From the comic book store to the classroom

Originally posted on illuminate. Written by k.barnes and m.henderson.

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich's collection. photo by k.barnes

A selection of graphic novels from Education professor David Lewkowich’s collection. photo by k.barnes

Once thought of as a niche medium appreciated mostly by stereotypical middle-aged comic book collectors like Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, the graphic novel has been steadily moving from the fringes to the mainstream since the late 1980s.

In anticipation of Readin Week 2016, we sat down with Gail de Vos, professional storyteller and long-time sessional instructor at UAlberta’s School of Library and Information Studies, and David Lewkowich, assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education, to talk about this relatively new hybrid of text and image and its value as a medium for teaching and research.

De Vos has taught a course focused on graphic novels since 2001. Her favourite character is Baba Yaga, a witch from Slavic European folklore who is depicted as a villain in the comic book series Hellboy. Lewkowich, whose research interests include literary theory, young adult literature and cultural studies, currently loves the character Marlys Mullen, created by cartoonist and author Lynda Barry, because Marlys is able to look through the complexity of her older sister’s experience and tell a joke.

Responses have been edited for length.

Faculty of Education: Why did you start integrating graphic novels into your teaching and research?

David Lewkowich: It is important to me, especially on the first day of class, to help my students understand and break down the view that the “teacher” has a wealth of knowledge. Instead, it’s about creating a relationship and space where the teacher is a beginner every day. I find that comics and graphic novels allow an avenue into this world view.

Comics and graphic novels make us all beginners. There is no one right way to read them, as no one has been formally schooled in how to read comics.

Gail de Vos: As a professional storyteller, I began reading graphic novels and comics because of my research into reworkings of folktales in pop culture. After reading a lot of them, I realized that they are the closest print medium to oral storytelling and folktales. I was truly captivated by this whole idea, which led to my research and teaching on the subject.

Faculty of Education: How does the medium help you interact with students?

Gail de Vos: I often think about the importance of self-interpretation, which is something David has hinted at earlier. This is all about learning to be confident—that there is no right or wrong way to read this. Once a book is in the public domain, the author and illustrator, or sometimes just the illustrator, no longer have control over how the book is read. It becomes about how the reader responds to the illustrations. I often start my courses off with wordless graphic novels, so that there are no words to show the readers where to go.

Often people don’t know how to start reading a graphic novel. They want a “how to read graphic novels” explanation because of their previous exposure to text-based books. This is especially true when you start reading wordless graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I agree with Gail. There is something about how we have been schooled to read language in that we think that it’s a solid structure. There is something about the interaction of words and images, and images alone, that allows us to go more inside ourselves with our reading. It allows us to inspect the connections that we are making with the text.

photo by k.barnes

photo by k.barnes

Faculty of Education: What are the different themes that you seek to explore with students?

Gail de Vos: Self-discovery is a major theme that I’m interested in. It can be found in all forms of literature, and it’s a theme that is repeated over and over again in graphic novels.

David Lewkowich: I love graphic novels that tend to explore themes around love, adolescence and memory. These are all aspects of human existence, where it’s all about unanswerable questions and how can we allow the text to play with us.

I’m also interested in how our past experiences in school and our early experiences with teachers can impact a teacher’s future teaching. Words alone don’t seem to fully capture the emotional complexity of these ideas or themes.

Reading graphic novels allows us to explore our emotional past in a way that words can’t. I know that when I set foot back in a high school working as a teacher, I dealt with a lot of insomnia and my own emotional frustration, both of which I didn’t expect; I see that happening again when I look at my students. Working with graphic novels allows me to help support students in their own emotional discovery.

Faculty of Education: What advice do you have for educators, librarians and other information professionals looking to integrate graphic novels into their work?

Gail de Vos: Read them for yourselves. For every class I teach, regardless of the content, I put graphic novels on the reading list. I also suggest using wordless graphic novels so students take time to appreciate the illustrations themselves. It helps students become more observant.

David Lewkowich: Encourage students to dwell on the page. It can be hard to slow down on the page, but when you do, you notice things that you may have thought were only tangential. Sometimes it’s these tangential moments that can add a lot more to the text.

Comics create a level playing field and allow for discussion where no one possesses the knowledge as to what is the meaning of the text and everyone can come to their own conclusions.


The University of Alberta is proud to be a partner of Read In Week Edmonton 2016. The purpose of Read In Week is to create a greater awareness of the importance of reading. Historically, the event has successfully promoted the school as an important place for the development of lifelong literacy. Read In Week Edmonton runs from October 3-7, 2016. Visit the website for more information.

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Reaction to alleged NSA spying in Toronto during G20

It’s not every day that the NSA sends you an email (even if it is just a publicist and you emailed them first).

Today’s story for Advanced Online was on the reaction to the CBC report of NSA spying in Canada during the Toronto G20 summit.

The NSA mission statement on their website is “Global cryptologic dominance through responsive presence and network advantage.” Creative Commons

The NSA mission statement on their website is “Global cryptologic dominance through responsive presence and network advantage.” Creative Commons

Civil liberties groups on Thursday sounded the alarm over news that the Canadian government permitted the U.S. National Security Agency to spy on foreign diplomats on Canadian soil during the 2010 Toronto G20/G8 summit.

New top-secret documents obtained by the CBC were retrieved by whistleblower Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor. Snowden is currently in Russia, seeking asylum from U.S. prosecution.

“The main issue we’re concerned about whether or not Canadians were caught up in this surveillance,” said Sukanya Pillay, the executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“We’re also concerned about allowing a foreign agency to come on our soil and potentially surveil Canadians.”

The briefing notes don’t detail the targets of the surveillance, but they state that the American embassy in Ottawa was turned into a security command post during a six-day surveillance operation by the NSA during the summit in Toronto.

One of the documents characterizes the operation as “closely coordinated with the Canadian partner”, the Communications Security Establishment Canada.

There were two groups that the surveillance targeted: foreign diplomats and “extremist groups”.

“During the G20 many peaceful protesters and many non-protesters were swept up in the mass arrests,” said Pillay.

“Given that this is what was going on the ground, we’re concerned with what was going on in terms of surveillance.”

When asked by Humber News about the surveillance, the NSA declined to respond to the question.

“While we are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, as a matter of policy the U.S. government has made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” Vanee Vines, a publicist with the NSA, told Humber News in an email statement.

CSEC aslo declined to comment.

“Under the law, CSEC does not target Canadians anywhere or any person in Canada through its foreign intelligence activities, ” Lauri Sullivan, a CSEC communications advisor told Humber News in an email.

Sullivan also said CSEC also cannot ask their international colleagues to to act in a manner that circumvents Canadian law.

Pillay told Humber News that there needs to be greater accountability and more transparency, as well as more oversight into Canada’s surveillance agencies.

“We have to guard against unwanted and potentially unlawful surveillance of perfectly innocent Canadians going about their business.”

CSEC has authorization from the Department of National Defence to surveil Canadians, but the authorization is at the department’s discretion, said Pillay.

Both the NSA and the Security Establishment were implicated in widespread surveillance at the 2009 London G20 summit, a year before the Toronto G20 summit. The surveillance in London included the hacking of emails and phones of foreign diplomats. The US documents leaked by Snowden describe this type of surveillance as an aspect of their mandate at the Toronto summit as “providing support to policymakers,” CBC reported.