My Mancave - Comic book fan

Comic books in University History Classrooms

Drawing engaging connections for students and myself

One of the first pieces of academic career advice I ever received was from an English professor.  She was a wonderful woman especially because she was very candid.  She once told me to think about the consequences of pursuing my hobbies as a career path.  She said in her experience most people who turn their hobbies into an academic career, often times (again, in her opinion) become such an expert on the subject matter that they are less incline to take criticism well, much less be open to positive critiques.  Well, at the time, I was not thinking I would pursue a master’s degree.  I was a junior undergraduate student at the time who could not fathom a distant future where I might possibly be an independent researcher or college professor.  I think on this particular day in question I just wanted to turn in an assignment or ask a question about one – I forget.  As you might imagine, I just quietly nodded and sat in her office for what probably felt like forever as she proceeded with the rest of the conversation.  I cannot recall how we even got on the topic of the down falls of one turning their hobby horse into a career.  However, almost ten years later, I now find myself in the middle of a doctoral program identifying a subject area I hope to be an expert in, and reassessing potential career opportunities that include teaching and applying my emerging scholarly expertise.  Funny how life is, is it not?

Well, what this English professor had to say really stuck with me.  I absolutely am a comic book enthusiast (check out my nifty mancave office), and a fan of too.  (As a gay man, the affection for popular culture women is cliché, I know.)  But in all honesty, watching the movie “Heathers” and Katherine Hepburn in “Lion in the Winter”, and staying up late in middle school so I could laugh with Peggy Bundy at Al’s expense had probably as great of an impact on my life as the Saturday afternoons when my dad would take me to the various local comic book shops.  (I actually missed out on watching “Sesame Street,” receiving instead an education in VH1 and made-for-tv Western films thanks to my father.  Thanks dad!  Haha.)

Mystery Men Comics, No.16
Mystery Men Comics, No.16

When I decided to go back to pursue a second bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and ultimately switched from the master’s to the bachelor-to-doctoral program I am in now, I picked research topics along the way that interested me in different ways…ways in which I could “pick up” the subject matter, spend a few weeks or months researching, but then “sit it down” as I took a break (sometimes too long of one) to read a comic book series, play an MMORPG, or catch up on my Netflix viewing.

I am currently pursuing an area of research that focuses on sexuality, to a great extent on LGBT issues, within a transatlantic setting (because the program I am in is transatlantic in structure).  Even though my potential research topics within sexuality studies are topics that I identify with and relate to, there is some distance between myself and my research.  I am able to, metaphorically as it were, “put down” my research topic (and be more open to criticism according to that former English professor, and equally so, outside distractions).  However, when I “pick up” my research topic again, I find myself naturally drawing connections to various aspects of popular culture: video games, music, movies, and yes, comic books, as a means to drive home the point(s) that I want to make.  I now find myself, as stated earlier, reassessing potential career opportunities – including teaching.

Do not get me wrong, I love what I research because the history I am researching is in essence part of my own history as a member of a larger gay community.  At this point in my academic development, I am faced with the questions of how do I teach what I research and what I do not research?  And, how might I teach a typical freshmen survey class?  In answering these questions, I find myself grasping for popular culture materials (and drawing connections to identity creation) because that is my safe zone.

Unknown Solider, No.1: Vertigo Comics
Unknown Solider, No.1: Vertigo Comics

I recently came across an article in The History Teacher journal titled Teaching History with Comic Books: A Case Study of Violence, War, and the Graphic Novel.  Authored by two different scholars at different points in their professional careers, Teaching History with Comic Books discusses the “benefits (and challenges) of using comic books to teach undergraduates.”  The article begins by referencing growing uses of comic books in educational settings and the emerging body of teaching scholarship that has arisen in its wake.  At the same time, the article’s authors note the perceived light comic books are given in university settings.  Decker, one of the authors, states that she “wanted to be creative in [her] pedagogical approach, but at the same time, still be taken seriously by [her] more ‘classically trained’ colleagues.”

What I found very interesting about these authors’ use of comic books in the class room was their process of incorporation.  Decker noted that using the Unknown Solider comic book, a Vertigo title that depicts violence and war conflict(s) in Africa, presented an opportunity to think about the pedagogy of pain.  How does a professor connect students to traumatic life events and the concept of suffering produced by war and acts of violence who are removed from such both spatially and temporally?  To help the students draw these connections, she scaffolds the class assignments where the students are to have read three or so issues of Unknown Solider before class, then the next class session they would discuss “overall impressions” followed by watching a documentary that directly speaks to specific issues that the comic book dramatized.  The authors’ recommend as a means to assess “the students’ ability to make sense of the material to incorporate a short writing assignment into the lesson plan. Ask them to reflect critically upon how the novel reinforces and/or challenges stereotypes… This could be done as a free-writing exercise at the beginning of class [to help foster class discussion about overall themes] or as a more structured take-home essay.”

Sideshow Collectables - Catwoman (Batman Returns: Michelle Pfeiffer edition)
Sideshow Collectables – Catwoman (Batman Returns: Michelle Pfeiffer edition)

The challenge for the instructor, as the article continues, is that they have to work to “situate the text within a larger historical context,” but that it should be easy for “instructors [to] compensate for [a comic book’s] shortcomings through proper contextualization.”  What these author’s ultimately took away from using comic books in class was that these sources “demonstrated to students that history did not have to be boring.”  Apart from having to “fill in more gaps,” using comic books in class appeared to have “opened up an interesting conversation about the politics of media coverage—what gets attention in the news (or this case, popular culture and escapist entertainment) and what does not.”

After reading this article and others like it, I do not feel totally off in left field in wanting to incorporate comic books and other popular culture materials into a potential class I might teach.  Drawing from film, music, and comic books might pose an interesting means of discussing aspects of history like war abroad and home front anxieties.  Or, gender and sexuality, or race relations in America by discussing iconic figures like Wonder Woman and Catwoman, and Captain America and Luke Cage: the Hero for Hire.  At the very least, I would have another opportunity to show off my awesome (and ever-growing) superhero statue collection.  And hey, it is cool getting the chance, when I can, to fuse together my hobby horses and research interests.

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