Many English departments are beginning to offer courses on graphic novels, which integrate text and visual imagery. Graphic novels are increasingly studied alongside traditional literature, in some cases supplanting more standard text-based curricula.
For example, one course at UNC Chapel Hill titled “The Visual and Graphic Narrative” can be taken to satisfy the literary appreciation part of a student’s general education requirements. (Students are only required to take one literary appreciation class.) The university also offers a course titled “Comics as Literature” as a first-year seminar.
Given these courses’ rising popularity among students, administrators and instructors may view them in terms of their ability to renew student interest in the humanities. But while graphic novels do have artistic merit, and are of aesthetic interest, the rise of undergraduate courses on graphic novels is problematic.
One reason is the majority of graphic novels tend to advance political agendas. The graphic novels found on course syllabi and on reading lists often deal with controversial political issues such as social justice, immigration, gay rights, etc. This is part of a larger trend in the humanities, where focus often is on oppression and identity politics.
For example, “Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick appears often on syllabi and has been described as an “intersectionally feminist text.” The graphic novel is about “a woman’s failure to comply with her patriarchal overlords.”
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with reading about these topics or with discussing them. But what is particularly concerning about assigning these politically charged books is it seems to be part of a larger push to rid the university of its traditional focus, and to push a social justice agenda.
For example, last semester N.C. State University English professor Maggie Simon gave a talk titled “Comics and Graphic Novels — The New Literature.” In her talk, Simon praised graphic novels because, in her view, “such texts invite students to encounter complex and often uncomfortable iterations of marginalized identities.”
In addition to the fact graphic novels often are used to further a political agenda, it seems they don’t possess the same merit as traditional literature. Given students’ limited time in college, it’s pressing they be presented with more intellectually demanding readings. This is especially true when a student’s general education course may be the only exposure to literature the or she receives during college.
As Neil Postman argues in his book “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” “learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories.” Even though there are many ways to learn, Postman suggests the written word is most effective in training students to think about complex ideas.
His primary argument in favor of the written word is that “[reading is] essentially a rational activity” and thus is most conducive to developing strong and coherent reasoning skills. It’s difficult to believe reading a graphic novel could do the same in this regard as having to digest, say, “The Iliad.”
Texts without pictures require students to exercise abstract reasoning in comprehending the meaning of the text, leaving the accompanying visualizations to their own imagination. The images found in graphic novels, on the other hand, remove much of the need for students to exercise their intellects to process the main ideas.
While graphic novels are not capable of the same literary complexity as written books, this does not mean they don’t have their own aesthetic value. Although they should not constitute the entirety of a student’s exposure to literature in college, their artistic qualities are worthy of being studied, even in a university setting.
Perhaps instead of being used to fulfill general education requirements, it would be more reasonable that graphic novels be studied in upper division elective courses. In other words, such courses should build upon the student’s already firm foundation in books from the literary canon.
Graphic novels should not substitute written texts in satisfying students’ literary arts requirements, especially when the motive behind the assignments is often political in nature. Universities should instead present students with works of literature that will truly challenge their minds and strengthen their ability to reason. Graphic novels can complement, but cannot replace, the canon in fulfilling this role.
Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.