Contributed by Beth Davies-Stofka, Ph.D.
It’s fair to say that higher education vastly prefers the written word to the drawn picture. But are there good reasons for this preference? Isn’t a picture worth a thousand words? Perhaps the time has come to begin using comics as teaching tools. They possess a largely unacknowledged ability to deepen and extend student engagement in the college classroom.
A recently-published research study from Harvard psychologists Elinor Amit and Joshua Greene suggests that visual imagery (in the case of this study, mental pictures) plays a pivotal role in moral decision making (Amit & Greene, 2012). Put simply, when presented with a moral dilemma, we tend to resolve it using cost-benefit analysis. But as the wording of the dilemma is altered to include vivid imagery, we become more emotionally engaged in the dilemma. Amit and Greene’s research suggests that the deeper our emotional engagement with the dilemma, the more we turn to deontological judgments to resolve it.
As a professor of ethics, this research fascinates me. But as a teacher who is passionately interested in engaging students, all the way down to the very microfibers of their souls, I see a broader lesson here. Vivid imagery deepens emotional engagement. To use a buzzword that is nonetheless appealing: images are immersive. The wording of our lectures, assignments, and discussion topics can and should create mental pictures for students. But why not take the next step, and see what we can accomplish with actual pictures? Why not teach with comics?
Comics are loaded with promising uses which are as yet largely unexplored. Research interest into the pedagogical value of comics is increasing, and we can look forward to reliable science that will help inform our teaching decisions. But what we really need is teachers using comics in the classroom, and experiencing their potential first-hand. Teacher evaluation of comics is crucial, for the simple reason that teachers understand education.
The list of academically sound comics is growing in leaps and bounds. Do you teach humanities, ancient civilizations, or world literature? Why not add The Graphic Canon to your required reading? You’ll introduce your students to the great religious and secular literature of the world in ways that are funny, handsome, moving, disturbing, shocking, and always powerful. Just do this once, and see if they don’t become more deeply engaged in the most intricate puzzles of the human condition.
Do you teach political science? Develop a discussion around Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb. Is your field chemistry? Supplement all that troublesome memorization with The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, which will bring dialogue and personality to elements and gases. No student will forget Princess Argon! How about conflict resolution? Assign Macedonia and ask your students to debate the usefulness of the Macedonian story for mediators in global hot spots. Is human trafficking in your curriculum? Then introduce this painful and emotionally difficult problem with Borderland and empower your students to talk about their feelings in ways that are both compassionate and constructive.
The list of classroom-ready comics appropriate to higher education grows longer every month. Comics have demonstrated the ability to grab students, draw them into the learning community, give shape and meaning to the subject matter of the course, and plant the seeds of lifelong learning. We just need to see more teachers avail themselves of these wonderful tools, and hopefully the research pointing us in this direction will quickly catch up.
Perhaps in a future blog post, I can tell you a bit about the pedagogical value of online comics creation tools. Meanwhile, I welcome dialogue about the use of comics in the classroom. If you don’t use comics in your classroom, why not?
Amit, E., & Greene, J. (2012). You see, the ends don't justify the means: Visual imagery and moral judgment. Psychological Science, 23(8), 861-868. doi: 10.1177/0956797611434965
Archer, D., & Trusova, O. (2010). Borderland: Seven lives. Seven stories. As told by victims of human trafficking.. San Francisco: Archcomix.com. Preview: http://www.graphicvoices.com/#11685395949
Fetter-Vorm, J. (2012). Trinity: A graphic history of the first atomic bomb. New York: Hill and Wang. Preview:http://us.macmillan.com/book.aspx?isbn=9780809094684
Gonick, L., & Criddle, C. (2005). The cartoon guide to chemistry. New York: HarperCollins. Preview:http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060936778
Kick, R. (2012). The graphic canon, vol 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. New York: Seven Stories Press. Preview: http://thegraphiccanon.wordpress.com/
Pekar, H., Roberson, H., & Piskor, E. (2007). Macedonia: What does it take to stop a war? New York: Villard. Preview:http://www.macedoniathebook.com/