Preview the Gender through Comics SuperMOOC Panel
by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Manager of Editorial Services
On August 23, GeekGirlCon announced that Christine Blanch will be presenting a panel at the 2013 Con on her Super Massive Open Online Course (SuperMOOC), Gender Through Comic Books. Expected appearances on the panel include Jen Van Meter, Mark Waid, Greg Rucka, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. I caught up with a few of the panelists to get you a preview of what you can expect when you attend the panel. I asked about the motivation for the course itself and why our panelists participated in the course.
Blanch: “Gender through Comic Books was a class that I offered in the Women and Gender Studies department. The iLearn department at Ball State came to me and asked if I would be interested in teaching my class as a MOOC (a massive, open, online course) and since I love teaching any class using comics as the texts, I jumped at the chance. I think there is a huge need for courses like this because media is so instrumental in how people think about everything and most of us don’t even realize the impact. This class makes you take a step back and really consider the context of what we are reading and how we are processing it. I think it really did fill an area in the industry and in education for those who know that comics are more than ‘picture books’ and that want to have educational discussions about them without any negativity.”
Van Meter: “I’ve known Christy Blanch for a few years now, and been an admirer both of her involvement in the developing academic discourses around comics as texts and also of her really innovative approaches to using comics as teaching tools in a variety of classroom settings. She’s got, I think, a really fearless and imaginative sense of how to use comics to invite student engagement and interaction with the topic and the text, and she has a passionate interest in comics as a fan, creator, and scholar. I would have been honored to be of use to her for any project, so when she asked if she could interview me for something as ambitious and exciting as the SuperMOOC, I was absolutely on board.
I expected it would be a deeply rewarding experience, and it truly was; even as only an interviewee and remote observer, seeing some of the participant interactions, commentary and final projects just blew my mind. When I was in grad school, an advisor once told me that when we’re teaching well, we’re learning more than we’re teaching and our students are learning as much from one another as they are from us; I really feel like the MOOC became a fantastic example of that, and of the amazing potential of web-based learning environments.”
Waid: “I honestly thought it was a great cause. I had faith in the instructor; I’ve spoken in her classes before. And I was eager to see how effectively comics’ highly developed and effective social media networks would deliver the message and deliver students, and I was NOT disappointed.”
DeConnick: “Ooh, Christina asked, and it was about two of my favorite topics! So I wanted to see what I might learn from it.”
GeekGirlCon ‘13 is a great opportunity for these amazing professionals to reunite and talk about some of the highlights of this innovative and popular course. I asked our panelists why they chose to bring a panel about the Gender through Comic Books SuperMOOC to GeekGirlCon ‘13.
Van Meter: “It’s kind of self-evident that a course devoted to looking at how we talk about gender by looking at the way one of our popular art mediums—with a huge fan culture and quite a lot of influence on TV and Film—talks about gender seems to me the sort of thing a lot of [GeekGirlCon] participants would be interested in; there’s a lot of obvious crossover.
That said, what I think is maybe more special about the MOOC is that, while there are great classes using comics to talk about gender, race, class—all kinds of things, really—in college classrooms all over the world, it’s still pretty rare, and what happens in those classrooms tends to stay in those classrooms or get shared with smaller communities of, usually, other academics. There’s not a lot of ‘drift’ from the academic discourse about comics out into the world of general fandom, from what I’ve seen. With a 7000-participant MOOC, a lot of people took the course who wouldn’t have had access to it any other way, which is great in and of itself, but also a lot of people who took it only because they were fans of the writers and artists participating were exposed to a mode of talking and thinking about representation and replication of cultural attitudes that is often missing or misunderstood in the dreaded comments sections or on the message boards.”
Blanch: “I have always wanted to go to GeekGirlCon. Always. I was on the fence about going then Greg Rucka said that he and Jen really wanted me to go, so I did! I am bringing my 13-year-old geek girl, and I hope this is a great experience for her, too. She was picked on in school because she is not a ‘normal’ girl as she loves comics and video games, so I think this will be just what she needs. For the community, the whole class was really about community and gender. We had discussions about geek girls and why there is a divide between males and females in the fan base. I think GeekGirlCon is a perfect venue to talk about the same things we discussed in the class.”
Attendees of the panel will get to see how the comics industry professionals interacted with students in the MOOC.
Blanch: “We will walk through the entire class and how it was presented. We will focus on the interviews somewhat as we have such great guests on the panel that participated in the course. However, several of our panelists were also enrolled in the course, so we can get their thoughts about the material and the reaction in the comics industry.
I cannot say enough about how supportive the comics industry has been with the MOOC. I even had to turn people down because we didn’t have enough time. The students were so excited for the interviews and all of the professionals were floored by the awesome questions the students asked. I think it was refreshing for the pros because the questions weren’t the same questions they get asked all the time. Several of the questions stumped the pros. And also many of the pros went on Twitter and answered the questions that we couldn’t get to in the live interviews. It was amazing. And every pro sent me a note about how enjoyable the interview was and how impressed they were with the students. I was so proud of both the comics industry as a whole and of my fantastic students. This group of students never ceased to amaze me.”
Waid: “I loved the rapid-fire nature of the tweeted questions, for which I had no answers prepared in advance; it forced me to go with my gut and be definitively honest with my answers rather than risk giving out ‘canned’ responses.”
Each professional involved in the course had different topics to focus on. Kelly Sue DeConnick was interviewed for the course on a week entitled “Who is producing comic book culture?” and the theme was comic books as a medium of communication.
DeConnick: “I guess I don’t consciously use it as a tool of communication because it’s not a dialogue. Hmm, there’s no way to talk about this without sounding wildly pretentious—yes, I understand this is not a high art, but I approach it as an artistic endeavor, and I try to make my stories about something. And even when I don’t try to make my stories about something, they tend to be about something. I tend to find there’s a theme I’m exploring whether I’m conscious [of it] or not. Anytime there’s something I have mixed feelings about, those tend to be my best stories, because it’s me turning it over in my head trying to figure it out. So I guess I don’t use it very well, as a method of communication!
Now I am communicating with my artist, because it’s a collaborative art form. So in producing the script, I’m writing them a letter that is an exploration of this idea, and then they take that letter and they explore the idea and the visuals. Then the thing we have produced, we have produced in equal parts and I suppose it is a dialogue between the artist and I. But I don’t view it as a dialogue with the reader. Then the reader can take those ideas and make their own.”
Waid: “Well, first off, by not being obvious and shining a spotlight on it, I think anything is best learned through the arts when it’s part of an entertaining story, not the subject of a treatise. Comics does its best job teaching gender roles when it isn’t trying to, when it’s just letting characters be characters and people be people and stories be stories, without a message.”
Van Meter has a strong presence in comic books’ counterpart manga. She explores a hypothetical situation of what a similar course on manga would look like.
Van Meter: “With any text-based syllabus, figuring out where to draw the boundaries, just so you have something you can work with in terms of time, text-cost, reading burden, it’s so hard. I don’t envy the task Christy set for herself when she sat down to choose a reading list and a framework for the discussion.
My sense—and this is by no means an expert or well-researched conclusion, just a gut feeling—is that you would need a fairly significant chunk of ‘classroom’ time devoted to some expert presentations on genre within manga, tropes, codes, and traits within the form, as well as some really articulate and respectful assessments of the different ways comics work and have been viewed in their ‘home’ cultures. If you could get enough breadth and depth of understanding there, it could be really interesting to then dig into what’s going on with distribution, narrative styles, and gender representation that has made some American/Western readers, especially young women, find manga to be the more welcoming or engaging entry to reading comics.”
In general, Waid had a great time in his participation in the course.
Waid: “I’m always eager to help spread knowledge and talk about what we do. I stayed as long as I could after the class and answered questions via Twitter; another week, I’d taken it upon myself to help out the instructor because I knew she was encountering some technical difficulties with that week’s interviewee and figured I could keep the students entertained for a bit with an impromptu Q&A. I’m here to help!”
Didn’t get to participate in the SuperMOOC? Check out the panel at GeekGirlCon ‘13. Did you participate in the Gender Through Comic Books Massive Open Online Course? Hear details you may have missed ‘behind-the-scenes.’ Either way, there’s more to come from Blanch.
Blanch: “Through my comic book store, I am starting a comic book of the month course we are calling SuperMOOC squared—Super Massive Open Online Comics Community. We will choose several books for the month and on our webpage have lectures, articles, videos, and more, very similar to the Gender MOOC. We will also have live interviews with comics creators once or twice a month! The great thing is that we are getting comic book stores around the country involved, too, by including them. All they have to do is sell the books and give their customers that take part room to meet and have a roundtable discussion once a month! We are also going to make the books available through Comixology so that people overseas can also participate! We are still setting everything up but it’s going to be so great!”