Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blog 1: Developing Graphic Textbooks for Undergraduate Study

            It is my opinion that one day introductory-level educational graphic textbooks for college students will be the norm rather than the exception. As part of my Ph.D. dissertation, I have created this blog in order to explore ways to achieve that goal. For the next six weeks I will make two blog posts per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) covering various topics for the public to read, and critique. In this way it is hoped that educators, students, publishers, and the creative community will use this as a forum to help set academic standards for the development of future undergraduate-level educational graphic textbooks.

Please feel free to share this link with your colleagues!!!

A (Very) Short History of Graphic Textbooks

            Since most of you already know what Sequential Art is I will skip over much of the history of the medium (for now). While working on his book, Comics and Sequential Art (1985), Eisner, who was in his mid-sixties and had been illustrating comic stories for fifty years, realized that he “was involved in an ‘art of communication’ more than simply an application of art,” (Eisner, 1985, 6) and that “thoughtful pedagogical concern would provide a better climate for the production of more worthy subject content and expansion of the medium as a whole.” (Eisner, 1985, 5) At the time Comics & Sequential Art was written graphic novels were still in their infancy, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus had yet to win a Pulitzer Prize. However, Eisner understood the potential power of the medium, and concluded that “the future of this form awaits participants who truly believe that the application of sequential art, with its interweaving of words and pictures, could provide a dimension of communication that contributes—hopefully on a level never before attained—to the body of literature that concerns itself with the examination of human experience.” (Eisner, 1985, 138-139)

            Even though Eisner’s focus was on entertainment comic stories, he also illustrated both technical instruction comics, and attitudinal instruction comics, which are the precursors to graphic textbooks. (Eisner, 1985, 138-142) Technical instruction comics are illustrated instruction manuals such as directions for putting together a bicycle. These teaching aids are meant to involve the reader through explanatory text and images drawn from the reader’s perspective. Technical instruction comics are an experiential learning tool that helps the reader though a sequence of events in order to perform tasks to completion. Attitudinal instruction comics are dramatizations of events such as “How to get a job.”  The concept behind attitudinal instruction comics is to visually and dramatically show readers situations that they have not yet experienced. Japan, Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics (1988), a dramatic look at President Reagan-era politics and economics, follows this schema, and many young reader’s books over the years such as A Visit to the Doctor (1960) and Loose Tooth, My First I Can Read (2005) can also be considered attitudinal instruction comics. 

            In 1993, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud answered Eisner’s wish for a more “thoughtful pedagogical concern” with a deconstructive instructional graphic textbook that utilized sequential art in order to explain sequential art. Understanding Comics was the first attempt at popularizing the idea of graphic textbooks. In it McCloud defines the art of comic books as, “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” (McCloud, 1993, 9) While this is a more precise definition of the art form, it is too cumbersome for purposes of this paper, so I will continue using Eisner’s term sequential art instead. It should be noted that neither term/definition mentions the use of text, which, for a graphic textbook, especially one designed specifically for undergraduate students, is problematic. Though wordless panels may be used sparingly for dramatic effect, the definition for sequential art, as it relates directly to undergraduate-level textbooks, must include the implicit mandate that the information being taught is achieved through the use of visual art accompanied by complimentary text, juxtaposed text, or parallel text.

            In Heidi Hammond’s book, Graphic Novels and Multimodal Literacy: A Reader Response Study (2009), she states in her Review of the Literature that there are few academic studies regarding educational graphic novels because they have such a short history (Hammond, 2009, p. 42).  Currently there are very few educational graphic textbooks available for teaching students at the undergraduate level. Considering the increased interest in biographical, autobiographical, and journalistic graphic novels among college and university instructors (The Chronicle Review, September 23, 2011), the educational graphic textbook is an underutilized pedagogical tool.

            Over the past several years a few graphic textbooks have been published that have supported my belief in the pedagogical potential of this medium. Some of these are Optical Allusions (2009) by Jay Hosler, Ph.D.; Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation (2009) by Michael Keller, and Nicolle Rager Fuller; Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth (2011) by Jay Hosler, Ph.D., Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon; DNA: A Graphic Guide to the Molecule that Shook the World (2011) by Israel Rosenfield, Edward Ziff, and Borin Van Loon; and The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics (2010) and Volume Two: Macroeconomics (2011) by Yoram Bauman, Ph.D., and Grady Klein. While some of these graphic textbooks can be used (and have been used) to teach undergraduates the quality of the scholarship in other graphic textbooks currently being published is uneven. I believe that this inconsistency in scholarship should not be seen as a detriment, but rather as an opportunity.

Topics for Discussion

Your participation is greatly appreciated. Please understand that whatever is posted here may end up in my dissertation and/or future writings on this subject. If you do not wish to be included then do not post anything. Thank you!

Questions or concerns regarding this research may be addresses to dissertation advisor, Dr. Candace Stout at stout.127@osu.edu, or Brian Kane at kane.112@osu.edu. For questions about your rights as a participant in this study or to discuss other study-related concerns or complaints with someone who is not part of the research team, you may contact Ms. Sandra Meadows in the Office of Responsible Research Practices at 1-800-678-6251.).

1) While I would consider The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon appropriate for Honor and Advanced Placement High School students, neither Mark nor I consider it suitable for college-level students because of the lack of academic rigor that went into its production. Other than the books listed above, what other undergraduate-level graphic textbooks should be added to the list and why?

2) What standards (checks and balances) need to exist in order to guarantee the academic credibility of graphic textbooks?

3) Once academic standards are established how do we convince publishers to adopt them? What would be the protocols for peer review of graphic textbooks?


  1. The following was sent to me by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous. While this teacher does not believe a course can be built around these books the Manga Guide to Databases is used as an optional/supplemental text.

  2. (posted for Sara Gross via the moderator)

    Personally, I've never had a graphic textbook in any of my courses so far as I know. What I DO know is that I learn much better through imagery and diagrams than I do from reading big words. I could not build a predetermined figure from LEGO without their little visual diagrams. Also, I could not learn about architecture without all the pictures and supplementary diagrams. However, my education is visually-biased and I'm not sure how well it translates to other subjects like math or law. I remember having more visual aids for foreign language classes helped a lot. I could get the gist of a situation before I sat down to translate it and began to recognize common words that way.

    Being someone with a short attention span, I would bet it helps others to have something visually stimulating to focus on instead of a wall of text. Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You) is the perfect example of ADD in text format. You jump all over the place glancing at silly diagrams and notations, but still stay relatively on topic. To people who are focused readers (not me), I can see how the book is just a big mess. I never thoroughly read any books or assigned readings growing up and merely skimmed my way through life. I did the same with your blog post (sorry). I go back and focus read text surrounding important points when necessary (example: forming an opinion, or commenting on a topic).

    Otherwise, I'm not familiar enough with graphic texts to really form and opinion. I'm sure you remember all of us drawing in our sketchbooks instead of listening closely to lectures. Maybe something like graphical texts are most suited for people who can't stay grounded long enough to pay attention (not just art kids)?

    ~Sara Gross

  3. Perhaps one possible way of setting standards is to look at the use of graphic novels or cartoon strips in other professional contexts. For instance, look at this amici brief filed in the Southern District of New York in an intellectual property case. http://ia601206.us.archive.org/6/items/gov.uscourts.nysd.394628/gov.uscourts.nysd.394628.110.0.pdf

    One of the reasons counsel used this approach was to deal with the strict five page limit imposed by the court. The attorney felt he was able to convey more information and/or impact within those parameters by using a visual format rather than the traditional brief format. However, he still adhered to certain standards, such as having a table of authorities and abiding by the font requirements of the court's local rules, etc.

  4. Hi Brian. I am making my second pass through the entries and tossing out my comments as I go. I enjoy your posts very much and hope my contributions make sense.

    I think that the question of standards, checks and balances is an interesting one. Does the accuracy of a text depend on the review of individuals with advance degrees? I may have a doctorate in biology, but there are high school bio teachers that have just as solid a grasp (and by that I mean, they know more than me) on the breadth of biology. And I know folks with advanced degrees that cannot function out of their narrow slice of academia. So, what is the academic rigor to which the books need to be subjected? I guess I'm not in tune to how text books are reviewed. I know that faculty are often asked to read chapters and provide feedback, but what is the process before that?

    For Optical Allusions, I was lucky to have several science friends in my department and elsewhere to act as informal reviewers. For Evolution, it was the back and forth between myself and an editor I found to be pretty knowledgeable.

    As far as Stuff of Life is concerned, I have shown it to colleagues who have used portions or all of the book for collegiate classes. Is it merely the process of its creation that gives you and Mark pause or are there subsequent factual errors that influence your opinion? (I didn't notice any glaring problems.) And if it is OK for smart high school kids, why would it be inappropriate for smart college freshman or sophomore?

    Looks like I've contributed more questions than comments...

  5. One additional comment about process that I meant to include above: My experience with making these books is that the process is labor intensive and very messy/ugly. I've never had complaints about the accuracy of my final products, but knowing all of the factual faux pas and gaffs that I caught along the way definitely flavors my opinion of the books (i.e. I can see their history when I look at them and wondering what I missed, what I got wrong, etc.).