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7 Posts authored by: Elizabeth Losh Expert

[This post originally published on February 28, 2012.]


Teaching history with comics is becoming increasingly common—the graphic novel’s richly illustrated form accommodates many important genres for traditional historians, including memoirs (such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), government documents (such as The 9/11 Report and Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy), and journalistic reporting in war zones (such as Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Safe Area GoraĹžde).


In my own course for first-year students, Media Seductions: Influence Theory from Plato to Battlefield 2, I use Cold War-era comics as a way to understand the larger history of moral panics about new media. Specifically, I want students to think about how new knowledge systems such as clinical psychology became recognized as academic disciplines in the twentieth century and how psychologists began to be considered authorities on the societal risks of media such as comics, television programs, and video games.


In a unit about gory and macabre horror comics of the 1950s, students focus on how visual representations put specific assumptions about conformity, delinquency, violence, sexual deviance, imitation, and representation on display. Mangled bodies, decaying corpses, and bloody internal organs grace almost every lurid page. And there is certainly plenty to shock contemporary sensibilities when it comes to picturing race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class, although politically subversive sentiments that support other kinds of stories are often depicted in these comics as well. (The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read by Jim Trombetta is a good anthology of horror comics, as is Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s by Greg Sadowski and John Benson.)


In an exercise in historical empathy, the prompt for the related writing assignment reads as follows:


In this assignment you will travel back in time to 1954 and write a letter to the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to discuss the merits of a particular comic book story. Rather than make a broad argument against censorship, you are expected to defend your story by emphasizing the sophistication and the subtleties of your comic book’s visual and verbal logic.

Students might choose a moral fable about the sexual power of women like Susan and the Devil, a parable about the relationship between government and the labor force like Corpses . . . Coast to Coast, a perverse tale about domesticity and hospitality like The Corpse That Came to Dinner, a parody of the twisted value systems of the art world like Art for Death’s Sake, a psychedelic exploration of visual cognition like Colorama, or stories about contemporary domestic violence or child neglect like The Strange Case of Henpecked Harry or Chef’s Delight.


With a little online research, students can find the text of the testimony before the Senate Subcommittee of both notorious EC comics publisher William Gaines and the psychologist and anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham. Exposés about the dangers of comic books from television specials and glossy magazines give further opportunities to explore the verbal and visual rhetoric of discourses about parenting from the 1950s.


Students more accustomed to citing textual quotations than visual details as evidence to support an argument may find this a challenging assignment. To help with close reading skills, the syllabus also includes Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics so students can work with specific features and techniques of the genre that enhance the characters’ psychology, the structure of the narrative, the reader’s experience of the time of the story, or the depiction of the world of the comic book as a spatial environment.

This semester I am teaching a comics and graphic novels course. As I often do when teaching about new media for the first time, I consulted the blog of one of my mentors for meaningful instruction, Henry Jenkins. In addition to posting a sample syllabus, Jenkins discussed the cost of graphic novels in comparison to more traditional print texts and offered a clever solution:

 A Word to the Wise: Comics are expensive, and we are going to be reading lots of them in this class, so my recommendation is that you form a buddy or club system, much as you did when you read comics when you were younger. Go in together with 2-3 people and swap off the comics, so you each carry a more reasonable part of the price.  

 In the spirit of Jenkins’ pragmatism about the needs of cost-conscious students who are already worrying about student loans and the job market, I thought I would compile some other ways to teach about comics while also keeping costs down.


Go Old School

Because comics have a long history as a medium, it is possible to take advantage of comics no longer under copyright because over seventy years have elapsed since the author’s death. I am particularly fond of assigning Little Nemo by Winsor McKay as a way to discuss panel design and color choices. Over 400 flippable pages from 1905 to 1914 are available as a digital collection at the Internet Archive. The dirigibles, exotic animals, and vast metropolises in Nemo’s dreamscapes are breathtaking. Classes can also critique the antiquated ideas about race and gender on display. This classic in comics history still feels fresh to students, and you can ask them to illustrate their own dreams as a class project.


See a Museum

Now that comics are more likely to be recognized as an art form, museums are mounting exhibitions and may also post some materials from past shows online. For example, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California, mounted Masters of American Comics a few years ago to enthusiastic crowds. The website for the exhibition includes a gallery of images that range from the days of yellow journalism to the millennial work of Chris Ware.


Peer at a Periodical

Speaking of Ware, some of his spreads for the New Yorker are available online, which offer opportunities to discuss how a cartoonist depicts everyday life and then chooses to organize scenes from the present moment into building blocks on the page. Ware’s view of the tech world is particularly incisive, whether he is illustrating commentary about specific companies (like Snapchat) or general group behavior at Silicon Valley-style conferences. For comparison, Ware’s New Yorker covers are also on display.


Dig a Digital Library  

Many campus libraries have licensed digital collections that can be useful to classes with comics and graphic novels assigned.  When I teach about the comics panic of the fifties over the possible effects of violent horror comics on young people, I love having access to the database for Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels Series from Alexander Street. Your campus library might already subscribe.


Watch Web Comics

Internet comics made available online for free can also be wonderful resources for classes about ways to read images as well as words. For example, Scott McCloud’s The Right Number zooms in through successive windows on the viewer’s screen as a bizarre tale of coincidence and romance unfolds. You can check out more of McCloud’s webcomics and see how he uses the seemingly infinite resource of pixelated space.

Collaboration is a key theme in the second edition of Understanding Rhetoric, and we devote an entirely new chapter to this important topic. So it was exciting to travel to Kennesaw State University in Georgia to see students in college composition class demonstrating many of the best practices we’ve identified.


As the academic year was getting off to a busy start, I noticed an email in my inbox from a person with an unfamiliar name: Matthew Tikhonovsky.

Dear Professor Losh,


My name is Matthew Tikhonovsky, and I am a student at Kennesaw State University. I am contacting you to inquire if there is a student committee that makes recommendations and suggestions for your textbook Understanding Rhetoric. Your wonderful textbook has been welcomed with open arms on the campus of KSU and is currently required reading in many first year English classes! Nevertheless, many students, myself included, believe that a student committee that offers students' perspective on rhetoric would be an invaluable resource for Understanding Rhetoric. I look forward to hearing back from you!



Matthew Tikhonovsky

Rhetorically this student was doing everything right in addressing a stranger at another institution!  The email was brief and to the point, adopted an appropriate tone, provided context, and made a reasonable request. I responded positively and expressed my enthusiasm for meeting with a student committee.


A few weeks later I found myself at Kennesaw State meeting with an amazing delegation of students. They were all from the project-based learning class of writer Christopher Martin in a course that encouraged them to use writing to change real-world conditions close to their own lives. 


Although Martin was the instructor, the students were clearly in charge of the session with me. They collaboratively authored a PowerPoint and matching handout and used graphic design to amplify their messages.


The team presentation was fluent and professional, perfect for communicating effectively with a guest author. I was impressed to see how tasks had been divided up to capitalize on every student’s expertise. Each student volunteer tackled a specific aspect of the textbook and offered practical suggestions for ways to make the third edition even more student-centered.


In addition to a flawless demonstration of the power of joining forces, the students modeled all of the advice we offer in Understanding Rhetoric about reading critically, using evidence to support an interpretation, getting beyond confrontational styles of argumentation, actively embracing revision, and making information more dynamic with visual appeals. The student journalists who attended also gave the exchange a rave review.


With company representatives available to answer questions about the publishing process, the students also learned a lot about how ideas get into print and about how much revision went into the first two editions of the book. I was happy to see that their overall evaluation of the book was quite positive.


I look forward to keeping in touch with this great group of writers and communicators. Just before Winter Break Matthew came to my campus to present his findings at the William and Mary Writing Resources Center on the campus where I teach. Using empirical methods, he is now conducting undergraduate research with a faculty mentor in psychology to examine his research question about how words alone and words with related visuals compare when it comes to retaining information about principles for good writing. Matthew’s experiment also uses a control sample with words and unrelated visuals.  Now he’s a great exemplar for the research chapter too!   


Recently I joined an international group of scholars who are exploring how traditional strategies for making meaning from the world through representation are being supplanted by new approaches that emphasize simulation. Of course, simulation often gets a bad name because techniques of simulation are assumed to alienate people further from real life concerns, and technologies like gaming and virtual reality are assumed to distract and confuse their audiences with illusions. However, simulation is increasingly important in the sciences to model complex systems and interactions and to understand complicated phenomena occurring in real time like global climate change.


Contemporary digital curators and artists are now creating computer screen simulations that emulate the processes of reading, writing, and researching. For example, MIT professor Fox Harrell created an interactive simulation that showed an email inbox and composing screen for an imagined human resources manager at “Grayscale,” an imaginary tech company. The simulation helped people understand how ambivalent sexism might produce workplace harassment by exploring the story and its multiple endings that are dependent on the user’s action. Similarly, the Salman Rushdie Digital Archive profiled by the New York Times displayed how the famed writer might have navigated files on his Macintosh computer workstation with an “exact replica” in an “emulated environment.” In the Rushdie archive at Emory University, the user can role play as an author poking around desktop folders, sticky notes, drafts of a novel in progress, and even the contents of a virtual wastebasket.


In Understanding Rhetoric we largely relied on representational approaches to teaching people to become better readers and writers. The fact that we used a comic-book format that depicted Jonathan and I as cartoon characters was a strategic choice. We even differentiated the representational approach of using hand-drawn figures from other possible representational approaches like photography in our introduction that discussed the topic of visual literacy. In other words, to teach reading and writing, we depended on abstract symbols that may have been less vivid and interactive than a 3D digital world or a constantly shifting simulation created with computational media that could react to the actions of a user or player.


Obviously using images rather than just plain text alone was intended to do more showing and less telling in bringing rhetorical situations to life. As Scott McCloud has argued, visual communication sometimes benefits from a more iconic approach that allows people to more easily imagine themselves occupying particular roles.


With our new feature, “Walk the Talk,” we hope that the game-like page spread will suggest more ways that instructors and students can incorporate more simulation and role play in the process of learning to become more effective readers, researchers, and writers. Although the board games we show are designed with a single path, we know that the process of composing often branches in many directions. And often new directions for communication and publication can emerge over time.


For example, in Understanding Rhetoric we showed part of a research paper written by a student who had traveled to a university archive and then to the Japanese American National Museum to understand how her family members had created traditional crafts from recycled materials in the Poston internment camp during World War II.  Recently the Smithsonian Museum of American History opened a new exhibit called Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II that included artifacts similar to the bird ornaments produced by her grandparents. The exhibit explains that “to combat the boredom of their forced leisure, many inmates learned new skills through classes taught by fellow prisoners.” Today that student’s research journey might have included more kinds of online research.



The phrase “walk the walk” suggests an admonition in favor of doing rather than saying or showing rather than telling, since it is generally opposed to “talk the talk” in colloquial English. To walk a walk is to reenact a vivid experience and to follow closely in someone’s footsteps in the manner of simulation rather than representation. By asking students to “walk the talk” we demonstrate that rhetoric mixes doing and saying, showing and telling, and performing and composing. You might also ask students to “talk the walk” as they look at the trajectories of the writing process and critically reflect about the paths not taken.

The gap between the study of comics and the study of serious literature within academia has been shrinking in recent years, as campuses include more graphic novels in their first-year composition courses and in “one book” programs.  The “highbrow”/”lowbrow” divide has also been diminishing as works in comics format win prestigious literary prizes and rave reviews.  This year at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association a dozen sessions were devoted to panels on comics and graphic novels, including a panel held in a guarded room about the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirically depicting the prophet Mohammed.


For those teaching writing courses, the session I participated in on Developments in Comics Pedagogy drew a particularly lively crowd, despite its early morning slot on the first day of the conference.  The panel had been organized by Derek McGrath of Stony Brook University, who has been championing comics in his regional MLA NEMLA for many years.  You can read the way he frames the session here: Primer for “Developments in Comics Pedagogy.”


McGrath opened the session with a discussion of two-way communication with fans that seems to be central to the cultural conversation about manga, comics produced in Japan or in the style of Japanese comics. He noted that the process of “scanlation” encourages rich forms of engagement in which readers of comics may develop or enhance story lines as they participate in the scanning, translation, and editing of comics from one language into another language, as in the case of an issue from Soul Eater. He also talked about the way that comics functioned as “tangible objects,” even as the rise of e-books might dematerialize the text.


Co-organizer Keith McCleary of the University of California, San Diego, showed several impressive examples of comics developed by his students, and he emphasized how instructors needed to manage the “high anxiety” that students have about performing as artists and how digital retracing and other computational tools might assist students worried about reproducing unrealistically dexterous production.  Those interested in McCleary’s comics pedagogy can check out his online teaching portfolio, which is packed with prompts and examples. He also chortled about his own naiveté in underestimating “the very strong political feelings that they had” and the frankness of opinions that students might express, even about superhero comics like Batwoman: Elegy and Marvel’s Civil War:   “I thought we would be on the same page.” But he acknowledged that comics helped them engage in more substantive political debate and grapple with real disagreements more than they might otherwise.  McCleary warned that too often college courses assigned the same “politically correct” memoirs in graphic novel formats, which might enforce uniformity in classroom discussion.


Nick Sousanis of the University of Calgary continued the theme of ameliorating student fears, particularly among undergraduates who might identify as “non-drawers.”  Sousanis has been getting a lot of attention of late for his innovative graphic dissertation, Unflattening, which is now available from Harvard University Press.  He has been praised by luminaries such as Cathy Davidson for producing a document pointing toward avenues for completely reinventing the deliverables of a Ph.D., and by Andrea Lunsford for advancing multimodal composition.  Like McCleary, Sousanis showed the prolific work of his own students, particularly as a venue for health graphics, including a publication-worthy comic on depression.   He noted that emphasizing a full range of narrative techniques could be important and praised Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story as a useful pedagogical graphic text.  In talking about the value of sketch notes and visual analysis and annotation, he also showed the results of assigned exercises for using tracing paper atop a comics layout as a way to demonstrate graphically “how much they can notice.”  As an instructor, he characterized his task as helping students to “figure out what they don’t know that they know.”


Susan E. Kirtley of Portland State University described some of the unique challenges that she faced as an administrator developing the PSU post-baccalaureate Certificate in Comic Studies and her successes recruiting faculty from multiple disciplines to teach elective courses such as Jewish comics or manga that rounded out a curriculum requiring rigorous preparation in theory and history.  She observed that participation from the local comics community had also enriched the program.  Kirtley also laughed about a student initially querying if “you want to get fired?” She credited the program’s continued good health to “speaking the administrative language” and navigating “the sheer amount of red tape,” as well as benefiting from wise counsel from peers in similar positions championing the academic value of comics, such as Ben Saunders of the University of Oregon.


Maria Elsy Cardona of Saint Louis University talked about teaching Spanish literature with comics and the benefits of advertising courses with disarming cartoons.  In addition to using comics as a means to introduce students to Spanish Literature, she uses comics to address difficult issues of social justice such as gender discrimination.  In her course "Between Laughter and Tears, Gender Stereotypes in Spanish Comics"—a cross-listed course with the Department of Women and Gender Studies at SLU—she uses Spanish comics to talk about issues of gender discrimination. The course, thus, looks at gender inequality both at the local and the global level.


As an expert in children’s literature, Joe Sutliff Saunders talked about the value of a comparative exercise with comics and picture books in a graduate course. He noted the value of teaching a comics course not firmly within the established body of knowledge, but at the edge of disciplinary exploration.  Eventually he dedicated a whole course to examining comics and picture books alongside each other and asking how the theory of each illuminated the other. 


Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam of the University of Michigan, who has taught writing with Understanding Rhetoric, described a variety of uses for comic books in the college classroom.  She argued that teaching history with comics could be an extremely effective way to use them pedagogically, particularly in the case of covering photographic and visual representations of the Holocaust.  Like Cardona, she has used comics for teaching a foreign language, and like Sousanis and McCleary she has found herself attending to lowering classroom anxiety about artistic competence.  She plugged the online software package Pixton as a helpful tool and distributed one of her own comics to attendees.


In the question and answer portion of the panel there was a wide-ranging discussion that covered everything from questions about assessment (and a possible answer in contract grading) to questions about containing textbook costs.  Of course, given the intensive review and production processes of traditional textbooks, there can be plenty of sticker shock to go around. Given this lively panel, I am pleased to have McCleary on board for the instructors’ manual of the forthcoming edition of Understanding Rhetoric.

This blog was originally posted on March 6th, 2015.


A few months ago Nick Carbone pointed out one of the most interesting and sophisticated examples of student work that I’ve ever seen in a graphic novel format, “What is Engineering?”  by Mallory “Mel” Chua, who blogs at


In a Skype interview, Chua provided some of the context that inspired her to create this dazzling graphic essay. “Visual rhetoric is something I can’t stop doing. I’ve been a visual thinker for a long time. I wanted to be an art major in high school, but my parents wanted me to study engineering instead. Fortunately, I liked it… and now I draw comics about engineering, so that worked out.” Chua has no formal art training, but has been informally experimenting with graphical communication for many years; a scan of her high school physics class notes shows a similar comic-book sketch style:

During her years in industry, Chua used her visual skills to insert herself into team conversations. “I would be the first to go to the whiteboard and start sketchnoting what we were doing, and people would start telling me things and explaining things because they wanted me to draw them. It was a strategy to keep myself in the loop, to get people to teach me what was going on, even if I was the most junior engineer in the building.” A good deal of her work involved international collaboration, and the visuals translated well across language boundaries. “It’s just the way I think,” she observed, “even though I am usually supposed to translate myself into words afterwards.” She described her typical approach to a writing prompt as being “doodle doodle doodle, then reluctantly think about writing the real paper. It never occurred to me that the sketches could become the real paper. What if you didn’t have to translate things into words to have them count?”


“What is Engineering?” was written during Chua’s first semester of graduate study at Purdue’s School of Engineering Education in a course on the History and Philosophy of Engineering Education, which she described as her “first delving into social sciences” in which they were asked to write papers defining “engineering,” “education,” and “engineering education.”  Rhetoricians, familiar with the concept of an “argument of definition” will recognize the assignment as an ancient one, of course.


As Chua explained, “I sketched and sketched as I thought, but could not find a way to translate my thoughts into writing. Before I knew it, the paper was due the next day, but the visual format was too important to my thoughts. I sat down and inked out the written pieces in my sketchbook so I would at least have something to turn in. I thought for sure I would fail the assignment, that my professors would say it wasn’t written properly.” Instead, she was surprised at the positive reaction to the piece, which has since been downloaded thousands of times from around the world. “My advisor went to South Africa and mentioned the names of her students, and another professor reached into their bag and pulled out my comic. We were stunned.”


Despite the spontaneous character of the work’s initial composition, she acknowledged the need to reflect and consider many of the aspects of doing nonfiction work in a graphic format. “How to I cite things? What tools do I use? I didn’t know anyone else did this, so I thought I had to invent all the visual rhetoric devices on my own. And validity. I worried so much that the approach wouldn’t be seen as serious or valid, so I came up with defensive arguments for everything.


In response to a question about how eyeglasses were an important visual motif that ran through “What is Engineering?” and “other frames, lenses, and viewfinders” that she might have been conscious of deploying, Chua laughed about how she had initially overlooked the importance of the trope as an assistive technology. The use of the eyeglasses metaphor was not a “rhetorical or political decision,” according to Chua, although she also says that “the personal is political.” “We use the word ‘lenses’ to describe our theories all the time, so I just drew them –remember, it was 2am the day the paper was due, so I wasn’t thinking too hard about it. The visual metaphor worked, so I kept using it as I continued to draw the piece. There can be many kinds of engineering eyeglasses, and they can coexist with other disciplines. I might wear my engineering eyeglasses, my anthropology hat, my journalism coat, and my social activist boots all at the same time.”


Chua admitted that drawing diversity – age, race, gender, and disability – into the engineers portrayed in “What is Engineering?” was important for broadening the perspective of engineering students. She added that there are many other kinds of diversity that aren’t as easy to draw. In thinking about “disability as a site for engineering education work,” Chua wonders in hindsight if she could have chosen a different sort of visual rhetoric, especially since many engineers have disabilities that are hidden or invisible. “The wheelchair has become the handicapped poster symbol. I might think about it differently if I redrew the piece, try to mix it up a little.”


Using engineering graph paper as a choice of medium was completely accidental. “The assignment was due in 10 hours, and that was the paper I had on hand, but it was a nice effect for this particular piece. I have worked in other mediums since then, but they’re all pretty primitive – it’s usually an ordinary writing pen on printer paper or in my notebook, or sketching on my phone.” When asked for her ideas about how to best design a graphic assignment for engineers, she emphasize the importance of formative assessment. “Drawing is an unfamiliar and intimidating language for lots of people. It has to be okay to get out these awful, incomplete, sketchy things to think with. We work with prototypes of machines and drafts of papers all the time, but there’s not a lot of examples out there of draft sketches outside of art class – of what visual thinking in other disciplines looks like before it becomes the polished, final piece.” Fortunately, this format also has “a different sort of hermeneutics built in… it’s more generative, more expansive, and supportive of more divergent ideas, once people are accustomed to doing dialogue with pictures rather than words.”

This blog was originally posted on February 2nd, 2015.


In the United States comics generally appeal to those who already know how to read and write, but in other contexts sequences of images with relatable characters and stories convey important information to the illiterate about how to avoid danger or pursue opportunities.


For example, Mudita Tiwari and Deepti KC of India’s Institute for Financial Management and Research are distributing comic books about financial literacy in the slum of Dharavi in Mumbai to discourage women from relying on vulnerable hiding places in their homes to squirrel away cash. As a co-author of Understanding Rhetoric, a comic textbook, I was particularly interested to see their financial literacy tools for women, which emphasized graphic media for storytelling and sequential art as a means of communication.


As they explained to the annual conference of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, before adopting this approach they found that the lack of information about banking alternatives was compounded by apathy toward generic information that “didn’t click.”   To provide meaningful context, they developed an interactive story-telling approach using comic books that starred two major characters: Radha, who is always struggling with financial adversities, and Saraswati, her sensible money-managing friend.  Researchers actually used real-life stories to compose the narrative.

Financial Literacy for Women Entrepeneurs


The literacy problem in India is serious, because the country has 287 million illiterate adults, or 37 percent of all illiterate adults globally (UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report).  However, many countries have large populations of illiterate adults, and in the United States, public health efforts have enlisted comic books for decades (Schneider, “Quantifying and Visualizing the History of Public Health Comics”).  Even in the supposedly conservative 1950s, Planned Parenthood used comics to get out the word about family planning.


Selene Biffi was asked to write a public health comic book for Afghanistan by the United Nations.  The experience inspired her to found a nonprofit organization that makes graphically appealing storytelling-oriented print materials for the developing world, Plain Ink.  According to their website, rather than donate books manufactured in the West, their organization supports “the use of local skills in the countries where we work” and strives to “find the best authors, illustrators, printers and distributors to collaborate with” to “create employment and contribute to local economic and social development.”  A story on the organization in Fast Company includes some sample pages, which show children making a lid for a well and a sign warning of contaminated water.  These panels need to communicate information efficiently, simply, and without ambiguity.


Composition instructors can create interesting audience-oriented assignments for students that ask them to create comics for audiences lacking fundamental literacy skills, perhaps as part of a larger research project exploring a topic, such as ways to ameliorate disease or the effects of natural disasters.  As an example, faculty could show recent pamphlets with visual instructions about containing the Ebola epidemic.


Explaining complex phenomena with simple illustrations can also provide the provocation of a grand challenge to classes exploring different communication modalities.  For example, how could global warming be explained to non-literate people or discoveries about the benefits of breast feeding using only pictures?  The peer-reviewed research may use relatively advanced scientific models, but the issues you assign should be ones that affect rich and poor alike.