Technological Surprise

Academic Kindness rocks. I had an awesome experience teaching that I think really vindicates the openness that colleagues and artist friends have shown me. [ETA: I will be posting about Ursula K. Le Guin shortly. First, this.]

I’m teaching a Comics & Graphic Novels class right now–I talked about it at Temple in the Fall. We’re having a rad time, look at this!

OMG wait til I explain what this is!

First. We are (of course) reading Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.  I’ve assigned them a paper that tasks them with providing examples from short comics of their choosing (from a limited set of options) to demonstrate their understanding of the main points of the first four chapters.

Inspired by my queers/comics studies colleague Kadin Henningsen, whom I had the good fortune to meet at MLA last year, I had the students practice the idea McCloud presents in chapter two of the book about seeing a cartoon face by drawing self-portraits. I know! The format was super simple: start with a regular smiley face…

…then add the tiniest bit of detail to make it recognizably look like you. It’s supposed to work out something like this.

I had them pair up with a classmate and swap self-portraits. They laughed! We talked about whether they could recognize their partner’s face and their own based on the cartoon versions of their features. Next time around, I will probably have them create Bitmoji avatars for themselves! I know mine is accurate AF and also super-cartoony.

We put McCloud’s arguments in perspective by viewing this interview with him talking about Hellboy. Predictably, I remembered Mike Mignola’s name like two minutes into the video.

Next. We also read “The Myth of Superman” by Umberto Eco. This could have been a disaster, but we started out with some general conversation about Superman, some discussion of what our experience of reading the chapter was like, and then read a biographical sketch of Eco together that frames his main contributions to the study of literature and the arts. The objective was basically showing them that his study of Superman was part of a certain kind of intellectual project. I got them to focus on this passage in particular (from A Dictionary of Critical Theory):

 Anticipating by more than a decade fellow semiotician Roland Barthes’s distinction between the readerly and writerly text, Eco argues that works of art are fields of possibilities which to a greater or lesser degree invite and require the audience to contribute to the production of meaning. Works which try to constrict the range of meanings the audience can produce are naturally enough called ‘closed’ works (examples would include religious doctrines, political manifestoes, textbooks and user’s manuals), while those works which compel the audience to produce multiple meanings are called open works. Eco does not thereby agree with the rather empty claim that the reader is free to produce whatever meaning they like in response to a text. He sees it, rather, as a creative collaboration.

We really broke down the phrase “invite and require the audience to contribute to the production of meaning.” We talked about how some words and symbols have fairly straightforward meanings, e.g. Red means stop, Green means go. But those meanings have been produced by situations and maintained in a reliable way. Likewise, works of art or texts can take lots of forms, and they can mean lots of things, but according to Umberto Eco, some of them invite the audience into interpretation while others more or less don’t “work” if readers just claim that they mean whatever they want. The students did a better job of putting this all together.

We then read a short review of a Golden Age Superman Sunday collection from The Comics Journal. I asked them to form groups and find connections between what the review said about Superman comics from the era and what Eco said about the defining features of Superman comics. They did it!

Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1943-1946

So THEN, I gave each group a printout of one of the Sunday comics pages excerpted in the review, and asked them to identify a feature of “the myth of Superman” in the comic that they recognized from the Umberto Eco reading; I told them to discuss it within their groups, and then post the comic print along with the page number where the concept they saw illustrated was represented in the reading! They totally did it.


It was super fun, and then, in a meeting with a student the next day, they TOTALLY USED THE PHRASE PRODUCTION OF MEANING ABOUT MCCLOUD’S THEORY OF CLOSURE IN COMICS!!!

What’s more: I think I came up with an adequate rubric for the structure of the assignment  during my consultation with one student (I know, I’m really feeling myself). Thanks, trusty post-its. I’ll translate this into a form I can use for future iterations of the assignment. I don’t want to make it super formal, but I’m so glad to have come up with a useful heuristic.

Also, gosh…