Comics in Education: Dr. Katie Monnin
Ashley Kronsberg

Graphic Novels have had a historical year in literary acclaim with John Lewis' graphic novel memoir, March, winning the prestigious National Book Award. But even before this celebrated win, professors have been including graphic novels in their curriculum even in higher education courses. BookShelf Editor, Ashley Kronsberg, talks with educators about their use of graphic novels in their classrooms and the benefits they have in their curriculum.  In this addition we speak with Dr. Katie Monnin, Associate Professor of Literacy at the University of North Florida.


Diamond BookShelf: First and foremost, could you give us a little background on yourself? How long have you been teaching college courses, what do you teach, etc.?

Dr. Katie Monnin: About teaching and how I never intended to do so: I started teaching after undergraduate school at Ohio University in 1999 (Bachelor of Arts in English, Creative Writing, & American History).  I arrived at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio in the fall of 1999 (Masters of Arts in Composition and Rhetoric & English Literature).  At the University of Dayton I was offered a unique opportunity as a Master’s student to be thrown into “the teaching pool.”  Head first, all alone, and immediately!  I was horrified.

I neither wanted to nor planned to teach.  I didn’t have any experience teaching, other than teaching myself things that interested me since I was very small.  I didn’t realize teaching myself and challenging myself from a very young age would cease to be so frustrating (because I could and never can seem to learn enough!).  Teaching became liberating, a place for me to treat myself with kindness, the way I naturally treated others.  Teaching is somewhat selfish for me.  I feel like myself when I teach.  I feel like a critic when I learn. 

Maybe after another 15 or 20 years of life I’ll know why that is.  For now, I just know that that is truth.  I am a kind, caring teacher.  I am a hard-ass, intense, never-satisfied learner. 

Diamond BookShelf: When did you start incorporating graphic novels into your curriculum?

Dr. Katie Monnin: That’s a really good question.  Given the passion I can’t help but exude about graphic novels most people assume I’ve been reading comic books and graphic novels my whole life.  I haven’t.  In a lot of ways I have so much to do to catch up.  I feel like a fake when I go to a Comic Con or sign my books.  Yes, I am good at what I do.  But I just started!  Or so the secret goes . . . . Tell no one!

Actually, that whole catching up thing combined with the never-satisfied-and-self-critical-learner may be why I am so passionate.  I’m so far behind in reality.  Well, in my mind, anyways.  I want to know everything and there’s just not enough time. 

Sorry, the question: I read my first graphic novels, a compilation of Maus I and II, in 1999.  I was already 22 years old!  Everyone else I seemed to meet at any Comic Cons had been learning about comic books and graphic novels since their parents decided to paint their nursery either red and white for Marvel’s Spiderman or black and yellow for DC’s ever-vigilant Batman.  To make up for lost time my condo - TODAY - looks like a slew of heroes, villains, and every-other-cartoon-and-comic-book-character rampaged through the place, kind of like if San Diego Comic Con just dumps all their cool, spare stuff on my living space at the end of each July.  You should come over.  It’s certainly unique.

So it wasn't for a long while that I tried to integrate a graphic novel into my curriculum to teach.  First of all, I had to realize that I was a born, unbeknownst to me, teacher!  I did indeed need to know the word curriculum, understand what it meant, and teach accordingly; those steps took years.  Second, I had a questionable epiphany: Is it possible to integrate this love of teaching with a Peter Pan lifestyle of reading graphic novels all day?  I dreamt about and searched the world for a high-quality, well-respected, and progressive university that would share and encourage my vision.  I was only 2 hours and 15 minutes away from all those global searches.  Kent State University’s progressive and big, quotable names and research attracted me to some of the best and brightest readers in the world.  Readers who studied reading!  That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, I posthumously seemed to realize.  Now I just have to figure out what is so delicious about reading graphic novels and learning how to teach them.  How do I bring my two loves together?

While studying for my doctorate in literacy education I met Will Eisner.  Not literally.  But in spirit.  Pun intended.   Eisner wrote the first graphic novel (A Contract with God, 1978).  He also wrote a plethora of brilliantly thoughtful handbooks on the graphic novel reading and writing processes.  This was the solid grounding I needed to land on.  I had found my place in the academic world, and I assigned my first graphic novel.  With Eisner’s intellectual insight, in other words, I found the shoulders I could stand on.

Diamond BookShelf: Were you an avid graphic novel reader prior to teaching them in your classroom? And now that you have taught them, do you find yourself reading them more outside of the classroom?

Dr. Katie Monnin: I wish I would've - or better yet could’ve - been an avid graphic novel reader.  As soon as I learned about them I absolutely was.  Indeed I was!

I do find myself reading them more for pleasure.  That’s because - especially due to Eisner’s work - I realized that they operated on such a complex, literary-level.  In fact, the more I work with them the more I realize that high-quality literature should always have been, and will most certainly be in the upcoming century, both visual and textual.  Two mediums through which to tell a literary level story are certainly better than one!  I’m not sure why they have ever been in competition.  Right?  Why didn’t they just team up?  Well, now they have.  And we have the unique experience to be living during the time in history in which this global communication revolution is taking place.  It’s quite fantastic if you think about it. 

Diamond BookShelf: How has working with graphic novels evolved or changed your way of teaching?

Dr. Katie Monnin: 
It changed everything.  At 23 I would've bet my upcoming life’s income that I would be an English Literature Professor who wrote her own creative nonfiction about American history. 

When I read Maus, however, I realized that everything I thought made people so smart and a legitimate literary scholar was wrong.   Literature is larger than print-text could ever hope to capture by itself.  Literature can no longer be defined in a silo of understanding that singly places value on print-text literacies alone.  Print-text literacies share the stage with visual literacies in the 21st century. 

As a matter of social justice in the literacy world I feel as though I can help play a role in how we define literature today and onward in 21st century classrooms.  Literature is not bound by a certain expressive communication.  It is a shared story we tell using the most expressive literacies of our own time and place in history.  It is my hope that future generations of literacy scholars continue to redefine literature as they evolve and better understand how to communicate in their times and places in the world (and beyond) to come. 

Diamond BookShelf: Do you notice any differences among students’ interest or responsiveness to a topic working with a graphic novel as opposed to another literary format?

Dr. Katie Monnin: I turned 40 this year and a few years ago I started noticing that with each school year that goes by I have more and more students in my courses at the university who read - and respond to with corresponding enthusiasm - visual literacies as a natural preference.  What’s happening is this: The phenomenon the research and scholarly literature on new literacies predicted - following the visually-horrific-awakening we were forced to face on September 11th, 2001 during the American school day - is coming true.  We are living during the second greatest communication revolution of all time, a “new media age” as Gunther Kress’ refers to it, and although second historically to the first communication revolution (the 15th century invention of the printing press) its global impact is seismically more impactful.  Today, a host of inventions, technologies and countless other expressive and communication-based literacy vehicles are changing the way we read and write, globally.

So, yes, as I continue to assign graphic novels over time the resistance gets less and less each year, and the enthusiasm and coming-of-age familiarity becomes greater and greater.  It’s a phenomenon I’ve been collecting data on for a few years now.  Now that we talk about it I really should write an article or more about it, for it’s really inspiring that today’s next generation of readers and writers (Millennials in particular) may be reading and writing differently than we did.  Difference is often assumed to be bad, for it challenges the status quo and the familiar.  It changes what feels safe.  With literacy, however, we must be careful not to react too negatively to change; the history of literacy-learning is that learning to read and write has always evolved and changed.  For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s father chastised him relentlessly about his choice to move away from learning farming-based literacies and toward print-text literacies.  Thomas Lincoln thought that the print-text literacies of his time in history were radically offensive.  Being literate as a farmer is what would make Abraham Lincoln a successful American, his father thought.  I think it’s safe to say we can all see that he was wrong.  And this is just one example of a never-ending list of resistance to literacy progression throughout history. 

Thus, living during a time in history when we see the responsiveness to a new literacy change is epic and exciting.  I’m super-stoked to be living, teaching and studying this second (yes, only second!) great communication revolution.  I want to know the past in order to better understand what is happening in the present and most likely in the future.  Our future is in the future.  Hard to argue with that.

Diamond BookShelf: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach?

Dr. Katie Monnin: Persepolis is probably my favorite graphic novel to teach.  It’s more than rewarding to share the enormously heavy yet still-real-world perspective Marjane Satrapi shares not only about the Islamic Revolution, but also about a child’s intimate experiences while living through it. 

During a time in history when the United States is changing we need to think more in the education world about how well, or not so well, we teach social studies and civic-minded education.  Persepolis is one of the most organic and pure platforms from which we can broaden our students’ understandings of their place in the greater world, especially in reference to the historical significance behind issues still influencing Middle East politics and life.

For college professors looking to start using graphic novels in the classroom, which titles or publishers would you recommend as a starting point?

Depends on the discipline and unique area of specificity.  If I were to think about some of the most common areas in which graphic novels are starting to make an impact on discipline specific curricular needs I would recommend . . .

  1.  In Literacy Education: I would recommend that early reading instructors start with titles from Toon Books and First Second.  For middle and high school reading instructors I would recommend First Second again, as well as Scholastix Graphix, Image, Pantheon, and UDON.
  2. Social Studies: I would STRONGLY recommend Pantheon first and foremost.  Along with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (the Islamic Revolution) Pantheon publishes Maus I and II (the Holocaust).  Another few titles that stick out in my mind are Superman: Red Son (the Cold War), Stuck Rubber Baby (Civil Rights).
  3. In Math and Science: Capstone has an excellent third grade and up Science-based graphic novel series entitled Max Axiom.  First Second publishers also offers many scientifically enlightening graphic novels: Laika by Nick Abadzis, for one, and anything by Jim Ottoviani.

For all disciplines I would recommend reading Will Eisner and Scott McCloud’s titles first; both men have written a number of books unpacking and repacking all of the key terminology involved in reading and writing graphic novels.

About the Professor Dr. Katie Monnin is an Associate Professor of Literacy at the University of North Florida. Besides the joy that comes with reading comic books and graphic novels, Dr. Monnin enjoys a Peter Pan-ish life of researching and writing her own books about teaching comics, graphic novels, and cartoons: Teaching Graphic Novels (2010), Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels (2011), Using Content-Area Graphic Texts for Learning (2012), Teaching Reading Comprehension with Graphic Texts (2013), and Get Animated! Teaching 21st Century Early Reader and Young Adult Cartoons in Language Arts (2014); Teaching New Literacies in Elementary Language Arts (2015). When she is not writing (or sitting around wondering how she ended up making an awesome career out of studying comics and graphic novels), Dr. Monnin spends her time with her three wiener dogs, Samantha, Max, and Alex Morgan Monnin.