Graphic Novels, Innovative Teaching, and Student Engagement in the Classroom

Superhero image from graphic novel could provide more enticing content for students

As an instructor who has taught courses in the social sciences, humanities, and interdisciplinary fields, I’ve often considered the ways in which course readings can be more engaging for the variety of students in these classrooms. Over the past several years, I’ve found that graphic novels resonate with students in a more interactive and impactful fashion than that of a traditional textbook.

Broadly defined, graphic novels are works of fiction, non-fiction, and anthologies that use a comic-strip or image-based format. As I found during my time in the classroom, these texts offer a number of clear benefits to students despite their field of study. In response, I’ll discuss how these non-traditional texts can assist faculty with the following: incorporating differentiated instruction into their curriculum, increasing student engagement with course materials, and supporting diverse student demographics.

Incorporating Differentiated Instruction

For instructors unfamiliar with the term, differentiated instruction is defined by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) as “an approach to teaching in which educators actively plan for students’ differences so that all students can best learn.” As such, differentiated instruction is the act of planning for a diverse set of learners, and building course content around this framework is, of course, particularly helpful for introductory or survey courses.

By using a graphic novel in combination with other texts, instructors can plan for differences in learning styles. In doing so, an instructor can help to provide more opportunities for visual learners who may engage their readings and contribute to in-class discussions in different ways than auditory learners do. In addition to planning around differences in student learning styles, graphic novels also provide opportunities for students to sharpen their visual literacy skills, which is an area often overlooked in fields like the social sciences and STEM.

Increasing Student Engagement

While graphic novels can also account for a variety of different learners in the classroom, I’ve also noticed that these texts help to increase student engagement, particularly in reading groups within the course. To demonstrate how a graphic novel can increase engagement in the classroom, I’d like to share an anecdote from my time teaching PSC 326: The Politics of Race, Class, and Gender, which was a condensed Saturday session course that I led each semester for three years.

During my first semester teaching this course, I used more traditional academic texts. This—in combination with the often-times emotionally taxing content—made encouraging engagement in discussions somewhat challenging. During the next semester, I added a graphic novel to give the course a more straightforward, though still quite relevant, reading. My hope was that such a text could help provide a foundation for me to build a strong final discussion with my students, while also showcasing the importance of art to social justice activism.

In that next semester, I assigned Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which focuses on the ways in which identities like race and class affected the experiences of survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The following discussion centered upon the ways in which natural disasters and the corresponding federal response can lead to instances of gerrymandering in impacted communities. Compared to the traditional academic text from the previous semester, the graphic novel helped facilitate a meaningfully intentional discussion across the whole of the class in a much more humanizing and frank way. In short, my experiment of using this graphic novel to increase student engagement was a resounding success.

Supporting Diverse Student Demographics

After my positive experience with the Neufeld text in my PSC 326 course, I then sought to incorporate graphic novels into my other courses too. While the goal of differentiated instruction and increasing student engagement were my initial goals, I realized that my PSC 326 students also appreciated the diverse personal narratives that were present in the graphic novel. With that in mind, I soon made a selection for my interdisciplinary course, UNIV 2500: Gender, Sexuality, and Community.

For this course, I assigned Meg-John Barker’s Queer: A Graphic History, which discusses major concepts developed in the field of queer theory. In this class, my students used this as a reference to the various lectures and other readings throughout the term, and I had equally positive responses with the impact of the text. Simply put, this isn’t surprising, particularly since many students of color and LGBTQ+ students fail to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and course readings.

The success of implementing graphic novels into my PSC 326, UNIV 2500, and various other courses (such as POLS 2072Q: Quantitative Analysis in Political Science) also demonstrates the ability of graphic novels to support diverse student demographics across disciplinary boundaries. While it may seem that the humanities are more well-equipped to use such a text, the rise in popularity of graphic novels allows for other disciplines to assign similar readings with this in mind. For instance, instructors in computer science courses may be interested in utilizing a text like Jim Ottaviani’s The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, which recounts the life of the father of modern computer science.

In short, the so-called ‘boom’ in graphic novel production has provided a number of opportunities for instructors to consider these non-traditional texts for their courses. Further, graphic novels can provide a number of benefits like those discussed in this short article. While not every course or instructor may be well suited to use such a non-traditional text, the experiences of my students demonstrate that we, as their instructors, should consider these texts as viable options for course readings, particularly given the clear pedagogical benefits that they can provide.

Join Timothy R. Bussey on August 13 for a live online seminar, Increase Student Engagement, Inclusion, and Visual Literacy with Graphic Novels. During the program individuals will learn how incorporating graphic novels into a college course can help faculty members achieve practical learning outcomes via differentiated instruction; support diverse student populations such as students of color and LGBTQ+ students; and provide students with practical skills such as visual literacy. 

Dorian Rhea Debussy is the associate director for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kenyon College, where they specialize in fostering LGBTQ+ inclusion and equity on campus. Previously, they also served as a visiting assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kenyon College, where they taught the college’s first permanent queer studies course. They have nearly a decade of teaching experience—both in-person and online—at major research universities, mid-sized institutions, and smaller liberal arts colleges. Their recent works have been published by Magna Publication’s Faculty Focus, The Conversation, BUST magazine, and The Gay & Lesbian Review among others. Their research interests are LGBTQ+ politics, LGBTQ+ educational support, and queer military history.