CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Faculty Share: “Comic Conversations”

by Hannah Dickinson and Maggie Werner,
Assistant Professors of Writing and Rhetoric

This past fall, students in our WRRH 100 and 305 completed “comic conversation” assignments in order to strengthen their engagement with scholarly sources by visualizing arguments with and among those sources. Using comic book software to present these imagined conversations, students practiced identifying arguments, citing sources, and entering into academic conversations. In these comics, students created imagined dialogue among the scholars they were reading, citing, paraphrasing, and eventually extended the arguments of each author. They represented these conversations visually using the desktop publishing program Comic Life, designed specifically for crafting comics; this software allows students to import images of the authors they are working with and of themselves, create speech bubbles, and ultimately create a visual scholarly dialogue.

We intended the comic conversation to increase student understanding of and engagement with source material so that they may use sources in more productive and rhetorically effective ways. Comics require students to specify a meaningful and appropriate situation in which these scholars might engage with one another. The visual nature of the assignment also asks students to look for images of the authors they’re working with, emphasizing that the sources they cite come from actual people, which can help make visible the ways gender, race, age, or nationality may play out in the academic conversation they’re engaging. Finally, this assignment can also help develop students’ visual literacy and multimodal literacy skills. 

We initially identified three significant outcomes for student learning through the comic conversation assignment:

  1. increased comprehension of academic source material,
  2. decreased patchwriting (unsuccessful attempts to paraphrase),
  3. and increased ability to take up positions of more authority and less deference in relation to published scholars.

We found that the comic conversations did indeed increase student comprehension of source material. We also saw evidence of students’ increased authority in relation to course texts, but not necessarily in ways we anticipated. In the WRRH 305 comics, students often put themselves into mediating and authoritative roles, yet students did not view their roles as equivalent to their sources. Rather than using comics to suggest that they have equal expertise, students used them to experiment with different ways of positioning themselves in relation to scholars: as moderator, facilitator, or commentator. In retrospect, this seems entirely appropriate.

Determining whether our goal to decrease patchwriting was met was more complicated. We initially imagined that we could assess this by determining how much patchwriting, appropriate paraphrase, and students’ own ideas appeared in the comics and then the students’ essays. We were delighted to find virtually no patchwriting in most of the student comics, which we believe was partly a result, as we anticipated, of increased student engagement in the assignment. However, it also turns out that the comic form itself helps to limit patchwriting because speech bubbles require students to write concisely. They had to condense the authors’ ideas in order to meet the generic conventions of the comic. We were disappointed, however, to find that students’ demonstrated ability to engage with sources via paraphrase, citation, and interpretation decreased in their research essays. That is, these essays continued to include patchwriting and limited interpretation. We were initially concerned that students’ new facility with source material was not transferring to their writing assignments, but we recognize that students learn new writing skills recursively and over time. In the future, we will be interested in looking at how continued use of the comic conversation may help solidify the skilled engagement with sources that we saw students demonstrate in the comics, but not the essays.

Finally, the comic conversation assignment also had learning outcomes that we did not anticipate. While we knew that incorporating comics would be beneficial for students who learned visually, it also helped to include, engage, and empower the following groups of students: English Language Learners, creative writers, students with rich extra-curricular literacy lives, technologically savvy students, and kinesthetic learners. Not only did the comic conversation engage students because of its inherent novelty and fun, but because it tapped into a wide-range of student strengths that are not always visible in the classroom.

We encourage instructors across disciplines to consider the ways that comics can be an inventive and enjoyable experience for students that can increase engagement with and comprehension of course material. We suggest that you think through possible ways that comics could address a learning problem you’ve struggled to address or ways that they could enrich existing assignments. You can download a free thirty-day trial of the software from where it is available for both Mac and PC. The software is easy to learn and use and is also supported by the Digital Learning Center.

Click here for a sample assignment that uses the “comic conversations” model.

Read more on the Daily Update: Comics Books Create Scholarly Inquiry

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