“History Education, Graphic Novels & Historical Thinking” by Joseph Tham

“History Education, Graphic Novels & Historical Thinking”
Joseph Tham

Comics’ socio-cultural status have been gradually elevated in the form of graphic novels since the late 1980s. This meant that sequential art as a genre was able to break out of a traditionally ghettoised corner. The fact that many bookstores have a dedicated section in their establishment signal a shift in the respectability and perception of comics as a legitimate art form.

What this means is that a field seemingly far away from the world of comics like education feels closer than before if one knows where and what to look out for. With graphic novels as more than just a form of literary genre of fantastical articulation and expression but also as a powerful platform for biographical and even autobiographical tract, journalistic and documentary expositions as well as postmodernist mode of experimentation, the genre is now widely accepted and regarded as an art form or at least something closer to that for the more sceptical ones.

As a History educator, graphic novels as carriers of historical accounts of the personal and grand narrative can be rich tools for the teaching of history and developing historical thinking. As history moves away from the championing of Grand Narrative of the past to one which emphasises multiple interpretations and accounts implies that notions like multiple-perspectives become more pertinent. Contemporary teaching and learning principles have also shifted from didactic approach and route-learning to one which foregrounds concept-based teaching and learning, together with many other forms of innovative pedagogies which stress the importance of discourse, evidence and inquiry process. In other words if educators can get the students to experience, even in snippet form, some aspects of how a historian goes about investigating a historical issue, debating about the significance of a factor over the rest or concluding there was clear change and continuity within a time period.

So where does the above development lead us?

Biographical or autobiographical graphic novels provide gateways for history students to empathise with the author and/or the characters in the narratives as turning the pages unravel the trials and tribulations of their journey through the books. The details of the contexts presented by the novels can provide greater insights and visualisation of the historical periods.

If we are to take the novels one step further, historical empathy can be extended to another big historical concepts like perspectives. My use of the classic novel, “MAUS”, is a case in point.

Before we look at how “MAUS” was used to enhance historical thinking in the classroom, some basic information about the profile of the class of students and the corresponding pedagogical considerations would be instructive here. It was a pure History class of around 20 students in secondary three back in 2015 (Another batch of students went through a similar albeit slightly modified lesson package in 2016). The students were not expected to plough through the book cover to cover. Instead pre-selected segments from the book was assigned to groups of students at the start. Students were expected to do close reading of the texts and the accompanying illustrations but the main objective was to get them to first comprehend what they have read and then to exercise the historian skill of corroboration beyond the given segments. They were asked to look for at least two other sources of evidence to confirm or challenge the narrative of the segments they have been assigned. Then at the end, they were to fill in a Google Excel worksheet the following items:

  1. A short narrative summary of the pages assigned
  2. Other sources referred and used to corroborate to ascertain the reliability of the narrative in the segments assigned
  3. Their own feelings as a group about the plight of the characters in the narrative

So what is the graphic novel about?

“MAUS” was written and drawn by critically acclaimed artist, Art Spiegelman. Using the basis of his interviews with his father, a Polish Jew who went through the Second World War and a Holocaust survivor, Spiegelman junior, deepens the accounts from his father using the tool of zoo-morphistic representations: mice are Jews, cats are Germans and pigs are Poles.

Readers, in this case, students are brought through the heartfelt and tragic whirlwind events of the 1930s and 1940s in Poland (the homeland of the Spiegelman) and the larger context of European and global historical scenarios. So my key question for my students is: How much can you trust the accounts depicted in the novel?

Hence, they have to examine the perspective of the author and his father (are they the same… hmm) and evaluate if the novel can be used a reliable set of evidence for them to learn about the history of that period of time. I made them research into specific events chosen from the various parts of the book and to corroborate on the veracity of the accounts. They were asked to question if there was any biasness in the narrative against the Germans and to a lesser extent, the Poles who seemed to sympathise with the anti-Semitic policies of their Nazi occupiers during the Second World War.

The outcome of the usage? I would say that the students have begun to appreciate the second order concepts of history of perspectives, evidence and empathy. They also put into practice the history skills of inference, cross reference/corroboration and evaluation. In a very superficial way, they got to “practice” history during their investigation to assess the reliability of the novel vis-à-vis what they learned in their textbook, in class and, beyond. It was not an assessment related exercise (summative assessment can often take away the joy of learning in the students) and they were introduced to a great book, regardless.

Most of the students shared that they were so captivated and/or moved by the segments assigned and that they went on to complete the reading of the entire text. They felt that the novel made the two-dimensional words and pictures in the textbook come alive. But more importantly, they suggested that the entire process encouraged them to be critical readers. Instead of merely believing what they have read unthinkingly, despite the seemingly convincing story-telling skills of Spiegelman, the need to refer to other sources to confirm the factual information of the narrative allowed them to appreciate the historian’s craft of handing evidence, close-reading of accounts and think deeper about the perspective of the author and his father. In other words, they did not mind having more of such activities in class as they found the activity engaging and meaningful. The best thing to me after the lesson was that they were hardly concerned if the lesson package was graded or not.

Popular culture and its use in the classroom? When the selection is done appropriately, the design behind the lesson is thought-out and the essence of learning of a subject or discipline is infused into the entire package, then it is definitely worth the time and effect. The students might just thank you more for it. Besides, you are introducing them into the wonderful world of sequential art.

Joseph Tham is a history educator in Singapore. He also researches and writes about local and global alternative and underground musics, histories and subcultures. Before that he used to run a record shop and organised gigs of local and international artists.

Additional Graphic Novel titles for use in the History Classroom:

Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood”

Keiji Nakazawa, “Barefoot Gen, Vol. 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima”

Rick Geary, “Trotsky: A Graphic Biography”