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a reflection on writing a comic book about writing a paper

sara.gladwin's picture

This is a reflection on my third English paper for Anne, which took the form of a comic book and was never fully completed. I will be attaching scans of the pieces that had been completed SOON and using this space to outline where the comic will continue to go.


I chose to write a comic book for several reasons. The first reason was that I am interested in experimenting with forms of academic work that diverge from conventional assignments, such as essays and exams. In doing so, I hope to challenge the notion that these conventional assignments are the most adequate methods of measuring student growth and learning inside the classroom. By expanding our understanding of what a “paper” looks like, we can better serve the needs and strengths of diverse learning styles.

The second reason I chose to create a comic book was that I found myself unable to produce a paper. This was not for lack of ideas by any means; I knew that I wanted to write about interrogating traditional classroom structures. However, as I struggled through the process of essay writing, I found that the essay structure was incredibly restrictive in representing my own learning and strengths. I realized that crafting a narrative speaking to how it actually feels to be confined within academia might have more impact than could be expressed in a paper. A comic book seemed to be an appropriate format for this narrative; I hoped to combine language with visual scenes to invoke emotion and a sense of understanding in the reader.

I immediately created a one-page storyboard to layout my comic, which followed the process of a student named Sara Gladwin as she wrote her paper. I planned for the actual body of the book to be ten pages long; each page titled as a different “Step” in the process of writing. One of my favorite scenes was the “spiral downward,” during which Sara is paralyzed by her overwhelming sense of anxiety about the paper and cannot keep from spiraling downward. This “spiral down” played on an earlier step in which my character experienced a “spiral upward” and was feeling inspired and introspective. Sara is able to regain her motivation but only through the help of her A.D.H.D medication, and after steadily focusing for long enough really dig into her essay, we come to my second favorite scene in the book, which is “The Detour.” This scene is where Sara actively seeks out meaningful conversation; it is a “distraction” that typically takes around two hours. However, I love the detour because I believe it is the most crucial aspect of essay writing for me, or any work in general. The conversations I make during this time are almost always the spaces, which reveal to me the conclusion and/or next idea to my paper. My theory is that even if the conversations I have do not revolve around whatever I am writing, unconsciously or consciously, the work is present in my mind and ready to jump on a connection revealed through dialogue. I believe in distractions, and I believe in collaborative thinking, two things that run counter in a lot of instances to our idea of paper writing as a focused and individual endeavor.

It felt right that I put myself at the center of the narrative, but I also intentionally describe myself in the third personal. Though many of the scenes in the narrative are representative of my actual writing process and several of the dialogues written are real conversations that took place the night I was creating my book; the driving plot throughout is fictional. I was not writing a paper that night- I was making a comic book. The anxiety and shame that the Sara Gladwin represented in the book feels when writing her paper did not speak to my actual experience in using a different form. This project was both exciting and generative of not only creative thinking, but critical analysis as well. However, unlike a paper, which in many cases, seeks to explicitly “prove” to an educator that the student has successfully mastered some subject, I found that I could communicate understanding and learning through more implicit means, like the symbolism of the spiral. During one step, the “spiral upward,” I included series of flashbacks from my own life, written in a stream of consciousness type style. Each story had some relationship to spirals, and I hoped to build a layered understanding of my personal fondness for spirals and the metaphor they hold. By drawing my “table of contents” as a Magic Ladder, which started at the bottom with “Step 1” and continued up rung by rung until the final step, I hoped to call attention to the fact that the narrative form I employed to critic paper-writing still followed a linear construction of progression. Papers, in all their attempted clarity and explicitness, reinforce power dynamics between teachers and students by asking them to demonstrate knowledge rather than teach it. To me, adding an interpretative element to this work meant that I was necessarily consumed with proving myself but that I was also thinking about teaching an audience of readers.

Actually putting together the book was a more time-consuming task then my ambition had allowed me to recognize. My own sense of perfectionism would not allow me to cut a single page from my storyboard- I didn’t want to turn in anything less then my original plan. I was afraid because I know myself; once I turn something in, once I call it “finished”; it becomes almost impossible to gather the motivation to return to something and turn it into what I think it should be.