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Arts & Culture

Would You Take A Class Called 'Sex, Drugs, And Rock 'N' Roll'?

Professor William Nericcio is shown in his office at SDSU in San Diego, Calif. He uses comic books to teach students about critical thinking. Sept. 7, 2021
Roland Lizarondo
Professor William Nericcio is shown in his office at SDSU in San Diego, Calif. He uses comic books to teach students about critical thinking. Sept. 7, 2021

SDSU uses comics to teach students how to think critically in an age of disinformation

How do you make a class with the unexciting title of English 157 attractive to college students? Call it "Psychedelic Mirrors: Sex, Drugs and Rock 'N' Roll."

Would You Take A Class Called ‘Psychedelic Mirrors’?

"They say that the humanities are dying, but it's just not true. We just haven't marketed them in the right way," explained William Nericcio, professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University. And his marketing worked on Anika Huff.

Would You Take A Class Called 'Sex, Drugs, And Rock 'N' Roll'?
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

"Usually, it's Intro to Anthropology or Poly Sci 101," Huff said. "So 'Psychedelic Mirrors' was something out of the ordinary and it was something that like mirrors are looking into yourself, like self discovery, looking through the eyes of someone who could possibly be on psychedelics, like just a very, very strange, very rare and unique name for a course."

Students in the "Psychedelic Mirrors" class at SDSU in San Diego, Calif. Sept. 7, 2021
Roland Lizarondo
Students in the "Psychedelic Mirrors" class at SDSU in San Diego, Calif. Sept. 7, 2021

So she signed up. Officially, the course is on history and comics. For Nericcio's class the texts include a biography of Franz Kafka by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz, and "Freud for Beginners" by Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate.

Nericcio said, "The focus of the class is on the human psyche and how a group of brilliant artists like Robert Crumb and Dan Clowes, how they depict the intricacies of the human mind. But in comic books."

Some tax payers might think a course on comic books is a waste of their money but it’s not said student Mei Yen Sung.

"Comics may seem not as important as other academic subjects, but I feel like comics is something that's very interactive," Sung said. "Some people who might be more visual learners or some people who see comics as entertainment can also get educational value, and they could also see a lot of information and other things through comics."

Huff agrees, "I think it's more than just comics. I think it's critical thinking. I think it's analyzing text that one might just overlook as something that's a bunch of cartoons. I think it's important to always think for yourself and that kind of critical thinking. That's what fake news and Tik Tok and Instagram have kind of stripped away from people recently is their ability to think for themselves."

An excerpt from the book "Kafka" is shown in this undated photo. SDSU professor William Nericcio has students dissect images like this one, which asks them to consider how images they see can lead to racism.
William Nericcio
An excerpt from the book "Kafka" is shown in this undated photo. SDSU professor William Nericcio has students dissect images like this one, which asks them to consider how images they see can lead to racism.

Nericcio sees comics as a way to get these students to think and for this class to think critically about how the images they see can affect them.

"Today I was lecturing on how Robert Crumb, an underground cartoonist, frames an early form of motion pictures to show how susceptible people are to being racist pigs. If we see it in the movies, we're going to believe it. If we hear it on TV, we're going to believe it. If we see it on the Internet, we're going to believe it."

Josue Arredondo, who is also in the class, added, "Bill is not just a consumer of images. He also challenges students to deeply understand images. The world is awash with information and disinformation and it's important to teach people to understand what the message is through the image but also understand what the implications are of the image itself and to think deeply through. 'OK, so I'm consuming this image. What does it mean for my thoughts? What does it mean for my actions?'"

The challenge for these students is that the humanities don’t always have answers but rather serve up ambiguities that need further exploration.

"Each one of us will be confronted by ambiguities every day, and it's in literature, not in equations, that we confront the kinds of problems, the kind of twisted people, the kind of bothersome intellects, annoying folks that we will encounter in our day-to-day lives as people on the planet. If anything, literature prepares us much more for life than a course in botany. And I love botanists. I love the sciences. But that's not going to move you at the end of the day. At the end of the day, it's going to be a movie, it's going to be a novel, could be a poem. It could be a work of art that's going to stay in your consciousness. And so it's my job as a professor to try to give this next generation of students a kind of vocabulary for dealing with literary phenomena, but that have intimate, real world applications."

His students appreciate that complexity.

"Instead of trying to find a specific answer, you're really just broadening your own world perspective and the concepts and ideas that you might have already to become a more mature person and know more about the world," Sung stated. "So you can be a person that can contribute to society. So not necessarily as much about finding a specific answer, but maybe becoming someone who's more open minded and overall well-rounded."

That’s why we need classes like "Psychedelic Mirrors."

"Literature is one of the last places in the University for open dialogue, thought and conflict, thoughtful conflict, disagreement, argument, polemic. We've never had more of a need for our students to have the critical capacity to evaluate information," Nericcio said.

With digital mirrors in their pockets, social media bombarding them with images, and a Google search letting anyone think they’re an expert, young people need to be encouraged to question the images and information they’re exposed to and to think for themselves.