Would You Take A Class Called 'Sex, Drugs, And Rock 'N' Roll'?
Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego state university is using comics to teach students about critical thinking at a time when such skills are most needed. KPBS arts reporter, Beth Armando checks in on William cadet shows class on comics and history. He's a professor of English and comparative literature, and his unique approach starts with his course title. Speaker 2: 00:22 So bill, tell me about the class you are teaching and the title of it. Speaker 3: 00:27 Hi Lynn, the catalog is history and comics English one fifty seven, but I call it psychedelic mirrors, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They say that the humanities are dying, but it's just not true. We just haven't marketed them in the right way. So, uh, the focus of the class is on the human psyche and how a group of brilliant artists like, uh, Robert crumb and Dan Klaus, how they depict the intricacies of the human mind, but in comic books in graphic narrative. Speaker 2: 00:59 Now I know because schools are funded by tax dollars, people on the outside, looking in may look at something and say like, wait a minute, a class on comics seems kind of frivolous or irrelevant, but why is it important? Speaker 3: 01:11 Well, at least since mouse by art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer prize. One of the most dominant, huge growing fields in, uh, global literature is graphic narrative. Uh, here, there's a kind of synergy because we're in San Diego, California, the home of comic con and our English department here at San Diego state has a number of professors whose research focus is graphic narrative. So my colleagues and I are working in, uh, in what is a booming field of literary expression. Now in the United States, all too often, comic books are still associated with juvenile works. It works for kids, but light as in Japan and Italy. And now the United States, we have a rich tradition of adult storytelling that happens to take place with words and images. So tax dollars are being spent very responsible. Speaker 2: 02:07 Now, one of the things you mentioned in class today was that with literature, there are no specific answers. There's the sense of ambiguity. A lot of the times, because it's not like a science, why is it important to have classes like this and to get kids to really do critical. Speaker 3: 02:27 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 that we will encounter on a day-to-day lives as people on the planet. Uh, if anything, literature prepares us much more for life then, uh, of course in botany. So I have a deep and abiding love of the sciences and even of the sciences and the social scientific and a statistical approach to psychological phenomena. 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 a vocabulary for dealing with, um, literary phenomena, but that have intimate real-world applications. Speaker 2: 03:34 We talked about real world applications. We are currently at a time where there's fake news, there's the internet where you can find any kind of information to support any kind of belief you might have. So it seems like critical thinking is especially important right now. Speaker 3: 03:49 Yeah, you're absolutely right there. We've never had more of a need for, uh, our students to have the critical capacity to evaluate information. The problem is with the internet in general is that you can really quickly believe you're an expert at something by, you know, hitting three or four clickbait links, right? But this is not true. And the students know it. That's why the students are so happy to be back in the classrooms and why the professors is so happy most of us to be back in the classroom, because what happens there doesn't happen in any other place in the planet. The university is unique in this regard. We're not a store. We're not trying to sell you something. We're here to traffic in ideas and at a level that they may not get again. And I feel that pressure all the time today, I was lecturing on how Robert crumb and underground cartoonists frames, an early form of motion, pictures to show how susceptible people are to being racist pigs. Because 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. And so we've never needed critical thinking capacity more than in this generation of college students. Speaker 2: 05:11 And you mentioned, you know, being in person this year for your classes, what is the importance do you feel of having classes in person and what do you feel the engagement or the connection with students is? Speaker 3: 05:21 Well, like anything can happen, it's live theater, right? Um, what, what we have now in the classroom is a space for thought and performance and accountability. And there's nothing like it. There's really nothing. I, I guess it's come home to me because who knows how many years I've got left, I've been a professor 35 years. It comes home to me every day with more clarity that what we are able to achieve in the space of a university amphitheater needs to be safeguarded and cherished, especially now with more and more departments mandating what classes a student should take. And basically how you should think to become a certain major. Literature is one of the last places in the university for open dialogue thought and conflict, conflict, thoughtful, conflict, disagreement, argument, polemic, you know, like I was lecturing about today. And can we return to the title of the class, psychedelic mirrors and elaborate on what that means? Speaker 3: 06:25 I'm hitting them at once with multiple ideas, how literary works, comic books deal with the deepest, darkest corridors of human experience in the mind mirror, we can't get away from between Tik talk and their Instagram. They have digital mirrors on themselves broadcasting 24 7. So what I'm trying to do is have them develop a kind of, of critical consciousness with regard to their, how they represent themselves, but also the consequences of always being on camera at a deep, deep level. I'm interested in how the consciousness of our incoming student body let's say freshmen at SDSU. How have they been shaped by the very technology that they carry in their pockets? So the psychic mirror yet it's comic books. Yeah. We're studying the history of comic books in the 20th century. Looking at representative dynamic works that w that changed the medium, but also for the people in the classroom who are not English majors, who will never again take a course in the humanities. I'm trying to raise a analog and digital mirror to themselves so that they understand the consequences of watching. There's always a cost and a consequence for what we see. It's not just entertainment. It's not just selfies. They exert a cost. And I think part of my role in the class is to have the students examine that with me, Speaker 1: 08:06 SDSU psychedelic mirrors class continues through December to hear more from some of the students go to Beth's cinema junkie blog at kpbs.org/cinema junkie.
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."
"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.
"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."
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."
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.