Bob Hoffman has been an educator for 19 years, teaching across the Arts, Language Acquisition, and Mass Communication. In nearly every course taught, he has managed to inject the medium of comics via comic strips or graphic novels to great motivational effect. Bob has presented at comic cons around the world (including at the San Diego Comic Con) on the terrific opportunities awaiting students and teachers when comics are studied and created in the classroom.
You have incorporated using cartoons and comics into your teaching practice.
Can you tell us more about how this came about?
I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been using comics in some capacity from the very start. Having moved to the U.S. as a young child and knowing no English, I struggled to become literate. While the spoken language came quickly, the act of successfully reading and writing eluded me. That is, until I discovered comic strips and comic books. Having that visual context for not just the setting of the action, but specifically who was saying what, and how they were saying it, acted as a magic key to opening my reading comprehension.
Seeing a picture in a traditional children’s book, then trying to decode the language written below didn’t make much sense to me. But seeing Batman on a mission as he asked questions, explained a plan, and yelled at evildoers (all in different fonts, from detailed and varied angles, and accompanied by onomatopoeic sound effects) made everything clear.
What differences have you noticed in terms of student engagement as a result of using the comics?
An obvious and measurable increase in student engagement is always present when I (and other researchers) have introduced comics formally or informally in classes across many different disciplines, and at all levels of education. There is now a plethora of excellently-researched papers and books on the subject of the efficacy of comics in the classroom. My own published research, while inconclusive on the overall ability to boost language scores (in the college setting where the experiment was run), was without question a success in boosting student engagement and motivation.
In addition to being effective across various subjects and at primary, secondary, and tertiary education, it has now become clear that content delivered and elicited via comics transcends learning styles and in many cases, also supports those in need of differentiated learning.
You mentioned that ‘The reader reads the comic (at their own pace) and creates meaning from it by applying their own experiences’.
Could you please elaborate on this?
I learned about the various types of media we regularly ingest in my university study, gaining an understanding that not all media are created equal. When the Canadian philosopher and social scientist Marshall McLuhan’s concept of hot and cold media was introduced to me, it was not a big leap to apply the formula to comics. He himself cited comics as one of the new, effective “cool” or “low definition” media that require significantly more of the audience than a hot media like film, where the content is merely delivered to the viewer.
With comics, as with several other media, more conscious participation is required of the reader in order for them to follow and extract the story/information. I have a bad habit of racing through a comic very quickly in the first read through. Later, when I revisit it, knowing more of what to expect, I purposefully read slowly, allowing my eyes to seek meaning in the hidden (and often blatant) details positioned throughout a panel or page. It’s a fulfilling experience, where a personal connection is made to the material and it has been shown through rigorous studies that memories are far better cemented cognitively for later recall and analysis.
Could you explain in more detail how you see the role of comics in interdisciplinary units?
I teach in an IB curriculum, which makes a point of crossing and seeking connections between all studied disciplines. When students are tasked with identifying similar histories between subjects as disparate as, let’s say, Physical Education and Individuals and Societies (Social Studies), they find it much more natural to produce imagery than traditional prose to highlight their concept. For example, if a group decide to investigate and share the spread and development of Cricket across the former British Empire, it is much easier (and fun) for them to chunk their learning into sections (e.g. rules of the game, uniforms, changes over time, diplomacy, etc.) and then sketch these out visually as a timeline, online magazine, comic book, digital fable, and on and on. Removing this sequential storytelling leaves students with little option beyond merely writing a traditional essay. Which they already do often enough across their academic years.
When students have taken the initiative to develop a formative assessment in the form of a mini-comic or graphic novel excerpt, so long as the content satisfies the assessment criteria, they have nearly always earned praise and high marks from their teachers, regardless of the discipline in which they happen to be working.