Monday, August 8, 2011

Jacques Tardi In The English Classroom: Pairing Graphic Narratives, Novels and Historical Criticism

Alternative Perspectives in Young Adult Literature: Implementing Historical Criticism and Graphic Narratives into the English Classroom. 

Why It Is Not As Scary As It Sounds
In presenting a discussion of war and its subsequent themes as they appear in literature an English educator must remain neutral. This neutrality comes by being a facilitator of interpretations and discussion that grows from the viewpoints of the text. In our highly charged national climate due to so many men and women serving overseas facing conflict, it is best to understand that the discussions surrounding conflict are not necessarily meant to change opinion or belief, but rather to present viewpoints that may be antithetical to what is being held by the majority.

To develop those viewpoints in engaging literature that reflects war English educators need to consider introducing students to the methodology of historical criticism. What best serves historical criticism in the English classroom is in fact the availability of a diverse body of work concerning war and conflict. Translations abound from numerous authors of varying backgrounds and nationalities, and with multi-media capabilities, the English classroom can provide a place for students to enter a conversation on the perplexing nature of warfare and how it affects them and their fellow human beings. We, as educators, must create an environment that is safe to open those avenues of conversations. Also, the texts that are presented must accommodate a diverse variety of learners and readers. That is why I purpose to use a combination of graphic narratives with traditional canonical texts. For this example, I will combine Jacques Tardi’s (2010) It Was The War of The Trenches  in tandem with the more traditional All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1987). In using these pieces of historical fiction students can enter the conversation of conflict guided by a deeply caring, pedagogical approach of sharing and listening. Also, by combining two challenging and diverse viewpoints of war that will ultimately sharpen students’ analytical and critical abilities the dialogue developed will in turn address common themes that are hallmarks of Young Adult literature and appeal to the maturing adolescent.

Historical Fiction and Graphic Narratives as Young Adult Literature
First, in dealing with factual or foundationalist viewpoint history in the English classroom, we are not performing the job of historians or even infringing upon the history teachers area of expertise. We are merely using the historical narrative as our way of having students enter the conversation concerning conflict. These historical novels are, as Dickinson defines them, “a fictional narrative in which there is an identifiable time, place, and historical agent, written sometime after the event or period depicted” (as cited  in Drury & Latrobe, 2009, p.74). Historical novels serve English educators with the possibility of being able to not only continue the development of students abilities in classic literary analysis (e.g. determining style, language, themes), but to broaden their perspectives upon engaging in conversations regarding war, politics and social justice in their other disciplinary coursework and real world conversations. Ultimately, historical fiction serves the justifiable ends of any fiction studied or read for pleasure- it allows us to find similarities in our views, beliefs and feelings in regards to the experience of being alive.

Second, the more difficult to define genre within the medium of comics-graphic narratives, or graphic novels. Young adults, and readers of any age for that matter, can find connections in this genre of storytelling. While many still only think of the graphic narrative as a “comic”, many have argued for the applicability of them. For example Mila Bongco (2000) believes:

While comicbooks themselves may be ephemeral ,the medium and the
form are not… Many mythologies, characters, anecdotes and forms of
humor which originated in comics are deeply ingrained not only in
American consciousness but have found their way into a world-wide
system of reference. The language, characters and narratives in comics do
not exist devoid of ideologies, doctrines, and biases. Given the ubiquity of
 the medium and its influence on a large portion of the population, it is
difficult to imagine that sequential art [does] not, in an enduring way,
participate in or contribute to the cultural debates or struggles of the
medium’s surrounding social environment.  (p. 24-25).

Bongco (2000) sees the intertextual possibilities of using graphic narratives, one that I also believe exists in presenting subject matter such as war to Young Adult audiences that are looking for connections of some type.  In using the graphic narrative for such purposes, it is, as educator and writer Rocco Versaci (2007) points out, a medium that provides another important contrast towards “ a common thread: however beautifully or ineptly or movingly or lifelessly conveyed, these works are someone’s interpretation of how the world in which we live either is or was or should be or might be or might have been” (p.5). It is the interpretation that is the conversation that we need the students to come into, and if a graphic narrative can provide a part of that common thread, it needs to be utilized.
So English educators should not be worried about the validity of the form of graphic narratives, for just as the classroom teacher is in the infancy of their relationship with technology, perceptions concerning use of visuals need to be evaluated differently. I do not wish to make this an argument for the use of alternative mediums in the classroom, as I believe that the preceding points should be sufficient, and I have discussed it at length in a pervious paper on teaching visual rhetoric with graphic narratives.

Historical Criticism and Critical Inquiry
Critical inquiry in our schools should be beyond the nascent teachings of who, what , where , when, why and how as main questions. Today’s student is one that faces an increasing multi-mediated culture, with untold stores of knowledge presented everyday. Critical inquiry built through historical criticism allows for teachers to engage students in questions of social justice, and individual experience,  as both are needed in shaping a more democratic environment to be shared.
The historical criticism I am drawing from comes from Drury and Latrobe’s (2009) book Critical Approaches to Young Adult Literature. In it, basic outlines of the types of historical criticism that exist are folded into a malleable set of guiding questions concerning different areas of inquiry.

The Historical Lens and a Democratic Pedagogy
The lens I feel is best to use in engaging students concerning war is that of historical criticism. Drury and Latrobe (2009), in their survey of literary criticisms in Critical Approaches to Young Adult Literature, believe that “Historical criticism illuminates the basics of text, author, reader, and context”, while also “researching a literary work for its historical context requires critical consideration of the inherent problem that any scientist, teacher, or lawyer approaches with caution: the problem of making assumptions” (p. 171). For our purposes, in examining how war affects the lives of so many, the assumptions being struck at for discourse concern an unmasking of  society on both sides in an attempt to find valid reasoning. It is in those assumptions that the greatest care must be taken.

The modern classroom is diverse, not only in culture but also in belief, attitude and any other strands of sociological/psychological importance that help shape an individual into who they are. This is why a very open approach to teaching this material must be made so as to bring the assumptions of all to the forefront because it is assumption that leads to roadblocks. In combating those assumptions, we must engage in what Paulo Freire (1993) insists is a problem-posing education. According to Freire (1993) “Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming [author emphasis] –as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality.” (p.84). In establishing such a method, we then lead towards practicing a shared dialogue about these subjects ( in our case war and the effects of it upon all people involved) as we tumble towards understanding our reality, the individuals place in the world and how it can function. In doing so, the classroom moves closer towards the realization that “Teacher and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge” ( Freire, 1993, p.69). We extend the conversation of conflict by using problem-posing education in tandem with historical criticism. The seeds of a fuller democratic education are also beginning to happen in this process.

In using a text like It Was The War Of  The Trenches, democratic education is being practiced. It is not just because of how the book is constructed visually; we must look at it also as an artifact of importance in presenting how another culture views historical events-how those events may or may not have affected the lives of others we do not think of in the rush of war and the aftermaths that follow as we choose what is important in history and what is not. Such a text as Tardi (2010), and Remarque (1987) as well, is giving us is a window in to human nature and the relatable question that every young person thinks- Why are we doing these things and are they necessary?

Historical Criticism and the Politics of Social Justice
In his introduction to It Was The War Of The Trenches, Jacques Tardi (2010) insists that in examining the effects of war “There are no “heroes”, there is no “protagonist” in this awful collective “adventure” that is war. Nothing but a gigantic, anonymous scream of agony” (Foreword). Such a quote given by Tardi (2010) allows for student and teacher alike to begin questioning right away the time, place and circumstances of such combat. While our textbooks have historically pointed out the statistical information of time and place, our examination becomes one of circumstance. Is it as simple as an assassination to send so many men of such diverse backgrounds to their deaths? Do the texts we are examining give us a better or more accurate depiction due to being composed by foreign authors? We must point out immediately that with these two artifacts that we are seeing the “winning” and “losing” sides of the war, and can possibly debate the qualifications of such statements.

Such a dialogue leans also into questioning who goes to war and why? Tardi (2010) and Remarque (1987) make the point that it is the common man, infused with and manipulated by feelings of national pride, who runs headlong into conflict that perhaps they are not in full understanding of. Here we come to an important part of the discussion with students who may have a long history of military service or who have recently been moved to join. The important aspect of problem-posing dialogue within a Socratic seminar model is that we are not necessarily arguing that Tardi (2010) and Remarque’s(1987) viewpoint is right. Rather, that these authors are both exhibiting the critical awareness of questioning motives associated with war and its meaning at large. Even Tardi (2010) concedes that he is really giving his own interpretation of the war based on the stories of his grandfather and existing artifacts dealing with the conflict ( including All Quiet on the Western Front!). This is interesting on many levels, and perhaps inquiry and discussion should be guided around examining all the possible avenues of bias that Tardi (2010) is demonstrating in his work. However, it should be tempered with other examinations of parties involved in the conflict, including the interests of our own country.

Historical Criticism and the Individual Experience
Do we understand or empathize with Tardi’s (2010) interest in “man and his suffering” because it “fills him with rage” (Foreword)?  As a discipline of the humanities the individual experience as it relates to the world at large is imperative to our coursework. What Tardi (2010) is offering in his work, not only a different perspective from a different nationality, but constructing the perspective of people who are put into a situation completely out of their control. Young Adults gravitate to such stories, as often they themselves feel as if their life is out of control. This is healthy, and such discussions within a serious topic such as world war helps to alleviate the gravity of such thought provoking topics.

Tardi’s (2010) account is an amalgamation of French experience while Remarque’s (1987) is German. The individual experiences communicated by both are harrowing. Tardi’s (2010) work is constructed as vignettes of experience, allowing really for the reader to jump around. This departure from traditional linear narrative as found in all Quiet on the Western Front allows for some longitude with the work. As you mine the narrative depths of encounters given by Remarque (1987), Tardi (2010) can serve as that supplemental punch, highlighting the possible similarities and viewpoints of contention.

Both works also give us the gamut of experiences to parallel. Perhaps Remarque’s (1987) protagonist being stuck in a shell hole with a dead body with Tardi’s (2010) soldier seeking out  dead comrade in no man’s land? How about the shared cynicism of individuals’ feelings of national pride at what their countries are trying to accomplish that is used throughout both narratives? These are but a few examples, and the discovery of many points that can be made with students is only as limited as the time that can be put into it.

The English classroom provides a great place to discuss difficult subject matter. The human experience in times of joy and sorrow are hallmarks of great literature, and it is our job to introduce, facilitate and co-operate in the process of helping students discover their viewpoints on such subject matter. The role that an English educator must take in approaching a text or group of texts needs to work not only as an exercise in analyzing literary elements, but also needs to serve as a doorway into a wide variety of lenses that can develop critical abilities that are of an ever-growing importance in the twenty-first century classroom.

Bongco, M. (2000). Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the
      Superhero in Comic Books. New York, NY: Garland.
Drury, J., & K. H. Latrobe. (2009). Critical Approaches to Young Adult Literature. New
     York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Freire, P.(1993/2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Remarque, Erich Maria. (1987). All Quiet on the Western Front. New York, NY:
     Random House Publishing.
Tardi, Jacques. (2010). It Was The War of The Trenches. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics.
Versaci, Rocco. (2007). This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature.
     New York, NY: Continuum.

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