Monday, September 05, 2011

QUIRKY CURRICULUM: Professor’s class gets graphic

From Red and Black (University of Georgia): QUIRKY CURRICULUM: Professor’s class gets graphicChris Pizzino has a cure for American culture — more comics.
University professor Chris Pizzino teaches two classes extolling the virtues of the graphic novel and science fiction. MICHAEL BARONE/Staff
“The anti-comics prejudice is out there,” said Pizzino, assistant professor in the University English department. “You pick it up as you go, even if you were never told it in no uncertain terms. It’s in our cultural DNA and we’re having to do some intellectual gene therapy to change how people think about comics. So that’s what I want the comics class to do.”

Pizzino, who has taught a recurring class on graphic novels in past semesters and is now teaching a class on science fiction, said he developed an interest in studying the subjects when he realized their potential for scholarly inquiry.

“Such choices don’t always arise,” he said. “I’m actually very fortunate, here at the University of Georgia, to be able to teach these classes because they’re not on the books that colleges and universities have been very supportive of making part of the English curriculum. I’ve definitely spoken to colleagues at other universities who have met some form of resistance about this. And for the science fiction, the same.”

Though Pizzino has not received resistance from professors, he said some students have come in with misguided expectations for the comics class.

“Every once in a while, someone will take the comics class out of a kind of whimsical curiosity, thinking that it’s just going to be pure fun,” he said. “And most of those people are happy to discover that they are having fun but they’re also learning to read comics. I haven’t yet had anyone turn bitter when they discover this class is going to be work as well as fun.”

And people’s understanding of comics as a lower literary form, and their urge to hide that interest as they grow older, is something Pizzino said he understands.

“I think I absorbed what was in the air,” Pizzino said. “I’ve always read comics, and then like a lot of people of my generation I kind of quit for a while and then came back to them. I came back to them to find they had been changing and were changing before my eyes in terms of the kinds of comics that were being produced.”

It’s this use of the medium as a literary form, and the cultural attitudes surrounding it, that drives Pizzino’s research — as he is working on a book entitled “Arrested Development: Comics at the Bounderies of Literature.”

“I feel that the barrier is much lower for science fiction as a narrative mode than it is for comics as a medium,” Pizzino said. “Although science fiction is definitely put down, it’s never had to undergo the legacy of censorship that comics have undergone.”

Science fiction also enjoys a higher status in American culture because certain works in that genre, such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” have become cultural touchstones to non-fans of the genre.

“At various points in American history, various science fiction novels have come to be very important to different sectors of Americans,” Pizzino said.

Still, despite the significance that science fiction and graphic novel works have had in American culture, Americans still reject science fiction and comic “nerds.”

That stigma of over-enjoyment, of loving sci-fi and the graphic novel a little too much, is something Pizzino rejects.

“I guess in the eyes of some Americans there’s something uncool about excessive enthusiasm about anything,” he said.

But a secret love of comics and science fiction is something Pizzino believes is starting to be drawn out of people by modern cinema.

“We’re seeing a lot of closeted nerds now decloseted by going to movies,” Pizzino said. “And people around the world went to see ‘Inception,’ which was a very nerdy movie to the tune of $800 million,” Pizzino said.

Using the tools of scholars before him, and the cultural value of both comics and science fiction, has become the main method Pizzino uses to spark a love for both genres in his students.

“Comic scholarship has been going on in a serious way for, depending on how you measure the time, a few years, or a decade, or more,” he said. “The comics class is very much about either
introducing a type of literacy that people may not be very familiar with or reintroducing a type of literacy and getting people to see it anew — [and] that it gives the same pleasures and challenges and rewards as any other kind of literature.”

But though he said he believes comics and science fiction are not as valued as intellectual forms, it’s become more than a topic of conversation.

In a way, it is the conversation.

With the larger advent of sci-fi pop culture, enthusiasts everywhere are “coming out of the closet.”

“Although comics are definitely seen by many in a sort of lesser light, they’re also very much a part of cultural parlance,” Pizzino said. “Even people who say they’re not science fiction nerds probably use some term every day that came from a science fiction text. They go to see science fiction films. We’re all nerds now, to some degree or another.”

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