Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Teaching the Comic Book

Let me start off by saying the while I generally do for living what I trained in graduate school to do (I am, in fact, a college professor and a literary critic), there are many aspects of my job I never imagined in grad school. I never imagined that I'd be director of an African American Studies program (that was never really on my list of career goals), yet here I am. I fancy myself a scholar of the African American novel, yet I've yet to publish on the African American novel--a book of Octavia Butler's interviews, a book on the critical reception of Baldwin, an article on an intellectual crisis during the Harlem Renaissance, another on a comic book, but nothing on the African American novel.

And this semester I find myself, for the second time, teaching a course on the graphic novel. Today was the first day of class and I woke up in a panic feeling wildly unqualified to teach a course about comic books. Sure, I'm on the comics sholars listserv and have been absorbing comics theory and criticism for the last three or so years. Yes, I've been reading all the articles on comics I can find in journals and books. Yes, I read tons and tons of comic books. But still...I'm a scholar of the African American novel! To top it all off, because the course is big (40+ people), I'm teaching in one of our lecture rooms. There's a stage! I taught on a stage today, which totally exacerbated my anxieties about people looking at me while I'm teaching. (Yes, I know people are looking at me. I like to pretend they aren't though, which is rather difficult when you're standing on a stage.) So I'm standing on a stage, using Powerpoint (which, as a general rule, I detest), and feeling sick to my stomach because I feel like a big geeky fraud, when this exchange happens:

Very intense female student, clearly a lover of comics: Is there any reason why we aren't reading Maus?

Me, thinking, oh no I've been found out: Well, since even people who don't read comics, and I assume that most of the people in this class don't read comics, have been introduced to Maus in high school or some other arena, I thought we'd read other things together. I think it would be a better use of our time to look at things people haven't read before.

Girl: And people haven't read Dark Knight Returns?

Me, thinking I hear a hostile tone, but actually that's probably just in my head: Well, in my experience, even big fans of Batman and Superman haven't actually read a Batman or Superman comic. Of the many times I've taught DKR in various courses, I've run into very few students who have actually read it.

Girl: Well okay.

At this point the interrogation is over, though there were other questions about why there are no Marvel books on the syllabus and why I've never been to Comic-Con and whether their friend can draw their mini-comic. It was a very stressful 75 minutes.

Tomorrow I'm teaching comp and Intro to African American lit, both courses I could teach in my sleep at this point. But all I can think about is how not to make a fool of myself the next time I'm in the graphic novel course.


jaz said...

I want to take your comic book class!

Alison said...

Me, too!

I often find that students like your intense questioner often become the class's biggest fans...but if you're already feeling unqualified, those questions just make you feel that you've been seen as the fraud you know you are! I suspect there's a gendered component to this. I mean, you've published scholarly work about the comic book. Doesn't this qualify you to teach comic books?

Cassie said...

I hear where you are coming from. I think we all have moments like that. BUT (as Alison said): You are far from a fool or a fraud or unqualified, C! Maybe you can refocus on what you yourself said about the class endeavor: reading things *together*. You've always struck me as a pretty democratic vs. autocratic educator, and most classes are in some sense a collaborative effort, so celebrate that pooling of knowledge. Turn the questions back on them to invest them in the project. You rock. Relax in that foxy rockin' self!

Melvin said...

Your comic class was awesome and if the kids don't like it, they can kick rocks.

Claudia said...

Ah yes, the old, familiar "impostor syndrome" returns! I will be teaching my sixth comics class this Spring, but this time, it's a grad class - so my level of confidence is a little shaken too. If it gives you any comfort, every academic I know who teaches comics feels the same way! Without fail. We are all, as Ellison would say, worried about "the little man behind the stove." (The great thing is that most students, even the comic geeks, don't know anything about how to study form and aesthetics.)

I echo everybody else in this comments thread - you are gonna be awesome! I hope you'll keep us posted on how the rest of the semester goes.

megan said...

I want to propose teaching a comic book/drawing workshop to Philadelphia high school students. I want to spend the first two classes reading comics with the students and the subsequent classes on the street drawing and in the classroom putting together a storyboard. I hope this will engage a wide variety of interests in the class. Do you have suggestions for engaging reading material?

Marla said...

Hi Conseula,
I've just ordered your book from Amazon.co.uk and I am so looking forward to receiving it.
I am a committed Octavia E. Butler fan, still in shock from her untimely death. It's wonderful that you have put this book together, I hope it will reach a wide readership.
best wishes