Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, Dr. Margaret Schmuhl joins us to discuss how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues. Maggie is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.
- Dr. Margaret Schmuhl- Assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at SUNY Oswego
- Episode 47 of the Tea for Teaching Podcast: First-year Classes
- First Year Signature Courses at Oswego
- Marvel Comics
- Image Comics
- Mya Brown – Assistant Professor in the Theatre department at SUNY Oswego
- Black-ish Mirror: A Study of Black Characters on Television (THT 198)
- Course Introduction Video on Vimeo
- Amy Bidwell – Associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Wellness at SUNY Oswego
- Episode 72 of the Tea for Teaching Podcast: Maintaining Balance
- Persepolis (2004) – graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi
- ACUE – Association of College and University Educators – certificate of effective college instruction
Rebecca: Difficult conversations like those around injustice and inequity can be challenging to facilitate no matter the student body, but first-year students have additional barriers to overcome, like establishing a sense of belonging on campus. In this episode, we examine how comic books and programming outside of the classroom can help first-year students develop the confidence to engage with complex social issues.
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: Our guest today is Dr. Margaret Schmuhl an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome back Maggie.
Maggie: Hi everyone.
John: Good to have you back.
Maggie: It’s good to be here.
John: Our teas today are….
Maggie: I am having a black ginger and peach tea.
Rebecca: Oh, one of John’s favorites.
John: It is [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I’m having English afternoon tea.
John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea.
Rebecca: Oh, another one of your favorites.
John: I have many favorites.
Maggie: That’s a favorite of mine too.
John: We invited you here to discuss your first-year Signature Course here at as Oswego called the Injustice League: Crime, Justice, and Inequality in Comic Books. Sounds like a really fun course. Can you tell us a little bit about the course and how it differs from your other introductory criminal justice courses?
Maggie: This class was a lot of fun to teach. In the class we read various comic books, we watched different superhero movies and we talked about, within those comic books, what it means to have justice, to recognize injustice, and how society responds to crime and maintains or perpetuates various inequalities in those stories and movies.
Rebecca: How does that class differ from the other classes that you teach in your subject area? Because it’s a First-Year Signature Course, so that has particular meaning at our institution.
Maggie: Yeah. So the signature courses here at SUNY Oswego are about bringing a student engagement aspect to our academic course content. And so in this class there’s a balance of introducing our subject matter (in my case, Criminal Justice Studies) to the students but through a really fun way, but also working with students to help them with their academic success and getting engaged with each other and with our campus community.
Rebecca: Are these usually majors that are in this class or non majors?
Maggie: So I actually had a mix of majors and non majors. I had probably about 19 students. I had about 10 or so majors and so about half of the class were non majors. And they came from a variety of disciplines, including computer science, communication studies, and we even had some undeclared majors in the course.
John: And this is part of a broader initiative that we talked about in a prior podcast, and we will include a link to that in the show notes for anyone who wants to learn more about the first-year signature courses here. So one of the purposes of this, as you said, is to build more of engagement with the college community and also amongst themselves so that students will feel more connected. And one of the first things you did, I believe, was take them on a field trip. Could you tell us a little bit about that field trip?
Maggie: In Oswego, there’s a local comic shop that we ordered some of the students comic books from. In the very first class I asked them which comic books they were interested in purchasing and how many students we’re going to accompany me to the comic book shop here in town. And so to get to the comic book shop, you have to take the public bus, or at least if you don’t have a car, and many first year students don’t, they have to learn how to take the public bus. And so part of this field trip was not only obtaining some of the course materials for the class, but also getting the students familiar with public transit in the town and how to navigate a new place with them. So we arrived at the comic book shop and the owner was very gracious to us. She made us cookies and we had coffee and the students picked up their books and some of them even got some additional materials. We had a lot of fun. It was an amusing trip bringing a bunch of college students on a bus, and some of them their first time using public transit, and the bus drivers were even entertained by the group of us, so we had a really good time.
Rebecca: I think you also discovered the infrequency of the buses….
Maggie: Oh yes.
Rebecca: …in our town, right?
Maggie: Oh yes.
John: Particularly on weekends.
Maggie: Yeah, particularly on weekends. We did wait about an hour for the bus on Sunday. So that was a little bit of a lag, but we made it through.
John: I should note that the comic book shop is actually owned by the wife of a former member of my department. It’s Arlene Spizman who runs that store.
Maggie: Yeah, Arlene was wonderful.
John: She’s a very nice person.
Maggie: I didn’t realize she had that connection.
John: In fact, I just finished a paper with her husband.
Rebecca: I’m sure it can be difficult to have an authentic conversation about justice in general, especially with a diverse population of students and maybe students that don’t know each other very well. How did talking about comic books as a way to get into the topic help facilitate those discussions?
Maggie: Comic books offer a different world for students to experience some of the concepts and some of the issues that we struggle with as a society. And so to be able to visually see these issues play out across the panels, it’s a place where students don’t feel nervous or threatened, it feels safe. They’re taking these comic books and they’re finding ways to relate with them and work out some of their preconceived notions or feel like it’s okay to start working on some of these biases and issues in society.
Rebecca: It seems like it has a lot in common with some of the other topics that we’ve talked about on the podcast before, like simulations and role playing, where it’s a place to escape the real world and talk about something really challenging in a so-called fake environment, but really they’re working out real-life issues and biases and all kinds of things that can be really difficult to talk about, but it’s a lot easier to talk about character that’s not real.
Maggie: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the comic books we read is an X-Men comic book called God Loves, Man Kills and we talked a lot about the concept of othering and what it means to target out and marginalize a group of people and in a lot of ways X-Men plays out what has happened in race relations in society and in other groups who have been historically marginalized. And so for students to consume this information through a comic book, they can better reflect on their own experiences and start to understand the position of others in society.
Rebecca: It probably also makes it a lot easier to make mistakes when you’re talking about that. I think sometimes students don’t want to talk about touchy topics because they’re afraid of offending someone or saying something in the wrong way but if it’s not about anybody real….
Rebecca: …then it’s not going to hurt someone’s feelings.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely…. And another thing that we did in this course right from the get go was to set ground rules for discussion and conversation. And so I had the students come up with various guidelines for discussions and we would write them down so that we could refer back to them as we continued throughout the semester, so that they all understood that they had a responsibility to each other to make sure that everyone was comfortable and safe in this classroom. It really helped to facilitate a lot of these very difficult discussions in a very similar way that comic books themselves kind of help us talk about very critical and very upsetting social issues.
John: They also come in probably very familiar with many of these comics because they’ve seen them in movies, and some of them may have read some of these as well. Could you give us some specific examples of some issues in criminal justice that you were able to address using comic books?
Maggie: In terms of the classroom breakup, we have many students who were avid comic book readers. And we had many students who were somewhat interested in comic books but were more in tuned with the recent TV shows and movies that have come out of Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. And so there’s, you know, quite a range of knowledge around this. But for the most part, most all of the students were interested in some kind of criminal justice aspect of their studies. And so, one of the concepts that we tried to discuss in this class was the issue of mass incarceration in society. And so what we did was we read a book called Bitch Planet, and in this planet, women are incarcerated on another planet. It has a lot of strong connections to some of the ways that society has restricted women’s rights throughout history and how the punishment of women has differed across time and across place. So to be able to see these concepts in a comic book and to talk about the parallels that exist in our society was a really, really cool process for the students.
John: Did you mostly focus on comic books they were familiar with, or you mentioned Bitch Planet, which was one that perhaps many of them hadn’t seen before. Did you bring in many that were things that they hadn’t expected or that they were less familiar with?
Maggie: There was really a mix. I even had some criminology textbooks that had various criminological theories played out in comic book form and we read a few of those to give us a baseline of various theoretical perspectives on criminal behavior. But most of the comic books I’d say we’re falling in the mainstream. I think that’s what students were typically looking forward to, but they really did enjoy the new reboot of Miss Marvel, with Kamala Khan and Bitch Planet and those were perhaps a little more on the periphery than Black Panther and X-Men.
John: How did students react to this? Did they generally find it interesting? Were some students troubled by using comic books? What about the imbalance between those students who were very avid comic book fans with those who were less familiar? How did that play out?
Maggie: Some of the very avid comic book fans in the class had a lot more context to really draw from when discussing histories of the Joker or Black Panther and the development of the character over time. But because comic books have become so popular in mainstream media, with TV shows on Netflix and pretty much a new Marvel movie coming out each year, that students really had a lot to draw from. Students didn’t need a great depth of knowledge of comic books prior to coming to this class.
John: For those students who were avid comic book fans, was it a little more challenging, perhaps, than they expected to look at some of these things through perhaps a more critical lens?
Maggie: I think that comic books, even if you don’t have a great background of reading comic books, or knowing the development of various characters, I think comic books allow for anyone to just pick them up and start thinking about them in a different way. They’re relatively quick reads, which really helps. Students can read them a couple of times and start to reflect back on some of the course concepts and theories that we discussed and how they apply and pull out those very specific examples. So I think the medium of comic books really provides a great range of abilities for students.
Rebecca: What are some of the things that you learned from teaching this class that you started employing in other classes?
Maggie: Oh, that’s a good question. One of the things that teaching the Injustice League has helped me with my other courses is to really think about being explicit with what I expect and what I hope students learn from various assignments and activities. In the Injustice League, students are entering college for the very first time and so they may not always understand why we’re reading this particular article or how it relates to the comic book that we’re reading today. And so for me to slow down as an educator and say that “Here’s why we’re doing this. Here’s what the research is showing us about why low-stakes testing in this class is a good thing.” That’s helped me in my other courses be more explicit with why I’m making decisions in various teaching practices.
Rebecca: Have you done anything else that’s related to bringing more comic books to other classes or field trips or some of the other things that brought the fun piece to the class that I think really energized the group as a whole?
Maggie: In my research methods class, I’m hoping that students will be able to assist in it by going out into the community and surveying people about dating formerly incarcerated persons. And so I think to get them out into the community and to start locating various areas of the community will bring some of that campus engagement aspect to it. In my crime-mapping class we actually started geocoding some of the locations around campus and so these are more upper-division courses but I’m trying to, even though the winter months make it a little more difficult to get outside, but trying to get outside of the classroom and really talk about how important it is to be connected to our community and to understand our relationship with the community.
John: I believe there was also some type of a video or a movie that you showed and I think other classes participated in that. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it fits into other classes?
Maggie: There was a collaborative effort among some of the first-year signature course instructors to bring our students together in a common place. We ended up watching a episode of Luke Cage and this particular episode really spoke to a lot of the different courses that were being offered in the Signature Course program. Obviously my course, as one that deals with comic books and crime and justice and inequalities, Luke Cage is a very good example of many of the concepts that we talked about in class. But Mya Brown in the theater department also taught a class called Blackish Mirror and it followed the development of black characters on television. And so this was also a really good place for her class to talk about how various stereotypes that they had learned existed and/or were resisted against in Luke Cage. We also had a professor from political science and from communication studies, talk about political organizing or activism in Luke Cage, as well as narrative and the use of narrative in TV shows. We even had a signature course instructor in the health and wellness department… their class made snacks for the students to enjoy at the event.
John: Healthy snacks.
Maggie: Yeah, healthy snacks and it was brilliant. The students loved it. They created a snack mix that could be created and replicated by using ingredients found on campus. So that was a really cool way to bring in even a discipline that’s not necessarily focused on examining social inequalities in media to this event, and so it really spoke to a lot of students across various disciplines.
John: And we should note that, that person was Amy Bidwell, who was on an earlier episode. Were there any surprises in teaching the class that you didn’t expect?
Maggie: The class was a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve had as much fun teaching any other classes I had teaching this class. It was really fun to pick up a hobby of mine, something like reading comic books, to bring this to the classroom and to start and challenge students to think about the media they consume in a new way, and how it reflects what we do in society and various values that society has. One of the most surprising things in the classroom was really how much of a community the students had at the end of the class. They had been speaking about other courses and working together on other projects and planning their course schedules for the next semester so that others would be in their courses together and so that was a really cool outcome of the class.
John: …and I believe you also opened an Instagram account for the class.
Maggie: I did and so you can follow it @the_injustice_league_oz… each word is underscored. I won’t say that I have many followers on the Instagram account but a lot of the students who did follow it seemed to really enjoy it.
John: And are you going to be teaching this again?
Maggie: I will be teaching this class next fall. So I’m very much looking forward to the next cohort of Injustice League members.
Rebecca: Did you carry on the superhero fantasy world theme throughout the class? You talked about rules for discussion or rules for engagement at the beginning. It’s almost like world building. Did you think about theming that more? Could you talk about how you might have done some of that?
Maggie: All of the designing my syllabus was all thinking of the class as being a part of a group of superheroes as opposed to just a group of students in the class. I even designed the midterm exam to look like a top-secret mission directive from their Professor S, which is me. The secret mission was about identifying various concepts that we talked about in class and applying them to a new comic book that we hadn’t read in the class. And so, in this midterm exam, they got to explore some of their favorites that we may not have gotten to touch on the class. It was a good opportunity for them to get creative and think about how these theories and concerns about justice translate across various stories.
John: And that way, you’re giving them some autonomy, but you’re also helping them develop transfer skills so they can take the things you learned and apply them in new circumstances, which is a really good practice.
Maggie: Even one of my students, when we were discussing moral panics, stopped into my office hours one day and was ecstatic because he had just realized that his journalism course was talking about moral panics, and so to be able to identify these concepts across disciplines was also a really cool outcome of the class.
Rebecca: You talked a bit about the class being really fun to teach. And part of that’s because you brought your hobby and your discipline together. But were there other things that made the class fun? I can imagine that you’ve all thought about yourselves as a part of a league. So maybe that you felt more connected to your students, or am I kind of projecting?
Maggie: Oh, absolutely. So, I called myself Professor S as a play on Professor X in X-men and so the students really loved that and they had a really good time with the way we even addressed each other in the class. The Instagram account even helped create more of a community by bringing in various pictures of each other doing or identifying various comic things across our everyday lives and interactions.
John: How did you first get interested in comic books?
Maggie: Actually, my first interest in comic books came from graphic novels and reading Persepolis as a kid. But, of course, I fell in love with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and I’ve watched pretty much all of the movies in chronological order.
Rebecca: Of course [LAUGHTER]
Maggie: I called it “research,” the summer I rewatched them all, it was a wonderful time. After reading a novel like Persepolis it was also something that really got me interested in criminal justice and society and inequalities in social life.
John: Did the students seem more open to discussing some of these issues having been exposed to them through comic books?
Maggie: Comic books reflect a lot of what is going on currently in society and they provide us a way to talk about really difficult topics of racism and sexism and things that occur and that people and students are experiencing in their everyday lives. So using comic books to facilitate these conversations is really important for students just beginning to question some of these processes.
John: One aspect of this course, as you said before, was to help introduce students to college life and help them create bonds and connections. But that also frees you up quite a bit because you don’t have a standard curriculum. Is this the first time you’ve ever taught a class where you didn’t have a fixed amount of material you had to cover in the course?
Maggie: Yeah, so this class was really flexible in that way. As I look back on the class, I’d say that it’s equally as important for us to be talking about some of the content about comic books and the sociological and criminological aspects of them as it was to help students become more connected to their community and to their campus, but also to ensure that they will be successful students at moving forward. And so this class really allowed me to work on some of their questions that would just come up, like calculating a GPA or registering for classes. And so the flexibility that exists in this class lets me respond to the students and their concerns in the moment and to occasionally tie-in some of those issues in current events to what we’re discussing in these comic books.
Rebecca: I could also imagine that it allows for the tangents that might occur as you start talking about something related to the comic book but you think it’s a valuable discussion. But if you have a finite amount of material in a finite amount of time, you might not be able to b go down those rabbit holes, but they can be such valuable conversations.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the flexibility of this course isn’t just to my benefit, but to the students benefit, where they can ask questions and we don’t have to worry about how much material we get through. We don’t have that curriculum that requires various elements to be covered and so the students can explore some of their questions in a very meaningful way.
Rebecca: I think it might be useful to just clarify that these classes are not part of any specific major, and they’re not a prerequisite for anything. So that’s what we’ve been talking about in terms of them being kind of freeing. I don’t know if we explicitly stated that.
John: Did you get to know the students better than you would in a typical introductory class?
Maggie: O ne of the good things about this particular classes is that there were only 19 students, and so it really allowed for me to get to know each of them individually and be able to see their personalities through our discussions and to have that comfort level with the classroom to talk about what made their day not so great today and what they really enjoyed about the weekend. And so to have that sort of informal relationship in a very formal setting was a really cool experience.
Rebecca: I know that one of the things that I’ve been thinking about after hearing many of the faculty who taught the signature classes talk about their classes is just finding ways to have some more of those informal opportunities in class, but also thinking very carefully about the content that I think that needs to be covered versus what maybe actually needs to be covered. There tends to be a disconnect, We think we need to cram in so much stuff. What are some of the key principles and things? And can we go into more depth for some of those if students are interested? And I’ve allowed that to happen a little bit this semester, and it’s been really delightful, I think, for everybody involved.
Maggie: Yeah, that was one of the things that I struggled with in the class. At the very beginning I was treating the class like a topics course and cramming, or at least planning to cram, a ton of information in. A few weeks in, I realized that it just wasn’t going to work for this type of class, that this class really did need time to facilitate these relationships and to help students learn and navigate their first semester here on campus. And so to have that flexibility for them to be able to explore their questions and concerns on campus and off campus was a important part of this class.
Rebecca: Sometimes I think that these functional aspects of being a student can get in the way of learning. So spending the time and just addressing those concerns that are preoccupying a student can free them up to actually think about the content and spend time investigating it. So, if they’re really concerned about figuring out their GPA or really concerned about making sure they’re registering for the right classes, addressing that concern up front can actually free them to focus on learning.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of students, they come into the classroom and they think that college is going to be just like their high school experiences and so that studying in the same ways is going to be effective for them or that GPA’s and what credit hours are. There’s a lot of new information that makes transitioning to college more difficult one then, say, transitioning from their middle school to their high school . And so I think this does give them the time in class to talk with a faculty member to try to work out some of these questions in a way that they may not get to in their other courses and so it does certainly alleviate some of their anxiety around these issues.
Rebecca: When there’s not a context like that I think the option is going to office hours or something and that can be really intimidating, I think, for first-year students, or they just have no idea what office hours are for, which is another thing.
Maggie: Right, or how to book an appointment…
Maggie: …and all of that. And so I know many of the First-Year Signature Course instructors, including myself, tried to have individual meetings with students to break the barrier of setting up an appointment for office hours and how to draft emails to your professors and such and so I think it really helps them not be as nervous about getting the help they need and the resources that they may need in the future moving forward.
John: Because in the past if they were called into go to someone’s office after class…
Rebecca: Right, it was a bad thing, yeah.
John: Exactly. And so, you know, that’s something they do need to get past and it takes a while often and by then sometimes a little too late. So that’s really helpful.
Rebecca: Speaking of criminal justice, right? [LAUGHTER]
Maggie: Colleges, it’s a different culture than they’re used to and so to get assimilated to that culture is really important in many different ways.
Rebecca: Right, it’s like mentoring instead of a penal system.
Maggie: Right? [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Kind of a weird word flip there.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely.
John: And one of the nice things about this whole program is it was set up as a randomized controlled experiment where students were asked if they were interested in courses and then they were randomly assigned or not assigned. And there’s some work that’s being done right now analyzing how their outcomes compared to outcomes of the students who were not in one of these groups, and they’ll be followed a bit to see how this works overall. So, I’m looking forward to seeing more, but the preliminary results they have, as were reported in the meeting this morning, were fairly positive.
Maggie: Yeah, retention was really good and so hopefully that’ll continue.
John: Semester-to-semester retention….
Maggie: for underrepresented populations, yeah. There was…
John: …was 100% retention semester to semester.
John: It’ll be interesting to see if that persists, because that has not always been the experience of Freshmen.
Maggie: Right, and hopefully it does and I think one of the things this Signature Course program is trying to promote are those students and faculty relationships and that if students have a strong bond with a staff member or faculty that they’ll be more successful in all aspects of their academic life.
Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking, what next?
Maggie: Well next, I’m currently meeting with various new faculty members for the Signature Course program so we’re going to work our way through more course prep, and I’m very excited to meet the newest members of the Injustice League next Fall.
John: And you’re also joining the cohort of people in ACUE…
John: …which is starting up here on campus very shortly.
Rebecca: …another league.
Maggie: Yeah, another league of sorts. [LAUGHTER] I’m very excited… very excited for that as well.
John: T hank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you about this course and I wish I could take most of these courses.
Rebecca: I know, they’re always so much fun to hear about, but I think they give us lots of prompts and interesting things that we can start to consider in other contexts too.
Maggie: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
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.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.