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Building Interact Between the Graphic Novel and Students in College Composition

By Guest Blogger: Ellen Ma

“Why are we reading a comic book?” would probably have been something I would have dreaded to hear if one of my students asked me this question, or even from someone who found out I was using graphic novels in my composition course. Perhaps what would be even worse is not being able to provide a reasonable answer and this fear didn’t set in until after my first experience from introducing the graphic novel to my college composition freshman. Due to taking a strong interest in reading comics since grade school, my “comic book self” became naturally dominant in this situation. I couldn’t wait to be in a classroom with students who also loved comics and would have intriguing interpretations with the graphic novel they were reading. The students would have something to say and a sophisticated dialogue about their opinions would ensue. However, I quickly realized I couldn’t simply drop a graphic novel into student hands, even if they were in college, and think they would perform accordingly to what my “comic book self” assumed. I had a duty as a teacher to facilitate students towards reading and writing objectives they could perhaps achieve from using the graphic novel, so once I gave my students a purpose as to why we were reading a graphic novel, the next step of actually using the graphic novel proved to be quite a challenge with valuable outcomes for my students, as well as I towards understanding how to prepare my students to use the graphic novel that could enhance their learning and development as college readers and writers.

Graphic novels are a great way to motivate and encourage reading. Most students who have never read a graphic novel seem to love the fact that images are being used with text, as well as students who claim to be more as visual learners. They exclaim how easily they can understand the story and furthermore, students definitely feel a sense of empowerment to be able to comprehend and interpret a story on their own terms, thanks to the image and text working together. Graphic novels definitely are a powerful tool to get students to discover pleasure in the act of reading, and teachers can help by keeping in mind that not all of their students are graphic novel readers. Time will need to be spent to teach students how to read a graphic novel and for teachers to emphasize why the graphic novel should be read a certain way, especially if we want students to fully be emersed in the graphic novel experience of reading image and text together, rather than only “reading” the images and ignoring the text, or vice versa.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of using the graphic novel is for students to transfer their understanding of the graphic novel into formal writing. Most students have discovered that the images from graphic novels are difficult to analyze and then trying to put their interpretation of the image into words to formulate support for their opinion. To understand and interpret visuals and text requires two different sets of skills and perhaps most students will have a stronger “text skill” than a “visual skill” due to reading text novels/material and producing formal writing from text through out their academic career. We’re familiar with how students are provided with a vocabulary for text analysis, such as symbolism, irony, or analogy, so just like in images, teachers can give students vocabulary to apply to visual analysis. This could perhaps help students give a fair amount of attention to the images during their writing process because they’ll slowly be able to understand the graphic artist’s techniques once students are given visual analysis vocabulary to build their interpretation upon.

A lot still needs to be understood about the use of graphic novels in the classroom so don’t be surprised if using a graphic novel feels more challenging, because we shouldn’t treat the graphic novel like a text novel. The graphic novel does need teachers to take some introductory steps before getting to the actual story and help students understand that they’ll need to preform and interact differently with the graphic novel compared to a text novel. If students can understand the purpose of working with a graphic novel, they can easily change their opinion from not taking your class seriously because they’ll be reading a “baby book” to developing an interest in a new form of reading and meaningful course work they can benefit within the composition classroom as readers and writers.