teaching, comics and autobiography

Last week, Kate and I spent some time at the OLA conference problematizing the “teacher” label, as it works in the context of library instruction.  So it was a little surprising that after coming home from Bend and then busting up to Portland, the main thing I wanted to buy at the Stumptown Comics Fest was all about teaching:

To Teach: The Journey, In Comics
William Ayers & Ryan Alexander Tanner
Teachers College Press
2010

Stumptown was really excellent this year.  We brought the kiddo and introduced one of her friends to the experience — I kind of wanted to spend my whole time spying on them to see what they bought, but I restrained myself.  I haven’t been to many comics festivals, but I’ve heard that Stumptown is kind of unique.  Portland is a major creative center for comics, and a lot of the people showing are both local and national, if that makes sense.  It’s also very artist-writer-creator focused.  It’s not that there aren’t local comics publishers – there totally are and they’re present, but they don’t overwhelm the event as a celebration of all of the individual creativity that produces these works.

So, To Teach.  Written by William Ayers with art by Ryan Alexander-Tanner (but the process as depicted in the book itself was more collaborative than that implies).

We have a rule that we look at everything before buying and Stumptown is still small enough to make that possible.

(Shaun totally broke the rule this year, though.  Just so you know)

The artist was off doing a “Teaching with Comics” panel when I went back to buy this book (I didn’t break the rule) so I don’t have a cool signature in my copy.  But if he had been there, this is what he would have looked like:

Creative Commons licensed by Ocean Yamaha at flickr.

But he has my money, which is the important thing. The book is a comics version of William Ayers’ memoir To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. It’s deeply autobiographical, very opinionated and pretty inspiring.

For us in libraries, yes, much of it talks about the kind of deep knowledge of our students that we can’t get in the one-shot.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here for us, even in that context.  Not just for credit course teachers, this book.

First, right up front there’s a big section on myths, and how myths about teaching can be destructive — this connects back to those posts from last year about hegemonic assumptions and many of the other insights in one of my other favorite teaching books — Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

These are the myths that must be slain:

  1. Kids today are worse than ever before
  2. Teachers always know what’s going on in the classroom
  3. The teacher’s work is to “save” the children
  4. Good teachers are good performers
  5. All children are above average (this one is about the idea that there is an average)
  6. Good teachers always know the material

Want to see how this all plays out in comics?  Here’s a little sample of the art.

(There’s more at the TCP link above)

Chapters include ideas about how to really “see” students, building learning environments, assessment, what curricula is good for (and what it isn’t), and teaching/learning as a constant cycle.  Woven throughout is the idea that autobiography is a crucial lens for the teacher.

Two more pieces really jumped out at me thinking about the library context — one piece directly from the interviews Kate and I have been thinking about — the role of self-criticism in improvement.  Ayers says that if we’re never self-critical then we can’t improve.  That makes sense.  He also says that if we’re too self-critical then we become “powerless and timid.”

That also makes a lot of sense.  One of the things that Kate and I talked about at the Information Literacy Summit a couple of years ago was how much responsibility we take on to ourselves as library teachers.  We asked for stories in that long-ago project and one of our prompts was “tell us about a situation that haunts you.”  We got so many stories about situations way beyond that which any individual could control, but threading through much of it was the sense that those situations are always salvageable, if only we’re flexible, or prepared, or quick-witted enough.

So yes, self-criticism good – in moderation.

The other piece that struck me as especially useful to think about was about the broader environment — the school.  This was presented in a series of panels about “good schools”

  • Good schools are geared toward continuous improvement
  • Good schools are powered by core values that are explicit, apparent, and embodied in daily life.
  • Good schools have high expectations for all learners.  Students feel nourished and challenged in the same gesture.
  • Good schools are always unique: Each is the creation of particular people working to bring their vision to life in classrooms.
  • Good schools are places where lots of good teachers have been gathered together and allowed to teach.

These ideas are important, I think, because it can be easy to feel disconnected in library instruction — we have volumes of literature and mountains of conversation about this in terms of the library’s relationship to the college or the university.  But I also think this is worth talking about in terms of the library.  Libraries aren’t schools, but they do provide a context that shapes the teaching experience.  I know there are academic libraries that have explicit, apparent, embodied in daily life core values that inform and nourish library teaching — but I don’t know that I think all of them do.  I’m not sure what that means, but I do think it’s worth thinking about.

So, I’m still poking at the “teacher” label in my mind and in conversations with others – which is I think entirely consistent with this book, and the others like it that push us to question the assumptions underlying those labels, and to do what we do when “teaching” intentionally and critically.

comics & copyright, but not comics-specific

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the explosion of copyright discussion surrounding Emily the Strange and Nate the Great (and the alleged intersections between the two).  I read probably more than my share of comics news, and most of it entirely passed me by.

At issue, does this character:

equal this character:

(The one in the top right corner).

It’s an interesting case if you’re interested in copyright, copyleft, creativity and the like – Shaun outlines a lot of the salient points here – both about the situation itself, and about the discussion of the situation.

Because there’s a picture going around that looks like this -

rosamond-emily

He argues, really well, that to focus on that physical similarity is to miss the point, or what should be the point:

However unoriginal her figure maybe, Emily is not a direct copy of Rosamond. She is an adaptation. Most importantly, the two characters exist in entirely different contexts. The fact that Rosamond is a supporting character in someone else’s narrative while Emily is at the center of her own storyworld, is, or should be, the most salient point in this discussion

….

Copyright should afford people, and notably the actual creators of a work, protection against actual plagiarism, or at least a right to proper attribution, but that is a far distance from being able to lock up all references to, pieces of, or derivations of a work, especially in, or something very much approaching, perpetuity. The fact that creators and other copyright owners feel compelled, and empowered, to assert such rights is a threat to continued creativity.

Lots to think about.

Holy publishing model shift, Batman!

So I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at different models for scholarly publishing preparing for this presentation, and what always happens happened – the themes start showing up everywhere. I went to visit the Top Shelf comic site the other day and found this — anticipation-building countdown. Intriguing!

Countdown on the Top Shelf site

Investigation led to this story at Publisher’s Weekly. Top Shelf 2.0 is a new site devoted to webcomics – editor Leigh Walton and Top Shelf founder Brett Warnock hope to capture and keep readers’ attention by publishing new webcomics regularly and often — every weekday something new will be posted. It may be an installment in a larger serialized work, or a quick one-shot.

The countdown counted down and now there’s webcomics to look at. I haven’t been through them all (they launched the site with a small collection of comics – varying in style, theme, and intended audience) but there’s some cool-looking stuff there.

Here’s a tiny glimpse – that does no justice to the real thing – of the splash page wrapping up the first installment of Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu:

Sneak peek at the splash page of Infinite Kung Fu, installment #1

To Publisher’s Weekly, Walton talked about the benefits of the web platform as a publisher. Some of the themes echo what we’ve heard in the scholarly world – the digital world means we don’t have to worry about space limitations, we can take more risks about what we publish and how much we publish — we don’t need the same return on our publishing investment because we haven’t invested as much, or at least we haven’t invested the same. But he also talks about some things more specific to the comics world:

“The most obvious difference [with webcomics] is color—something that we’re still using very sparingly in our print publications, but on the web is completely unlimited,” added Walton. “What excites me the most about working with young artists—those, like me, born after 1980—is that we’ve grown up with computers, and that affects the comics that we make. Whereas it would have been unthinkable for an “alternative comic artist” of Chester Brown’s generation to work in color (for economic reasons), for a lot of these new folks, it’s unthinkable to do it any other way.”

I love the color palette in Jed McGowan’s evocative Western-themed comic, Cookie Duster. Go – read!

Jed McGowan\'s Cookie Duster, page 5

So this is still a site focused on the consumption of information with no room for reader-generated content, remixing or conversation. But I think calling this Top Shelf 2.0 is fair enough — the creators retain control over their work, and the site feels like a step away from web publishing where we just apply the metaphors and practices of the print world and put them on the web. It’ll be interesting to see if more steps in that direction are forthcoming.

what do comics and documentary filmmaking have to do with libraries?

Nothing, really? Except maybe…

I spent the weekend working on a project Shaun is just starting – a documentary that takes a geographic look at why Portland has become such a central place for comics creators and publishers. He’s had to push his production schedule way up because the Stumptown Comics Fest, which has been in September, moved to April. So he doesn’t have the student crew he is planning to have yet (if you know a talented student filmmaker at OSU or WOU who would like some independent study credit – email me) and none of his volunteer crew was available on short notice to spend the weekend in Portland.

So it was just him and me filming 24-Hour-Comics-Day. That really means it was just him, with me to do the stuff that required more than 2 hands – holding the mike was a big part of my day. The 24 hours in question extended from 10 am Saturday morning to 10 am Sunday morning, and the artists and writers who participated spent this time around a table at Cosmic Monkey comics in northeast Portland. Their task was to produce a 24-page comic in 24 hours from start to finish.

Around 20 people signed up for the event, about 20 showed up and about 20 were there much of the time — but as Leigh Walton (who liveblogged the whole event – check it out) said, they weren’t always the same 20 people. When we walked back in on Sunday morning there weren’t 20 people there, but there were more than 10 and some of the people who were gone were gone because they were done already.

(No, we didn’t stay the whole night. The camera did.)

The people there ranged from first-timers who may or may not have ever put together a comic of this length, to established names like Jim Valentino (creator of Normalman), Neal Skorpen (doing his fifth 24 hour event) and David Chelsea (participating in his TENTH 24 hour event). And people were doing the event for all kinds of reasons – which is one of the more interesting things about these timed, creative contests I think.

When we do things like the 48 hour film project or the IDC, it’s usually to see how good of a film we can make in that period of time, yes. And when we talk to people about how we’ve just done a short film in 2 days or a documentary in 5, that marathon-like aspect of it is what people focus on — the idea that you do these things like people run a marathon, to see if you CAN do these things. If you have what it takes, the strength, the speed the stamina, or whatever. And there’s a “best time” variation on that — even if you know you CAN create a comic in 24 hours or make a movie in 48, there’s still – how good of a thing can you make in that time?

But with these creative contests – there are so many more reasons why people do these things. When we do the film contests part of it is pulling a community together in our smallish part of the state that’s interested in this kind of creativity – the Willamette Valley Film Collective idea. And that community aspect also came through loud and clear this past weekend — Shaun was thinking about how doing film as his scholarship is interesting because unlike writing books or articles, you can’t make a movie all by yourself. At the very least, you need your wife to hold the mike. And the artists and writers in the room were on the opposite side of things – what they do, they do by themselves a lot and having the chance to do it in a room with other people was part of the draw.

But another reason why people do these things – has nothing to do with marathons at all. Some people sign up for NaNoWriMo, 48 Hour Film, Script Frenzy, International Documentary Challenge or Madison’s Mercury Theater Blitz not to see if they can create a play or novel or movie in that time period – but to see if they can create a play or comic or movie or novel at all. Whether because they need the deadline, or the community of people doing the same thing fuels the competitive drive, or because they haven’t been able to manage doing it a little at a time and they need the excuse to just drop everything and put some sustained effort towards creating — they think “this is how I can finally get it done.”

So what has this to do with libraries? Well, probably nothing. But after I went to Picture Poetry to read the live blog of the event, I stuck around a bit reading Leigh Walton’s posts about Portland and comics and publishing — and I was struck by this older entry which starts off with the observation that “the distribution and retail network for comics is broken like whoa.”

The post itself is mainly a long excerpt from another person who is explaining why he shops online for comics instead of supporting his local shops — and if you read it, doesn’t it sound a lot like people talking about libraries? I mean, there’s the overwhelming difference that if you choose between an online shop and a brick and mortar shop you’re choosing where to spend your money, while if you choose Amazon over your library you’re choosing TO spend money — but other than that, a lot of what they’re saying sounds exactly like what we say in libraries — even down to the “let’s put a coffee shop in to be more welcoming.”

Which gets me thinking about the community aspect of things – and the role that the community plays in supporting people who just want to see if they can do stuff, produce stuff, create stuff, and more that the 24 hour comics drawpocalypse represented. In other words, I think I’m saying if we’re just a place to consume information, whether that information takes the form of comic books or academic books, I’m not sure we can compete with the Amazons and what have you. I mean, I’d rather do the consuming part at home on my couch, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal, because we’re about more than consumption. One of the reasons that people get out and go to their local yarn store is for Stitch and Bitch night, one of the reasons people go out to the comic store is to draw a comic in 24 hours — libraries are also spaces where people don’t just consume, but also create, and create together with other creators — how can we build more into that aspect of what we are.