This week we’ve discussed the graphic novels as historical fiction, the strengths of using graphic novels to discuss fraught material, and complex process of adapting historical research to sequential art. We would like to end our roundtable discussing more broadly the possibilities of using graphic novels in the classroom.
The first strength of graphic novels is their novelty. Assigning works like Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner or Fetter-Vorm and Kelman’s Battle Lines is a surprise to most students. By not being another monograph or set of primary sources, graphic novels shake up a syllabus. This is good for students, who may be interested in exploring a subject in a more unconventional way, and for teachers, for it forces us to reconsider how to teach subjects we may have taught many, many times. This novelty also adds some additional accessibility for students who might be skeptical of reading more traditional assignments.
The visceral nature of graphic novels also gives them great power in the classroom. Anyone whose taught with images and material culture knows the usefulness of visuals in the classroom. The advantage of graphic novels is that they broaden the palate of available images and experiences. The strength that contemporary graphic novels have over historical images—photographs, paintings, etchings, et al.—is that they can offer students representations of persons, events, and experiences which would have been highly unlikely to have been recorded visually within their historical context. Taught alongside primary sources, such modern artistic interpretations can hammer home, as Jessica noted on Tuesday, themes that may seem abstract or too overwhelming to students.
Teaching with graphic novels also raises questions of interpretation, which are at the core of all history courses. Walking students through a graphic novel’s interpretation of its subject gives an instructor yet another chance to hammer this home. In my experience I’ve found students much more willing to understand and challenge this aspect of history when it comes to graphic novels, over more traditionally assigned prose novels or monographs.
The central problem with including graphic novels in your history course is simple: they are not primary sources or a monograph. Syllabus space is tight and student attention short. Is shaking up your course worth it in such a context? Do the risks of such an innovation falling flat balance the possible reward? As powerful as graphic novels can be are they actually more powerful as teaching tools than traditional assignments and texts?
I want to end this post, and the roundtable, with a questions for The Junto community. Do you use graphic novels in your classroom? If so, which ones? If you don’t currently employ them in your courses, would you be willing in the future? If y you would not, why so?