Not just for kids

UND Education professor finds comics and graphic novels can help young and old alike learn

Marcus Weaver-Hightower

In addition to researching comics and graphic novels, UND Education Professor Marcus Weaver-Hightower, who describes himself as a decent artist, also writes them. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Marcus Weaver-Hightower remains a kid at heart, and he brings that outlook to academia.

The professor of educational foundations and research has always been interested in comics and graphic novels, and his office is filled with books and an impressive collection of superhero collectibles.

“As a kid I’d go to the corner store and buy comics. Even as a teenager I was very much into them,” he said. “When I began teaching, I came back to comics when I was looking for ways to express experiences that are hard to talk about with academic prose.”

Weaver-Hightower is known for his research on boys and masculinity, school food politics and other topics, or, as he calls it, tater tot, boys and comic books research. He likes technology and gadgets, and he uses technology when he teaches teachers, leaders, and future professors says he wants them to be out front when they teach their students.

“I’ve always tried to bring in as much cutting-edge stuff as I could,” he said. “It creates interest and a way for students to develop professionally.”

Tell-tale pictures

Weaver-Hightower looks at comics and graphic novels from two levels.

First, it’s a great way to get kids to read, he said.  Kids find it engaging, the pictures offer a great deal of support for students’ growing literacy, and many comics have surprisingly high vocabulary levels.  And second, he’s examining the interplay of words and images from an academic standpoint, especially in the growing field of graphic medicine.

“Look at the dozens of graphic novels coming out on Alzheimer’s, aging, or depression,” he said. “Comics can make the work both simpler and more complicated—simpler because they offer access, more complicated because you can illustrate difficult concepts and help people understand what’s happening to their bodies.  It’s challenging to translate complex ideas so the audience can understand. Yet the comics form makes the ideas more accessible. That’s what comics do.”

In addition to researching graphic novels, Weaver-Hightower, who describes himself as a decent artist, writes them. After he and his wife had a stillbirth, he hit on the idea of writing a graphic novel about the ordeal.

“I could express the experience and help people connect with the grief,” he said. “I couldn’t do it in prose, so I tried to do it in a comic. It allowed me to get to the depths of the experience.”

Though he never published the comic of his own experience, he later published “Losing Thomas and Ella,” a graphic story, in the Journal of Medical Humanities.

“It’s about acquaintances who lost their twins at birth, and it describes medical situations with words and pictures,” said Weaver-Hightower. “With pictures, you can go where the human eye can’t. For example, you can depict an E. coli infection and other things going on inside the womb.”

“Medicine is ripe for this kind of work,” he said. “It’s one of the fields where experts have to interface with the public, and putting the experience in comics can be less threatening. You can engage people on an emotional level and explain complicated ideas.”

Multimedia mix

Weaver-Hightower also has fun with comics, and started a comics club at his son’s elementary school, where kids read and drew comics.

“We had 15 kids after school,” he said. “They wanted to be there, and they had the best time. It was half boys and half girls, all with diverse interests. Comics gave them the chance to work on their literacy and art skills. It was super fun. They enjoyed it and we snuck in academic work.”

It’s appealing to use comics both in K-12 schools and higher education, Weaver-Hightower said. “We decry the lack of reading and want people to read. I’m a big proponent of graphic novels to help kids read.

“Comics are images and words combined in a multimedia mix,” he continued. “All sorts of things translate well.” For example, you can communicate smell with a quick drawing of a frying pan with bacon and lines over the pan.

That interplay of words and images, which can convey emotion and unfolding of time, is different than standard academic research, and it’s a different way of thinking about research, Weaver-Hightower said.

“Try putting research into comics. It will help you think about the research in different ways.”