Interview: Christina Blanch on comics in the classroom

Christina BlanchI’ve been meaning to post some extra bits from my interview with Ball State University lecturer and ‘Gender Through Comic Books’ organiser Christina Blanch for a few weeks now. The topic of teaching with comics has been cropping up with some frequency of late, so I thought it was time to post some of the humorous, fascinating and shocking anecdotes that I couldn’t fit in elsewhere.

It’s also great to hear how much success her MOOC course is having with the support of Mark Waid and definitely worth checking out. It launches on April 2.

Hugh: How did comics become a part of your academic career?

Christina: They didn’t for a long time, because as a new teacher without tenure, you have to kind of stay safe. I was teaching a section in anthropology about culture change, and what I usually do is have the students write a paper developing their own culture, then half-way through the paper something happens – a disease, a new invention, an invasion – and it changes the culture. At the time I was reading Y: The Last Man. In it, all the males on the planet die in a moment except for one man and his monkey. It’s like a gender textbook, because all of the different topics that we were talking about changing are represented there. Do you call a manhole a ‘manhole’ anymore? There aren’t any men left.

I noticed my students not reading their textbooks because most of them are very dry and boring – no offence to textbook producers – but students just don’t. They’re just not reading. So I thought that this would be a good way to get them engaging with and reading about culture change.

The next semester I decided to try it. My department wasn’t real excited, but I figured that I would do it and see what happened. It was amazing. The students were all engaged, they all read the material, they told me they even read the textbook to make sure that they got things right in their final paper. It started so much more conversation in the class – what I call the ‘Geeks and Greeks’ theory. It acted as an equaliser – the ‘geeks’ already read comics, and this was normal to them, had something to talk about with the ‘Greeks’, who had never read things like this, and I would see them discussing together. It was really interesting, so I did a study on it and one of the things that came out was that it was very social, and they talked about this outside of class and in other classes, which is something we want our students to do. We don’t want them to sit in the classroom then leave and forget everything. We want them to take this out and use it in their lives, and that is what they were doing.

So, from there I went on and used The Walking Dead, Doctor Strange and recently, when I did my gender through comics class, all of our textbooks were comic books.

Hugh: Where did the idea for the MOOC course come from?

Christina: Ball State University approached me. I was teaching my class on campus. They emailed me one day and asked if I would be interested in doing an online class of ‘Gender Through Comics’. I went in to meet with them and agreed to do the MOOC, which I had little to no familiarity with. It’s much bigger than just an online class for Ball State. I thought, “You know, this is great,” because one of the things that I love is showing people how comics can be used in education – that they’re not just things for kids to read. Anybody that thinks that comics are just full of fluff needs to read Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, because there are a lot of educated adults who would find their work heavy.

One of the things that I really want to do is to show people how comics can be used. Not just to teach literature – they can be used to teach other subjects. For anthropology and so many other subjects that we cover, we can apply it to history, ecology – teaching with Swamp Thing - economics, physics, gender. It’s a great thing, because sometimes when you read something you find yourself in that, and sometimes when you read it in a comic, it lets things in through the backdoor. Students will read without realising they are seeing themselves in it and start talking about it as those characters, and before the conversation is done, they realised that they are talking about themselves. It’s a way to get themselves to relax and talk about certain subjects. Gender can sometimes be a touchy subject.

Hugh: What is the unique value of using comics as teaching tools?

Christina: I think one is that when people see a comic, it relaxes them – it’s not a scruffy textbook. It’s something different. If everybody used comics, it wouldn’t be that way. It takes the students a little off-guard, and I think that makes them curious.

Two, one of the reasons I think they’re so great is that, in a lot of learning theories you can only process so many things to one time – anywhere from four to seven – but when you have something with a word and picture combined, that one counts as one schema, so you’re only processing that one thing and you get so much more information out of it.

It also uses both sides of your brain, which helps with recall, memorising and retention, so you’re engaging the whole brain, not just one side of it, as you would when reading or listening. It’s something that really engages the students in all sorts of ways. And they’re fun.

Hugh: What has the response from other educators been?

Christina: It’s mixed. One person who gave me a really hard time for using comics, after the first semester and seeing the results, decided to use comics.

Another educator who has been a friend for years didn’t realise that we liked comics because we kept it on the down-low until I decided to ‘come out’. I found out that he loved comics and had a secret stash in his office. He was teaching a class on animals in the New World and used Grant Morrison’s Animal Man in class.

Some people still look at it with trepidation. Some people look at me like I’m crazy. There are other instructors who have wanted me to start teaching how to use comics in their classes. They’re really interested and have started looking at comics in a new way. It helps that Oxford has just put out a comic book textbook. It’s starting to really make some waves. There are always going to be people who don’t like it, but there are always going to be people who don’t like a lot of things.

I’ve always used popular culture in my classroom. A lot of people thought that I was crazy anyway before I started using comics. I once used one of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation called ‘Darmok’ when I’m teaching language because it’s a really good story about language, metaphors and meanings. The students love it – even the ones that don’t like Star Trek. I use an episode of Futurama to teach about archaeology. Sometimes I use Invader Zim and The Big Bang Theory – a lot of things to get the students engaged. One of my favourite things that a student has said to me is that I “tricked them into learning”. They thought they were having fun when they were actually learning and now, whenever they watch a show on TV they think about what it means. That’s my job.

Hugh: How do you feel about the state of gender representation in comics?

Christina: I think there are still some issues about gender in comics. The whole ‘fake geek girl’ argument that came up in the last few months – it’s real to some people, and it is an insult. I should be able to do whatever I want to do. I think it should go both ways – if we’re going to say there are ‘fake geek girls’ then there must be ‘fake geek boys’ too. If I am going to wear an X-Men t-shirt, do I have to know everything about them? Because I can guarantee you most people don’t. I think it’s silly, I think it’s bad for the industry and I think it’s a few people stirring the pot.

Then there’s also perceptions. As one of their activities my students have to read a comic book in a very public place – well, not really read it at the time but pay attention to what people are saying and doing around them. With only one exception, no gentleman in my class was spoken to. One was asked, “Why are you reading Buffy?” and they talked about how great the show was. Most of the females had stories. One professor said to one of my students after a conversation, “I’m glad you girls are able to read that kind of stuff now.” Another girl – one of the more popular girls, if you’re going to put people in that category, who had never read a comic before my class and fell in love with them – she was reading a comic and she said these sorority girls walked past her, looked at her strangely, whispered and then walked by looking at her and laughing. She said she felt so awful and not for herself, but for the people who were judging her without knowing her and, looking back, thought, “I probably do the same thing. I’m going to have to look at some of the stereotypes that I hold against people.” She said she would probably have been one of those girls before the class.

There are things like that. Some of the girls would say that it was great or tell them that what they were reading “wasn’t a real comic”. There’s still the stereotypes out there. Even my friend who runs a comics store says that his customers will say to women, ‘Wow, you read comics?’ It’s very frustrating. I read in a book once that women don’t buy superhero comics. Then I looked over at my pile of superhero comics and thought, “I’m pretty sure I bought those and I’m pretty sure I’m a woman.”

But, I think, a lot of the battles are being fought – that’s thanks to Colleen Doran, Gail Simone and Louise Simonson. I think that they’re making progress. I think it’s mostly the big companies that don’t have a lot of producers, because if you go to artist alley at any comicon I would say it’s 50/50 – you have a lot of women in there many comics. We’re getting there. I think there’s still room for improvement, but I think it’s going to get better.

The class isn’t just about women. The ‘fake geek girl’ thing is an important part of it. Who are the fans? Who are the consumers of this culture?

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