Looking for ways to increase student confidence in their ability to learn? Or their ability to see themselves as professionals in the field? In this episode, Carly Tribulli, a Biology Professor at SUNY-Farmingdale, joins us to discuss how comics may be created and used to meet students where they’re at, draw them in, and help them develop mental models of complicated processes and concepts.
We discuss Carly’s plans to create an OER biology textbook in which biological processes are represented using comic strips, her planned research on the effectiveness of instructional use of comics, as well the positive role model that she provides in Carly’s Adventures in Waspland, an instructional comic that Carly created for the American Museum of Natural History during her graduate study there.
- Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land
- Tribull, C.M. 2017. Sequential Science: A guide to communication through comics. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 110 (5): 457–466.
Topics mentioned in the podcast (in order of their appearance):
- “Maria Sibylla Merian: artist whose passion for insects changed science” The Guardian. April 2, 2013.
- Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History
- Ology: A Science Website for Kids – provided by the American Museum of Natural History
- Adaptive learning platforms:
- Lumen Learning
- Scott McCloud. (1993). Understanding comics. William Morrow Paperbacks.
Economics comic books:
STEM web comics recommended by Carly:
Rebecca: Looking for ways to increase student confidence in their ability to learn? Or their ability to see themselves as professionals in the field? In this episode, we’ll explore how one faculty member uses comics to meet students where they’re at, draw them in, and help them develop mental models of complicated processes and concepts.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Carly Tribull, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College, where she mostly teaches general biology for non major students in entomology. Her interests include bugs, biology, and of course, comics. Welcome, Carly.
Carly: Hi, nice to meet you guys.
John: Welcome. Today our teas are…
Carly: I’m actually drinking… a kind of cold coffee. But, but it’s good. I like it.
Rebecca: …and it used to be warm.
Carly: It used to be warm. I got it about an hour ago, so I knew this was going to happen, but I was like “You know, this is my only opportunity to get coffee, and I know you guys like to talk about what we’re drinking…”, and I was like “ooh, yeah a coffee, cool… I could have lied…”
Rebecca: That’s true. I have a Paris tea.
John: and I have blueberry green tea.
Rebecca: So, Carly, can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve been able to combine your interests in art and biology in your educational and career paths?
Carly: So, I’ve always been interested in both art and biology ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in a very science-forward family. There was a lot of interest in me becoming a biologist and my parents were both very encouraging, and my dad always sat and watched those sort of Wild Animal channel, Discovery Channel shows when I was a kid, with all like this farming animals and stuff like that. So, I was always interested in the animals and eventually that led to drawing animals. By the time that I was in high school, I was taking formal training in art and doing AP art and things like that, but also very much maintaining my biology education. By the time I was later in high school, I was drawing comics. I had discovered comics around early high school. I read a lot of manga, and then I started reading more graphic novels, never a lot of the superhero comics, but more of the weird offbeat stuff like the Sandman, and a bunch of manga series. So I started drawing comics, and I drew a bunch of weird comics and then I entered college at UC Berkeley, and I was a double major in art and biology, and I just continued that path all the way through. And I was really stubborn about not giving up art, despite the fact that I had chosen not to go to a traditional art school. I knew at that point I was going to go into biology, but I was very much stubbornly holding on to art, and so what happened when I was at Berkeley, is that I was actually able to do biological illustration as an undergraduate researcher. And that was the very first research experience I ever had, doing biological illustration for a paleontology lab. This has always made sense to me as a biologist, because there’s a really, really huge history of biology and art meeting together. Especially in entomology, when you consider the work of Maria Sybilla Marian, who is one the famous female entomologists of her time (probably the only major female entomologist of her time) and she was really the first person to study metamorphosis. And much of the way she shared that information, since this was obviously way before photography, was by these really elaborate illustrations that were shared with other entomologists at the time. So to me, it’s always made sense that there is some sort of crossover between biology and art, and I think while I was in college I was very stubbornly imagining myself as becoming that type of natural historian. And then when I was in graduate school there was a lot of encouragement for me to continue doing comics, weirdly enough.
John: Could you tell us a little bit about your graduate program?
Carly: I went to the Richard Gilder graduate school at the American Museum of Natural History, and that’s a pretty long name, but historically the museum has always funded graduate students from the City University of New York, and from the Bronx Botanical Gardens, and from NYU and Columbia, but only within the past seven or eight years or so, did they decide to start their own in-house PhD program. So, we still have all of those students that are coming from other institutions, but only recently where we like, we’re going to create our own graduate program. It was very, very, very different from your standard evolutionary biology PhD program. Usually the big state public schools, and a few of the private schools that are strong in the sciences, have an evolution in ecology, biology grad program that you spend five to six years and that you TA undergraduates to support your stipend. But at the AMNH, because it’s a museum, there are no undergraduates for you to TA. and you also have to finish in four years. So, because you had no formal TAships, and the funding was very good so you didn’t really need them, you were very much encouraged to do these informal teaching assistantships, and to find your way into the outreach education side of the museum, or working on exhibits and making yourself part of the contributing community to the museum. That is basically how the grad school ran, and I did my PhD in the evolutionary systematics of these parasitoid wasps that I study.
John: It sounded like a really natural blend of your interest and a superb educational path for you, in terms of giving you a way of continuing your earlier interest.
Rebecca: Before we jump forward I’m really curious, Carly, as an art faculty member, if you could talk a little bit about that first project, that first opportunity you had as a student and how you got that opportunity to combine your interests. Was it something that you pursued or was it something that your faculty helped to nurture?
Carly: Kind of a combination of both. My freshman year at Berkeley, I took an undergraduate symposium with Kevin Padian, who is a vertebrate paleontologist, and it was very much your standard freshman seminar. It was actually very small, it was only about 10 students. We did some readings, we did some talking, and around that time I think I was looking for research opportunities, and so I started talking with him and I started trying to get myself into the lab as an undergraduate researcher for future semesters, and it came up that I’m a biological illustrator, or that I was interested in biological illustration, and I think at some point he was like “okay, show me what you got, go draw the T-Rex,” because there’s a big T-Rex in the center floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley. And I went down and I drew it as best as I could and apparently he was pretty satisfied with my work. So, I joined the lab, and I was assigned to a current PhD student at the time named Katie Brakora, and I actually drew some of the images that were used in her dissertation. And that was excellent. I didn’t become Kevin Padian’s biological illustrator, but I was working with grad students that were going through grad student life, finishing their work… and at the same time I was taking the core art classes, because I was a double major and I knew I was going to be a double major for my freshman year. So, I was doing all of your standard intro to drawing, intro to painting, techniques classes, and things like that and it actually worked out really well for me to be a biological illustrator, as sort of a side biology undergraduate researcher, because Berkeley’s art program isn’t really focused on illustration or comics. It’s actually much more of a fine arts program. So, sometimes I was actually butting heads with the other art faculty, because I was very illustration focused and they’re very studio fine arts, and I was like not all of us are going to become studio painters. So, illustration seems like a skill that I should be investing in.
Rebecca: What a great story. Thanks, Carly.
John: While you’re in grad school, one of your projects was developing Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land, and we’ve looked through that and it’s superbly drawn and fascinating. Could you tell us a little bit more about some of your work with illustrations and developing comics while you were at the American Museum?
Carly: I guess this goes back to how Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land started, which by the way is not the title I came up with it, that was the title that the museum folks came up with it, I was just like, “okay.”
John: Did you have a title?
Carly: No, I did not have a title, that was probably an error on my part. I was opening myself up there, I think it’s a fine title. It’s a little bit goofy that it has my own name in it, but, whatever. In my interview to get into grad school, I had actually brought my portfolio in biological illustration, which was very unusual. Of course, evolutionary biology does attract people who can draw, but I think I was the first person who had come to that relatively new program with a portfolio. [LAUGHTER] I was kind of a scrappy undergraduate. I didn’t do that great in my courses. I’m a terrible memorizer, which allows me to sympathize with other students that aren’t doing that great in intro biology, especially my own students, because I actually didn’t do all that well for the first two years. And part of making myself an attractive student to graduate schools, was actually building up my research curriculum. I did a lot of research with Marvelee Wake at Berkeley after the Padian lab, and then also building up this biological illustration thing early on. I interviewed with Jim Carpenter, he accepted me to his lab, and I think he was very impressed with the fact that I did illustration and apparently it stuck with him enough that when he got a grant from the NSF, he came to me about helping him out with the broader impact section of that grant, and broader impacts is where you actually have to make your grant meaningful outside of academia. So, it’s where you would have outreach education. He remembered from my interview that I like to draw, he came to me and he was like “do you want to work with the digital outreach education side of the museum, and create a project with them? “And I was like “yeah, sure,” and as long as it was about teaching kids about wasps, and the different types of wasps, I pretty much had free rein. I started working with Ology, which is the digital outreach section of the museum, and a lot of what would happen is collaboration between me, Jim, and the Ology folks, especially when it came to writing the script for that comic, because the Ology folks have way more experience in writing for middle school readers than I did. So there was a lot of modification of my script but mostly I had free reign when it came to the illustration side of things, and I also mostly had free reign when it came to the creative decisions, like the decisions to make the wasps anthropomorphic and have them talking with you, that was something I decided on, even though it isn’t truly a hundred percent scientifically accurate. It was something that both the Ology folks and Jim signed off on.
John: I liked it.
Rebecca: I thought it worked well for adults too, I don’t think it’s just for middle schoolers. I’m just saying… I know way more about wasps now than I did before I read it.
John: Me too, and it was much more engaging than reading a textbook description of those things.
Carly: Thank you so much!
Rebecca: I also just really love that you’re like a superhero in the story. What a great way for little girls and boys to see a strong female scientist… taking on the wasp. I just thought it was a really great way to frame the story.
Carly: Yeah, and I think the first chapter in Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land doesn’t actually talk about wasps but it sort of talks about me and how I became an entomologist. That wasn’t part of the original plan, but me and the folks at Ology, and eventually Jim was totally on board with this, felt that it was important that part of the broader impacts, should be showing young girls that they too could be an entomologist, this field that is commonly associated (at least by other people who are outside of entomology) as being male-dominated and being a career for boys… showing them that, that’s not necessarily the case. So, that’s when the strengths of comics especially when it comes to showing girls and underrepresented minority students that they can envision themselves also as scientists. That’s one of the things you can do with comics that I find really engaging… is that, in your choice of narrator, you can make those decisions.
John: I believe you’re releasing some of your materials under an OER license. Is that correct?
Carly: Yes, not Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land. That is an OER in that it’s freely available, but it’s going to stick with the museum’s website for the time being (as far as I know). What I’m putting on an OER license is actually the comic textbook that I’m going to be eventually making for the Farmingdale State general biology students, but it’s certainly going to be available to any SUNY professor or any professor anywhere.
John: Have you requested an grant for that or are you doing this on your own?
Carly: So, I’ve requested a summer stipend and I should be finding out about that soon. As you might guess drawing and writing comics takes a lot of time, much longer than say a written textbook would take, and there are certainly many professors that are working on written OERs for their class. So, I’ve requested a summer stipend and SUNY Farmingdale has recently announced that there’s going to be an OER incentive grant, so I’ll be applying for that too.
Rebecca: You’ve also done some writing about using comics for science specifically, can you talk a little bit about the research that you’ve done in this area?
Carly: Yeah, so I think when I accepted the job at Farmingdale, I knew that I was going to be very, very, interested in making comics and researching the impact of comics… part of the research that I do for my tenure decision… and luckily the faculty here have been very supportive of that. Farmingdale is a primarily undergraduate institution, so there’s actually lots of professors that are also not only researching their scientific field or their artistic field, but are also researching educational techniques in their field. Part of preparing for that was actually some work that I did last year. I was actually invited to an open access issue from the Entomological Society of America, on educational communication in the sciences …and they had known over the years, because I kept presenting on comics, that my interest really lied in the use of comics as outreach education. So, I began actually searching through the literature because this was something I wanted to continue doing as a professor once I moved to Farmingdale, and it was also something that I just wanted to continue just as someone who was going to keep making educational comics regardless. And so what I found in doing this big review paper called “Sequential Science” is that there is much research in how comics impact the interest and attitudes towards the material, at students at a variety of levels, but there isn’t so much research in actually measuring their gains in content knowledge. So there’s lots of research to show that comics makes students at all levels more interested in the material, but not a lot showing and quantifying how much more they’re learning and retaining. So, I think that’s an area that I actually want to put more research into myself… but yeah I spent a lot of time for that paper reading a bunch of other papers about studies that had been conducted.
John: Have you started this research or is this a plan for future research?
Carly:This is definitely a plan for future. So the development of the OER textbook for gen bio is just happening right now, and anecdotally I’ve certainly seen students are more interested, so I do incorporate comics into my slides right now. They’re not my comics necessarily, they’re comics from a lot of different sources like Beatrice the Biologist or Your Wildlife, those are popular webcomics that are biology focused. I also make some drawings for them for the slides as well. In reality, any comic is just a set of sequential images. So, I can draw a set of sequential images that are explaining mitosis and meiosis. My students might not necessarily read those as comics or recognize them as comics, but they’re still comics because they’re telling an ordered set of events. So when I do that, anecdotally, I can tell you that the students are more interested… especially if there’s just been a slide with the textbook image and some complicated information, if I can show them that slide and then be like “oh let me break it down into these steps that I’ve drawn out” it seems to help them. But have I actually started measuring the impacts? No, not yet.
John: So do you have a research plan on that?
Carly: Yeah, so as the OER textbook is going to take some time to make. It’s probably going to take a couple of years to finish in its entirety, but there’s no reason that I can’t start exposing the students to the chapters as I complete them. So, until the OER is finished in its entirety, and given that I usually teach multiple sections of gen bio, I’m going to start setting up testing control groups just looking at small chapters, as I complete them. So, one class will receive the comics, the other class won’t receive the comics, and since both classes have the same test, I can actually see if there’s any improvement. Now, once the comic is finished in its entirety, that’s when I’ll actually begin the full-scale research… and what’s going to happen there is… again I teach multiple sections of gen bio… I can set up a test group and a control group. The test group will get the comic textbook and then the control group would get a traditional OER (probably the OpenStax gen bio textbook) and I can give them the whole textbook at that point and measure what their differences are in terms of performance using their midterms and their quizzes and their homework assignments. But I also plan on surveying them on interest, because although the interest and the attitudes might not seem as strong a topic as actual performance, I think when you’re teaching non major biology students (many of them who feel like they’re just there to check off a box), many of them who have prevailing biases against science… many of them who don’t feel like they can connect to science… I think it’s so important to measure those attitude changes.
Rebecca: Why does a sequential format work so well for a topic like biology? What do you see the benefit of being sequential in that way? This sequential art form.
Carly: So even in general biology, intro biology for non-majors, there’s still lots of processes that are multiple steps. So, I don’t know if either of you remember learning the Krebs cycle or photosynthesis. These are very complicated multi-step processes where something has to happen and then there’s a result… and then another thing happens and then there’s some sort of result. So, there’s plenty of stuff, even in the entry level biology classes, that lend themselves really well to a narrative. Comics really are any progression of images that build a narrative… now, that narrative doesn’t have to be fiction. The point is that there’s an order of events and together that order of events makes sense. You actually don’t have to add words for it to be considered a comic, but obviously the words help in the context of a biology class. I think given that there are so many multi-step processes whether you’re studying the Krebs cycle… or photosynthesis… or mitosis… or meiosis… or even natural selection or ecology… sequential comics… so these images, where you have processes that are laid out in order and broken down into steps, really help intro students.
John: Do you have an anticipated timespan on your textbook project?
Carly: I suspect that it’s going to be this summer. I probably have two and a half months that I’m not actually teaching, but I’ll also be doing research on my scientific stuff (on my wasp studies) at the same time. I suspect that I’ll be able to draft out the first half of the textbook and probably be able to complete about three to four chapters of it. So, I’ll have those chapters ready for the fall semester and then I’ll try to get some work done during the fall semester and keep building that project. I suspect in total it’s going to take me at least two summers and also the semesters between, where I’m actually doing much more work on sort of my regular school requirements to actually finish it.
John: Do you have any people who’ll be working with you on reviewing this and giving feedback?
Carly: Not yet, but I recognize the need for that. I want to have this textbook be one of the contributions that I have for getting tenure. Making a textbook is a common contribution for the tenure package, but to make a textbook you actually have to have some form of peer review if you’re going to go through a publisher. So, when you’re making your own OER and you’re publishing it on your own website, you might lose some of that aspect of peer review. The plan right now is to actually enlist a set of beta readers who are also science educators in their own field and have criticism from them. This isn’t quite the same as having peer review, but I think for now it’s the very best that I can do, but I’m certainly open to suggestion and open to constructive criticism and changing things up. One of the challenges of creating your own OER is that at some point you might lose the more rigorous aspects of submitting a textbook to a standard publishing company.
Rebecca: Will you have an editor working with you for this project?
Carly: Currently no one is lined up, but that’s a valid suggestion, to actually pay an editor… probably someone who works in science textbooks. But, I think before I can even get to that point, I actually have to have a fairly large body of material to show them in the first place.
John: I would think that one thing that would be useful is, once you have this material, adoptions and response from adopters could be used in place of the peer review.
Carly: Oh yes, certainly. And when I put it up on the website there’s definitely going to be a forum for educators to be like “You know what, this didn’t make a lot of sense. Can you change the wording on this?” So, treating this as a living body of work instead of: “oh, I published that, it’s done…” because there’s no cost associated with changing and the material outside of my own time cost because there’s no physical version. So, it actually wouldn’t be all that difficult for me to have those changes be something that’s constantly happening, especially as we find out better ways to teach say homologous chromosomes, or mitosis, or things like that. But even before I launch it, I still want to have beta readers that can give it a read-through even before that, but having the ability for educators to constantly give me comments would be something that’s on the main website.
Rebecca: What software are you using to manage the process?
Carly: The website build itself is through SquareSpace and that is because I have absolutely no training in making a website, whatsoever. So that’s the actual platform that I’m building the website through. In terms of drawing, I start a lot of stuff out by hand and then I usually draw it in Photoshop on a tablet. Certainly, there are times when my tablet is down and I have to draw it by hand, and then scan it… that’s also a possibility. There is something else I’m interested in and this is more of a conversation about OER versus publishers. On the major publishers textbooks right now… so, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Cengage, stuff like that… I think they’ve recognized that students can get OERs for free, professors can get OERs for free. So, what these publishers are doing now is that they’re offering adaptive learning systems, where you have assignments that get harder or easier as the student does better or worse, where the grades go automatically into the professor’s LMS which (if you’re at a school that doesn’t have grad students) is great because you don’t have a TA to do your grading. The publishers are offering these adaptive learning systems that go seamlessly into your Blackboard or your Angel (or whatever you’re using), but if you’re developing an OER you don’t have that capability. You can make standard multiple choice quizzes on Blackboard and give them to your students, but that’s not the same thing as an adaptive learning system that tracks your students progress. So, I would also be interested in working with someone (or maybe even SUNY at large) to develop platforms that actually make these adaptive learning systems… because then I think they’ll actually be able to convince more professors to adopt OERs.
John: Some of the publishers do have that. I know that Cengage, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill have been putting together packages of OER materials, where they add other resources to them (including some adaptive learning tools) that they release under a fairly inexpensive license. Another option might be to investigate Lumen Learning. Lumen Learning works with OpenStax and they package OER materials with some other materials they’ve created through a variety of grant-funded activities. But that might be worth doing and SUNY does have a contract with Lumen Learning on these things.
Carly: Yeah, I would like to work with someone that is not just SUNY…
Carly: I’m a SUNY professor but I would like people at the University of California system to be able to use my comics.
John: Lumen Learning is not restricted to SUNY.
John: SUNY happens to have a contract where they get a discounted price on the bundles when colleges adopt the Lumen Learning platform, but it’s basically a bundling platform that works with OpenStax and other OER materials.
Carly: Yeah, so that’s worth considering, because not only do I want to make the comic, I also want to make assessment tools… so that whenever professors are using my comic they also have a test bank… a way to create these adaptive learning assignments and things like that. So, this is something I’ve talked about before in my presentations at the Entomological Society of America… that you can’t just make a comic and put it out there for educators, you actually have to provide study tools, study guides, teaching plans, teaching lessons, to actually make it useful for educators.
I really like the idea of there being a platform where a professor could create their own test bank and then assign levels and topics to those questions and then just be able to import those into something that is automatically going to make adaptive learning assignments.
John: I don’t think we’ve got that yet, but there are a couple platforms out there: CogBooks and Acrobatiq. Both are do-it-yourself platforms for creating adaptive learning solutions and based on the Carnegie Mellon system,… which they’ve been doing for quite a while there. But it’s a lot of work, and it automates some of the process so you don’t actually have to do the programming, but you still have to work through most of the structure yourself. I noticed that you give students the option of making their own comics for extra credit. Could you tell us about that? how have students responded? and how has that worked?
Carly: Sure, so this has really come out of a desire to actually start generating and using comics in my class while getting the OER ready… because I have people who are asking me “What results do you have already? How have students responded?” And I’m like, “I haven’t finished the comic yet.” So, I’m aware of that and so that’s where incorporating comics into the classroom right now, while I’m preparing, comes from. General biology is a very difficult course for most incoming freshmen (which is the vast majority of the students I have). What it feels like to me is that I give all of my students the benefit of the doubt… I assume that they’re all studying… and when they do poorly on their first test I don’t say to them “Oh, it’s cause you guys didn’t study enough.” I say to them “No one has taught you how to study.” So a lot of my students, when they do poorly on their exams and they come to me during office hours, I ask them how did you study? And inevitably the answer I get is “I reread the PowerPoint notes, I reread the slides,” and so I’m like “No, no that’s not how you study, that’s just reading”. I try to emphasize that studying is the active reorganization and recontextualization of all of the information sources I’m giving you, not just my PowerPoint slides, but the lecture notes your hopefully taking in class, the textbook itself, the homework assignments. There are all these different forms of information that I’m giving you, and what I’m hoping you’re doing is actively reorganizing it. So, we talk about rewriting your notes. We talk about how to actually make flashcards that are effective. We talk about making flowcharts… and really from that last one… making flowcharts… that’s kind of like making a comic already. With the making comics as an extra credit, I’m really just encouraging to do another form of studying, where they have to take all this material for a midterm and they have to draw their own comic. So, usually what I do is I start the first couple of pages for them. So, on my Twitter right now I can actually send you an image of this first page I’ve made to kickstart their own process. So, spring break is coming up and they have a midterm, not the day after spring break that would be cruel, but the Thursday after spring break. That midterm is going to cover mitosis, meiosis, inheritance, and DNA transcription and translation. And these all seem like different topics but in reality they’re all very interconnected topics. You really can’t talk about mitosis until you can talk about alleles, and genes, and Mendelian inheritance and things like that. So I’m trying to encourage the students to conceptualize that these are all interrelated things because I think that I’ll actually help them memorize things better than just treating them as separate slides that they’re just reading through. At the end of next week’s Thursday lecture, the one right before spring break I’m going to introduce this project and hopefully I get some results from it. Previously I had done this at my last teaching position, which was at Sam Houston State University. I was a visiting assistant professor there, and for extra credit, I offered students the opportunity to make a comic on the same set of materials and I get responses… but the problem is that I get responses usually from the students who don’t need the extra credit. I think this is something that’s a common problem with offering extra credit… that inevitably many, many, many times it’s the students that don’t actually need the extra credit that turn in the extra credit assignments. Now. I still enjoy reading them and they still say that it was helpful and it’s a new study technique that they’re going to do, but reaching out to the other students is one of the challenges I’m facing as a young professor.
John: We all do that, it’s not just related to age. I know in my class I give them lots of chances to retake tests… the people who do it the most are the students who are already doing best in class. So, it increases the variance in the outcomes quite a bit when that’s not entirely the goal, you’d like to have everyone rise up but not necessarily spread out further on that continuum.
Rebecca: So, I’m curious with a project like this, do you use the opportunity as being a scientist who also as an artist to sneak in some art teaching as well? Do you use things like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics or anything as a tool to help students understand how to put together a comic and the medium of a comic?
Carly: I love Understanding Comics, it was like one of my foundational books when I was an undergraduate taking my first comic drawing class. I actually tried to avoid situations like that because I don’t want to discourage the students that feel like they don’t know how to draw. Which is a silly thing because everyone can draw… drawing well is a different thing. I don’t want them to get hung up on how good their drawings are. I want them to get hung up on how much conceptual sense that it makes. So certainly Scott McCloud talks about this, about how you can still have a comic that’s just stick figures. And so for me, I don’t want them to freak out about the fact that I’m an artist, and that I’m pretty decent at drawing, and that I expect them also to be pretty decent at drawing. But the funny thing about teaching non-majors is that inevitably some of them are art majors. So, that’s that’s always fun, they’re always surprised to find out when they come to my office and they see that I have paintings that I made as an undergraduate up on my walls and things like that. I would love to refer classic comic making literature, but it’s just something that I don’t have enough time when I’m just spending five minutes to introduce something. But, certainly… the students that come to office hours… we do talk about you know what makes a comic because I also have students that read a lot of comics. I have lots of students that are going on the Manga reading websites and a lot of students that talk about superhero comics with me when they find out that I like comics. So it does come up, but it’s usually not something I have time to make part of my already jam-packed lecture.
John: Students often have this perspective that they’re either creative or they’re good at quantitative skills in STEM fields, and it’s really nice that you’re modeling the possibility that you can be both.. That they’re not mutually exclusive.
Rebecca: That’s also why I like McCloud as a reference book too, because it’s not really about fine art in the traditional sense but rather about how to tell a story. Which is interesting and helpful and doesn’t really necessarily emphasize being able to draw.
Carly: Yeah, I think he has that… what does an expression look like, and it’s just like two dots for eyes, and then eyebrows, and then a line for a mouth, and you can get the full range of human emotion. And then I show students comics like XKCD, that is just stick figures and it’s really effective so, yeah. I try to avoid things where they feel like they have to be a professional artist, not to say that’s what McCloud does, you just pointed out that it doesn’t do that. But I try to focus more on the conceptual – like how does this help you study, you’re not just making this to impress me. And you get that a lot with extra credits, sometimes you feel like students are just doing those projects to get extra credit. Instead I’m trying to be like “Mo, no this is a study tool. This benefits you.”
Rebecca: Have you had any students follow in your footsteps and develop a love of both art and science and pursued you as a mentor?
Carly: At Sam Houston State, I certainly had students that like to come and chat with me and sort of explore those topics. But unfortunately, I had to leave there to start the position I have at Farmingdale, and unfortunately I just haven’t been here long enough to build those connections. One of the things I want to do, as I’m at Farmingdale a bit longer, and I get settled in, is actually propose a biological illustration class. So we have the ability as biology faculty to offer these topics in biology courses, and one of the ones I really want to do is biological illustration… especially since we share our building with art, or rather… I think it’s design communications… whatever the technical college…
Rebecca: Communications design… probably.
Carly: Yeah… but they’re still students taking drawing and watercolor and painting so..
Rebecca: How cool. That would be so fun.
Carly: Yeah, and you know what I actually kind of taught that course at Berkeley. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, there was this thing where students could actually teach one-credit non-graded courses. So, I actually offered a biological illustration course. Sort of one of those things to build my resume and make up for my not-so-great GPA, but I actually really loved doing it and it seemed like as long as you can get some specimens, and you can sit down, and you have a studio space, you can come up with some amazing work, and luckily I’m still a research associate at the Museum of Natural History, so hopefully they’ll let me borrow some animal mounts. But there’s also insects. Insects are great… they’re cheap and I’m also the entomology professor so it could just become entomological illustration and then of course Farmingdale also has a huge Horticulture Department and botanical illustration has always historically… much like art has been a big part of biology… art has been a big part of botany for a long time. So I think we have the ability to do this, and that there would be interest, and it’d be a cool collaboration with these two departments that are both in Hale Hall.
John: How have your colleagues responded?
Carly: I would say positively… extremely positively. I’ve been thinking more about transitioning into… not fully being a pedagogy researcher… but having it be a large part of what I do on the research side. So, I still plan on doing my usual wasp entomology taxonomy research, but I also want to do a lot of research that’s in comics and the use of comics. That was something that came up in my interview and I think it overall was a helpful thing, and even while I’ve been here I’ve talked about it a lot with my chair and she’s been extremely supportive, and my other colleagues have also been supportive. I haven’t received any negative pushback… which I think was something that I was expecting… because when you look at the literature about educators… whether they or not they want to use comics, there’s this fear… that comics have this bias against them. And so a lot of educators at the primary and secondary levels are kind of afraid of assigning them, and they’re afraid they’re going to be looked down upon by parents and by other educators. But I’ve been extremely fortunate, and I have faced none of that and largely the faculty have been very supportive.
Rebecca: I wonder if some people maybe perceive comics as just being not very rigorous. Which is crazy,because you can provide so much more information… because there’s a visual element as well as a text element. So they might actually be more rigorous.
Carly: Yeah. We talk about lack of rigor and lack of detail in textbooks anyways. If you look at a non major biology textbook it’s obviously not going to be as detailed as a major’s introductory biology textbook, and there’s a reason for that. You’re not teaching people who are going to continue in biology for the most part, so there’s less detail. But, still people harp on the lack of information and the lack of rigor. So, I feel like that’s going to be an argument that comes up no matter what assigned reading you’re going to use. Certainly with comics there’s another bias and that there’s a bunch of superhero comics… but comics are actually a lot more diverse these days.
Rebecca: Comics are probably a really great way to help students understand those basic concepts so that they can build their mental model because they probably come with all sorts of assumptions and things that are not correct, and I could see how demonstrating visually could help overcome some of that.
Carly: Yeah, certainly, and for me it really comes down to what is the point of general biology? What am I aiming to do? I still want my students to learn about photosynthesis, and the Krebs cycle, and mitosis, and meiosis. But I also want them to come away with an appreciation and a sense that they are able to understand it. I want them to walk away from the class with positive feelings towards science and not just- it’s a collection of facts I had to memorize.
John: I wish I had had a class like this when I was in college. it seems like a fascinating way of addressing this
Rebecca: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. I didn’t know I wanted to know about wasps, but maybe I want to know more now after reading your comic.
Carly: Yeah. So these are all like my lofty aspirations as an educator, but I’m pretty sure I’m still making common mistakes and it’s still a bunch of facts that they have to memorize, sometimes. But I feel an awareness of these of these issues is helping and hopefully I only get better at that process.
John: …and there’s nothing wrong with it being fun for them to learn those facts. ..
John: … they do need to learn facts but there’s nothing saying it can’t be engaging.
Rebecca: Well, providing those sequences might make it easier to remember, because you have a clearer understanding of how the things connect. The visual representation can help provide those connections that words don’t always help because it’s too abstract.
Carly: I think with biology, especially at the introductory level, especially when you’re a professor that doesn’t have graduate student instructors or TAs, you don’t have a lot of time. So we always talk about wanting to have critical thinking questions and essays, but inevitably just because of time constrictions it does largely become scantron multiple-choice questions, and in that way it does become a lot of memorization. Now I still think that memorization is valid. I still think it’s important to know the steps and the processes and be able to call up that knowledge. But for me, the struggle is making that memorization easier. And if comics make that easier then I’m accomplishing my goal…
John: One of the things that really impressed me, though just following you on Twitter recently since I saw your work, is how engaged you are in the scholarship of learning and teaching in your discipline. It’s nice to see people starting their careers doing that. What got you interested in doing research on teaching and learning?
Carly: I think it actually comes down to who professors are. Professors tend to have PhDs, and in my case, I didn’t take any classes about how to teach. So I think most of us are just kind of thrown into this process and we learned slowly along the way. I was like “Well, there’s a whole body of research out there…” and I started reading some papers about how to be a more effective teacher. We have our own center here for teaching that has workshops and stuff like that, and I think recognizing my lack of formal training, I have no teachers certification or anything like that, made me more interested
Carly: I’ve got the list of questions.
Rebecca: One of the things that I think is kind of interesting is the way that we started this whole conversation… and it ties nicely back to the scholarship of teaching and learning… is that your first research position was doing illustrations. And I think that in academia, we don’t often see those sorts of actions as being research. So I really love that that role was called researcher and brings all this sort of together. It doesn’t have to be traditional to be effective or useful.
Carly: Now certainly that first position as an illustrator in the Padian lab… I still wanted to do traditional types of research, but that experience (as someone who is already sort of hanging around on the graduate student level and hanging around the research labs) made me a person that was visible in a crowd of something like 2,000 undergraduate biology students. So from the Padian lab, I was actually able to transition into a more traditional research role that actually led me to parasitism, to studying parasitism, and that was in the Wake lab with Marvalee Wake, who is one of my most important mentors as an undergrad. But yes, my first research position I was called an undergraduate researcher was actually just doing illustration. And I learned a lot about vertebrate anatomy because that was what Katie Brakora studied.
Rebecca: People don’t realize that when you’re doing that kind of illustration work, what kind of attention to detail you need to pay, and how much you can actually learn by just looking at something very carefully.
Carly: Oh yeah, being able to measure something… getting proportions down correctly. There’s a lot of math that goes into biological illustration and serve a lot of rigor. And then you just spend hours stippling, and that was my life.
Carly: Yeah, I would just say if this sounds like something that a faculty member is listening to this podcast and they’re like, “Ah I want to either start making comics or I want to incorporate comics even into a STEM class, I have lots of resources and I can sort of talk ad nauseam about that. You know like, “What are some good comics if you’re teaching biochemistry? What are some good comics if you’re teaching literature?” So certainly if there’s anyone who’s interested in either making comics or choosing comics for their classroom, I’d be happy to talk to folks.
I think unless you’re a comic book reader you probably don’t realize just how much comics have grown outside of what you might have imagined they were twenty years ago, and you’d be surprised by the amount of some relatable materials… especially in the social studies classes… especially in history, there’s a lot of memoirs… a lot of historical memoirs right now in comics.
John: Actually right now, I can think of at least a couple of examples in economics of comic book series that were created for instructional purposes. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York created a series of comic books to help provide middle- and high-school students with information about the monetary system and the role of the Federal Reserve Board; the other, a series of comic books created featuring Captain Euro… this was originally created to provide support for the introduction of the Euro and for the European Union in general.
Carly: Medicine has really moved with this, especially when they’re thinking about “How do we make information that transcends language barriers?” I follow a Twitter that is just medical graphics and there are conferences on medical comics as well. So I think that’s a field that’s really sort of latched on to making comics as a way to share information with patients, and there’s actually been some research showing that it’s more effective.
Rebecca: It’s used a lot in areas where there might be outreach for really low income or people in poverty who need important information about health or resources and things, and that’s where literacy might be an issue, and so sequential images are often used in those contexts as well. When I was doing a project in India, I discovered all of these really interesting graphics that were used… sequential graphics… to get people to do all sorts of things because there’s so many different languages… to kind of overcome that barrier. It was really interesting.
So we usually wrap up our interviews with the question of what are you gonna do next, you’ve already talked about a number of things that are on the horizon, but is there anything specific you want to share as your your next step, whatever it is that you want to research or do?
Carly: Yeah, so we’ve talked a lot about comics, but I can tell you a couple of other things that are on the horizon for me. My field season… the actual going out and studying wasps that I do that’s going to start up in the summer… and I’m hopefully going to bring an undergraduate or two with me, and then hopefully bring that undergraduate to present at the Entomological Society of America. So, that’s sort of the science side of my life, but sort of the swing back I’ve been talking a lot at the Entomological Society of America about using comics in entomology research… and sort of more in line with what you guys do generally, my next thing is actually proposing a symposium on education for undergraduates. Since most entomologists that are at a university don’t just teach entomology, we also generally teach any biology courses. So, kind of swinging more strictly into undergraduate education instead of the broader community outreach education that I’ve been doing with comics outside of academia. So, that’s exactly next on the horizon for me outside of just keeping working on comics.
Rebecca: So, where do your wasps take you this summer?
Carly: They’re going to take me hopefully to Puerto Rico for about a week, down to Florida for probably a week or two, and also local collecting. There hasn’t been a lot done around the Northeast, so going out to the Pine Barrens on Long Island and then probably making it up as far up as you guys and things like that and further up and down the East Coast.
John: Well if you do get up here let us know
John: … and we’ll take you out to lunch or dinner.
Carly: Oh, thank you. Yeah. This has been great guys, thanks for having me and inviting me to this.
Rebecca: Yeah, thanks for sharing all that you’re doing it sounds really exciting, I can’t wait to see it all happen.
John: It’s great to have you here, and you’re doing some wonderful work.
Rebecca: And you have two fans here and two advocates here.
Carly: Oh thank you, that’s important. I want to like tour all of the centers for teaching and learning excellence, however it’s called at every university, and you know be like “Comics, comics, comics, comics!”
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.