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  • Writer's pictureDani Kachorsky

Reading and creating graphic novel memoirs with Dr. Sean P. Connors

Updated: Apr 1


In this episode of Reading in the Gutter, Dani hosts Dr. Sean P. Connors from the University of Arkansas to discuss reading and creating graphic novel memoirs. Sean shares his experiences teaching a college course focused on graphic novel memoirs, as well as culminating experiences in which students draft their own comic book style memoirs.


A portrait photo of Sean. P. Connors, the guest for this episode. He is a middle aged white male, wearing a button up dress shirt and suit jacket.

Sean P. Connors is an associate professor of English education at the University of Arkansas. His scholarship and teaching focuses on comics and graphic novels and the application of diverse critical perspectives to Young Adult literature. He is the editor of The Politics of Panem: Challenging Genres, a collection of critical essays about the Hunger Games series, and co-editor of Teaching Girls on Fire: Essays on Dystopian Young Adult Literature in the Classroom.


 

Note: The following transcript has been edited for coherence. Excessive "ums", unnecessary "likes”, and the like, have been removed for your convenience. Fragmented sentences and missing words have been edited to make the podcast transcript more readable.


[Opening Music]


Dani Kachorsky

Hi everyone, and welcome back to Reading in the Gutter, a podcast that tries to bridge the gap between comics and education. We are here today with Dr. Sean P. Connors. He is an associate professor of English at the University of Arkansas, but he is going to share a little bit about himself and the work that he's doing around comics and memoirs. So Sean, thank you so much for being on the show today.


[00:00:32]


Sean P. Connors

Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to talk with you and I appreciate this opportunity.


I'm a former high school English teacher, kind of a journeyman teacher, in that I taught all over the country. I started my career teaching in New York State, and I later taught for a year on the Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona in a place called Tuba City, and then finished my teaching career in Flagstaff, Arizona at Coconino High School. And then later, I went to the Ohio State University to do my graduate work and sort of rediscovered my love of comics and graphic novels and began to acquire new ways of thinking about them and thinking about teaching them. My work at the University of Arkansas largely involves teaching courses on graphic narrative and on young adult literature through the lenses of different critical theories.


Dani

Awesome. Yeah, I noticed a couple of books that you've edited that have some Hunger Games, kind of tongue in cheek wordplay going on there, Politics of Panem and Teaching Girls on Fire. I've read the second one and I really appreciate it. So, thank you.


Sean

Thank you.


Dani

So we are talking specifically--you have a course that is a graphic novel memoirs class, and I am going to be doing a unit on memoir here early in the semester, so I am thrilled to pick your brain a little bit. I've recently seen--I cannot remember the woman's name, I'll have to look it up--she presented, a high school teacher who presented, on a memoir unit that she does with graphic novels at LRA last year. It seems like memoir is just kind of a big thing in graphic novels these days. So, how did you land on this as a course topic? How did this come to be? What inspired you?


[00:02:32]


Sean

That's a great question. [I'll] maybe fill the rest of the podcast answering this, but I started teaching, when I got to the University of Arkansas, there were no courses on graphic narrative, and I started working with the English department there and we put up a course on graphic novels, and I taught it for three years, maybe. And it was always really well received by the students, but I never felt like I got teaching it right. And I think one of the issues that I had with it is that it was very much like a literature course. We would read graphic novels. We would discuss them in class. We would think analytically about them and thematically about them. The students would make one comic during the course, but pretty much it was very much focused on analysis. And so I decided to hit a pause on it.


Around the same time, I was thinking about the fact that so many of the texts, as you know, so many of the texts that college and high school and middle school students consume are multimodal and heavily reliant on the visual. I was thinking about the fact that in my teaching career and certainly at a university, students have relatively few opportunities to think deeply and over a longer period of time about how those texts make meaning and how they make meaning as readers when they're interacting with those texts.


And then also around the time that I left teaching in Flagstaff, we were beginning to see the introduction of, at the time the Arizona Instrument for Measuring Learning*, which was the standards, right? And the standardized tests, even as early as 2004, you could see how that push to standardize exams was really beginning to have what I would characterize as a deadening effect on school and on student learning. Whereas the first part of my career, I'd had space for a lot of creativity as a teacher. And I saw myself losing that and losing that. And I've really begun to see that with the students that I'm working with now at the university where they're very much, "Tell me what I need to do. Tell me how I need to do it. And if you give me those parameters, I can be comfortable. But if you broaden them or you ask me to kind of think outside of the box..." They get really anxious.


[00:04:58]


And then another thing is I read an article by Carolyn Kyler, it's an older article I think she had published in 2010, and it's called "Mapping a Life: Reading and Looking at Contemporary Graphic Memoir." One of the things that she talks about in that article is this drift in graphic storytelling toward personal stories and especially stories of trauma. And when you think about--when you get beyond superhero comics and you think about what are the big name texts that people are going to be familiar with, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, right? Memoir.



And then all of that was kind coinciding, and then the pandemic hit. And I, like everyone else, had my own share of trauma. I used that period where we were all stuck home finishing up the school year--and then that summer--I used that period to really rethink what I wanted to do with this comics course. And I came back in the Fall of 2021 with, I guess it would've been Fall of 2020, with this young adult graphic memoir course.


Dani

That's fascinating. It struck me when you said, "Moving beyond the superhero perception of comics as a medium." And one of the things I think is really interesting about the time period that we're living in--because we have the history of comics: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and then there's some debate about where the Modern Age and the Dark Ages start or end or whether or not they have ended at all. But I definitely see a distinction from when I was a reader of comics in high school and what is available now. There's just so much more, so many different genres, so much more content. It's not all superheroes. And this memoir trend, I think, is one of the more robust trends in the medium and in graphic novels in particular.


The other thing that struck me: You talked about trauma. So do you think that this is maybe something that reading the graphic novel memoir is more relatable to folks these days, especially post pandemic?


[00:07:31]


Sean

I do think that they are, and I think... Even thinking about the fact that when we're reading a graphic novel... What makes it unique from reading a novel? Many things, but one of them is, I think, and my students will talk about this, you're seeing the mark that this person's made on a paper and you're seeing their, not imagining, but their understanding, their efforts to work through things that they've dealt with and the process of going through them. I think it gives those texts a sense of immediacy that maybe we don't necessarily experience in the same way with print. I think also just the act of making them, telling our own stories in this form can be also really impactful.


If you think about how we dealt with the pandemic, I don't want to digress, but think about how we dealt with the pandemic in this country. Our lives, all of our lives were disrupted in such an extreme way. I alluded to feeling the trauma, and many of us really did feel the trauma of that experience. And what did we do? We kind of came back and said, "Okay, it's over. Let's all go back to our lives." We've never really had time to process that or think about that. So when I came back with the course in Fall 2020 or whatever year it was, that was part of my thinking is: We're going to use this medium and this time we have together to sort of process our experience with the pandemic and tell our stories about it.


[00:09:01]


Dani

Awesome. So what does the course look like then? It sounds like maybe there's some comics creation involved, but where do you start? How do you get to the end sort of a thing?


Sean

Yeah, so it's very much a blend of reading graphic memoir and discussing graphic memoir, and then, experimenting with making our own comics. So thinking about the class, I'm just pulling my notes. I made some notes to give you a sense of what it looks like.


The first four weeks tends to be me doing two things: challenging the assumptions that a lot of the students will bring to the class about what comics and graphic memoirs are and what they can do, but also getting them comfortable with the prospect of drawing. If you were in the class, and the first night when I tell them, "The good news is you're not going to write any papers in this course at all. The bad news is you're going to do a lot of drawing." You can almost feel like a palpable wave of fear, which is really interesting, go through the class. So the first few weeks are just getting comfortable with drawing and simple spontaneous drawings and just having fun with it. Then at the same time, we're reading graphic memoir, we're talking about issues they raised, but we're also thinking about what does the author do that we find interesting visually or from a design standpoint.



Then around week five, we start to make a turn toward what Shari Tishman called Slow Looking. Like really attending, in granular detail, design of these texts. We'll start to ask questions like: What do you notice and what do you think it might mean? As we have these conversations, we'll start to build a metalanguage, what the New London Group calls a metalanguage for talking about visual stories. So, we'll have things like the way an author uses a line to guide our attention or our eye through a panel or across a page, we'll think about perspectives that are being used, angles that are being used and why, what the artists might be trying to accomplish.


From there, again, continuing to read and talk about these books. From that point, we'll start to think about them from a design standpoint and think about if we can move beyond the visual writ large and the written text. Can we think about design conventions that the artists are employing, the storytellers [are] employing to make meaning? All of that sort of leads us toward the penultimate part of the course, which is usually around mid-October through the end of the course. We start working on finding a pandemic story that we can tell and then homing in on a small piece of that story that we can really blow up and stand out and explore.


[00:12:07]


Dani

Wow, I like that progression, kind of grounding it in mentor texts, getting to know that genre really well. Then thinking about it [like]a reader, but then moving into an authorship standpoint. I really liked that phrase, the slow looking, a play on slow reading. I have found that that is probably one of the most powerful things we can have readers do with comics and graphic novels, just because we spend so much time training elementary school students out of looking. It's like you graduate to prose. You start with pictures, and then you graduate, so you have to relearn this process. I hear all the time from people, "Oh, it is a comic. I can get through it in five minutes."--kind of a thing. That's really quick. It can be certainly, but I would suggest that you probably aren't spending the time to really look at what's there on the page. Do you find that that's the case with some of your students?


Sean

Oh, absolutely. A lot of the students that I'm working with, not all, a lot of them are coming through English programs. They're English literature students. So it's interesting because they'll come to class, usually around the third week, and they'll start to say, "I'm starting to realize that I'm reading the words, but I'm not really looking at the pictures. I'm starting to realize I'm missing a lot from that." I think your points are really good ones: how much--maybe because it's our dominant that we're constantly having to rely on so heavily--but how much of the world do we ever really see? We're looking at things, but what do we actually see? And I think with comics, that's an interesting question because there is a tendency to think it's a simplistic genre, it's talking heads, and as you said, we can move through them really, really quickly. But if you really do slow down, like Tishman argues, and you take the time to look, you can really appreciate layers of meaning and complexity there.


 I recently came across a line, I think it was by Ovid, where he wrote, "True art--" I'm try to remember. "True art is to conceal art." Right? There's all these layers of complexity in graphic memoir that unless we're attentive to what it is the author's really doing, we miss. And it takes out so much the richness of the experience of reading them.


[00:14:44]


Dani

I think you have to imagine the amount of time it takes to produce these artifacts and to, I don't know, blow through one in maybe an hour or two in an afternoon almost does the narrative a disservice because there is so much detail and there's so much depth and so much consideration that they took before putting this thing on the page.


Sean

Absolutely.


Dani

You mentioned some of your students, that are coming from an English program background, struggling to attend to those images. Were there other challenges that you encountered in teaching the class?


Sean

As I mentioned, definitely getting students accustomed to, feeling safe, being vulnerable, with drawing in particular. I'll say drawing. It's really sad, I think. I'm sure you see this as a teacher. When we're kids--I talk about this with my students--when we're kids, we draw, we write, we dance, we sing, we make Play-Doh sculptures, we do all of this stuff that's art before we ever know that it's called art or this thing, art, exists. But then we get into school and by the time, as you mentioned earlier, by the time we get into what third, fourth grade, this emphasis, especially on the visual starts to fall away. It becomes, well, let's go from picture books to chapter books. Our textbooks, the inclusion of images begins to fall away a little bit and become more reliant on print. And so by the time my students wind up in a college classroom, they've really internalized this narrative that they can't draw. I say to them, "It's not true because you were doing this. You were doing this. It's there to be rediscovered." I think one of the challenges is just getting them comfortable with the drawing, and we do a lot of... I would say we don't even begin to get into representational art in the course until maybe the fourth or the fifth assignment. Early on, it's just playing with shapes, playing with non-representational art, doing simple little characters like the Ivan Brunetti basic shapes--circular hats, square/triangular bodies--just to kind of get comfortable and for them to be able to set that aside their fear and their anxiety a little bit.



[00:17:25]


Dani

We had Daryl Axelrod on for a previous episode talking about digital comics. If you have students that are really uncomfortable with the drawing, do you offer other types of opportunities? I'm thinking with the advent of AI recently you can go in there and type what you want it to look like, which I think will present its own challenges, but are there other considerations that you've thought of?


Sean

I used to do that. I would tell them, "If you want take photos and do a photo comic, you can." And then I stopped and I'm sure there are people who will disagree. Now, I insist that they try to draw. And the reason I do--a lot of my students are future teachers, the people who want to teach--and I tell them, "You know what? You are comfortable with writing. You're anxious about drawing. You're comfortable with writing, and you're comfortable with writing because you're, generally speaking, good at it and you've been successful as you've gone through the school system. But a lot of students are going to walk in your classroom, they're not going to feel comfortable with the writing." And I tell them, "This is a chance for us to experience what many of our students will feel like when they're asked to do something that they might feel anxious about and they're being asked to take a risk." So I start with them there. And as I said, generally I find that once they realize the expectation isn't that you're doing realism, the expectation early on is that you're playing with just simple shapes to create images. But also I think de-emphasizing the product from the very beginning of the course and emphasizing the process of making, the process of making comics, plays a large role in putting them more at ease with drawing.


[00:19:16]


Dani

That's a really good point. I love that idea of putting yourself, as a teacher, in a vulnerable space so that you can empathize better with your students because typically we pick subject areas in which we have some sort of expertise to teach. I am not teaching a PE class, for instance, because that is not my wheelhouse. So having to take a step back and put yourself in that vulnerable position so that you can recognize that your kids are not all going to be super comfortable in that space, I think is really important.


Let's see. I had a thought and I've since lost it. Maybe it'll come back to me.


Thinking about-- You've been doing this for a little while now.


Sean

Right.


Dani

So you've kind of gotten through some iterations. Do you have advice or recommendations for people who maybe want to do a memoir unit with graphic novels or teach a class? We do elective classes at my high school, so this is something that could feasibly happen in a semester. Where would you recommend people start?


Sean

You know, one of the things that I might recommend is... I tell teachers often, "Don't shy away from teaching comics because you are uncomfortable with them." Again, because many of our students are going to be uncomfortable with the discipline area that we're very comfortable with. But the other thing I think is really important is for us to model for students our own willingness to take risks, to be vulnerable, to fail, but to learn from that failure. I mentioned this class being birthed in part out of my sense of how the standards and standardized exams were sort of sucking the creative creativity outside of the classroom. I'm sure there'll be a lot of people who disagree with me, but in many ways we've created a generation of young people who see failure as something to be avoided at all costs. I can understand that to some extent, but we know we learn from failure. We know we learn from risk taking, and it's kind of getting up and dusting yourself off and learning from it. So I think that for teachers, don't shy away from it because you're uncomfortable.


[00:21:36]


The second thing that I might recommend is that you don't necessarily need to teach a class on comics or even a full blown unit. I'm sure you talk on your podcast about how we conceptualize comics. And if we conceptualize it as Scott McCloud says, as a medium that we can use to represent our ideas to communicate information, then we can kind of move beyond where does this fit in the curriculum? Thinking in terms of where are there multiple footholds that we could find in the curriculum to bring comics into the classroom. For example, when I work with math teachers and science teachers, and they're usually like, "Where in the world would I ever use comics?" Well, have your students do a one page comic or a four panel comic in which they have to explain a principle or a concept in your discipline to an audience or challenge them to draw, if you teach vocabulary, challenge them to draw a single panel comic in which they illustrate the word they're being expected to learn because we know that combining a writing and the visuals is more likely to increase the retention of the word. I think finding where are the footholds that we can do this work?


Then, I think most importantly, and I mentioned this a moment ago, but deemphasizing the value we place on the product itself and instead focusing students' attention on the process. So when I grade memoirs that my students create, if let's say the memoir is worth a hundred points, the final memoir, let's say it's worth a hundred points, 15 or 20 of those points might have to do with the design of the comic as I see it on the page, my ability to follow the story. The other 75 or 80 points are coming from their ability to articulate the logic behind the design. Why did they make these choices? What were they trying to convey? What did they struggle with and what solutions did they come up as a workaround for that meaning-making challenge that they were facing? And then most importantly, what did they learn? That's a question we continually come back to. What did you learn about making comics and visual storytelling as a result of engaging in this exercise? Because I think that's where the real learning is. That's what I want them to walk away from the course. I want them to be proud of the comics they made, of course, but I really want them to walk away with the more strategic, intentional thinking about how they create visual text and about how they read and interpret visual text.


[00:24:31]


Dani

So that end product then, if you're kind of evaluating their logic and their process, what does that look like? So they're submitting something, but are they then presenting as well, or do they write a paper? What does that look like?


Sean

I started, the first semester I taught this process, I started with: They would write a short artist statement, and then somewhere halfway through the course, it took unfortunately one of the students to say, "It's interesting. We're in a visual storytelling class, but you're having us write our analysis." And I was like, "Oh, darn. Okay, rats." So I got to rethink that.


What I've done is I now: They'll submit their comic, whatever exercises, or final graphic memoir, and I always have them record 10 to 15 minute artist statement on their phone in which they explain what the vision was for the project, how they approached trying to bring their vision to fruition. As I mentioned, challenges they faced and the workarounds they came up with as well as aspects of the design that they're proud of. And then again, always at the end, what did you come to understand about making comics or to appreciate about visual storytelling as a result of taking on this exercise? Then, they will post the comic along with that audio online so that I'm able to go on and read the comic and then look at it a second time while I'm listening to them unpack and analyze it.


[00:26:17]


Dani

Yeah, no, that's a smart kid there, a smart student who is like, "You know, this might not be the best medium."


Sean

Kind of one of those.


Dani

That's hilarious.


Something else you said a little bit earlier struck me: This idea of the medium being... It's a medium and it's a way of communicating. So this isn't something that's just for, I don't know, fictional storytelling. The image that came to mind is in an airplane, the card that's in the backseat, that's a comic even. So the power of these tools, not just to tell memoirs, but also as an informational text to just convey process information. I think that's a really important thing, maybe especially for different types of content area teachers to remember. Reading a memoir might not fit into your curriculum, but comics can. There's different ways to do this. I'm thinking maybe you could illustrate a physics concept and it might make more sense to illustrate it visually than to try to explain it through words. I think that's a really important point that you made earlier. Thank you for sharing that.


Sean

Absolutely. One of my favorite comics was that I had a student make was an in-service elementary school teacher, and they did a series of four panel comics on how do animals, how do different animals stay warm and cold conditions? And that was something they wanted to go back and have their students do, and it was really fantastic. How does a bird stay warm in the Arctic as opposed to a polar bear?


[00:28:05]


Dani

Sure.


Sean

So yeah, I mean really if you think about it, if you think of it in terms of being comparable to writing, we don't just use writing to tell short stories and novels. We use it for a whole range of purposes depending on what it is we need to do in a given context. If we think about comics that way, there's really no reason that they can't have a space in all of the disciplines.




Dani

Yeah, remember there's a comic that was made, I forget the name of the group, but it was during the civil rights movement for how to engage in nonviolent protests. It was like an instruction manual. I think there are these little examples through history. I know in World War II they used comics to help the troops know how to take care of their shoes and things like that so they didn't get trenched foot. So yeah, [its] such a vibrant and viable medium for communication.


[00:29:03]


Sean

Yeah, absolutely.


Dani

Alright, we are getting pretty close to the end of our time here, so I think we will transition into recommendations. So any graphic novels that you're reading right now that you think people should check out? We're talking about teaching memoir, so any resources you think would be useful to people who want to do this sort of thing themselves?


Sean

Yeah, I just recently finished Malaka Gharib's second graphic memoir. Her first was called I Was Their American Dream, and it was about her father, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt, and her mother, who immigrated from the Philippines and they met, I believe, in Los Angeles. It's about her experience growing up in a immigrant family, but also identifying racially, ethnically in a couple of different ways. She has a new one that's called, It Won't Always be Like This, and I really like it a lot. It's about her experience. Her parents ultimately divorced and father returned to Egypt and he remarried. It's about a series of summers over the course of her lifetime returning to Egypt and how her understanding of the culture and also the experience of women within the culture changes as she matures and comes of age.



One thing I want to plug her work in particular: I always start my course with one of her two texts. This year we're going to read that new one, It Won't Always be Like This. And the reason I do so, if you're familiar with her art, it's incredibly simple. It's incredibly simple. Her characters had like that basically [inaudible]. And right away from the beginning, I'll say to students, "Can you not draw this? We will draw our characters." "Yeah, we can draw this." Right? So you don't have to be Rembrandt to make comics.


Other ones that I'm really excited about, let's see. One that my students--I taught it for the first time this past fall, and I didn't know, I wasn't sure how my students would receive it and they loved it. It was Tyler Feder's Dancing at the Pity Party.


Dani

Oh, I've heard of that one.


[00:31:12]


Sean

Have you heard of it? It's really quite good. And maybe they resonated because she's very close with her mom in the story, and right around the time she's leaving to go to college, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and she winds up losing her mom, I think, at the beginning of her sophomore year of college. It's about her struggles to cope with the grief and that loss. That wound up being a surprise. That was one that almost all of the students said really impacted and really allowed them to virtually be in that experience alongside her.



And then another one I'm going to teach, I just read it this summer, is Dan Santat's A First Time for Everything, which is a memoir about a trip he took with a class at school in middle school to Europe. I think they went to Germany in particular to learn more about German culture. It was the first time he falls in love and has his heart broken on the trip. And it's a more, overall, it's touching, but it's also funny, and I thought it brilliantly captures how awkward those middle school years for all of us, how awkward and uncomfortable those years are.



Dani

Sure. The second book you were talking about is interesting. This idea that sometimes you don't expect it to resonate so much with students. I had that experience this past year with a graphic novel memoir, Hey, Kiddo.


Sean

Oh yeah.


Dani

That was an option for a book club for students, and they didn't have to read a memoir. It was just one of the options. And I didn't expect them to take that one up. I expected other books to be much more, I don't know, interesting or resonant to students, but everyone who picked that particular book seemed to really engage with it and connect with it, even if they hadn't had a personal experience that aligned with Jarrett's. It brought a much more empathetic experience for them than I was expecting.


[00:33:42]


Sean

Yeah, it's really amazing how that happens. And then even from year to year, some years it may be one book really resonates. I mean, the next year another group will just really pick something else. It's really fascinating.


I was going to say, as far as non-graphic novels, I read this just at the beginning of the summer. It's Ronald Beghetto's, Beautiful Risks. He's at Arizona State and he researches creativity.


Dani

Oh, interesting.


Sean

It's about--the book is Beautiful Risks--having the courage to teach and learn creatively. I think he offers some really practical advice for teachers about how to approach supporting students creative thinking and creativity in the classroom without sort of putting parameters in place that limit their ability to be creative.


And then from memoir, I just got a copy of Natalie Goldberg's Old friend from Far Away, which is really, I'm finding it really helpful. She offers just a lot of exercises, short writing exercises that are designed to help you find stories to tell, and then how to hone in on those pieces of those stories and blow them up for a larger story, longer story.



And then the final one is The Art of the Graphic Memoir by Tom Hart who's a cartoonist. And he does a really good job of walking through, thinking about designing characters all the way to how do we structure a story that will hold reader's interest, how we write dialogue. So that's really useful as well.


[00:35:31]


Dani

Wonderful. Well, we are just about at time here. I wanted to thank you, Sean, for coming on the show. I really appreciate you being here. And thank you for all the wonderful ideas and resources that you've shared.


Sean

Thank you. I love that you're doing this and resurrecting the podcast for teachers. We certainly need more advocates for the medium.


Dani

I hear you, brother.


 

[End Credits]


For information about Reading in the Gutter and resources related to comics and education, visit our website www.readinginthegutter.com, or follow us on Instagram @readinginthegutter.


Special thanks to our guests for their contributions to this show. For information about or to contact our guests and contributors, please visit the episode transcript on our website.


Reading in the Gutter is a podcast that is produced in a personal capacity. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent those of their affiliated institutions.


Post-production for this podcast is provided by Dan Perrine. Our intro and outro music are provided by the Alibi Music Library and licensed through PodcastMusic.com.


 

Show Notes & Corrections


*The standardized test Sean refers to at minute 00:04:13 was called the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards.

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