Using Comics to Teach Philosophy, Inclusively by Joyce C. Havstad

17 Jan

As an educator, I’m always looking for new ways to engage students. As someone who teaches philosophy at a large state school—in fact, at a prototypical American Research University—I’m always trying to convince college students that my subject matter is truly relevant, to their lives and to their budding careers. At the very least, I try to make philosophy fun. And one of the tools that I have developed to help achieve these goals is to use visual arts, especially non-traditional arts like comics, in the classroom.

So, the rest of this post is going to be about what I’ve observed from using comics in the classroom. I’m going to focus on two main things: one positive, and one less so. I think that both of these observations are worth taking seriously.

Fun things first: many college students love popular culture, and comics are a part of that. Part of my academic work (writing papers, giving talks) is in the philosophy of comics and video games. Whenever students discover this less-stuffy side of my academic life they are inevitably shocked and excited. I can’t tell you how many times students have come up to me after class to say something like “so, I was looking at your website; do you really go to Comic-Con every year?” or “did you actually write those papers about Halo and Zelda?” I can just see my cool points accruing. (Of course, using terms like ‘cool points’ makes them plummet.) Regardless, the fact that I do this kind of work makes my students more enthusiastic about me, and my classes.

Now, on to the less positive observation: the students who get excited about this, and come up to me after class to talk about it, are always male. Always. Not once has a female student remarked on these subjects to me. This worries me. Specifically, I worry that this means that comics and video games are exciting, fun, and popular topics—but that this is generally true mainly in an area that might be called male pop culture, rather than pop culture more broadly.

Perhaps now is the time to state explicitly that I myself am female. So I know that comics can appeal to women! I find them appealing. But I also know that I’m something of an anomaly. As was mentioned above, I go to Comic-Con every year, and I usually participate in the Comic Arts Conference held there. That’s a gathering of comic arts scholars that happens within the larger Comic-Con—talks are held, posters are presented, and panels discuss (please see this for more information about the wonderful CAC). For the last three years I have given a poster at the conference. And in those three years I have had many wonderful conversations about my presented work, with attendees from the larger con who have come by to check out the comic scholarship. But once again, most of my partners in this kind of dialogue have been male.

There could be, and no doubt are, many explanations for these gendered observations. I could be an unreliable observer—perhaps my actual experience has been one in which I spoke to equal numbers of men and women, but I have misremembered it as gender-imbalanced. Or, my experience could simply be an unrepresentative sample—perhaps I have recalled my experiences correctly, but my experience itself has been unusual, coincidentally imbalanced. Or I could be choosing topics or presenting my work in a way that itself generates the imbalance—selecting for male interest and female disinterest, despite equal amounts of general interest in comics from both genders.

However—and sadly, I think this is the most plausible option—the explanation for my observations of a gendered experience within comics culture could simply be that, at least in American popular culture, comics culture tends to be predominantly male. In other words, within the wider “male pop culture” there exists a narrower field of male comics culture. And by “male comics culture” I mean something like: the majority of comic book fans are male, and correspondingly, content created by the comics industry is chiefly driven by this (perception of a) largely male audience.

Quick caveat: I just want to reiterate that my experience is a very American one. Mainstream American comics are superhero comics—and this is a particularly male strain of comics, in terms of its characters and creators and readers. It should be noted that, in other traditions (for example, Japanese comics), what counts as mainstream is different (i.e., manga), and this can give these comics cultures a different feel (for instance, as gender-balanced, or even predominantly female).

And now a qualifier of the caveat: this restriction of the scope of my claim about comics culture does not mean that this post applies only to the use of American comics within American classrooms. There’s a wider lesson here, about teaching more generally—a lesson which says that it’s important, when making an appeal to popular culture of any particular kind, to pay attention to whether that appeal is an inclusive or an exclusive one, and if it’s exclusive, to try and remedy that somehow. More on this in a bit.

Ok, one thing I could do next is to try and argue that this male comics culture really exists within the wider American popular culture, and/or explain why it exists. But I’d rather skip that part. I think that this is a place where a lot of ink has already been spilled (see this for discussion of a recent case; or see the classic Women in Refrigerators), and I’m not sure how productively. I’d rather talk instead about how to handle this rather unfortunate circumstance.

Of course, one thing to do about the situation is to try and change it for the better. And thankfully, there are a lot of impressive people working effectively on that angle. Check out the graphic novel Fun Home or comics like The Sandman: A Game of You or books like Pretty in Ink or websites like Has Boobs, Reads Comics or conferences like GeekGirlCon… just to name a few positive examples.

Obviously, there is a lot of effort going towards positive change, and that’s great. But there’s another dimension to the problem that also needs attention—and that’s the fact that we still need to know how to cope with the current situation, whilst also trying to change it for the better.

To restate the problem itself: I like to use tools from pop culture to increase student engagement in the classroom. But I worry about drawing from sources, like comics, that might appeal differently (or not at all) to some groups of students rather than others.

In fact, this worry is similar to one that I have with respect to the use of some very common examples in philosophy. For instance: slavery; the Holocaust; rape; domestic violence. I call these kinds of cases example tropes. This is because they are cases that come up very frequently in ethical discussion. Want to explain to students why cultural relativism is wrong? Bring up slavery, or the Holocaust. Want to discuss consent? Mention rape. How about diminished agency? Talk about victims of domestic violence.

The problem with these particular example tropes is that certain groups of people—namely, those belonging to the demographic consisting of standard victims for these offenses—tend to experience the mentioning of these cases differently than those who are not in that demographic. Mentioning these cases can alienate and discomfort the listener from that particular demographic; they can also elicit stereotype threat.

(Stereotype threat is the risk of diminished performance in a particular area by someone who is the victim of a negative stereotype about their abilities in that area. Demonstrations of stereotype threat include diminished performance by women on math tests after having to note their gender; or, diminished performance on standardized tests by African Americans after having to note their race. Basically, stereotype threat is activated when you remind the victim of a common negative stereotype of that stereotype before testing their acuity in a related area. To learn more about stereotype threat, please see this.)

I try to be very careful about using certain example tropes in the classroom—particularly, the ones that may activate stereotype threat in certain groups of my students. Sometimes, I just can’t avoid using a certain case, because it comes up in a particularly famous or important philosophical piece (after all, they are tropes). When this happens, I try and make sure to include a discussion about example tropes and stereotype threat during my discussion of the case itself and the ethical issue it is being applied to.

Now, returning to the issue of using comics to teach philosophy: I think that a similarly cautious and reflective approach can help to address the risk of using comics in the classroom, given their place in male pop culture.

More expressly, I have developed three distinct ways of handling the problem:

1. Use innocuous images and examples from visual arts without the male pop culture association.

2. Use comics and graphic novels that should have broad un-gendered appeal, if introduced along with efforts to overcome the general male comics culture association.

3. Use comics and graphic novels even if they might have a strikingly narrow range of appeal, but also treat this as an opportunity to have a discussion about things like gendered associations in pop culture, stereotype threat, and implicit bias.

About option 1: I have used this strategy to great effect when teaching paradoxes. Interestingly, I find that paradoxes are often difficult for students to grasp when explained in written or verbal form. But when some sort of visual aid accompanies this kind of explanation, students immediately get the idea.

For example, I frequently use the duck-rabbit and old woman-young lady images to explain the idea of contradiction itself. A contradiction occurs when something both is and isn’t the case at the very same time. Now look at the figures below:

Figure 1. The duck-rabbit (image in the public domain; originally printed in the 1896 Popular Science Monthly).

Figure 1. The duck-rabbit (image in the public domain; originally printed in the 1896 Popular Science Monthly).

Figure 2. The old woman and the young lady—hint: the old woman’s nose is the young lady’s chin (image in the public domain; originally printed as a German postcard in 1888, unknown illustrator).

Figure 2. The old woman and the young lady—hint: the old woman’s nose is the young lady’s chin (image in the public domain; originally printed as a German postcard in 1888, unknown illustrator).

Each of these pictures are of both one thing and another at the same time—and that’s a contradiction! Usually something is a duck, or a rabbit, but not both. And it’s not possible to be both a young lady and an old lady at the same time. But these pictures are both things at once: they are contradictions.

I’ve also used a light-to-dark color bar to explain the Sorites Paradox; and I think that M.C. Escher’s Möbius Strip II (Red Ants) perfectly illustrates the general concept of a paradox. Whenever I use these sorts of visual aids to help explain an idea, students that have been puzzled up to that point suddenly get it. (And as all teachers will know, that’s an incredibly satisfying moment.)

But moving on to option 2: I think that there are a lot of great comics and graphic novels out there that should have broad appeal. Two of my favorites to use in the classroom are Logicomix (for teaching logic and the history of philosophy) and Asterios Polyp (for teaching aesthetics and critical theory). But when I teach using these graphic novels, I make sure and incorporate something of a primer on reading comics into the discussion. I do not assume that everyone in the classroom is familiar with the culture; rather, I try and make the topic generally accessible regardless of prior level of familiarity and interest.

Finally, about option 3: in my experience, this is the trickiest one to handle in the classroom. However, I find it well worth the effort—at least in part because underrepresented students who have felt marginalized in the past tend to give, in my experience, extremely positive feedback (often in person) after having had these issues addressed (in the classroom).

Studies have suggested that there are various methods with which one can help students to overcome stereotype threat in the classroom. For instance, just learning about the existence of stereotype threat helps students begin to overcome it. Additionally, asking students to reflect on and write briefly about what matters to them prior to taking a test diminishes traditional gaps in performance (between men and women in math and physics, for example).

As I mentioned above, whenever I simply can’t avoid using an example trope that I think is particularly likely to activate stereotype threat in the classroom, I then introduce the term and conduct a discussion of stereotype threat with the class. And when I initially use comics with a group of students, I first ask them to recall a positive encounter with a comic. I have the students write or talk about their pleasant personal experiences first, in order to increase the chance of each student relating to and engaging with the topic, before moving on to using comics as a part of the lesson.

These are just a few of the ways that I have tried to mitigate exclusivity while encouraging engaging and inclusive teaching with comics within the philosophy classroom. In sum, these tools have enabled me to use comics in the classroom in just the sort of cautious and reflective way that I think is crucial to overcoming risks of selective appeal, gender bias, and stereotype threat. I get the pleasure of teaching with comics, minus the hazards. Happy teaching, everyone!

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. 2007. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Mariner Books.

Berlatsky, Noah. 2013. “Some of the Greatest, Most Popular Comic Books Are Feminist.” The Atlantic, August 13.

Dooley, Michael. 2013. “Taking Comics Seriously: for Insight, Inspiration, and Creative Transformation.” Print, July 10.

Doxiadis, Apostolos, Papadimitriou, Christos H., Papadatos, Alecos, & Di Donna, Annie. 2009. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. New York: Bloomsbury.

Gaiman, Neil. 1991. The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You. New York: DC Comics.

GeekGirlCon, Founders. 2011–Present. “GeekGirlCon” (annual conference). GeekGirlCon.

Mazzucchelli, David. 2009. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon Books.

Pantozzi, Jill. 2008–Present. “Has Boobs, Reads Comics” (blog). The Nerdy Bird.

Robbins, Trina. 2013. Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013. Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Simone, Gail. 1999. “Women in Refrigerators.” Women in Refrigerators, March.

Stoessner, Steven, Good, Catherine, & Webster, Lauren. Undated. “What is stereotype threat?” Reducing Stereotype Threat.

Joyce C. Havstad is a graduate student (ABD) in the Philosophy Department and Science Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. She specializes in the philosophies of biology, chemistry, and science, as well as in biomedical, environmental, and research ethics. She also loves to do work in feminism and various areas of non-traditional aesthetics, such as the philosophy of mass art and pop culture studies. You can find out more about her work in pop culture studies at, and about her other academic scholarship at

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Posted by on 2014/01/17 in educators, Guest Writers


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