David Seelow on Teaching with Comics and His Book Lessons Drawn

With over twenty-five years of experience in higher education, David Seelow’s career has been defined by his desire to develop new and innovative ways of educating students. In addition to his academic work, Seelow founded Revolutionary Learning – an organization that provides resources and consulting about game-based learning. Recently, Seelow edited a collection called Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels. This manuscript contains essays on how using graphic novels and comic books in a classroom can enable strategies that improve student engagement. Wanting to learn more about his career and Lessons Drawn, I was able to interview Seelow for Sequart.

You can learn more about Seelow by checking out Revolutionary Learning and by following him on Twitter at @davidfreeplay.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what pop culture franchises were you a fan of? Are there any that still make you feel young.

David Seelow: As a child in upstate New York in the early ‘60s, the idea of a media franchise did not really exist. However, three close friends and I all lived on the same street in Broadalbin. We became fans of superhero comics around the same time we became fans of the original Star Trek series. After high school graduation, we were all able to attend the Star Trek Convention — the 4th overall — in New York City. The father of my two older friends was an avid sci-fi reader, Amazing Stories, Asimov’s Foundation series and more.  We became sci-fi fans through his example and encouragement. Superhero comics seemed to go hand in hand with sci-fi for us. We collected comics not with the astuteness of a collector anticipating their eventual value, but more because we simply loved comics and took pride in owning each edition of a growing series. My earliest comic of note was The Amazing Spider-Man No. 3. I also owned the first issues of Daredevil, X-Men, and The Avengers. My friends owned the first Fantastic Four. This was the Silver Age of comics, so Marvel dominated our attention and collecting. I even joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society. So, Marvel superheroes and Star Trek and were the franchises I cherished. Perhaps, the only other franchise I had a passion for would be James Bond. I read all the Ian Fleming novels and watched the early Bond movies with Sean Connery.

As for today, when I read the first Harry Potter book, I felt quite young. Observing kids devouring these Victorian length novels filled me with pleasure. Today students are more likely to arrive at comics through film, TV, or video games than print, but seeing their excitement over the characters and their anticipation of a film opening gives me a sense of youthful enthusiasm as well. I also feel renewed exuberance when browsing through the latest issues of Aquaman or The Immortal Hulk at Midtown Comics in Manhattan or the local Earthworld comic bookstore near Saint Rose. Currently, I am a big fan of Marguerite Bennett’s series Animosity, and I loved Netflix’s series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Although, these two streaming series are more mature and complex than what I read as a youth, I approach them with the same excitement I did as a ten year old.

Yanes: A large portion of your career has been spent bridging academia with popular culture. When did this interest begin?

Seelow: When I taught my first literature class at the State University of Old Westbury in Fall 1991, I encountered a more diverse and urban student body than I had been accustomed to in graduate school. Through experiment, I discovered that using rap music and musicians from performers like Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J, who lived right in the college’s backyard, connected immediately with students.  In fact, the Humanities Club chaired by a Latina student asked me to give a talk for the club on rap. I hardly considered myself an expert, but the talk drew a capacity crowd with students passing by the classroom stopping wherever they were going to join in the talk. The audience knew much more than I did about the intricacies of this pop culture phenomenon, so I ended up moderating the audience’s animated discussion. The discussion ended up 3 hours long. I knew popular culture would be a way to reach students and make the curriculum relevant.

Yanes: On this note, what did your colleagues initially think about you bringing graphic novels into the classroom? Did you experience any push back?

Seelow: Colleagues have always been supportive of my methods. In fact, the public talk mentioned above was attended by the department chair, an expert on the History of Science, and he had nothing but positive words about using popular culture in the classroom. When I relocated from Long Island to Albany, New York, I started teaching a class on Introduction to Literature at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. I strove to expose the students to as wide a variety of literature as possible. To this end, my final class reading was a graphic novel. Largely engineering majors, these high achieving students loved the graphic novel. Since summer courses were few and open to more experiment, I proposed the Graphic Novel as a summer course. The university was supportive, and it soon became the department’s most popular summer course. When offered in the spring, the course reaches full enrollment the first hour of registration.

Yanes: As your career has gone on, how do you think popular culture studies have evolved? On this note and given the state of academia’s job market, what would you recommend to someone interested in pursuing an academic career examining popular culture?

Seelow: Except for Film Studies or Film and Literature, I recall very few courses on popular culture when I started teaching. The field of pop culture, along with Cultural Studies more generally, has grown rapidly across colleges and universities. You can now take a course on zombies, for instance, almost anywhere. Comics has also expanded with full programs at places like the University of Florida and the University of Dundee in Scotland being premiere examples. At the same time, when academia colonizes a new field the results can be mixed. The joy of reading comics can be drained by over wrought academic analyses that produce little read articles.

On one hand, I do not like seeing a new field simply become grist for dissertations and narrowly focused investigations, but on the other hand, popular culture offers new opportunities for serious scholarship that can clarify some of the misinformed public discussion around things like violence and video games. There may be more jobs teaching comics than when I started, but there are even less teaching opportunities in English or Humanities today than during my graduate school days, and there were very few jobs at that time. I would say graduate students today should approach popular culture as an area of inquiry that can be most helpful in researching, writing, and teaching about new media. We live in a social media saturated world and the ability to help students, who may read less than we like, navigate the misinformation, and uninformed talk that dominate public discourse can be a genuinely rewarding career. Perhaps Media Studies and Communications will be more practical than traditional English departments, but both should be included under the Humanities umbrella. Finally, graphic novels and fields like Medical Humanities, allow opportunities to bring STEM based disciplines into a more humanistic perspective, and careers that show how storytelling and narrative have impact across disciplines is a worthwhile pursuit for new academics.

Yanes: One of your recent projects is the book Lessons Drawn: Essays on Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels. What was the inspiration behind this project?

Seelow: An awareness that students respond well to comics and graphic novels. That superhero films dominate the box office and a belief that bringing what students care about and read outside of class into class will necessarily improve the class. This is equally true of high school and college.

Yanes: While collecting articles for this book, what were some topics that took you by surprise?

Seelow: Many ideas and practices caught my interest in unanticipated ways. Gerol Petruzella’s use of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series to teach philosophical inquiry about death showed me a way to teach abstract concepts in a way students could relate to and understand. How great that Jessica Baldanzi’s students could use comics as memoir to build self-esteem and cope more successfully with the stress of body image that girls face. This is something that would never have occurred to me. I loved how Lida Tsene in Athens, Greece used a “Writing with Pictures” workshop approach to comics in elementary school and could see that same approach as successful with high school, college, and even graduate school students.

Yanes: As you were finishing work on this book, how did it change your approach to using comic books in the classroom?

Seelow: I have made a greater effort to form and cultivate group or team based learning around ideas and characters from comics that feature teams or partners. I have used more hands-on in class work and been more active in giving feedback during in-class activities or workshops. Also, I have found that allowing students to shine as leaders helps their overall work. For example, in having teams assemble a soundtrack around an original idea for a film or TV series, I ask them to play the songs in class and discuss the reasoning for their selection. This always produces a good response and students feel very positive about the experience which has a cumulative benefit on future activities.

Yanes: Higher education is increasingly becoming results and data driven. What are some data points addressed in this book that you want more scholars to know of?

Seelow: Everything is data driven today, at times, almost ad nauseum. It has become what Historian Yuval Noah Harai calls “The Data Religion”. Watching the World Series, we can access everything imaginable about any situation — what does Jose Altuve hit with 2 outs against right-handed pitchers’ fastballs on the lower outside corner after the 7th inning? Data can always be useful, but we need to learn how to use the massive quantities of data. I have no hard evidence handy, but all the information we have about students does not strike me, as a classroom instructor, to have improved how we teach very much. In some ways, I think our expectations are lower today than my day, and the results are worse, despite data heaven. As a scholar working in the humanities, I have a healthy skepticism about the quantification of society and self.

What I would like teachers and professors to hear is that students love comics and graphic novels. They will read more and better if this literature becomes part of the curriculum. My class on superheroes at the College of Saint Rose fills to capacity immediately upon registration opening and retention has been 98% the last three years with no failures. That’s a fact worth remembering.

Yanes: When people finish reading Lessons Drawn: Essays on Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels, what do you hope they take away from it?

Seelow: First, that comics and graphic novels provide excellent options for instructors in any discipline or any level of education. They will promote discussion and help deepen inquiry. Second, comics build and strengthen multimodal literacy. Third, comics can turn students into fans and build classroom community just as they built fandoms. Fourth, after-school programs empower youth in a transformative fashion. Fifth, in-class learning needs to be as engaging as after school learning. Sixth, writing, drawing and publishing comics has the same value as analyzing, researching and writing about existing comics. Finally, I firmly believe we need to educate creative thinkers and innovators capable of imagining a future different than the present battlefield we occupy; otherwise accelerating climate change, global level biases, and expanding inequality will have a dire and rapidly approaching outcome. We cannot let the Joker have the last laugh. Educators must nurture students’ imagination and help them see a future of hope and possibility. We can’t rely on some superhero as a deus ex machina to save us from our own morass. We need to cultivate our own superheroes.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?

Seelow: I have three projects of passion in process. Closely related to Lessons Drawn, I plan to edit a book on using games and game-based thinking, mostly video games, but also table-top games, to teach in middle and high school. Games are another form of popular culture, and they have the potential to totally transform K-12 education. A second passion is to finish writing a book on Revolutionary Learning that addresses the failure of standardized testing, the inertia of formal learning, institutional stagnation, and the dead end of formal grading systems. In the place of these failures I want to offer learning through things like game-based Experience Points or the intercultural perspective of travel represented by the late Anthony Bourdain. Finally, I am slowly writing my own memoir about lifelong learning, life as an educator, and a parallel life as adventurer in subcultures, popular cultures and just plain culture.

Remember, you can learn more about Seelow by checking out Revolutionary Learning and by following him on Twitter at @davidfreeplay.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on Twitter @Sequart and on Facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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