I first heard of Teaching Artfully in the second year of my doctoral program. I was just starting to grapple with the idea of drawing my dissertation as a comic and had reached out to Nick Sousanis, the author of Unflattening and the only person who I knew had drawn their dissertation. Nick led me to Ebony Flowers (author of Hot Comb and “DrawBridge”) and Meghan Parker’s works, and I found confidence in precedent. When I reached out to Parker about how she embarked on the Teaching Artfully project — a master’s thesis turned into a publication by Clover Press — she told me that, during her Masters’ program at Simon Fraser University, one of her assignments was to find a “stop moment” to reflect on and respond to each week. As a drawer, she started drawing some of these assignments, and eventually had enough to compile into her thesis.
Parker, who teaches Visual Arts at a public high school in North Vancouver, begins this text/reference/how to guide with an illustrated commentary on the hierarchy of words and images and earnestly asks why images are not perceived as adequately scholarly. Part autobio, part inquiry into her teaching practice, with visually blended quotes from works that influenced her along interspersed throughout alongside anecdotes from her classroom, the book is a testament to the multiplicity afforded by the comics medium. Making a case for autobiography in scholarship, Parker writes, “art-based research considers learning and teaching as embodied practices…[and] self-studies make the personal universal, the private public” (32).
The book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter tackles an element of visual art such as line, color, form, texture, shape, space, and value. However, instead of approaching the seven elements from a standard theory-based approach, Parker advances the topics experimentally and conceptually. Personally, I found myself nodding along and deeply empathizing with her when she writes, “I don’t create that which I already know, I create in order to know, both the subject and myself. I create to reveal, to bring into presence that which I do not yet know, that which I may never know” (218).
The page above shows how comics enable scholar-practitioners to make visible the process of thinking and creating in the medium, how “drawing our thoughts allows us to extend our thinking” by “engaging the embodied process underlying thinking” (81). At the outset, Parker clarifies that her narrative is far from linear. Instead, it is “made up of fragments, moments, memories, ideas, questions and creations” (12). The text asks the readers to not expect the conventional norms they may have come to expect of academic writing. Although relevant to the ethos of the project and often blended in seamlessly with the artwork, her cited materials are presented somewhat unusually, often without the title of the material cited or page numbers. My first impression on reading Teaching Artfully was that Parker does not expand on her cited materials adequately. However, on a closer look it appears that she does, but visually instead of textually; which, in turn, made me think about how graphic scholarship cannot or rather should not be evaluated on the same parameters as textual scholarship. At the end of the narrative, Parker also comments on the messiness of her citations and concludes with an extended notes section that elaborates her source materials.
True to Lynda Barry’s recommended method of drawing, Teaching Artfully is entirely hand drawn, which in our correspondence, Parker said is key for her:
“The hand-drawn process is really important for me. I really connected to the idea that the medium used impacts what it is possible to think. Until this work I had never really felt that I had found my own voice in any piece of writing. As a teacher of visual art, I encourage students to develop skills with their hands every day. I love art materials and being able to play and figure it out with the materials was important. With digital, there is an undo, it was too easy to be slick. That wasn’t the point. It was getting the ideas down and figuring out what I was trying to say with the materials.”
As somebody who has over time shifted to exclusively creating in the digital environment, I believe it is possible to treat the digital canvas exactly as one would a paper one. That is to say, my first draft on paper and my first draft on my iPad both look exactly alike. However, there is a certain fluidity about Parker’s art that is likely the result of her chosen medium (paper, pencil, and watercolor), that simultaneously reveals the free-flowing nature of her work along with the care with which it was executed. It exudes a tranquility— a reposeful but engaging quality that’s hard to put into words.
Rendered in charmingly vibrant watercolor, wordless double-spreads, and loopy hand-drawn lettering, Teaching Artfully, as Scott McCloud and Nick Sousanis declare in the blurb and the foreword respectively (and completely coincidentally), is a delightful read. It is ideal for reading in one eager sitting, as well as for getting lost in, for pausing and dwelling on Parker’s clever rendition of visual metaphors, which are as aesthetically pleasing as they are perceptive.
The visual metaphors often add to her argument implicitly and it seems that she has a distinct knack for literal and playful renditions of idioms. Recently, in a talk hosted by Society of Illustrators, Scott McCloud said that because comics comprise a dual narrative through their image-textual composition, images in comics are often free to explore outside the scope of the text. Parker’s images demonstrate this aspect of the medium, at times; they reiterate or emphasize her textual narrative, or illustrate the text meaningfully (even humorously) at places. For example, in one panel, her character gets literally swallowed by their to-do list (111), and in another she is buried underneath a pile of field trip forms (169), both serving to indicate how overworked she was. At other times, the images enhance the meaning of the narrative through deliberate dissociation from the corresponding text. For example, her character parachutes into Van Gogh’s The Starry Night when her textual narrative cites Maxine Greene’s quote about entering an image “perceptually, affectively and cognitively” (51-52). It is not the only time she visually refers to an impressionist painting or other distinctly recognizable art: other examples include: Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Picasso’s Seated Woman in a Red Armchair, one of Andy Warhol’s self-portraits, Guerilla Girls, and Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, among others. In these re-drawings, Parker replaces the primary character with some form of a self-portraiture. In another fanciful use, she uses snails swapping their regular exoskeleton for terrariums or beanies (amongst other objects) as a conceit to complement her textual narrative about “imagining other possibilities” (44) beyond one’s predetermined paths.
Graphic scholarship like Parker’s demonstrates that we can use the comic medium as a way to think, to innovate, to inquire into our lives, our pedagogies, and our politics. She writes, “Art offers us the possibility of eliminating the gaps between the self and the other” (211). Consequently, she makes a case for “a living inquiry” in teaching spaces, arguing that it “provides the methodology for [her] as a learner to understand [her] frames of reference, [her] prejudices and [her] practices, and to reflect on them with the aim of increased open mindedness” (143). The autobiographical narrative in Parker’s work is not separate from her inquiry into her teaching; instead, it coalesces with the former. She makes use of the medium’s versatility to insert clever little details wordlessly without interrupting the primary narration (150), and asks of the reader,
“What could be communicated if we taught drawing in the same way we do writing? What knowledge are we missing?” (194)
Teaching Artfully juxtaposes loose, colorful, sequential art with a well-thought-out inquiry into the role of visual art in classrooms, that emphasizes how “the medium matters to the message” (77). It is a graphic narrative about teaching, about innovative pedagogical practices, as well as an experimental deep dive into the affordances of the medium. Throughout the narrative, in both explicit and implicit ways, Parker not only focuses on comics as scholarship, but on the importance of visual literacy, of “being able to construct meaning from what we see” (78), because of the pervasive nature of images in our culture and how they influence our worldview (87).
This book is for everyone who is interested in art-based research, in comics as scholarship, and in a fresh take on using visual arts in the classroom. It is also for those who simply enjoy encountering works that experiment with the form, that enjoy themselves, that are a little meta: because if you think about it, it’s really a book about a visual artist teaching visual art and questioning the value of visual art in education, delivered entirely in the visual medium of comics!
Sousanis writes in the foreword that when he was writing Unflattening, he was “less concerned with its firstness and more concerned with making sure that it wouldn’t be the last of its kind.” Teaching Artfully, Parker’s debut book, like the inimitable Unflattening, offers us a range of possibilities. Now, when universities and humanities institutions are gradually but surely opening up to alternative formats of dissertation beyond the standard scholarly monograph, Teaching Artfully is a timely reminder of the expansive future of comics scholarship, of what comics practitioners can do with comics as medium and as method, and of the importance of storytelling as humanistic inquiry.