December 26, 2007

Comic book demerits

Today's New York Times story by Elissa Gootman on comic books as curriculum has a fairly typical narrative structure in education reporting: creative person invents Method X to engage kids, which relies on popular culture; it's spreading like wildfire, and attracting critics.

In the case of Gootman's story, the creative person is Michael Bitz, the method is the Comic Book Project, the evidence of diffusion is an unsourced claim that almost 900 schools are using it, and the critic quoted in the article is Diane Ravitch.

Hrrmmmn... because this article fits the narrative structure too neatly, let's read between the lines a bit. First, my guess is that Gootman quoted Ravitch because she is eminently quotable and treats reporters well (i.e., calls them back quickly, before deadline). There is no evidence that Ravitch has been a public critic of the project, but she is a Quotable Source that could be relied on by the reporter. Two demerits to the reporter for working backwards from a source to craft the narrative she evidently wanted to write in the first place.

The rest of the material on criticism is quoting advocates of using comic books, when they refer to vague critics (i.e., parents who are a touch skeptical). No evidence of a search for anyone who knew of the project before Gootman contacted them and was willing to be quoted. One demerit for laziness in scrounging for sources.

I would also have expected a New York Times reporter would also have written about the long-term change in attitudes towards comic books, from the Kefauver hearings on crime comics in the 1940s to huge conventions of comic-book fans and collectors, the development of "graphic novels" as art form (e.g., Maus), and the use of comic books to reach youth (including all sorts of efforts to change teen behavior through comics). I don't know if Gootman goofed on that, or if the editor excised any context. Two demerits to the Times for ahistorical writing.

Finally, there is absolutely nothing in the story about the existing evaluations of such efforts, at least one of which is available in a single click from the project's website. Haven't we had enough fads without looking at what the consequences are? Two demerits for a romantic portrayal of instructional methods without looking for evidence.

None of this says anything about using comic books as either instructional material or as projects for elementary students. (Use a different format, and we'd be talking about student-as-author projects with picture books.) But this is weak education reporting on the first page of the Times metro section (B).

Update: Kevin Carey says more and even mentions Fredric Wertham. Two points to Carey for historical alertness. Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on December 26, 2007 11:11 AM |