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July 25, 2009

OP-ED: Graphic Texts in the College Classroom


Doré Ripley is a lecturer at Cal State East Bay and an adjunct professor at Diablo Valley College. She specializes in intensive writing and, this year, two of her students took first and second place in the CSUEB annual essay contest. You can visit her on the web at

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is routinely studied in college philosophy, sociology, and literature classrooms because of its symbolism and themes of alienation and guilt. The idea of a traveling salesman awaking from troubling dreams to find himself transformed into a bug not only creates a limitless reservoir for interpretation and class discussion, but also makes a great premise for a graphic novel. That’s why I use Peter Kuper’s (Spy vs. Spy) adaptation of Metamorphosis in my intensive writing college classroom.

Intensive writing, or what was once called remediation, is filled with students who are uncomfortable with texts. They don’t want to read them and they don’t want to write them because they haven’t been successful with the written word. So when my students arrive with the graphic Metamorphosis in hand, I know they think my class is going to be easy. And that is my goal. If students believe intensive reading and writing is going to be fairly painless, they will relax long enough to think critically about what is going on in the novel’s panels. Instead of parroting back written text, they’ll have to interpret the panels, and in this case, add to Kafka’s dialogue about alienation. I concentrate on the theme of alienation because many of these students are first-generation English speakers who are as alienated from their old-world parents as they are from American mainstream society.

We study the visual Metamorphosis using a guide created for one of the myriad traditional textbooks. It encourages an in-depth analysis of the text’s presentation of family, work, and social dynamics, issues surrounding insanity, and vocabulary. An important student outcome is expanding college-level vocabulary, and in this case, students locate graphic definitions for words like admonish, supine, and vermin. Visual learners excel at this exercise, often beating out the textual learners when chasing down visual definitions. And what’s more, the visual vocabulary seems to “stick,” showing up properly used in student essays.

In this coming school year, the first essay prompt asks the student to write a narrative about a time when he or she was an outsider and is the basis for their own graphic novel due at the end of the semester. I have presented this essay before but never required students to create their own visual texts. Students will create an avatar as the hero of their graphic novel, writing a descriptive paragraph of him, her, or it, thereby mirroring the metamorphosis of Franz Kafka’s main character from salesman to bug. By using an avatar in student graphic novels, I am hoping to free students from the chronological monotony of their own alienation, catapulting them into the conversation presented by Kafka’s essay. The final essay is a process essay where students provide the step-by-step development of their graphic essay, from choosing words and graphics to creating the actual finished product. Narrative, descriptive, and process papers are common modes of development taught in intensive writing college classrooms.

I have received some resistance to the graphic novel project with critics seeing it as inappropriate in the writing classroom, but I disagree. One of the biggest problems I see in beginning college writers is their tendency to say the same thing over and over and over again. It drives me crazy and is especially prominent among recent high-school graduates. Building a graphic essay is a lesson in concision, using the minimum amount of words to get to the point quickly instead of wandering around for pages on some roundabout quest to seemingly annoy the instructor. I am confident students will not paste the same panels together, one next to another, but instead will be textually precise and let their pictures do most of the talking.

Projects are a standard part of the college classrooms, but students often spend more time creating awesome PowerPoint slides or posters than on their written work. I often have to resist writing, “I wish you spent as much time on your papers as you obviously did on this project,” and this time, I’m going to let the students grade each other. The majority of the points are reserved for the rhetoric of the assignment—how the students got their messages across—while the remainder of the points will be awarded for creativity.

So what’s going to happen? I’m not exactly sure, but then I’m never exactly sure. One thing I do know: This semester will be different. Instead of presenting these assignments to a classroom of traditional-age college students, I will be teaching a room of returning students, a group I have little experience with (other than having been one myself). I’ll let you know how things unfold.