As a male teacher, affection in the classroom is a tricky thing. I cannot as easily show my affection for my students as some of my female counterparts seem to so easily do. I cannot engage in conversations about their personal lives without seeming creepy or invasive. I cannot really touch my students (only in particular contexts and only in particular ways). The fact that I teach in an education program where most of my students are female, makes this all the more a touchy subject (pun totally intended). The trouble is, I am a sucker for feelings. I want nothing more than to spend hours with my students talking about all the things that make them human: their hopes and fears and all that mushy, sappy stuff that makes up the bulk of really bad fiction (I sometimes secretly desire the kinds of contrived, overly-sentimental conversations the characters in Hemingway novels have). But when I teach comics, that resistance to affection comes down: at the end of the semester, I get a lot of hugs.
So, how can I build a classroom of love and intimacy, without crossing whatever cultural or social line has been deeply etched into classroom behavioral practices?
Confianza is a Spanish word for, roughly, trust. It brings with it connotations of intimacy, comfort, faith, and confidence. To have confianza (tener confianza) is to be at one with something: to have a deep, intimate and trusting relationship with something outside of yourself that makes it feel as though it is a part of you. As a teacher, having confianza with my students has always been of the utmost importance. In fact, it’s always been my main priority: I just figured the content-learning would come if I could get my students to trust me. Teaching, I think, is about managing human relationships.
To prepare for our comics assignment, I brought my copies of James McShane’s comics. He makes these really lovely, chunky books that chronicle an entire day, a single drawing for every ten minutes.
In the back of these books, he gives instructions on how to make one:
What is so wonderful about McShane’s comics is that they lull you into his life with simple lines. They model the fact that a comic does not need to be drawn with great complexity to reach you. In fact, it is perhaps the simplicity of the cartoon that allows us to cast ourselves as these characters. More than that, writing students believe that the only things worth writing about are loud, violent, frightening, dangerous, or heartbreaking moments. McShane’s comics are not about spectacle, but the quotidian: how we make it through the day. What steps we take, what obstacles we face, and how we endure. What does a life look like? I think part of my motivation was that if we could really see one another for all our complexities, then perhaps we just might be kinder to one another. McShane’s comics have always made me feel as though I have been welcomed into his life, an implicit sense of trust. And by trusting me, he has elicited trust from me, as well. And this is what I hoped this assignment would do: provide a space where my students could welcome one another into their lives. Confianza.
A Day In the Life:
The Mostly True Story of a College Student
Introduction: Comics are a great way to tell a story. The visual nature of the medium, makes it particularly adept at conveying large amounts of information in small panels (consider all the tiny details you can cram into one drawing). Cartoonists have used comics as a way to understand, organize, and represent the world: they consider a situation, reorganize it into sequential panels, and redraw it. This process means the cartoonist is in control of what is happening (even if she is telling a story that is true). Representing events is a way to make sense of them, and often, a way to feel better about them.
Prompt: No one knows what it’s like to be you. We haven’t walked in your shoes, traveled your paths, or any other cliché you’d like to use. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share your experience with the world. Take a day of your life as a college student, break it down into one hour or thirty-minute blocks, and then draw what you do at each time period. Be quick, but clean. Try to get as many details as possible, but don’t burden the panel or make it too messy. The purpose of this assignment is to give the reader a glimpse into the life of a college student. In this way, your reader might understand a little bit more about what it means to be you, and this understanding can lead to compassion and empathy.
Dramatization: You might find that any particular day of your life doesn’t quite capture the essence of who you are and what your life is like. In nonfiction, writers create composites (or compilations) or events and even of people. Feel free to take three or four days (or even an entire week) and mash it into one day. It’s not lying. Remember, the purpose of this assignment to explain what it’s like to be you, and if you have to move things around so the reader betters understands, then you are using a lie that tells a truth, and that’s okay.
The comics my students made were filled with all sorts of personal, intimate details: love affairs, strained relationships with parents and loved ones, hopes, fears, dreams for the future. I learned that many of students do not get along with their roommates. That they stay up way too late studying for tests and finishing homework (which means their morning sluggishness is not caused by late-night partying). I learned that they worry about their own futures: who they will be and what they will do. Many of them balance school, work, and family. I learned that my students are just like me.
Here’s the catch, though: not all trust leads to hugs. It isn’t just trust. It’s more than that. Confianza is about that moment when the barriers between yourself and the world outside of you have broken down, and who you are flows freely back and forth from another to you. An aesthetic experience, they call it. A connection. This is the domain of the intangible, the indescribable (yet another place where words are inadequate). And so, if you want hugs from your students, you’ll have to go a little farther: cartooning, maybe, is a puente, a bridge, that gets me from where I am, to where you are. But I don’t just cross the bridge, you cross it too. And it is in this crossing, I think, that we build a sense of confianza.
I have taught writing for many years (creative writing and composition writing). Occasionally, I have had the student who feels an emotional connection to language and who can elicit an aesthetic experience from his peers and me, but it is always a difficult task—and maybe something that comes with enough time and practice. Words, I think, are just too abstract. They reside in some faraway, conceptual plane, that requires us to distance ourselves from our human body (and all those feelings and emotions associated with the body) to access them. And only if we are skilled enough readers (reading a skilled enough writer), can we bring these words back down to where we live and work and play and make them mean something. But comics doesn’t have to do all that: it invites a space in the classroom where power structures and societal norms are temporarily suspended. And in this suspension, things that seem as though they don’t belong, suddenly do: love and beauty and kindness can find a place in the classroom. A place for confianza. Cartooning, I think, provides an opening just large enough to fit them through. And once they’re here, well, they are hard to get rid of.