Though illustrations have been used to convey ideas and information since before language existed, after Benjamin Franklin published the world’s first editorial cartoon in 1754, comics emerged a distinct avenue for visual storytelling.
Now, comic art has come into classrooms at UC Merced and abroad, as educators are using illustrations in new ways — to teach complex concepts and assess whether students grasp those lessons.
Inspired to try an educational experiment by the diversity and newness of UC Merced, then-graduate student Chris Fradkin asked his upper-division abnormal psychology students to draw comic panels as exam answers to questions about schizophrenia, depression and other difficult topics.
“Especially for students whose first language isn’t English, this was a way for them to show me they understood,” he said. “Often, the first-generation students are insecure because they don’t have the same vocabulary as other students, but they are very bright, and they found this way of answering questions empowering. Plus, with the visuals, I could tell in five seconds if the student really grasped the concepts.”
It’s not a matter of convenience, said Fradkin, who now teaches in Brazil as part of his Fulbright Scholarship, though it did cut the time he spent grading tests. Visuals can help students communicate across languages or communicate touchy subjects.
Other teachers, including former UC Merced political science Professor Emily Hencken Ritter , found that using comic books and graphic novels to enhance the curriculum helps students gain a far greater understanding of subjects.
“I had my students read the graphic novel series ‘March,’ which is really hundreds of pages about 10 years of the Civil Rights Movement, in two days,” she said. “They came back with in-depth understanding of very complex ideas and situations, and they remembered them and were able to talk about them in ways other classes couldn’t for a long time after the assigned reading.”
Her husband, Darick, an artist, has a passion for communicating science through art , and illustrated one of the comics she used, called “Segregation by Design.” That comic is one he drew for political science Professor Jessica Trounstine’s new book, “ Segregation by Design ,” which will be available in print at the end of October.
“It’s surprising how many people art reaches,” Darick Ritter said. “It’s how many people learn. You can get so much information so rapidly from images, and comics can convey a lot of information very quickly.”
Emily Ritter said it’s widely known that people often have an easier time remembering what they see over what they read, and that people remember stories better than they remember long lists of information.
Comics are a way of telling stories that get information through to students.
Fradkin said he didn’t use comics to teach, but to assess, because the concepts he was asking students to learn weren’t the kinds that students could just put on flash cards and memorize.
Trounstine agreed and said that was why she chose to use a comic book to be the first eight pages of her book, which is geared toward academics, not students.
“The comic is a really distilled interpretation of the book,” she said. “My book is for other political scientists, but it’s still important that we be able to translate our work to non-scientists, too.”
The process of coming up with the story for Darick Ritter to illustrate helped her hone how she explained the tricky subject of structural racism.
Emily Ritter said she chose to use the comic in her class because she wouldn’t have been able to assign Trounstine’s book to her undergraduate students, but she wanted them to learn about the concept of racism that’s built into the systems we all operate under, such as buying a home.
“People of color know this story in a way white people don’t,” Trounstine said. “What happens in the comic is that even though the characters don’t mean to perpetuate segregation, they do.”
Fradkin, who published several papers on using comics as tools — including using superheroes as a resource for vulnerable children — said this kind of teaching and assessment is not for every instructor or every class. Designing rubrics for this presents a challenge.
But in the right situations, he, the Ritters and Trounstine all agreed that teachers have to feel free to be creative and use what works best for their students.
“When I prepared the students for exams and told them they’d be asked to draw their answers,” Fradkin said, “all of a sudden their eyes lit up. For the first time, some of these students felt like they were on an even playing field, and I could watch their confidence bloom before my eyes.”