Comics in Education: Stephen Sohn
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.  Kicking off this series is professor Stephen Sohn, a Professor of English at UC Riverside.

Ashley Kronsberg (AK): 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.?

Stephen Sohn (SS):  I am an Associate Professor of English at UC Riverside. I’ve been teaching college courses since I was a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara. I typically teach contemporary American literature, with a specific focus on minority and ethnic writers. For more information on me, go here: http://english.ucr.edu/people/faculty/stephen-hong-sohn/ 

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

SS: I started teaching a graphic novel course at Stanford in approximately 2010. The course focused on American graphic novelists of Asian descent. 

AK: 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?

SS: When I grew up, I read a lot of comic books. In fact, as part of my lecture on graphic novels, I always incorporate a portion in which I admit that I used to save my lunch money and spend it on comics. I mostly read comics out of Marvel, one of the big mainstream presses. My favorite comics were in the X-Men universe, which included a host of ten or so titles at that time. I don’t necessarily read more graphic novels now just because I teach them, but I am always on the lookout for any graphic novel or narrative that is receiving a lot of buzz.

SS: Well, I tend to teach graphic novels through the lens of race and ethnicity, so I have been pushed to consider how it is that race and ethnicity can be marked in the visual realm. The complication is that artists do not want to fall into the trap of stereotypical representations, so there is some level of nuance required in the portrayal and depiction of the ethnic minority subject.

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

I’ve also learned to be more courageous about creative and collaborative assignments due to teaching graphic novels, as I always assign a group project at the end of the course in which students must work together to create a “mini comic.” This group project always produces great work from the students. 

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

SS: Definitely. Students these days are so literate in visual formats, such as film, social media, music videos and the like, so the graphic novel is certainly a something that they enjoy reading and discussing. 

AK: Is there a specific lesson plan that has become your “go-to” when teaching graphic novels?

SS: Sort of. I always try to teach some formal elements of the graphic novel, especially via the work of Scott McCloud. Students should know basic terminology such as the panel, closure, dialogue bubbles, and captioning. Otherwise, I tend to teach graphic novels based upon the content of the individual work. 

AK: What are the major differences you’ve experienced with teaching a graphic novel as opposed to other formats?

SS: Well, because I tend to teach print literatures without visual images predominantly, the major difference is really asking the students to analyze images alongside written prose and text. This intersectionality can present challenges, but it’s the kind of challenge that they’re definitely willing to take on. 

AK: Have there been any big challenges with using graphic novels? What have been the major rewards of teaching them?

SS: The biggest challenge teaching a graphic novel is when a press does not choose to paginate the graphic novel. This problem happens more than you would think. One of the biggest rewards of teaching the graphic novel is that students are emboldened by the fact that higher education can embrace a form that might be seen as lowbrow or unworthy of study. My hope is always to expand how students can use their critical thinking no matter the format or medium.

AK: What has been your favorite graphic novel to teach? If different, what has seemed to be the overall favorite amongst your students?

SS: Definitely Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, precisely because it’s a picture book with no words, so I guess it’s not exactly a graphic novel per se, but it’s beautifully rendered and requires students to see that narratives can be created without any words at all.

AK: What graphic novels, if any, are currently built in to your curriculum for the upcoming semesters?

SS: I most recently assigned Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress (Volume 1) for my trauma theory and Asian American literature course.

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

SS: I wouldn’t necessarily go with publishers. I would definitely start by reading developing “canon” of graphic novels, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis and go from there. I’d also recommend immediately reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

 And finally, a fun one – what are a couple of your favorite graphic novels of all time for personal pleasure and why?

SS: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was one of my absolute favorites because it offered such an insightful and creative depiction of the memoir through the visual apparatus. I also really enjoyed Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, which I have taught numerous times. This one is adore because it presents a mixed race protagonist who is navigating the perilous terrain of high school social relationships. Students can always relate to this protagonist, who is a little bit of a misfit, but nonetheless perseveres through various dilemmas. I also really have fun reading and re-reading Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki’s Tina’s Mouth, another work that centers of a high school protagonist. This particular graphic novel always cracks me up. As you notice from this list, I also try to emphasize reading work by artists of a variety of backgrounds. It’s important for me, for instance, to promote the work of female graphic novelists and artist/illustrators because they can be overshadowed in this particular area.


To join the conversation, please contact Ashley Kronsberg at kashley@diamondcomics.com.


Stephen Sohn

Stephen Hong Sohn has edited or co-edited a number of different works and special issues, including Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits (Temple University Press, 2006); Studies in the Literary Imagination (SLI, Vol. 37.1, Spring 2004) on Asian American Literature; MELUS (Winter 2008) on the topic of “Alien/Asian”; and Modern Fiction Studies on the topic of “Theorizing Asian American Fiction” (2010). Articles have appeared or are forthcoming in American QuarterlyCultural CritiqueJournal of Asian American StudiesModern Fiction StudiesStudies in the Literary Imagination, and the Southeast Asian Review of English (SARE). He was co-chair of The Circle for Asian American Literary Studies (CAALS), a literature society affiliated with the American Literature Association from 2006-2008. He recently co-edited Karen Tei Yamashita’s Anime Wong: Fictions of Performance (Coffee House Press, 2014). His first book, Racial Asymmetries (New York University Press, 2014), focuses on contemporary Asian American fictional production, social context methodology, and aesthetic practices. A second book is currently in progress, exploring gender and sexuality in Asian American cultural production. He also is founder and moderator of Asian American Literature Fans, an open access website devoted to reviews and discussions in the field.