Even conservative English classes have begun to incorporate more and more of the types of materials once reserved for cultural studies, an understandable combination since the latter in many ways grew out of the study of literature and the line between these two fields has always been somewhat indistinct. I find much to celebrate in the inclusion of many of these new forms and genres and, more broadly, with the mindset that acknowledges “reading” as a not-exclusively-textual act of understanding and interpreting. This week’s reading of Nat Turner and the other articles on graphic novels, however, has been instrumental in helping me to articulate what I feel to be one of the major weaknesses with using alternative texts into classrooms (and with students) that are not aware of the different approaches which must be employed here.
My issue is not with the texts themselves but with the way in which teachers and students deal with them. Although I believe that critical reading skills can be applied to all sorts of texts, I have found that literature classes rarely give proper consideration to the merits and limitations of different forms. They also tend to ignore critical discussion of the success of a given work in a particular medium. An example: Compare the graphic novel Nat Turner with the recent film Django Unchained. While there are obvious differences in the two stories, their similarities are immediately apparent to anyone who has been exposed to both works. Both offer vivid, violent depictions of slave uprisings but I found the effect of the two texts to be completely different: while I found Nat Turner to be somewhat superficial in terms of character development and explanation (a great ‘jumping off place’ for classroom discussions), Django Unchained offers viewers a more fully-realized situation that is also more limited in scope (a personal revenge story rather than a rebellion against the entire institution of slavery).
But literature teachers who incorporate these “alternative” texts into their classrooms must make a conscious effort to discuss interpretive strategies that are unique to each medium. The pacing/time issues that Rabkin mentioned in his article are just one aspect of the challenges that readers have when they encounter these materials. Failing to think critically about the type of texts that they have often consumed in non-academic settings may ultimately lead to more frustration than enlightenment.