By Clay Evans
For the University of Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine
“People are still very protective and squeamish about the notion of literature,” says William Kuskin, leaning back in his chair outside a Starbuck’s near the University of Colorado Boulder campus on a warm October afternoon. “As a category, it’s still somewhat sacrosanct.”
This from a professor of English—and department chair—who says teaching Chaucer “is one of the wonderful experiences in my professional lifetime,” who can riff with ease on how the mostly forgotten 16th-century English writer John Lydgate—“whose work was deemed pointless junk”—is a necessary precursor to Spenser.
Yet when a reporter sheepishly acknowledges a fondness for a certain superhero associated with bats and the voluminous mythology that has grown up around his tragic tale, Kuskin grins and tugs at a sleeve to reveal an enormous Batman tattoo.
Which contradiction no doubt figured in his selection to teach a CU-Boulder MOOC—massive open online course—on Comic Books and Graphic Novels.
“The safe choice,” Kuskin says, “would have been something like literature of the West.”
Yet of four MOOCs—which typically have a completion rate of around 4 percent—launched in the fall of 2013, Kuskin’s has been the most popular and at mid-semester, has held more students.
MOOCs were also offered in computer programming, electronics and introductory physics.
“We were interested in offering a course on graphic novels since they provide an excellent way to introduce students to the ways in which we read texts and images,” says Professor of English and Humanities and Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty Affairs Jeffrey Cox, who was on the committee that chose the four MOOC courses.
“The graphic novel is a key form of popular literature, one that our students care about deeply, that has moved from ‘pulp’ to ‘art’ in our lifetimes.”
Kuskin, who has had a life-long interest in the comic-book and graphic-novel forms, agrees that the genre is particularly well-suited to a MOOC. He also understands that people who don’t know the form may still think of it as mere wish-fulfillment for teen boys or cheap, cheesy entertainment, a la “Archie” or “Richie Rich.”
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As he explores in the seven-week course, some graphic work is legitimately seen as great literature, from Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”—a postmodern examination of Nazism that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992—to Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero myth, “Watchmen,” to comic artists such as Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware being published in The New Yorker.
“We are at a great moment of real creativity right now,” Kuskin says.
The course begins with the “golden age” of comics, initiated by the creation of Superman in 1938 and Batman in 1939, progresses through the 1950s, when the U.S. Senate heavy-handedly censored comic content to prevent the “corruption” of youth, to a 1980s Renaissance and into an era where calling graphic novels “literature” won’t automatically get you laughed out of an English department.
Tim Foss’ comic-book look at the William Kuskin’s MOOC experiment. Click here to see larger image.
Kuskin has come to think of graphic work as akin to poetry.
“Novels are an unadorned container for an endless stream of prose,” he says. “The comic writer and artist have to encounter the shape of the page. They are married to the physical layout of the page so every page is a poem, adding up to long poems.”
Asked to identify five “must read” graphic works for the uninitiated, Kuskin can’t quite keep himself to the limit: “Maus,” “Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns,” Ware’s “Building Stories,” “Fun Home,” Alison Bechtel’s memoir about coming out as a lesbian, as well as “City of Glass: The Graphic Novel,” based on Paul Auster’s novel of the same name, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli and “The Underwater Welder” by Jeff Lemire. He could go on, but that’s a start.
Kuskin says it’s been a blast teaching the MOOC, but the experience also has illuminated some limitations of the format.
“I’ve taught many an online course, but this blows it out. The amount of work is stunning. If I’m teaching 30,000 people, I’d better be right on every damned detail. I can’t just get up and wing it one day,” he says.
He understands that MOOCs are likely to become more popular—Georgia Tech now offers entire master’s degree programs via MOOC, and Phoenix University has essentially been doing the same thing for years—but says they fall short of the way he really wants to teach.
“There is a whole planetoid paying attention out there, but man, it’s really isolating. There is ego reinforcement, knowing all those people are out there and you have a ‘fan base,’ but that replaces the organic nature of teaching,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s a replacement for good teaching, but I do think it can enliven our teaching, lead us to question some things we take for granted”—for example, a 15-week semester with a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday class rotation—“just because we’ve done it for so many years. Maybe we can put more emphasis on professor contact at certain times in the semester, and rote learning at other times.”