Graphic novel course explores oft-ignored literary genre
By Shannon Draucker
Published on Wednesday, May 12, 2010
While many Dartmouth students are studying works of the traditional canon in their English courses this term, the 47 students enrolled in English 67.5 have the opportunity to study a more unorthodox literary form: the graphic novel, more affectionately known as the comic book. The course, titled “The Graphic Novel” and held at the 2A hour, is taught by English professor Michael Chaney.
The class, like all other English classes in the 60s, is a special topics course. Chaney described the benefits of the 67 course number, a designation reserved for special topics courses dealing specifically with subject matter from the start of the 20th century onward in an interview with The Dartmouth.
“The 67 is just a great way to satisfy the needs of professors and students. The special topics courses allow professors to cultivate special interests that exceed the general course offerings,” Chaney said. He explained that he has taught “The Graphic Novel” at Dartmouth once before, five years ago, in addition to teaching several first-year seminars with similar subject matter.
The graphic novel class this term is made up of a wide variety of students from a diverse background of majors and class years, according to Chaney. While some students are seeking to fulfill requirements for the English major or creative writing concentration by taking the class, others simply have a “passion for the material,” Chaney said.
Julissa Llosa ’10, who is double majoring in women’s and gender studies and studio art, cited the course’s emphasis on reading visual images as one of her favorite components of the class.
“This is one of the most important classes at Dartmouth because it teaches you visual literacy, which is something Dartmouth really emphasizes, through the Hood Museum, for example,” Llosa said.
Chaney said his interest in the comic book genre developed early in his life, and he attributes his decision to pursue a career in literature to his passion for graphic novels.
“I am an English professor because I was interested in comics,” Chaney said. “Without comics, I would not have read anything at all. I was treating comic books like an English professor when I was 11 years old.”
Chaney began his official academic study of the graphic novel early in his career, teaching the comic book genre in culture and writing classes as a graduate student.
In Chaney’s current course on the graphic novel, students not only focus on elements such as plot, structure and character development, but also read the works from a theoretical point of view.
“We’ve read Lacan, Nietzsche, and Freud,” government major Katy Lindquist ’10 said. “My midterm paper talked about Plato. This class is really great because people are intellectually engaging with material that they otherwise wouldn’t.”
Chaney also stressed the importance of studying formal literary theories, such as psychoanalysis, post-modernism and post-structuralism.
“The texts we’ve been reading are endemic to scholarly conversation and framing what we’re talking about,” Chaney said.
To compile the course’s reading list, Chaney said he chose graphic novels that were written by popular authors or had been subject to academic criticism, citing Marjane Satrapi’s comic “Persepolis” and Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” — “a masterpiece of comics journalism,” according to Chaney — as texts he would always keep on the syllabus. This term, students have also read works by authors such as Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Joe Sacco and Daniel Clowes, among others.
Midway through the term, the students read James Sturm’s “Market Day,” which tells the story of a rug maker in early 20th century Eastern Europe, and had the opportunity to get the author’s perspective on the work when Sturm visited the class on Tuesday. An Upper Valley graphic novelist, Sturm is also the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a two-year Master of Fine Arts program based in White River Junction, Vt.
During his visit, Sturm spoke to the students about his writing process for “Market Day,” describing how he was very productive some days and experienced writer’s block at other times. In addition, Sturm discussed several issues in the comic book genre, including the need for historical accuracy, the relationship between art and commerce and the growing phenomenon of online readership. He also spoke of the value of an artistic career.
“If I don’t keep doing this, I won’t be able to go through the world in a grounded way,” Sturm told students. “The idea of the safe path is a complete fallacy. The most dangerous path is not serving yourself.”
Apart from Sturm’s visit, the class structure of “The Graphic Novel” is largely based on group presentations. Each class session, a different group of students is required to read a critical essay and prepare a close analysis of several “panels,” or comic strip drawings. The group members distribute discussion questions to the rest of the class to foster conversation about the text.
“The students have to take responsibility for their own education and teach the material to each other,” Chaney said, explaining his student-oriented classroom philosophy. “The learning that goes on here is electric, and I’m not at the center. It’s circulating throughout the room.”
Over the course of the term, students are required to submit three two-page panel analyses, as well as a six-page midterm paper and a final research paper. English majors who are taking this class to fulfill requirements for a creative writing concentration must also create two to three “mini-comics” throughout the term.
“That’s what I love about teaching at Dartmouth,” Chaney said. “There’s more of an emphasis on teaching as a form of exploration with the students. I would love to say the students are rising to the challenge, but they’re already there. If anyone’s rising, I think its me.”