For the last several years, I have been creating and teaching popular courses at Ball State University using comic books as required course readings. Many people thought I was crazy, and they are probably right, but my methods worked. When the most recent course, Gender through Comic Books, caught the eye of the Ball State’s Integrated Learning Institute, they asked me to teach an online course. At first, I thought it was simply an online version of my current class that would be offered to Ball State students. I quickly found out that I was wrong. They wanted me to offer the class in a form that they had not yet attempted. They wanted to have the class offered as a MOOC.
What’s a MOOC?
In 2008, the University of Manitoba made academic history by creating a “Massive Open Online Course” available free of charge to students through the internet. Since then, MOOCs have been developed and offered by Princeton, Stanford, Georgetown, Brown and many other universities through companies like Udacity and Coursera. Most of the courses are free but a few offered for credit have a fee attached. The students, in most classes, have to purchase books, but they cost only around $75.00.
MOOCs open up the world of higher education to anyone in the world. MOOCs allow people across the globe to connect and to collaborate. They’re based on the connectivist theory which says that students are social and learn from their experiences with others. They are really an experiential form of learning that allow students to actively take part in a course instead of passively receiving information. “MOOC Mania” has been taking over the academic world for the last few years. Some educators believe MOOCs will solve problems for higher education, while others believe they are simply a passing fad. We will have to wait a few years to find out, but in the meantime, I think we should enjoy the excitement.
In my course, I have over 5,000 students enrolled from six continents. This creates a challenge in many ways. With my background in Anthropology, I am well aware of the many cultural differences associated with gender. Besides cultural differences, there are age differences to consider, different levels of education, different familiarity with the subjects of both gender and comic books, and more. This was not simply putting a course that I already created into an online format. This was a second edition of the class for a much broader audience.
Why Gender and Comic Books?
Many people believe that gender isn’t a topic that needs to be discussed. Others believe that one’s gender is either male or female. And some people believe that comic books have no educational value. I don’t believe any of these things. While gender and comic books may seem to be a strange combination, it works. I’m sure people thought putting peanut butter and jelly together was crazy, but it also worked. By using comic books to teach a subject like gender, it allows people to talk without stigma about subjects that are sensitive. But that’s not the only reason comic books work for this topic. The comics medium, as does much popular culture, provides an excellent view of society temporally. The characters, their depictions, and story arcs that are included reflect the times.
Gender through Comic Books
Beginning April 2, I will launch my Massive Open Online Course called “Gender through Comic Books,” which examines how comic books can be used to explore questions of gender identity, stereotypes, and roles. The course uses a study of comic books incorporating video lectures and online discussions between students, but what makes this course unique is that each week there will be live interviews with comic books professionals. These will happen in real time with students posting questions on the discussion boards or tweeting questions for the professional. These interviews are with many of the comics medium’s most prominent writers and artists, each of whom has been invited to discuss a specific topic addressed by his or her body of work.
The class will begin with Terry Moore, author and artist of the assigned books Strangers in Paradise and Rachel Rising. After learning what gender is, what stereotypes are, and other topics, the students will analyze how things such as gender stereotypes and identity are presented in Moore’s books. Then they will be allowed to experience an interview with the person responsible for that book, possibly even having their question asked.
Other professionals include Mark Waid, author of Superman: Birthright, who will discuss how we learn about gender. In that module we will use Superman to see how gender attitudes and ideals have changed over time. The students will read Action Comics #1 from 1938, Action Comics #267 from 1960, and Waid’s Birthright. Marvel editors Steve Wacker and Sana Amanat, along with Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, will all discuss the process behind how the medium of comics is producing culture. Gail Simone will tackle the topic of femininity using her books Secret Six, Batgirl, and Birds of Prey. That week we will also see how Wonder Woman, the most recognizable woman in comic books, has changed since 1941. Through Batman and Swamp Thing, Scott Snyder will discuss masculinity in its many forms. Many people believe that gender is all about females and hopefully this class will dispel that myth. Wrapping up the class will be Brian K. Vaughan discussing Saga and Y: The Last Man, which I believe is a gender textbook. This week the class will also talk about gendered spaces.
One of the interviewees, writer and web publisher Mark Waid, wrote this about the class on his website: ‘I’m excited about this not only because I’m participating but because it’s a revolutionary way to marry comics and education using technology. Oh, and also because Christy’s giving the MOOC students unique access to interviews with folks like [Brian] Bendis, [Matt] Fraction, Jason Aaron, Dan Slott, Jonathan Hickman, and many others. They’re not being asked the same cookie-cutter questions you’ve heard a hundred times before; they’re talking about how gender roles inform and influence their work, how they approach gender politics, and more–and I’m here to tell you that many of their answers surprised me.’ In addition to the live interviews there will be shorter videos with many other creators such as Rick Remender, Roberta Gregory, Jeff Lemire, and more.
But the class is more than interviews. The students will have several activities to complete. They will create their own comic based on an event in their lives where gender has played a role. These will be displayed so students can discuss them and comment on each other’s comics. The class will also be creating a Gender through Comic Books wiki that will be free-standing, long after the class is complete, so people will be able to see what we have created. It’s our legacy, our gift to the world.
I like to think of this class more as a massive, open, online COMMUNITY rather than a course. By using comic books to teach about complex and evolving issues such as gender, it makes the subject interesting and relatable. At the end of the course, the students will receive a certificate of completion with artwork by Peter Krause (Irredeemable, Insufferable) that is available only through this MOOC. But more importantly, they will have received a new perception of gender roles and stereotypes that will influence their lives and the decisions they make. They will have the gift of life-long learning.
“Gender through Comic Books” is being hosted through the Canvas Network, a forerunner in online-classroom experiences and begins April 2. You can follow the course on twitter – @SuperMOOC. For more information click here.
After receiving her M.A. in Anthropology, Christina Blanch began teaching for Ball State University. Currently in graduate school for her doctorate in education, she is focusing on using non-traditional teaching methods including the use of comic books. She is working with Ball State’s Integrated Learning Institute to create a MOOC for the humanities. In 2013, she will graduate from Ball State University and hopes to continuing creating MOOCs using comic books as tools. She lives in Indiana with her two children, her boyfriend, a dog, and two cats and in her spare time is working on her own on-line comic.