A New Literature Course Looks at the Pandemic Through Health, Sickness, and Disability

In "Comics, Health, and Embodiment," Professor Rachel Adams teaches students that the medium’s combination of words and pictures is particularly adept at depicting illness.

Eve Glasberg
September 14, 2020

This fall, Rachel Adams, a professor of English and Comparative Literature, is teaching a course titled Comics, Health, and Embodiment. The class will look at graphic narratives with a focus on embodied identities such as gender, sexuality, race, and age. Given its relevance, she updated the course materials and assignments to respond to the pandemic by including graphic narratives that deal with experiences of health, illness, and disability, including the work of Alison Bechdel, CeCe Bell, and Ellen Forney, among others, “to make sense of current events,” Adams said.

Adams has a personal investment in the course’s subject matter. Soon after the birth of her second son, Henry, doctors told her and her husband that he had been diagnosed with Down syndrome. The news had a seismic effect on Adams’ perception of her family’s future and her outlook on life.

"My son has taught me to reevaluate what it means to live a meaningful life and our standards for measuring human value, even as he continually exceeds my expectations," she said.

Adams decided to pursue new academic interests in disability, education, and family. Her next project—the 2014 Raising Henry: A Memoir of Motherhood, Disability, and Discovery—was framed through a discussion of the history of medical care, education, and institutionalization of people with disabilities, and current debates over parenting, genetic testing, inclusive learning, and universal design. 

In a graphic narrative that Adams created to introduce students to this fall’s course, she wrote that during the early days of quarantine in the spring, “I found myself supervising my disabled son for six to seven hours a day of remote learning! It was one of the hardest and most frustrating experiences of my life.”

Here Adams discusses teaching Comics, Health, and Embodiment during the time of COVID with Columbia News:  

Q. Once the pandemic started, how did you reshape this course to reflect quarantine and COVID?

A. I had developed a course on gender, comics, and health with a grant from the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality quite a while ago, but then various things came up and I never had a chance to teach it. When it came time to submit course requests for this year, my department associate chair and I agreed that this class would be a good fit. I learned that I would be teaching over Zoom and was advised to cut down the amount of readings. I did three things to adapt to the changing times:

One was to revise the assignment where students produce their own comic. It was initially a more open project (students writing any story about their experiences with gender and health), which can be tricky because some students have fascinating stories to tell and others feel anxious about not having anything interesting to say. But we are all experiencing the pandemic. Our experiences are extremely varied, but everybody has one, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to focus more on students telling their stories of COVID.

Second, as advised, I reduced the assigned readings and left three weeks for students to present group research on comics that have been produced in response to the pandemic. One group will look specifically at educational comics designed to promote public health measures like hand-washing and mask wearing. The other two groups will look at how healthcare providers, graphic artists, and ordinary people have responded in comic form.

Third, in response to the BLM protests, I included more comics by people of color, and about issues of racial difference.

Q. How did your son Henry's experience with his art teacher in the spring shift your thinking about how you designed this class?

A. Henry’s art teacher was such a lovely person! But her teaching methods could not be more different from mine. She is definitely not a progressive teacher, since she’s invested in directing the students as they make art, and perhaps less interested in process than in having them all achieve a certain outcome. I had never approached the drawing assignments I planned for my course in this way, since artistic skill is not at all a prerequisite for success in our course, nor do I have a predetermined vision of the project that will come out of it. We will draw our own comics with the goal of learning more about ourselves and about the medium, not to produce any particular product. There is no “right answer,” and I won’t be evaluating or even providing much feedback to students on the artistic achievements of their work.

Supervising Henry during his remote art class in the spring did reinforce for me the value of collaborative work, even, or perhaps all the more so, among people who have very different investments, skills, and interests. The experience also reminded me how much I love to draw, how relaxing it can be, and how great a medium to make sense of the world as an alternative to (or in combination with) the written word.

Q. How do comics and graphic narratives in particular lend themselves to the depiction of illness?

A. So much has been written about this, and it’s such a timely subject, that a whole subfield has developed called Graphic Medicine. They have a book series from Penn State Press University, and an annual conference that includes medical practitioners, artists, teachers, students, and patients. 

In brief, here are some of the virtues of graphic narrative:

Illness is such a personal, embodied experience that we need as many media to describe it as possible. This is why the pain scale includes facial expressions as well as adjectives. Visual media provides an opportunity to enhance and supplement verbal description.

Graphic narrative is great at depicting events unfolding in real time like the evolution of an illness/recovery, a treatment, the endless hours patients spend waiting, or any other kind of progressive development. In this sense, illustrations plus words are useful for understanding illness and disability as experiences rather than identities we fix onto certain people.

Graphic narrative can capture the said and the unsaid all at once; the relationship between what we communicate and what we think and feel is essential to the medical encounter. The combination of pictures and language is especially good at capturing inchoate states of mind and affective conditions generated by particular environments or experiences. Graphic narrative is key for medical education because good healthcare must involve interpretation of the unsaid, communication with gesture and expression in addition to what is communicated in words.

Finally, words and pictures together can diversify the kinds of stories that get told about health by opening up the possibilities of self-representation to people who might not communicate verbally. Graphic narrative also creates opportunities to communicate with those who are unable to read, or have limited literacy.

Q. Can you cite any works by cartoonists produced during COVID that have been especially resonant, and that you will study in the course?

A. Lynda Barry and Roz Chast are particular favorites, and I’ve especially appreciated a turn to visual arts by less well-known people in The New York Times’ The Diary and the website Comics for Good.

Q.  Do you think it will be difficult to keep students learning remotely engaged in the fall?

A. Short answer: yes. Longer answer: I will be experimenting with various strategies to combat this. While lots of classes might discourage doodling, I will encourage, and sometimes assign, students to draw during class! I’m excited to invite my students to try a method like Sketchnotes, where we represent the content of a discussion in visual form rather than written notes. We’ll also do more ordinary classroom activities to promote engagement like working in smaller groups and having discussions with interactive features like polls. And I’ll have students doing presentations of their own work and research so that everyone has a chance to participate as well as to listen.

Q. What sorts of students are taking your course?

A. One of the things I am most excited about for this course is that—because of the subject matter—my students include gifted artists (one student submitted a publication-worthy, 10-page comic as her application for admission!) as well as students with disabilities. I am committed not just to accommodate those students by doing the minimum required by the Office for Disability Services, but to robustly include them in our learning experience. I have one student who writes primarily by directing a keyboard with her eyes. What will “drawing” mean when it includes both a student who communicates with visual arts and a student who doesn’t use a pencil fully? How will our understanding be expanded? I also have a deaf student so our Zoom learning will need to be tailored to meet her needs. I think many of my colleagues focus on the extra work required to include students with disabilities (inclusive teaching of all kinds takes extra effort). But I’m trying to approach it as a learning opportunity for those of us who identify as able-bodied.

Q. How can reading and literature in particular, and all humanities courses, shift to become even more essential and relevant now?

A. We need a shift in attitude that recognizes how crucial it is to study, interpret, and explain the way our culture makes meaning through creative expression. Literature and culture, more broadly, are an invaluable resource for teaching us about people who are different from us, giving us skills for effective listening/reading and interpretation, and presenting views of the world that cannot be distilled into the kind of disingenuous infomercials that plague our current political life.