Superheroes Lend a Hand in Literacy: Guest Post by Cindy McMann

Cindy McMann of Wilfred Laurier University extols the virtues of using popular literature, like superhero comics, as a way to teach literacy and other 21st century skills.  

Tell us about how you’ve worked superheroes into your literature classes.  What inspired you to do so?

I try to incorporate a graphic novel or collection into most of the contemporary classes I teach. I was at first very practically inspired by their ability to seem really short and easy to read, and as an instructor trying to get my students to keep up with the workload, this was an appealing way to do it. What I found, though, was that comic books and superheroes gave students the chance to look at “serious” cultural questions through a popular lens. For most students, that’s an important realization – that movies and books that are supposed to be “brain candy” aren’t messageless. Even works that feature aliens in alternate dimensions are about our world. There’s no artwork that doesn’t make a statement about the culture out of which it comes.

How, in your experience, have learners reacted differently to this material?  Are there different skills or perspectives to be gained from it?

At best, they’ve reacted by becoming interested in the kinds of social statements that are being made, even in places where they wouldn’t suspect that sophisticated supports and critiques of culture were happening.

At worst, though this has been a small minority, students have been put off by superhero lit. There’s such a complicated history to them and such a set of reading skills required of them that they didn’t feel they could identify, which is too bad.

Learning to read pictures as well as words is a really necessary skill that comics develop, especially if we can learn to be attentive enough to see when the words and the visuals aren’t saying the same thing. We live in such a visual culture that it’s important to be able to figure out what stories the ads, the logos, and the pictures around us are telling us.

Beyond academic learning objectives, can including superhero literature like comics enable learners to develop personal skills?

For sure. You can learn all about what not to do in personal relationships, how to sabotage your own life goals, and how to get captured for petty crimes. Superheroes are epic – off the scale – and their personal lives reflect that. They’re supposed to provide a moral compass, but they also give us a really solid idea of what not to do.

You cover this material at the university level.  Do you think younger learners would benefit from it as well?  Is there an age that’s too young?

There’s no age that’s too young. Superhero comics are about “good” and “evil” – the same kinds of stories we tell our kids when we read them nursery rhymes, or fairy tales.

Also, the nice thing about capitalism is that companies are always out to sell products to new markets, and there’s a huge variety of comics out there now that’s geared towards young grade school readers. The more kids read, the better, of course. I think the trick is teaching kids to be critical of what they read without going over their heads and squashing the joy out of reading.

Do you have plans to include any other non-conventional materials in your courses? What’s next?

Well, there are some limits and guidelines as to what I can teach, but I do plan to push the envelope wherever possible. There are a couple of graphic novels without words that I’d love to teach if I could get my department to agree to that. Other than that, I will keep putting pop fiction on my courses, as well as writing that falls well outside the literary canon.

Here’s the URL for a great TED talk that Scott McCloud did on the state of comics:

Cindy McMann got her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary, where she studied 20th century women’s literature.  She is currently on contract at Wilfrid Laurier University, teaching classes in North American literature, fiction, and poetry.  If she herself could have a superpower, it would be telekinesis.