Dr Mel Gibson is a Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University. She is also the creator of Dr Mel Comics, a website which supports librarians and teachers in developing graphic novel and manga collections and offers resources and links for those researching comics. She has been an invaluable asset to the development of Comics Forum since its inception in 2009, generously offering both sponsorship and expertise that have enabled the annual conference series to go ahead.
On the 20th of November 2011 she took some time out of the Thought Bubble Convention in Leeds to talk to me about her experiences using comics in the UK education sector, particularly as tools for assessment.
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Could we start by getting a bit of background on your experience of teaching and working with comics in education?
I began as a librarian and in trying to help people develop collections in schools I inevitably started spilling into talking to teachers and librarians about how they might actually use these texts in schools. That had a knock on effect, in that I began to see ways in which they could be used in university teaching as well, and decided that whether it was through the practice that students were involved in or it was through using comics as a source for analysis, both should be happening.
Is that the practice of creating comics or the practice of curating?
The practice of creating strips certainly, partly in assessment practices, because it’s an essayist’s culture, and I wanted to try and shift away from that by asking people to create in other ways. One of the things that we started to do was use Comic Life software, but in relation to students creating photo stories around themes. They’d still have to do a short written piece that went alongside it to explain their theorising, what reading they’d done and how they’d then worked on the comic, but having both things and creating an artefact which had in mind a specific audience. At the moment my first year students on the joint honours degrees [Childhood Studies and Disabilities Studies, among others] are working on short comic strips aimed at college or sixth form students coming into university, talking about learning at university and the differences between deep and surface approaches. Now it doesn’t necessarily sound exciting, although we did have a lovely one about Shelly the Sheep. Shelly the Sheep follows the flock obviously, and she’s come to university determined to have a good time, and she starts taking rather more deep approaches, actually talking about the reading she’s doing with others as well as having a good gripe about staff as one does, and starts learning about different approaches to research and thinking things through in a rather different way. And as a consequence she becomes her own self rather than being a follower. Something like that, it’s very simple but to actually get it right and talk about the different approaches to learning it takes quite a lot of doing. That was a student who decided she wasn’t going to bother with Comic Life because she was comfortable illustrating so she created her own characters and designed and worked on that quite happily. Others have done photo stories and others have used things like toys and done their own puppetry to tell the story without actually involving individuals.
There’s another aspect to it of course because if you’re using real individuals and photographs then there’s an ethical element because you can’t go putting words into people’s mouths. It’s a really good way of making ethical points because these students are all going to be doing interviews and they’re all going to be doing observations later on and this is a way of starting to get them thinking about those issues in a way that isn’t “you must not do this”. So it’s a number of different effects. To actually theorise things effectively, think them through, they’re having to do an awful lot of reading round and they’re having to do a lot of development. The idea is that the best, as it were, or the ones who are most comfortable with using, form their own anthology which then gets used with next year’s first year. So they’re creating artefacts which then become embedded, and indeed some of the students come back as next year’s second year and talk with the first years about what they did, why they created it and how it changed or didn’t change their approaches to learning. That’s quite a complicated set of targets we’re trying to hit with this one assessment.
It’s also to shock them into thinking there are other ways of doing things, because they’re used to sitting in an exam and telling back what they’ve learnt. Shifting them from that model onto one where they actually have to be creative is a huge shift for many of them. It’s just a matter of supporting them into it.
I used some of my national teaching fellowship money to get Comic Life software into two of our labs, on about fifty-odd computers. What I didn’t realise then was that people noted what was going on and said “okay we want to use the same”. With our nursing students I’ve facilitated sessions for them because they don’t necessarily know about comics so the one thing they need is a session that says “well this is what’s possible”, and once they’ve got a feel for the possibilities they can go with it. And the nursing team are using comics to talk about patient, or rather “end user”, and staff relationships and they’re also doing things at a very practical level, you know, “how do you put on a splint” or whatever, and doing those photo stories. Obviously if you’re going to do that as a photo story you’ve got to practice, you’ve got to know how to do it, and then you’ve got to think “well what are the key moments, how am I going to this story, what are the important things that someone else needs to know reading this?” So that’s a different kind of information, it’s creating for a professional audience or a peer audience.
One of the other big projects I’ve been involved with, which is actually in a different department again, and here I’m working across the university, was one with design and illustration students. Now what they were meant to be doing was a project called ‘The Gift’. It’s an international group, Masters’ students now I think about it, and the idea was they would create an artefact that would be acceptable in a range of cultures because they were also an international group some of whom were taking part in this group via Skype or, you know, they weren’t present. So you’ve got international, multinational groups. And in addition to that they had to create some kind of text about how the project had gone, preferably as a comic strip, and about the difficulties or the advantages of working in this kind of grouping, and do a report that went with it as well.
[Click here to read ‘Development of the Report’; an outcome of ‘The Gift’].
All of this is assessed, all of this is summative, and that too is quite interesting: people are going “yeah we’ll try doing something formal and summative” rather than it being just a formative assessment. Instead of it just being playful it’s actually quite serious… obviously for the illustration students the stakes are very different because it is part of their professional being. For the others it’s a sort of interesting experiment, making them more conscious of the visual aspects.
Another project using comics in the university in is in Physical Geography because photo stories are really good at expressing how people move through space and the uses they make of it. They often run an exhibition of the student work too. That’s not everything we’ve done in our uni but that’s the kind of thing we’re doing.
This raises the question of assessment criteria and formalising the process of assessment. How do you deal with that? Do you create specific criteria for the comics?
Yes, with my students I’ve asked them to stick to a DC Thompson six-to-nine panels a page, three page maximum, cliff-hanger at the end of each page, two speech balloons, up to two thought balloons and an information box each panel absolute max. In terms of actually setting the form as part of the criteria, if people want to and feel confident about doing something else that’s great, it’s just to give people a starting point, something to provide a basic bottom line. Again it’s just about confidence building because not all of them will have had anything to do with comics as readers. Of course because we’ve got people who are creators anyway they just think it’s brilliant and they can go to town and really enjoy, in a different way, their assessment.
The thing about making the artefacts is people want to keep them, and they want to show them to everybody else. So instead of it being “I did this work, you can’t see it” it’s automatically “hey, look what I’ve been up to”. And so it creates a different kind of dynamic in terms of people sharing their work and understanding as well, because people want to show them off. And the students coming back to talk about what they’re doing, or what they did, it’s lovely because it’s building links across the years. So they don’t think of themselves as “well, you know, know I’m in the second year,” they know people above and below them because of these connections being made through talking about their learning experiences.
And the students are quite positive about it?
How have you found the institutional response to these assessments? Have they been welcomed?
It has been, much to my surprise initially. They’re very comfortable with it in some departments.
Nursing, they also have an assessment which is tied in with poetry so they’ve made that leap into thinking about health issues in a very different way so it’s welcome there. And in joint honours it’s kind of an anything goes, and in Illustration it’s a sort of “brilliant; this is another way of getting comics on board”. So there’s not that kind of “ooh you want to do comics: go away”, it’s much more welcoming. We have to be quite careful with the jumping through loops when we’re validating new modules or if we want to do something more creative in terms of assessment, but we’ve had people making games as well, in other assessments, coming up with poster work, again, coming up with different kinds of artefacts, artworks. They’ve been surprisingly positive. I’m not sure why, I mean we’re talking quite a large group of students, a couple of hundred most of the time. And the Nursing’s anything up to four hundred. So that’s a fairly sizeable chunk. We moved away from doing quite so many assessments that involved creating “a thing”, simply on the basis that it’s difficult to store it and carry round things to mark. Whereas if you’re dealing with posters or comics then you’ve actually got something which is still the artefact but it’s easier to handle, so oddly enough it was the physical problems; they were bigger than anything else.
Is the assessment all done in-house or do you go to comic artists and creators?
It’s all in-house, but we’ll draw on staff from other departments as we think appropriate and ask them in effect to be an additional voice in relation to marking, because nearly everything we do is double marked anyway.
I’m assuming because it’s at least partly to do with joint-honours students this is less of an issue, but have you found disciplinary specificity to be a problem?
Oh yeah, there’s some parts of the uni we couldn’t get into. I’m part of a team that’s all about innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and I’m working university-wide, and some of the stuff takes off, some of the stuff doesn’t. Some of the learning mentoring stuff, the way that students are involved in different ways with each other, that’s taken off in places where changing how assessment works hasn’t. So again it just depends. I would have thought traditional humanities might be more comfortable about it but not necessarily.
What I’m getting at there is in terms of students being used to working in a particular way within their discipline that is then perhaps modified by the comics.
Yes. I was thinking in terms of staff perceptions but in terms of student perceptions yes it can be a shock. I mean with the joint honours as you say, they are empowered really, in that they are offered so many different kinds of assessment because they are doing observations and placements, and their dissertations all involve elements of interview work. So even when they’re doing something that’s a traditional written form, they’re still having to think about it in ways that maybe some of the students wouldn’t.
We also allow them to choose whether to work individually or in small groups, and that of course adds another dimension depending on how well the groups work together.
And is there a big skewing one way or the other?
Mostly small groups. What’s really interesting is that when I was talking to the first year about the deep and surface approaches to learning assessment, a number of people sat very very quietly, and when I wandered round just to see what people were doing, a number of them were already drawing things out, mapping stuff out. They’d just gone “right, fine, brilliant” straight in, and were perfectly happy to get on with making. And when I asked them “so what are you into?” they said “oh, manga” or “I’m into this” or “have you heard of such and such? And she’s my auntie”. So they automatically flagged themselves up as people who were heavily into comics anyway and had at least an idea where to begin roughing out the stories immediately. And that’s not usually what you expect with an assessment: that you suddenly lose them in the middle of a seminar because they’re going “right I need to do this, I’ve got to get this down now.” And it’s really nice because they start sketching in lectures.
And within the groups do they tend to all pitch in with everything or do they develop a studio system or different roles?
Yeah different roles quite often. Because there’ll be somebody who says “I can’t draw, I’ve never been able to draw”, there’s always one who says that, “but I can do this; if we’re going to do photos I’ll be the model”, you know. I’ve caught another group sitting in the corner of the student union playing with their makeup to make themselves look as ridiculous as possible and putting stupid bunches in, and they were going “right yours is the face, because you look really like you’re gonna take a shallow approach right now” and trying to take photos and build up a body of material. And I said “what are you going to do; are you going to do it as a photo story or are you going to draw it?” and they said “well we haven’t decided yet because it depends on how brave she’s feeling about the funny hairdos and the ridiculous makeup”. So sometimes it’s performance. The writing end tends to be shared, and it depends on what medium they choose to make with the other element. Obviously with something like Comic Life you can move everything around so much, it’s so flexible. And then it’s seeking permissions, so there’s always somebody seeking permission to use somebody’s words, thus flagging up to them the horror of copyright and plagiarism all at once.
And does that group approach cause issues around weighting the assessment or is it a group mark no matter what happens?
It’s actually an individual mark because of course alongside this they’re doing a short piece about what their contribution was and how they theorised it, and those pieces are all very distinctive. So you’ve got a shared text but because of these different elements it could still end up with weighting slightly differently, because there’s got to be a way round the “well they did nothing in this group” thing and “they’re riding on our coattails”. So we were trying to work out a way of balancing that out, which means allowing them to share in the making but they have to be assessed separately.
Looking a little bit wider, to more general notions of teaching comics in universities and where it’s situated, do you feel that it is beneficial to have it in its own sphere or does it benefit greatly from being all over the place?
We’re everywhere and nowhere. I teach a second level module on young adults and representation, in the sense of people speaking for them and them speaking for themselves, as well as how they’re represented in imagery. And on that one I do stuff between the relationship between reading and delinquency and trace the history of the fifties experience that we all know of and also of the manga furores of the early noughties and late nineties. That’s a completely different take because that’s teaching comics, although it is teaching audience.
I think it’s going to appear everywhere and I think that’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s like Cultural Studies, you know, Cultural Studies ended up getting a bit frozen in some ways because people were like “well that popular culture’s fine but that isn’t”. And when I was working in a Cultural Studies department I wasn’t allowed to do comics except occasional guest slots. I mean you wouldn’t have thought that for an instant! Whereas when I was doing film I did animation courses and built in stuff on manga as well, and that was very welcome. And I also taught on a Children’s Literature course and as long as I stuck with the younger end material they were fine with me doing comics, along with picture books. It’s very difficult to judge. The institution that I did my PhD at didn’t know what to do with me. They were willing to give it a go, but they were a bit frightened of what it might be!
I was speaking to Chris Murray a couple of weeks ago about the MLitt in Comics Studies and he very strongly emphasised the interdisciplinarity of it and the fact that it is still situated within existing disciplines, even though it is a course on Comics Studies.
It’s always going to be interdisciplinary. I mean when you look at all of our lot: who talks to who and who’s doing what. Medical humanities?! Who would have thought of that as a space? Where you have to be lucky in a sense is with your senior management. Are they permissive? Are they going to allow you to develop something or are they just going to go: “we can’t do that, it’s scary, someone will take the piss out of us for doing it,” basically, “we don’t want the negative publicity”.
It’s an interesting one: at the moment we can actually manage to get things of the ground and that’s been quite a relief, but it’s still very small scale and of course it takes an enthusiast to be there and be pushing it and saying “this isn’t a silly idea”. And the thing is once people get their head around it you can see the pennies drop and people go “oh well I could use that for…” and then they start making up their own ways in which they could use it for teaching: staff making their own comics on themes so that they then become users. Creating teaching materials in the medium.
This is quite an interesting area because we’ve seen theorists like Scott McCloud produce theory in comics form but we don’t tend to find that much work on comics in comics. I just wonder if you have found a shift in that direction, or if the kind of materials that you’re producing would be the starting block.
They’re very starting block, I mean they’re very toe-in-watery stuff for the most part. There’s a scope to do it. But I’m not equipped to…I can work on comics but I couldn’t express myself effectively within comics. Although I think I probably should start trying in the sense that it doesn’t matter how bad it is, it’s just so you’ve got a better feeling for what’s going on and starting to make a bit. And I’m fascinated by the range, the number of practitioner, or theory-practice crossover people that I’m meeting now and that does seem to be on the increase, again in a range of disciplines that people are drawing on both in terms of expression. So I think it’s going to continue developing but I’m not sure…you know…in an era of cuts I don’t know what we’ll get away with and for how long.
That theory and practice crossover is something that’s come up time and again at the Comics Forum events, where there is that mixture and the encouragement to do both, and it seems like there are some, as you’ve described, some routes by which that is being taken up even if only in a small scale way.
I think my practice in a sense is the stuff that I do when outside and book waving and just trying to preach on behalf of the medium in different spaces and trying to get other professions to see the possibilities. I think in a way that’s the most useful thing I can do! Somebody has to do the publicity. I think I’m enthusiastic enough to carry it off most of the time because I just love the stuff so much. And because I’m not working for a particular firm I can talk about what I’m interested in talking about and talk about stuff that I think will be useful for a particular grouping rather than limiting myself to being tied in with one particular set. Although there have been attempts to kidnap me by various publishers at various points, I’ve always resisted because I like being liminal. I like being on the edges of a couple of worlds. It’s quite a comfortable position in one sense because nobody knows what you’re up to, or they don’t get it unless you take a long time to explain.
I think the area that’s not comics but we’re starting to see an awful lot more of is creative methodologies stuff, because of David Gauntlet’s work. I’m finding that a lot of colleagues who aren’t necessarily comics people are also looking at creative methodologies in terms of their research and they’re seeing their research more as collaboration with those participating, and co-construction. I’m currently working with somebody whose entire PhD is based around professionals who’ve moved into things like children’s centres: where they’ve come from, how they work in a multi-professional space, how they negotiate the changes in their identity. He’s working with them, doing a series of interviews, but he’s also encouraging them to draw, write, do poster work as part of this, so they’re creating artefacts which are of a slightly different nature as a way of unpacking themselves, of talking through what the issues are for them, what’s important to them. I think that’s a related form. The creative methodologies bods, including David Gauntlet’s Lego projects absolutely tie in. It’s not the same thing, but taking a step back from the comicsness of it, in terms of methodologies it’s within an area that’s growing within a range of sectors in Education as a discipline I think, and Media and Cultural Studies and work around audience, of course. But also other spaces. Telling stories of one kind or another about professional identity is not necessarily something you’d necessarily think that comics would feed into. Some of the people I’ve been working with, they’ll start with a poster but they’ll give people cut-out speech balloons and thought balloons, you know “what did I say, what was my face, what were my thoughts?” and just helping people to unpack how when they put their game face on how different it is from how they’re feeling. And again comics…they’re not necessarily making comics but they’re using aspects of comics as a way of expressing those conflicts within identity so it ties in.
So lots of interesting spaces being opened up there.
Isn’t there? Yeah. Yeah.
In addition to being the director of Comics Forum, Ian Hague is a PhD student and associate lecturer in the History department at the University of Chichester. His research focuses on how comics engage all of the reader’s senses to communicate information and meaning. His research interests include materiality, technology, and theoretical approaches to comics. He has articles forthcoming in Framing Film: Cinema and the Visual Arts and The Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art.