Work in Comics project update: Survey closed

As you may have noticed, I have been doing most of my blogging over at lately. I’ve just closed the survey portion of the study.

If you missed them, I posted (mostly) weekly updates featuring various preliminary findings over there. They should give a good sense of the kinds of questions I’m interested in.

In the coming months I’ll be analyzing the results and conducting follow-up interviews with a sample of the survey respondents. I’m looking forward to tucking into the full and complete data set and sharing what I learn about making comics today.

RIP Stuart Hall

I woke up this morning to the news that Stuart Hall has died at the age of 82.

Hall was not only one of the “founding fathers” of the cultural studies tradition but also one of the clearest, most persuasive advocates for a cultural studies that matters. Never one to retreat into the world of aesthetic contemplation and theoretical play, he always argued that thinking through and about culture could help us understand the fundamental features of our common life.

Here he is making that case in a 2012 interview with Sut Jhally:

Reading his obituary and some personal reminiscences this morning, I realized Hall was probably the most “important”—that is to say, influential, canonical, etc.—person of colour working in my field. The title of “theorist” and the prestige that accompanies it is still largely reserved for white men from France. It meant a lot to have his example as a racialized scholar who—although he certainly wrote from and about his own experience—contributed to such a wide variety of theoretical and political debates.

Gary Alan Fine once suggested that although symbolic interactionism in some sense lost its struggles with the sociological mainstream of the mid-twentieth century, its major tenets eventually snuck back in through the back door as the uncontroversial common sense of the discipline. I think Hall’s influence is like that—reaching far beyond those who have read his scholarship, taken his classes, or heard him speak. His ideas—and the ideas he helped introduce to the Anglophone academy—have become part of the bedrock of how we think.

Stuart Hall obituary, The Guardian

Everything I Know About Pedagogy, I Learned from Dungeons and Dragons

I’m a postdoctoral at a university. My job is doing research, but this semester I’m also teaching a class. It’s the first one I’ve had the opportunity to design from scratch.

In preparation, I took a workshop in course design from the University of Calgary’s Teaching and Learning Centre. The three-day seminar featured a lot of great advice about getting from idea to complete syllabus, but one comment the facilitator made really stood out. He said that the current consensus in teaching and learning is that our job is designing environments.

When I first stepped into the classroom a few years ago, I thought of myself as a kind of editor. The bulk of my job was the selection of what my students would read and discuss, and my lectures basically served as introductory essays to frame their reading. But this idea of designing environments for learning resonated because of the experience I’ve since had as a Dungeon Master (DM).

D&D miniatures and dice. Photo by flickr user fireflythegreat.

D&D miniatures and dice. Photo by flickr user fireflythegreat.

For those of you who have never played (!?), tabletop fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), involve a group of players in an interactive story. Most of the players control a single character, who has motivations and goals, a personality, and a quantifiable set of attributes and skills. But one player, the DM, doesn’t control a character; he or she controls the whole world. The DM creates the story and is responsible for everything that happens—though most RPGs also involve a certain amount of random chance to keep things interesting.

A teacher is the DM of the classroom, and I think I’ll be a better teacher if I keep in mind some things that I’ve learned from playing D&D with my friends.

Encounter, Adventure, Campaign

Most role-playing games are persistent. From week to week, you control the same players and the story continues building up based on what happened before. Like serial entertainment, then, it works best when it’s layered and incorporates multiple tempos: A storyline, B storyline, season-long C storyline.

The basic building block of a D&D game is the “encounter.” Usually, these are combat encounters, where you run into some monsters and have to defeat them. More generically, you might say that an encounter involves an obstacle that has to be overcome somehow to proceed. A group of encounters oriented towards a single goal or objective is an adventure (which may involve one or more side quests along the way). The frame in which all this takes place, as defined by some combination of the same players, characters, and setting is a campaign.

A fun, satisfying campaign will have certain developing themes between adventures. Individual encounters will not only provide an interesting challenge in themselves but also propel a longer plot forward. Similarly, if we think about a student’s whole university experience as their learning campaign, then a course or series of courses is like an adventure, which has specific, distinct outcomes. Each reading, lecture and discussion is in the deepest sense an encounter, and each of these encounters should propel us towards our goals and objectives.

Multiple Hooks for Different Learners

I’m not really a big fan of the “learning styles” meme, insofar as that’s interpreted as some kind of biologically essentialist feature of learners’ brains. But I do believe that people come to the table with different interests and motivations, and that has consequences for how they experience your class.

In D&D’s manuals for Dungeon Masters, there’s a relatively elaborate typology of “kinds” of gamers: that is, players who are interested in different aspects of the game and, thus, judge how much fun they’re having in different terms. The Dungeon Master’s Guide provides advice on how to interest and involve each of these player types, as well as what kinds of difficulties you might expect from them.

As a teacher, just like a DM, I want to provide different hooks into the subject for different learners. That means trying to get a sense early on of what people are looking for in the class. Students don’t get to define the course’s objectives or its place in the curriculum, but you can work with them to find connections to their own goals and interests.


One of the most important things the DM has to do is design all those encounters. That not only means figuring out what happens, where, and why, but working out all the details: What monsters will the players face, and what tactics will they, the monsters, use? Are there traps or other hazards that will present additional challenges?

The trick here is hitting a sweet spot in difficulty. If the players are relatively powerful, they can plow through those monsters without their characters facing any real danger. But where’s the fun in that? Conversely, an encounter where the odds are stacked heavily against the players or, worse, there is no way for them to win quickly becomes tedious and frustrating.

A recent article in University Affairs addressed failure as a pedagogical strategy, and I think that’s really relevant to finding this sweet spot I’m talking about. The idea is that letting students grapple collaboratively with something a little above their level will lead them to develop problem-solving skills in a way that asking them to do something they already know how won’t. I don’t know that the language of failure is particularly helpful, but I do think this kind of problem-oriented pedagogy (which I’ve experienced most directly teaching in research methods labs) is a good bet for finding that sweet spot I was talking about.

Comics and Cultural Work

The fine folks at Comics Forum are hosting a series of posts on comics and cultural work, guest edited by Casey Brienza. My contribution, based on some of the background thinking that went into the Work in Comics survey, is now up: “Why is it so hard to think about comics as labour?”

Also, were you aware that I’m blogging the survey, with weekly updates examining different bits and pieces of the preliminary, raw data? You can check them out at the project blog.

War Is Not Great: Sacco’s Great War

The word great is one of the casualties of the gradual erosion of the formal register in spoken and written English. Like awesome and, at the other end of the spectrum, terrible, it has merely become a comparative form of good. Joe Sacco’s recently published The Great War, an “illustrated panorama” that is at once a modernized Bayeux Tapestry and a realist Guernica, attempts to bring back an older, terrible, and incomprehensible sense of great.

Artillery and its aftermath dominate Sacco's Great War

Artillery and its aftermath dominate Sacco’s Great War

The “book” is two hardback boards with a twenty-four foot long sheet of paper accordion-folded between them. The drawing sprawls wordless over the whole length, unrelieved by gutters or even hard page breaks (since the reader may unfold as much of the drawing as he or she will). It is larded with “chicken fat” cartooning gone rancid—dense background details that overwhelm one’s ability to process the scene as a whole. The only relief are the sections where clouds of pointillist smoke, Kirby-crackle lines of force, and negative space take over, marking with a sort of present absence where living young men stood a moment before. Even the author’s annotations, provided in the accompanying booklet, do not arrest the sense of vertiginous, horrified awe that is the book’s greatest aesthetic and rhetorical achievement.

I read this book on Remembrance Day. My wife and I are both pacifists. I wear a white poppy; she, a Mennonite button with the motto, “To remember is to work for peace.” This day is always one of handwringing and debate in our household, as we try to grapple with the ambivalent, ambiguous nature of the commemoration.

In this discussion, World War I looms large. It was the War To End All Wars that gave us the holiday, and is the referent of “lest we forget.” Yet, it seems as though the narrative of its sequel—a morally cleaner conflict—is insistently read back onto the original Great War, and both of them are subsequently used to frame Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and every other military intervention we care to make. It strikes me that it’s only the war’s narrativization (and of course the forgetting that inevitably happens over the decades) that makes this slippage from great to real good possible. But everything about the Great War should resist this tidying up. One only has to wander through Sacco’s panorama or read the startling numbers that go with it to be drawn up short.

Sacco describes himself as haunted since childhood by stories of World War I, and suggests that the lack of words “made it impossible to provide context or add explanations”:

I had no means of indicting the high command or lauding the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste had not been washed from our mouths.

New Project Website Live

The website for my current research project is now up and running at There’s a short introduction to the project and a linkblog.

In a few weeks’ time, it will also be the home of the Work in Comics Survey. This will be—to the best of my knowledge—the only systematic and comprehensive survey of creative workers in comics, including not only the mainstream industry but also alternative/independent comics and self-publishers in both print and digital (that means you, webcomickers!). When completed, the survey will give us reliable information on who makes up the creative workforce in comics and what their work conditions are like.


Next time I have to make a big decision, this is the coin I'm flipping

Next time I have to make a big decision, this is the coin I’m flipping

This is apparently my year for trophies. As if the Lent scholarship plaque weren’t enough, I was also awarded a gold medal in grad studenting—more specifically, the Governor General’s Gold Medal.

The criteria for this award are actually a little mysterious to me. I’m told it recognizes my achievement as one of SFU’s “most outstanding graduate students”—whatever that means. SFU’s materials suggest it is awarded for academic standing, though there was also a competitive nomination process so it’s a bit more involved that just comparing GPAs.

Anyway, it’s obviously very nice to be recognized. Thank you to the Dean of Graduate Studies at SFU and the adjudication committee(s). I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Gary McCarron, for nominating me. The medal was awarded in absentia at the June convocation ceremony, as I was at the wrong end of the country at the time.

Gladys We at the Dean’s office wrote up two very nice profiles for the DGS blog and SFU News. Approving photos and quotes for them gave me a little taste of what it’s like to have a publicist in your corner. Thanks, Gladys!

Last time I'll make this joke, I swear.

Last time I’ll make this joke, I swear.

And during a brief layover on the way back from Congress, I was interviewed by Rachel Braeuer from SFU’s student newspaper, The Peak, about my work, my experience at SFU, and the medal. We talked for half an hour or so, punctuated occasionally by someone loudly dragging tables into alignment nearby. The feature profile is up now on The Peak website.

Unfortunately, Rachel’s original plan to get me in academic regalia and a NES Buckle couldn’t happen because (1) I wasn’t going to be at convocation and (2) my NES Buckle was at home in Toronto. As a plan B, she suggested a cartoon playing up the Doctor Woo / Doctor Who gag, which meant that I came out of retirement as a student-newspaper cartoonist to illustrate my own feature.