Aug 16 2011
“I would say there is a slow building of graphic novels in classrooms. My daughter, for instance, read Maus in 8th grade English last year. But I emphasize the word “slow.” It took the NYTimes weeks to notice that Maus was a memoir (even though it had talking animals) and move it to the appropriate best-seller column. I would say the graphic memoir has reached a level of cultural legitimacy (again, look at the NYTimes Book Review for evidence), but comic books as a genre are still weighed down by their past and, frankly, their present. Only an “innovative” teacher is going to introduce a comic to a syllabus, and then probably only a memoir because it balances the stigma of the form with the aura of fact. It’s those guys flying around with capes that drag the genre down. Though there are several superhero graphic novels deserving classroom study, the vast majority do not, and those that do are worthwhile because they subvert their pulp genre so interestingly.”
Answer from a rookie ESL instructor (me):
1. I think most teachers probably aren’t personally receptive to graphic novels or comic books. That’s just a guess, but the demographics are not promising—for example, 76% of U.S. elementary and secondary school teachers are women and 56% are older than 40. According to another survey, only 8% of women read a graphic novel in the average year (compared to 15% for men). Only 8% of people aged 46-64 and 4% of people aged 65+ did.
2. I think the teachers that are personally receptive would have to overcome fear of disapproval by other teachers and administrators. Among other factors, teachers are under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests and graphic novels are not as intuitively useful there as non-illustrated works. Standardized tests tend to focus on the reading/comprehension of non-illustrated prose rather than other forms of reading (graphic novels, poetry, etc).
2.1. Challenging the status quo requires courage and risk tolerance. In contrast, sticking with what has been done (novels and nonfiction, in this case) is easier and entails less personal risk if things go wrong.
3. I think novels and nonfiction tend to enjoy more intellectual prestige than graphic novels. There are exceptions–Maus won a slew of literary awards (including a Pulitzer)–but I think that’s exceedingly rare.
PS: If you’re interested in using graphic novels in a classroom, I’d highly recommend checking out Teaching Graphic Novels.