Graphic Novels have had a historical year in literary acclaim with John Lewis' graphic novel memoir, March, winning the prestigious National Book Award. But even before this celebrated win, professors have been including graphic novels in their curriculum even in higher education courses. BookShelf Editor, Ashley Kronsberg, talks with educators about their use of graphic novels in their classrooms and the benefits they have in their curriculum. In this addition we speak with Colleen Lutz Clemens, English professor and Director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University.
Ashley Kronsberg (AK): First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching college courses, what do you teach, etc.?
Colleen Lutz Clemens (CLC): I have been in the classroom for twenty years. I taught high school English for eight, and then started teaching college. I teach postcolonial literature, and I am Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kutztown University.
AK: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum?
CLC: I was lucky to be introduced to the idea of teaching graphic novels in the classroom when I did my observation hours with one of my favorite high school teachers, John Ritter. He was teaching Maus in 1994. I now realize how revolutionary that move was. He was using photocopies because the school wouldn’t buy copies.
AK: Were you an avid graphic novel reader prior to teaching them in your classroom? And now that you have taught them, do you find yourself reading them more outside of the classroom?
CLC: No, and yes! I am always seeking out graphic novels. They are such a gateway for reticent readers and a fun read for avid readers.
AK: How has working with graphic novels evolved or changed your way of teaching?
CLC: I still have to make the case to some of my colleagues that graphic novels are valuable. I love pushing the idea of the canon, playing with it, and in fact, trying to one day eradicate it. Graphic novels are always the favorite texts for my students! So why not show them they can love reading?
AK: Do you notice any differences among students’ interest or responsiveness to a topic working with a graphic novel as opposed to another literary format?
CLC: In my Introduction to Literature course, absolutely. I want students to leave that class liking to read again. Graphic novels are more approachable. Not everyone needs to read Shakespeare, but I do want everyone to read. Students leave the course knowing that reading graphic novels is fun but also helps them develop empathy.
AK: Is there a specific lesson plan that has become your “go-to” when teaching graphic novels?
CLC: I think it is important to talk about the graphic in a graphic novel: how the images and the page set up tell the story. There are a few images in Persepolis that do this quite well. One in particular show a woman divided on the page. The picture shows the division in the character. We have to go beyond the words when teaching graphic novels.
AK: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?
CLC: Persepolis by far. To get students to connect with Marjane is a boon! They see very quickly that being a teenager is similar in Iran and they develop empathy with her early on. I believe it is one of the most teachable texts out there, and I use it as the last text in many of my courses.
AK: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built in to your curriculum for the upcoming semesters?
CLC: Well, this might be cheating, but the first collected volume of Bitch Planet. It is a comic, but once collected it reads like a novel. I teach it in my women and violence course. The diversity of story lines makes it a quick read. Students love it.
AK: For college professors looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?
CLC: Persepolis and Maus are my go-to texts. Still. They have endured well and students enjoy them.
AK: And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?
CLC: I adore Alison Bechdel. Are You My Mother? took my breath away. Fun Home of course is loved by everyone, and seeing it on Broadway with students was a highlight for me. I am in the middle of The Arab of the Future. I am taking my time with it. I wish I could just read all day long, but I have many other roles. I cannot wait to read Becoming Unbecoming, but I need to treat myself to it first!
To join the converstaion, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Clemens is an Associate Professor of Non-Western Literatures and the Director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. Dr. Clemens’s research explores representations of Islamic veiling in literature and popular culture, Feminist memoir, and women and violence. Some of her published works include “’Imagine Us in the Act of Reading’: A Resistant Reading of Reading Lolita in Tehran,” in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, “Suicide Girls”: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary Turkey,” in Feminist Formations (formerly The National Women’s Studies Association Journal), which will also be reprinted in Turkish in a collection compiled by Pamuk’s Turkish publisher YKY in 2015, and “Listening to the World: The Importance of Postcolonial Texts in the Secondary Classroom,” in Plural Space.