (comics? Comix? Graphic narrative? Sequential visual. . . . Etc.). Like the novel, like film, this modern medium is emerging into mainstream status, but with the usual blind spots that canon formation in its early stages entails.

When I was in graduate school (cue bad nostalgic source music), literary studies was in the throes of discovering that women other than and prior to Jane Austen had written novels, and film studies was beginning to turn its sights on American movies more recent than Citizen Kane (ok, hyperbole is permitted in blogs). The film canon at that point emphasized alternative or foreign films. This meant that in order to be serious about film, one had to pretend to like Lena Wertmüller, which I found impossible, although I was dutifully swept away by Ingmar Bergman. But the Eighties punk sensibility, with its eye toward England and the Continent, also led to an increasing appreciation for genre films and their aesthetic, albeit with a good dose of irony. We happily wore trench-coats, lamé dresses, and Borsalino hats from thrift shops, sometimes in the art-house-cinema awareness that the French New Wave preceded us. What I at least had failed to notice was that comic books, which I had always secretly loved but had given up as uncool, were following the same trend, and in the process forming the nucleus of a new canon. If you study comics, you know these titles: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and The Killing Joke, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, Grant Morrison and David McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, all from the 1980s (all but Miller British writers and illustrators, BTW). The problem at the time, from the somewhat limited POV I inhabited, was that these were superhero comics, and superheroes weren’t cool. Even Batman, whom I had adored and wanted to be when I was five, was kinda square, right?


There is a point to all this reminiscence, I hasten to add: with all the diversity of today’s fiction and non-fiction comics — including a very teachable DC version of the 911 Commission Report, which the Commission commissioned (ok, awkward but accurate) explicitly to attract young readers — and even with the critical acclaim now granted the titles listed above, contemporary comics criticism still tends to act as if superheroes have counter-cultural cooties. Film versions haven’t helped, since they tend to be big on explosions and plastic abs (or worse bits) and lame on plot. But the critical focus on elements like costume, plot, and character is curiously blind to the Big Obvious: what makes comics unique as a genre isn’t any of these things.

It’s that they are drawn.

Like many new media, comics are visual/narrative hybrids. But unlike film, the medium to which comics are most frequently compared, comics are (in the famous idiom of Will Eisner’s 1985 Comics and Sequential Art), well, sequential art objects. Pop art knew this before anyone else outside the field did; just ask Roy Lichtenstein, who appropriated the mainstream style of the romance comic to great effect. The comics panel has a rhetoric all its own, one that can draw on any graphic style, including the dynamic idiom still best explicated in Stan Lee and John Buscema’s 1978 How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. That dynamic idiom speaks strongly to readers, as does hero comics’ continued engagement with issues of power, violence, control, and accountability. And the dynamic hero idiom, with its decades of tradition developed and made nuanced by multiple practitioners, engages students who are visually literate, often eliciting sophisticated analytical readings.

How do students respond to the use of comics in the classroom? After several semesters of experimenting, both in a course specifically on graphic narrative and in regular literature courses, I have found that both genres and all age ranges respond really well to comics of various types, including that heroic-style 911 Report. The title of this blog comes from a female adult student’s response to a question on a research survey (administered by a student, under IRB guidelines) concerning whether or not it was appropriate to use the medium to depict and teach historical events. Her answer: it’s ok as long as the work is “drawn serious.” Apparently the superhero idiom of Stan Lee doesn’t inevitably read as something for over-caffeinated fan-boys.

From my observation, student work and attitudes seem to suggest that if we teach new media on their own terms, outside the stereotypes that inevitably infest the formation of an emerging canon, we will find that they can communicate meaning and engage students in discourse at high levels. The process here matters more than the content, and skills transfer applies: a student who can read a film or a comic for metaphor, allusion, or thematic development can apply those skills to read other types of text. Moreover, the shock of the new, the revelatory dynamics of beginner’s mind, the chimeric interplay of hybrid media, can energize both instructors and students. The gains are worth the risks.


Great Tech Spectations

The last decade has made it abundantly clear that, as much as we may desire stability, new and emerging technological media are profoundly postmodern: as soon as they stop moving, they’re moribund. If it’s on the syllabus, it’s already dated. Company’s got an IPO? Biggest new market is overseas? Congratulations, “new” tech — you just maxed out your Hot New Thing account, just took the first step in that great American mass media success journey that ends with your private physician gibbering on the witness stand and you on a gurney in the morgue. Sure, your greatest hits will stay in rotation — especially on that soft-rock station Mom always leaves the radio tuned to when she uses the car.

So instead of trying to determine what toys and tools our students should be using, or what they might currently be twiddling with under the desk when they think I’m not looking, I would like to start playing to these expectations:

Upon successful (or at least non-catastrophic) completion of an undergraduate degree, the student will be able to:

1) know when a tech tool or toy is appropriate, fun, helpful, or being used to innovate, and when it isn’t. No PowerPointlessness, no credit just for using the stuff unless the point is to experiment.

2) know what the tech tool or toy (hereafter TTOT) really does and how it works, how to make it or make something with it. This means read the manual, go to the developer’s web page, or whatever. If you don’t know what a gigabyte is, time to learn, no matter what your major. And if you’re just twiddling, switch to something real.

3) know how to choose precisely the right TTOT, not just whatever came with the device, came up first on a search, etc. Favor the app model over the suite (so 1990s). This will ultimately lead to better products and more consumer choice.

4) know what’s a rip-off, whether it’s grabbing data, time, money, or level of complexity. Then decide what you are willing to exchange for the TTOT. And remember: when it comes to art (music, video, real information) compression is for losers. Demand lossless when it matters.

5) know that all mass media, from newspapers and novels to apps and tweets, work better as a system rather than as exclusive choices. We need all formats to form a robust and inter-referential system of literacy.

If our students learn these things, they will be ready to use media wisely, playfully, and well.

Playing to a Crowd

Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness. — Huizinga, Homo Ludens

As has become the new normal, something interesting is happening in Brooklyn: what the New York Times describes as “underemployed polymaths” (is there any other kind? Maybe Steve Jobs was the exception that proves the rule) have started their own post-graduate school. The Brooklyn Brainery, currently occupying a space for which the rent was crowd funded using Kickstarter, seems from the Times article to straddle the crucial educational space between the very serious human need to learn and the equally important human instinct to play. More relevantly for the purposes of this blog, it reminds me that the collaborative, anti-competitive processes that new media can facilitate aren’t unique to any particular technology or practice. Rather, they reflect something real about our prosocial nature, something that materially-complex societies often obscure: we really work better when we play with others.

One key element in the promotion of education as play is that it requires educators to do something that comes hard to us: not simply to share our authoritative role with students, but to see it as a role rather than the core of our identity. On reflection, it seems to me that the reason group work was initially a revelation in the classroom was that it represented a new recognition of the student as participant rather than consumer (thanks, Paolo Freire!). Ceding conversational control was difficult, because we had been trained to think that our expertise was the main reason for us to be there at all. But once educators assimilated group work as an authorized activity, part of that sphere of expertise, it lost its edge. Teaching, after all, is not a static system but a dynamic process, part of personal and political history, and as such it has an Imaginary aspect. When group work became, in Roland Barthes’ term, “on the right,” that is, no longer avant-garde, its unconscious allegiance changed. It was last year’s game, in the rule book, and it wasn’t much fun any more. That doesn’t mean we can’t use it, but it does mean it’s not going to produce the sense of a shared secret that according to Huizinga characterizes play.

Given this historical trend towards recapitulation (although Barthes is a little bit of a leftie pessimist), crowd-sourcing may in turn become as “old media” as group work, and the Brooklyn Brainery may either vanish or become the new New School. Right now, however, creating a disciplinary expectation of crowd-sourcing may, as Michael Nielsen suggests in Reinventing Discovery, tear down some existing walls.

By the way, which one’s Pink?

Grouping in the Dark

I have a confession: I have become disillusioned with group work. Not because I don’t value collaboration or peer learning, but because my students don’t — especially the smart ones.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first started teaching, back around — oh, let’s not talk about that. Suffice it to say that group work was relatively new to the academy, and was entirely new to most undergraduates. They seemed to find it very exciting, being asked to come up with ideas together, and went to work enthusiastically to impress each other with their insight. But the millenials have a different attitude: they have been exposed to group work since middle school, and they are sick of it. They roll their eyes as they drag tables into new positions, they smirk knowingly at prompts, and they breeze through the work and then quickly Balkanize into pairs and singletons.

Recent research may give us insight into this phenomenon: group work functions effectively when critical comments and debate are built in, and when the group members are similar or familiar with each other, but not too much so (see two recent articles, Jonah Lehrer’s “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” in The New Yorker for January 30 2012, and Susan Cain’s “Rise of the New Groupthink” in The New York Times Sunday Review of January 13 2012). What this suggests is that group work bores different sets of my students for different reasons: the prompts may be too obvious and open for the majors, who know the material and each other, while the less comfortable students find the social aspects of the exercise daunting. Seminars are the right setting for the exercise, but then a good seminar is already a work group.

Why didn’t I figure this out sooner? Probably because like many teachers I forget that my work and study ethos is not necessarily the default setting. I am lucky enough to work with colleagues whose Q level is fairly ideal: we know each other, share many values, but also can disagree. But I have also worked with colleagues who did not play well together, with predictable results: nothing ever got done.

The good news is this: the online environment appears to do away with some of the problems of FTF group work. We know that people are much more willing to be critical online, and apparently this freedom can be channelled constructively and productively through large-scale collaboration and critical debate. At the same time, there is evidence that shared space and proximity increase the productivity and quality of group ideas.

So here’s another argument for the hybrid classroom, one that exploits the best of both FTF and electronic, that builds groups in real space but also virtually. It may give groupthink new life.

Degrading Grading

In the Business section of the New York Times for Saturday, March 24, Alina Tugend cites research from the fields of psychology, communications, and business indicating that the impact of negative criticism is disproportionately great compared to positive feedback. The experts cited for the article recommend sparing and carefully-timed use of critical remarks as more apt to produce constructive results.

This gibes with what faculty often perceive as a disconnect between their communicative purposes when grading and how students react to their comments (it also reflects how we as faculty feel about certain types of comments on student evaluations). We know that grades increasingly don’t have the desired effect, an issue that Davidson’s research in Now You See It addresses very convincingly. The Times article gives me one more piece of the puzzle: students, like ourselves, are much more vulnerable to criticism than either of us pretends to be. Even a practice I myself follow in writing comments, of starting with positive feedback, comes under scrutiny here: Stanford’s Clifford Nass suggests that starting with one critical remark and then a list of positives may be more effective. And Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile (nice name given the topic!) reports that while progress in work projects is strongly valued by most employees, perceived setbacks are much more destructive than Incremental progress is constructive.

So how do we provide effective formative assessment without triggering defensive and counter-productive behavior? One suggestion I have is to switch emphasis from grading to marking. As Davidson points out, we grade to provide boot-factory-style stats; I suggest that we mark as collaborators and editors. If we speak of marking as separate from grading, we make a clearer distinction between formative and summative aspects of our role. Not that marks shouldn’t inform grades, but if we simply grade on what needed changing then we unconsciously emphasize the negative aspects of our relation to learning. And grades should be based not only on marks but on more intangible aspects of student performance such as development, personal growth, and collaboration. If that’s hard to quantify, good: that’s precisely a step in the right direction. And if administrators can be persuaded to look beyond simple metrics, and can persuade trustees in their turn that this really is progress, then the shift will occur easily. The Times piece by pointing out that these insights are at work in the business world can help us begin to make the case for a less degrading form of assessment.

Student Bloggers

Several advanced-level students in my New Media class have taken advantage of my challenge to them: that they go ahead and maintain blogs on topics related to the course. The guidelines were minimal, with the understanding that the freedom to experiment was part of the rationale for blogging. These students were asked not to identify themselves publicly on the blogs, although the links are available to all students in the class through the course’s D2L site. There is no minimum number of posts.

After a few weeks, each student has found something unique to do with the assignment. Here are the links:

I’m Jest Sayin’



Media’s Effect on War

Visions in Web Series TV

I found that giving motivated students the opportunity to work outside of the more structured environment of the LMS sparked a degree of enthusiasm, while making the blog part of coursework (although optional) and relating it to specific content gave students a rationale to write — exactly my own experience of blogging. So while it may not suit every student, the blog form may help instructors create an atmosphere of individual discovery and creativity.

Enlightenment 2.0?

In the MacArthur Foundation Report The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, “participatory learning” is set in opposition to a model of education that seems Victorian in all the worst senses of the word: hierarchical, driven by politics and the bottom line, and ultimately designed to privilege the ego of the instructor over the needs of students. Certainly this pedagogy of oppression, to invoke Friere’s famous essay, still needs to be exposed and combatted. The Report makes an important contribution to conceptionalizing a new wired utopics that deserves our attention and support.

That being said, here are a few points at which the Report needs a taste of its own medicine in the form of comment from the multitudes. Or at least from KimiNoGomi, a single piece of flotsam in the vast sea of binary discourse.

So: first of all, the demonization of the lecture by the proponents of collaborative learning continues to be a thorn in my virtual side. Like reading a book, attentive listening to discourse is not in and of itself an exercise in patient endurance of oppression, unless the lecturer is a bore and an idiot. Lecture is simply a one-to-many learning mode that can be combined with dialogue, writing exercises, Q&A, threaded discussion, or any number of other techniques. This may seem like a quibble, but it underscores a main point: all true learning is collaborative, prosocial, shared. The Dickensian droner is not using a bad technique, she or he is simply a bad teacher (and would be, perhaps more so, if equipped with PowerPoint). But human learning starts as one-to-one, between parent (or alloparent) and child, and this early affective relation sets the stage for the future learner’s attitude and mastery. Moreover, this early listening is hardly passive; child and adult tend to maintain a robust conversation about and around the text, and studies suggest that this back channel is where most of the learning takes place. The more chat, the better the child’s preparation for school, to the extent that the frequency of shared reading is a good predictor of future academic success. The combination of linear and non-linear learning is what works best for literacy.

Secondly, the problems raised by the emergence of what the Report terms a many-to-multitudes model of learning are the ones that were first identified by the Enlightenment theorists whose idealism the Report echoes. What the document describes is simply another locus of the public sphere, or spheres. Proponents of Enlightenment acknowledged the problem inherent in democratic politics: the need for mass education as a means of outweighing the inevitable static caused by opportunists, newbies, kooks, and trolls. The baseline of early knowledge, initially acquired face-to-face in an atmosphere of trust and mutual affection, is a species requirement for the type of shared learning between strangers and the critical dialog that the Report envisions.

In order to arrive at a digital utopia, then, we have to start with and from an earlier one, a loving dyad, both for the individual and as a society. Poorly educated, hungry, and untrusting people make bad collaborators, and any prepared student who has done group work with unwilling or incapable partners will be leery of future collaboration. Globally, current disenchantment with democracy stems not from lack of social media but from their use as one more medium through which the masses confront the continued failure of progressive ideology to take seriously simple goals like feeding the starving. If we as academics don’t nourish and nurture as social collaborators, then all our electronic idealism will simply be another dangerously alienating helping of the empty rhetoric of the privileged classes.