Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Rhetoric of the Paneled Page: Comics and Composition Pedagogy

Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Rhetoric of the Paneled Page: Comics and Composition Pedagogy

Article excerpt

In "Trudy Does Comics," Chris Anson's contribution to The WAC Casebook, an art major challenges her philosophy professor's newfound commitment to student expression by turning in comics pages for her assignments. Howard, the professor, grades the first comic a C-, arguing that only one of the characters talks, and not enough. Though Trudy includes more dialogue in the second, Howard gives it a C- as well, because there is "simply less text here than in the other students' papers" (31). Trudy objects, arguing that the professor's resistance to her comics contradicts his nominal support for student creativity and expression. While The WAC Casebook is primarily designed to provoke conversations about pedagogy, classroom practices, assignment development, and other practical and theoretical aspects of teaching composition, Anson's story points out another salient fact: comics, and the students who read, write, and think about them, have reached academia, and they are not going away.

This essay seeks to establish the conditions necessary for a pedagogically sound, functional use of comics in composition instruction, not only in readings and textbooks but also in practice. As one of the most accessible forms of multimodal text (insofar as no computing, audio, or video expertise is necessary), comics complicate notions of authorship, make sophisticated demands on readers, and create a grammar and rhetoric as sophisticated as written prose, while also opening up new methods of communication often disregarded by conventional composition instruction. This discussion is organized around two guiding documents in the field: the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) Outcomes Statementfor First-Year Composition and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on Multimodal Literacies. I examine how comics literacy dovetails with the goals of compositionists, as made visible in these two statements.

Comics in the Tower and the Trenches

In the last decade, comics have made significant inroads in literary studies: peer-reviewed journals, including The International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and the web journal ImageTexT, specialize in scholarly studies of comics. In 2008, Modern Fiction Studies devoted an entire issue to comics, and journals as prestigious as PMLA regularly include major articles on comics literature. Discussions of the graphic novel canon are in full swing, as books like 2009's Teaching the Graphic Novel, edited by Stephen Tabachnik, enter the academic conversation. In PMLA Hillary Chute, one of the most prolific comics theorists today, argues that "now is the time to expand scholarly expertise and interest in comics" because the comics medium "opens up some of the most pressing questions put to literature today" (462). In the twenty-first century, as humanities scholarship turns more interdisciplinary and definitions of art and literature become less genre- and medium-bound, a greater acceptance of comics as art and literature seems inevitable.'

In composition studies, on the other hand, the optimistic (yet somewhat disappointing) pedagogical program suggested by Paul Buhle in a 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education article seems typical of critical approaches to comics pedagogy.2 After wondering aloud whether comics "represent something like the last horizon of the professor or student in pursuit of an unexhausted topic," Buhle's program finally settles on the reductive "connect with the students" model: "In one format or another, they Icomics] will reach the kids. That should be our cue as well." Buhle, widely recognized as a "prodigious force of this evolving movement's left wing" (Dooley), retains with his enthusiasm a hint of the sighing pedagogue. As Buhle says in a 2008 interview, "In one sense, it's my response to the fact that my students, undergrad and grad alike, read fewer 'regular' books each year" (Dooley). …

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