Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lynne Cheney's Educational Think Tank: "Comics Aren't Literature"

OK, so maybe my headline is a little doomerific or whatever, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt, but the other day I noticed a piece by Stanley Fish on his New York Times blog about the standards of teaching English and writing to college students. After spending three and a half years as a tutor at the Michigan State University Writing Center, this is something I've read up on and talked about in a professional setting extensively, and like Fish, I was surprised to find myself agreeing with some of the thoughts behind the American Council of Trustees and Alumni's – a conservative think tank co-founded by Lynne Cheney – recent report on educational requirements in the core disciplines.

Not to bore all y'all to tears with the ins and outs of this, but the piece of the report and Fish's take on it that's germane to our discussion centers on the ACTA's harping after undergrad students' need to take classes covering the practical, core basics of disciplines like math, history, literature and composition. At face level, this makes perfect sense (especially to a guy who spent most of his undergrad years wondering why he had to take classes in multiplying number matrices when biology majors were never asked to diagram a complex sentence), but when you get into the group's specific findings and recommendation, things get a bit harrier.

First of all, the report gave grades to universities in their ability to properly teach their students core curriculum. Schools that received and "F" grade include Brown , Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Vassar. Seriously. My own beloved Alma mater got a "B," and despite my pride in being a Spartan, I've got to admit that folks coming out of the "F" list just may be a little more accomplished than my average classmate. Possibly.

The disconnect comes a little clearer when you look at the qualifications for which classes the ACTA found unworthy of undergrad's time. For example, the University of California Berkeley lost points for counting "Wildland Fire Science" as science requirements (because I guess studying wild fires in Southern California is a waste of time), and Carnegie Mellon University took knocks for having "Major Works of Modern Poetry" in the literature program (I can't even make a joke about that one it's so confusing to me).

Fish pointed out one particular bit of anti-nerd bias in the write-up of one of New Hampshire's better known institutes, as the ACTA said:
Dartmouth College: No credit given for Literature as the Literature requirement may be fulfilled with niche courses such as "Bob Dylan" or "The Graphic Novel" – a course about comic books.
And look, maybe he and I are both overreacting a bit when we take a little offense to the group citing these pop culture courses, but at the same time, this entire report should come as a reminder to the public in general that despite the need to constantly check our higher education institutes to make sure they're preparing students with the best information and training possible, we also can't let specialized, cutting edge or even counter-cultural programs get sidelined from the schools that are supposes to be exploring and defending areas of our society that have little protection elsewhere. I mean, it's pretty obvious that although the quotes above are used because they denote the official title of a college course, the ACTA uses them the same way my mom uses air quotes when noting how she's "really excited" to go back to teaching next week.

And more importantly for comics fans, this should help us note that for all the extra sales we've banked up in a business sense thanks to libraries, online sellers and big bookstore chains, some of the earliest adopters of comics as a piece of worthwhile culture were America's universities. I doubt Fish would be citing graphic novels as "a multi-media art that goes back at least as far as William Blake" without his academic background. Hell, when I was at MSU, not only was I able to dive into one of the premier comic collections anywhere whenever I felt like biking to the library, I also knew of teachers using books like Understanding Comics, Watchmen and Maus as in-class texts. And since then, more and more great comics have found champions at universities (academic support for Fun Home comes to mind for one).

So to wrap up in short: fuck the ACTA, and please go check out more comics from Noah Van Sciver from whom I stole the above, slightly topical image.


Brian said...

Hey Kiel, follow this link: and skip to about the 3:25 mark for Patton Oswalt's take on the intersection of pop culture / scfi in college.

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