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Published October 22, 2019 | Multidisciplinary

Using Visual Storytelling to Explore Distressing Topics in the College Classroom

Editor's Note

This text was originally published as "Felix and Anya: Exploring Trauma and Resilience through Visual Storytelling" in an issue of Dawson College’s Academic Matters. It was edited to meet Profweb’s editorial standards.

How do you speak about trauma without it becoming too personal? How do you provide support to a student whose painful memories and emotions might be triggered by such a discussion? An ECQ grant (Entente Canada-Quebec) in 2018-2019 allowed Mark McGuire at John Abbott College and I to develop a website presenting pedagogical materials using visual storytelling as a means of dealing with disturbing topics.

For a variety of reasons, many teachers don’t want to go anywhere near painful or upsetting topics. I certainly didn’t! How, if at all, could I broach such a subject in class? My search eventually led me to a surprising destination: comics. As part of my exploration into trauma, I read Maus by Art Speigelmann, a landmark graphic novel about the Holocaust, and became fascinated with the potential of using visual storytelling to process trauma.

Mark and I created Felix and Anya, a short graphic novel that follows 2 CEGEP students as they explore the impact of intergenerational trauma in their lives.

Felix and Anya is an illustrated short story that follows 2 college students as they examine the impacts of intergenerational trauma in their lives. Story by Daniel Goldsmith and Mark McGuire, art by Alain Chevarier.

Experimenting with comics

In the winter of 2019, 6 teachers at Dawson, John Abbott, and Nunavut Arctic College used Felix and Anya in their classrooms. Some hosted workshops with the illustrator, in which students began drawing their own stories. Giving students the tools to tell their own stories in a comic book enabled those who struggled with writing to communicate sophisticated content with simple drawings.

The teachers came from a wide range of departments, including psychology, English, and social service. This underscored a key goal of our project, which was to offer material that could be used across a variety of disciplines.

Teachers were able to integrate Felix and Anya into their curriculum in their own way, tailoring the resource to their individual needs:

  • In an abnormal psychology class, the comic was used as a case study for students to analyze and diagnose the conditions they thought the characters suffered from
  • In an English class, the story opened up a space in which to explore the relationship between narrative and identity construction
  • In a humanities class, it served as part of a larger discussion about the mind-body connection
  • In another humanities course on racism, it sparked a conversation on how the legacy of a traumatic past still persists today
  • In a social service course in Nunavut, it was a springboard for Indigenous students to speak about their families’ experience of residential schools

In the feedback we solicited, student responses were overwhelmingly positive. Teachers also reported that their classes were engaged with the comic, and were more excited to learn the course material than if it had been presented in a textbook.

Much of this positive response, I believe, stemmed from the use of the comic medium.

Comics - the medium par excellence

A number of artists and scholars have pointed out how comics are the medium par excellence for authors to present personal stories of trauma and recovery, in part because drawing bypasses language and can therefore suppress the ordinary inhibitions against revisiting and revealing certain overwhelming experiences. Because comics enable the visual juxtaposition of 2 or more time periods within a single frame, the writer-artist can situate the past in the present and foreground intrusive memories commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder in sophisticated ways that do not cost a fortune in special effects.

Comics also enable a kind of free association. Numerous times during our production of Felix and Anya, our team would be startled by the way some images elicited personal childhood memories, which we then drew upon to guide our representation of fictional characters in the comic. We had not planned to include such images or memories, nor, in most cases, had any of us consciously thought about or discussed them in decades. The students who participated in the drawing workshops reported similar experiences.

During a Physical Education wilderness camping weekend, something goes unexpectedly wrong. Felix and Anya, story by Daniel Goldsmith and Mark McGuire, art by Alain Chevarier.

Students connecting with a difficult topic

For students, reading about trauma through the comic medium allowed them to connect with a difficult topic in a way that was more effective than simply reading about it. We repeatedly received comments such as “The comic makes a taboo subject easy to talk about” and “I was able to relate the characters’ struggles to my own life.”

There was something about seeing images that brought the subject to life, while at the same time, the comic images kept the difficult experiences at a safe distance. Pain, sadness, and difficult emotions were close, but not too close.

Of course, broaching the topic of trauma comes with certain dangers that teachers should be aware of. One main challenge is that trauma is such a heavy subject that we risk getting bogged down in the darkness.

In developing Felix and Anya, one of our main goals was to show how trauma is not necessarily something to “overcome” or “heal,” but to integrate into our lives.

However, developing resilience can only happen if we have the support and the means to work through our experiences. This is why we would advise any teacher thinking of using this material in their classroom to make a list of counseling resources available, so that students can know where to turn if they feel overwhelmed.

Resources for teachers

If you are at all interested in exploring how you might incorporate visual storytelling into a discussion about trauma, I encourage you to check out the Felix and Anya website. There, you will find:

  • the comic
  • several contextual essays that explore some of the themes that inspired its creation
  • additional resources to help you learn more about trauma from different perspectives, including psychology, biology, and spirituality
  • suggested questions to spark discussion in your class

Studying how others have used comics to process their trauma has helped me to process my own. In the process of creating these resources for others to use, I was able to reframe my own encounters with tragedy and to see the ways in which these experiences have actually made me a stronger, more compassionate person.

If you have anything to share about other uses of visual storytelling, or if you would like to use the comic in your own classroom, please let me know in the comment section below.

About the Author

Daniel Goldsmith He has taught in the humanities department at Dawson College since 2009. He holds a BA and MA in history from McGill University. An avid explorer of the inner and outer worlds, Daniel is the author of Choose Your Metaphor. When he's not chasing after his 2 young children, you can find him roaming the Quebec countryside with a yoga mat and book of philosophy in his backpack.

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