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September 18, 2009

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Isaac

Hear, hear.

I'd volunteer to get one off the ground if I weren't teaching 4-4 and behind on my deadlines. But given those limitations, I'd still like to help in any way I can.

Martin de la Iglesia

That last bit was a bit too fast for me: how exactly do you think is the formation of an academic learned society supposed to alleviate the problems in research quality you addressed?

Charles Hatfield

Martin, speaking for myself (CH), as one who is convinced by Rusty's argument, I believe there are at least three obvious functions that would be served by a learned society that would help boost the quality of comics research:

1. A learned society would help legitimize and lend support to the development of academic courses and degree programs in comics studies, which would enable teaching and mentoring. As a teacher who frequently gets email queries from students around the country re: comics, I think we need much more and better teaching, and a learned society could help make that happen.

2. A journal affiliated with a learned society would observe the academic convention of peer review and thus enable, even require, substantial feedback, peer editing, and improvement at the prepublication level. This is not just some abstraction: peer review is something that scholars should expect to be involved in continually, on both giving and receiving ends. (Peer reviewing is an aspect of my professional service that I'm particularly proud of.)

3. A conference put on by a learned society would be refereed, would be a challenge to get into, and so would give people a target to shoot for. I believe that would help raise the level of discourse.

Rusty

As a rank newcomer to blog posting, I see now that I might have better set up that last link by saying explicitly, "Here's how the umbrella organization for academic learned societies describes what they do," or something like that. Or does the information there not address what you're asking?

Martin de la Iglesia

@Charles: 1. I don't think special comics studies courses and programs are necessary; IMHO it's fine to teach comics as a part of "traditional" courses like art history, literature, etc. But that's another discussion altogether.

2. What about European Comic Art, ImageText, Image & Narrative, and Studies in Comics? They're all peer reviewed.

3. I thought you had a lot of comics conferences in the US, like ICAF, CAC, etc. And here in Germany there's the annual ComFor conference. If those conferences are not "a challenge to get into", then it's due to the lack of scholars who turn their papers in. Thus, another conference would make the rejection rates of all comics conferences lower, not higher.

@Rusty: Maybe that would have been better, but in fact I have followed that link, and it didn't answer my question completely.

Charles Hatfield

@Martin:

1. I would agree with you on this point (the needfulness or needlessness of comics studies program) were there actually a generally-recognized warrant for the study of comics under "traditional" courses of study, and were the distinctive characteristics of comics acknowledged and studied as a matter of course in other fields. But there isn't, and they aren't. In any case, let not this call for degree programs (majors, minors, concentrations, not departments per se) be construed as a call for exclusivity; quite the contrary. The model I envision (I cannot speak for Rusty here) is one of interdepartmental and interdisciplinary instruction, not a separate academic fiefdown just about comics. My point re: teaching echoes Rusty's: when are we going to accept that we have a responsibility to teach this material, and not condemn students and advisees to a never-ending, unsupported independent study?

2. European Comic Art is a fine publication, and new. I have hopes for the forthcoming Studies in Comics as well. You are correct that the journals you name are peer-reviewed, or at least mostly peer-reviewed, and they are good and important, but there does not yet exist in North America a regularly published, comics-centered journal that observes the principle of peer review consistently. BTW, the existence of journals like Image [&] Narrative itself speaks to the influence of international word and image studies, which of course does have a learned society to support it: IAWIS, the International Association of Word & Image Studies.

3. Some conferences in the US represent a challenge; most don't. And the continued thriving of conferences in the field may very well depend on the advent of a learned society. I think you underestimate the extent to which these enterprises, while well-intended and important, often hang by the proverbial thread, and lack the kind of support they need to uphold consistently high standards. I've spent about fifteen years in comics studies and I can tell you that we are still reinventing the wheel, and knocking ourselves out, just to have the kinds of conferences you mention. Something has got to change to bring solidity and earned confidence to this field.

Hence, I return to Rusty's original point. Thanks for the important questions; they are challenging but welcome!

Rusty

Rather than restate the key points already made here, I'll add a truism so axiomatic that even Wikipedia says it: "The formation of a society is an important step in the emergence of a new discipline or sub-discipline."

Is comics scholarship ready to take that step? If not, why not? If so, would it be a useful step to take?

Ben Towle

To clarify: the statement of mine that's referenced in this post refers not to the current state of comics writing as it stands, but to the idea that "comics studies" should be some cordoned-off area of discourse limited only to those who teach at colleges and universities.

Charles Hatfield

Understood, Ben.

Again, for my part, this has nothing to do with cordoning off comics studies so that no one outside the academy can participate. First of all, that's not a decision for an academic group to make; academia can no more turn off the tap of comics studies than I would want to. Secondly, the history of our field shows that we've got to be open to good, solid work no matter where it's coming from. Comics scholarship predates the rise of academic comics study and, as Rusty points out, it was those early pioneers, often without institutional support, who willed the field into existence.

But the point remains that academics can improve their game and that this will enrich comics studies in general. The way for academics to improve their game, I think, is to help each other hit a higher standard, and I believe we would benefit from moving beyond ad hoc, provisional arrangements and actually committing to some institutional footing. As an academic, I believe we need to take the next steps and be unabashed about it.

Phil Troutman

Count me in. (I wish I had read all this before ICAF.)

I'm wondering about the process.

1. The American Council of Learned Societies website (http://www.acls.org/about/membership/) states that "A society seeking admission [to ACLS] should be mature and stable. Normally it will have been in existence for a minimum of five years and will hold an annual scholarly meeting. It should possess a sound constitution and by-laws and should be well-administered and financially secure." So, what are the processes of incorporating a comics studies association in the first place?

2. Are you proposing a new annual conference, or might one of the existing annual conferences (or perhaps a merger of two or more?) become the association's regular meeting?

3. Ditto for the journal. Is the idea to start a new one or to build on one of the existing ones?

Phil Troutman, GWU

Rusty

Phil,
Learned societies are generally organized as tax-exempt non-profit organizations just like charitable organizations. I'm not completely sure about the paperwork required to be granted that status, but, given enough interest from others in the field, I will be exploring that process very soon.

The answers to #2 & #3 would depend on the attitudes of the existing organizations toward the (proposed) society, so I can see it going either way.

By the way, I believe the MLA requires six years of existence/conferences/publication to qualify as an official sub-group, and hence to have rights to regular panel slots, etc. So both the ACLS and the MLA are looking for the members of the field to demonstrate their commitment to the organization over the long term.

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