‘Gender Through Comics’ (aka #SuperMOOC) – End of Week One Diary

Starting Tuesday April 2, Ball State University launched a pioneering foray into the world of online education with their course ‘Gender through comics’. Think of it as being like a literature module but without the formalised grading system (or the mammoth sized essays) and delivered entirely through a web based networks enhanced by social media. As you might have guessed from the title (and the existence of this post), I am participating in the course and so far it has been a lot of fun. It’s also free to join and as far as I’m aware there’s still a number of places available for people to join in.

The course examines the concept of gender in society – how it’s created from culture, how it effects us and how it can be reinforced or refuted through art – and applies feminist theory to comics. The course features live interviews with prominent writers and artists every Thursday night – this week’s was with Terry Moore (more on him below).

Week one mainly served as an introduction to the course, going over the basic questions we should be asking in order to analyse a comic through the lens of gender. Appropriately our first week was spent studying Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise and the first issue of Rachel Rising. Both are led by female protagonists and have other characters which subvert traditional gender roles, neither is an example of the superhero genre that stereotypically dominates the medium; Moore’s black and white artwork is as beautifully drawn as it is realistic, with his characters never feeling as though they are anything less than a believable individual even when their actions stray into ‘wish  fulfilment’  territory. Next week we will be studying Superman, through his earliest appearance in 1938’s Action Comics #1, a ‘silver age‘ Superman story and the more recent Birthright series.

Like any kind of literary study, you only get out what you put in and because there’s no grading or essays (mainly because it’s open to up to 7000 students) there’s nothing to stop you from simply refusing to do the work. Equally, those who do invest the recommended 5 to 10 hours a week in the discussion boards, social networking and supplementary reading are going to get a lot out of it.

The only real problem I have with the way the course functions is that the Canvas discussion board web design is functionally very poor. It’s far too difficult to keep track of the conversations you are participating in if you didn’t begin the thread because it doesn’t show up under the ‘discussion replies’ in your profile unless you created the thread. On a forum with thousands of users it’s extremely unwieldy and makes the course’s most essential classwork more awkward to participate in than it rightly should be. Other than that though, everything else about the studying process, the Canvas website, the teaching and the comics themselves has been fun and informative. I was very pleased to see that the course lecturer Christy Blanch was able to cut a deal with ComiXology, the world’s biggest digital comic distributor, to offer all the required reading at a significantly reduced rate.

For me, as someone who already considers himself pretty familiar with feminist/gender theory as applied to the written word and culture at large, it’s interesting to practice its application to sequential artwork (as well as getting a good refresher in the fundamentals of the gender). For those of you who aren’t interested in comics, or sees them as a purely childish pursuit that’s dominated by capes and costumes, the #SuperMOOC is an excellent opportunity to expand your horizons; while those of you who have never studied feminism can stand to learn a lot about our culture and how the gender roles/stereotypes it imposes on us impact on our lives.

Through comics. Awesome comics.