Comics, Video Games, and Theoretical Fluency

For the almost two years of its existence, this website has been an e-portfolio dressed up in a blog’s clothing, with some static pages of information and an updated CV. Inspired by Katy Meyers’s April 3 GradHacker column, I’ll be experimenting this month with posting here twice-weekly with my academic-related thoughts.

To start off, within the past few days I’ve been working on the syllabus and promotional materials for a summer art history course on comics, as well as on organizing a “game night” later this month as a preview for a fall semester symposium series on video games.

My research and readings on comics and video games have taken me in interesting places, with a fair amount of unsurprising overlap. Taking a glance at Mark Sample’s graphic novel syllabi for inspiration, I took the time to read some of the linked articles on general popular culture criticism he assigns for the first week his grad level class. Heeding Sample’s instructions, I not only read Ian Bogost’s Against Aca-Fandom and Henry Jenkins’s On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism, but the extensive comments following Bogost’s post as well. Impressive that Bogost, Jenkins, Jason Mittell, Sample, and others engage in such extensive (and civil) dialogue refining points and challenging assumptions made in Bogost’s post and related articles, as well as expanding on points that were glossed over or only barely touched on in the initial work.

However…the comment that struck closest to home was the following:

I love this! Not only for the insightful post, Ian, but for the conversation thundering through your comments section. It’s a nice peek behind the curtain of media scholarship for those of us who haven’t spent much time backstage.

Conversations like this are bound to get a little clubby in the end, bound to circle the adorno/zizek/buffy drain eventually. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. If it’s true that scholars need to make more kinds of things, then I wonder how they can make more things that appeal to more people, including (maybe especially) people who don’t look, act, or talk like them. Not saying you need to trash adorno, zizek, or buffy, of course–as Mickey Knox would say, it’s pretty hard to beat the king. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to have this conversation in ways that welcome voices of people from outside of the troupe.

Which is totally true. Part of this may be my coming from art history, and a traditional department at that, but my fluency with all the theory being tossed around is pretty slim. Adorno, Zizek, the Frankfurt School, Stuart Hall…all things/folks mentioned in asides with comfort and ease that are totally unfamiliar to me (and another Benjamin, I only have a passing familiarity with).

It’s daunting to realize you need a bibliography in order to comprehend a comments discussion. The commentator phrases her point in a way that encourages the participants to think about non-scholars, but in using “scholars” she’s really referring to media (television, video games, digital humanities) scholars. And to be honest, I gave up on the comments about halfway through as they continued to parley in philosophical theories and insider catchphrases.

The more I read on comics and video games, the more I feel unprepared to teach them appropriately in a college setting. Which is sad, because I’ve been teaching this class since 2010, before I’d even heard of the aforementioned influential scholars. Hell, I hadn’t heard of Mittell and Jenkins until last month.

I enjoy teaching the class on comics. I thought it was successful in 2010, and even better in 2011. My hope is that the 2012 iteration will be even better still, though I haven’t quite figured out what changes I’ll be making yet, other than knowing I’ll be making them. My students enjoyed the class, and truly seemed to learn critical approaches to comics as narratives and art. Hell, I’ve even given two conference presentations related to the class, and have two book chapters forthcoming drawing from it – one presentation and chapter each on pedagogy and on interpretations of materials I use in the class. That said, there’s no question that the class operates a step or two down intellectually from even Sample’s undergraduate-level class. 

Is it alright to be satisfied with the results of the class and with the level of scholarship I’m operating at? I’m not proud, per se, to know that Bogost, Jenkins, et al. are out there and not engage with them, but I’m okay with it for the purposes of my class and even for the scholarship I’ve produced so far. However, knowing that’s what’s out there is also a strong negative reinforcement to not try to do much more or dig much further. With a dissertation, other academic projects, and a life to lead, devoting the months and years to develop the level of fluency demonstrated by the commentators at Bogost’s site is far more than I’m able to give. I wholeheartedly respect that scholarship, and hope to be able to wiggle my way deeper, inch by inch, at my own pace.


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