Learning from Comics: Matt Upson and Mike Hall talk about teaching research through graphic novels

“Can’t I just Google it?”  Librarians who work with students and other beginner researchers face a challenge of teaching research skills to a population thats comfortable using the web but often unaware of how to find accurate, useful information online.  

Matt Upson, assistant professor and director of library undergraduate services at Oklahoma State University, and C. Michael (Mike) Hall, a writer, cartoonist, and public speaker, sought a better way to teach these students how to do research. Together with cartoonist Kevin Cannonthey created Information Now: A Graphic Guide to Student Research. It’s the first graphic novel to tackle information literacy and also the first graphic novel published by the University of Chicago Press.

CMOS: Why did you decide to create Information Now? And why a graphic novel?

Matt Upson

Matt: Mike and I had previously created much shorter comics that were built for specific libraries, basically using the comic as a way to provide a guided tour of a specific space while using an adventure narrative to drive students through the library, interacting with the librarian and resources along the way. We did a few of these for some small colleges and public libraries before I thought about the possibility of producing a more general guide to the skills and concepts we only touched on in the previous books.

There is evidence of increased levels of engagement and motivation in students when they use a graphic text in the classroom. This potential boost is especially important for library instruction, where we have little or no time to develop a rapport with the group and often have to overcome negative perceptions and ignorance of the librarys purpose and utility to the modern student.

Mike HallMike: When Matt and I started down this road, we simply wanted to create instructional handouts that wouldnt end up in the trash! I’d worked in comics for years before I worked in libraries, so I was aware of the medium’s power as an instructional tool, and we saw a lot of potential there regarding libraries.

Comics legend and graphic novelist Will Eisner also had experience in creating instructional comics, and he believed there were basically two kinds of education suited to comics: attitudinal instruction, in which the creator makes a subject more interesting and more dynamic for a reader, inspiring the reader to dig deeper; and technical instruction, which leads the reader through a step-by-step process. The approach we’ve taken in all our library comics basically blends Eisner’s two models. We realign the reader’s attitude toward libraries and research, and we teach some nuts-and-bolts tricks they can use.

CMOS: It’s interesting that reshaping attitudes is as important as the how-to component. What are some of the misconceptions about libraries and research that you see from students and first-time researchers?

Mike: That’s a long list, but in my opinion, the two biggest misconceptions are that libraries are boring spaces that house only books, and that all information stored online is equal. Those ideas are widespread among folks who didn’t grow up using libraries. Once you reveal those ideas to be flat-out wrong, then you can start teaching readers how to use the full breadth of what the library has to offer, and how to take those skills beyond the bookshelf to filter and evaluate information from just about any source.

Matt: Alison Head’s research for Project Information Literacy has guided my approach to interacting with undergraduates and highlights a lot of the issues that students have to overcome in order to become proficient researchers. Something she and others have touched on in their research and something I think all librarians have seen is how students may exhibit overconfidence in their research skills. They have become so accustomed to the ease of a Google search and the immediacy of results, they end up lacking an understanding of the need for nuance, depth, and critical thought when it comes to finding sources for academic research.

Basically, many students exhibit a tendency to rely on a single limited (albeit vast and incredibly useful) resource like Google and then further limit themselves through poorly constructed searches and an inability to move past the first few pages of results in order to get an answer. In their general day-to-day searches, they don’t need to apply advanced search skills because Google can get them the right answer to a question quickly. One thing we try to do as librarians is make students aware of the various contexts that searching occurs within and help them expand their options to fit the information need.

CMOS: Can you talk a little bit about how you teach students and new researchers how to evaluate online information?

Mike: Well, at the simplest level, it’s just a matter of

(a) understanding that not all online information sources are created equal, and

(b) asking yourself a series of questions about the source, the answers to which help a rookie researcher decide if a source is reliable and relevant.

It sounds obvious to those of us who’ve done this for years, but it’s not. New researchers have to be taught to ask those questions. What kinds of credentials does the source have, and where are they getting the information they’re presenting? Do they cite their sources, and if so, do those sources support the source’s claims? Those are the questions I always tell people to start with. It helps eliminate sources that lack credibility early on, before the researcher wastes any time on them.

Matt: I’d say that you can make the evaluation process a lot easier by taking steps to create a good search in the first place. Eliminate a lot of the irrelevant stuff through a precise search (or better yet, a series of searches using different, related terms) and your chances of coming up with something useful increase dramatically. Do the legwork at each stage and it makes things a lot easier. Convincing and reminding students that legit research can take a load of time can be a struggle, but with online academic research, if you don’t do that work to eliminate stuff you don’t need up front, your results (and final product) will likely suffer.

CMOS: Switching gears, let’s talk about how you created Information Now. Can you take us through the process of putting together a graphic novel like this?

Matt: For this comic, I wrote an initial script, panel by panel, that developed from the overarching themes I wanted to touch on. The panel descriptions basically include the text or dialogue to be included, as well as a description of the panel for the artist to work with.


The script for a page from Information Now (left) and the finished page (right). (Click the image to enlarge.)

For a lot of the panels, I had specific imagery I wanted to include to emphasize a point through example or visual metaphor. There were also a lot of panel descriptions where I was able to say what I wanted to say in the text, but was stumped when it came to the imagery. Mike took the script and filled in the gaps, adding a lot of content but paring it down in places that were too clunky or wouldn’t work as I had written. He also provided or tweaked much of the imagery in the panel descriptions. He is much better than I am at understanding the flow of a page and can really visualize it before it is drawn.

We were very fortunate to have an artist as experienced and as creative as Kevin Cannon come aboard. He, too, offered some opportunities for clarity and humor as he began to do the rough artwork as thumbnail sketches, then revising as he went through pencil and ink stages.

Mike: Matt and I have developed a weird back-and-forth writing thanks to our previous collaborations, with sections getting added, altered, restructured, edited, and shaped by one or two big sessions, followed by a ton of minor tweaks. It has honestly reached a point that, when we work together, I can’t remember whose words are whose!

In this instance, though, the organization of the material was all Matt; I added content and had input throughout the book, but it’s Matt’s lesson plan. He wrote the first draft of the script. Also, our original plan was for me to draw this book as well, just like I had drawn our other instructional comics, but it became apparent I was too overwhelmed by prior commitments to make that happen. Enter Kevin, who did an incredible job. 

Comics of this nature aren’t simple assignments. No amount of experience in traditional comics can prepare an artist for the unique demands of this kind of material, because it requires the artist to have a grasp of pedagogy that, simply put, takes training and experience most artists don’t have. (That statement will upset some of my fellow artists, but I stand by it, both as an educator and a professional cartoonist.) Kevin came in with loads of cartooning ability and a few educational works already under his belt. He nailed the job without a single misstep. 

CMOS: The review and editing stages must have been different from those of a traditional book. When the manuscript went through the review process, were reviewers looking just at your text or did they comment on the images as well? And did the manuscript editor review your script or did she work off the pages directly?

Matt: The manuscript that went out for review was simply the written script, with no artwork to go with it. Since the art is a time-consuming process, polishing the script was the most efficient way to get where we wanted to go.

That being said, it put the reviewers in the odd position of reading something that was far from finished. The reviewers had to rely on the panel descriptions to provide much of the context for what was happening on the page. In many cases, our panel descriptions were intentionally vague (to provide flexibility for Kevin) or worded in such a way that the readers took away a completely different meaning than what we intended. Their responses often rightly called attention to imagery that they understood to be inaccurate, awkward, or even offensive. That was a bit frustrating, but ultimately incredibly useful as it helped us realize what to avoid and how to adjust when it came to handing the script over to Kevin and creating the actual images for the book.

Our manuscript editor also reviewed the script, rather than the illustrated pages, so you can see how important it was for us to get everything right before the labor-intensive process of drawing everything. Of course, we had a lot of comments regarding the content of the book outside the imagery, as well, and found it all to be very useful and informative.

Mike: I found the process a little more, shall we say, uncomfortable than Matt did. That’s all on me, though; my background in comics has groomed me to work under a much faster approval-to-publication cycle, so to me the incremental process of academic publishing felt almost plodding at times. I understand why the process works the way it does, and as a scholar, I appreciate it and wouldn’t have it any other way. As a creator, though, I wasn’t prepared for the deliberate pace or the sheer number of people with input into the product. I’m used to submitting a draft to an editor, maybe with some thumbnail sketches and/or concept art, getting the go-ahead with a few notes for revisions, then getting the job done, often alone. Making comics for an academic press is another animal entirely, and there were times I could tell the reviewers weren’t connecting with everything in our script simply because they weren’t accustomed to seeing this kind of material in its nascent, in-progress form. Everyone put forth a real effort though. It was a great learning experience, and as I’ve said elsewhere, the finished product is awesome. The process helped make that happen.

CMOS: Do you have any recommendations for either great new graphic novels or research resources?

Matt: On research skills, Leslie Stebbins has a new book titled Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth that uses stories to highlight various strategies for finding and using information on the open web. Her narrative and reflective process-based approach provides a great way for students to connect with and retain practical information that may be lost in a more traditional textbook delivery.

For comics, I have been enjoying Saga (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples), Ms. Marvel (written by G. Willow Wilson), Southern Bastards (Jason Aaron and Jason Latour), The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua), and basically anything written by Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals, Casanova, ODY-C).

Mike: We live in a golden era of great comics. The traditional superhero stuff behind all those movies and TV shows is just the tip of the iceberg. There are comics out there for readers of every interest. I’m reading much of the stuff Matt listed, but some of my other favorite series include Velvet (Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting), The Goon (Eric Powell), Harrow County (Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook), and Lazarus (Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and Santiago Arcas). Some of the best standalone graphic novels I’ve read lately—stuff I’ll be adding to the syllabus for my comics classes in the future—include The New Deal by Jonathan Case, Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.

Information NowYou can view the first chapter of Information Now at the University of Chicago Press website.

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