July 2010

Kerri Arsenault

nonfiction

To Teach: The Journey, in Comics by William Ayers, illustrated by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

William Ayers’s new book, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, is a treatise on educational reform in graphic format. In it, he attempts to blend image and words to bolster his conviction that educators need to go beyond the traditional and meted curriculum and parameters of teaching and that alternative teaching sometimes requires an alternative handbook.

Graphic nonfiction is a wonderful way to show, rather than just explain, complex material. Ideally, the work should be more nuanced, amplifying what cannot be gleaned from text alone. The illustrations in To Teach, though rigorous, occasionally sweet, and sometimes funny, often do not enhance Ayers’s narrative, but instead mimic what the text already denotes. As early as page two, Ayers writes “Before I knew it, I was struggling just to keep my head above water.” Below the text is an image of Ayers’s head just above water. Had he ended the sentence, for instance, just after the word “struggle” and left the illustration to explain the rest, the frame would be more successful. 

Further on, the replications persist. “The bridge from childhood is long and complex, built block by block.” Below are four blocks. Again, late in the book, he writes, “I don’t want to bow down to the almighty lesson plan…” and the drawing shows him bowing to “Kindergarten Requirements for the State of Illinois.” This is not to say the drawings are lifeless, and beyond being repetitive of the copy, they also seem to be an afterthought to Ayers’s lessons. To wit: “The work of a teacher -- exhausting, complex, idiosyncratic, never twice the same -- is, at heart an intellectual and ethical enterprise. Teaching is the vocation of vocations, a calling that shepherds a multitude of other callings. It is an activity that is intensely practical and yet transcendent, brutally matter-of-fact and yet fundamentally a creative act. The immense journey of a teacher brings in challenge and is never far from mystery.” Here, there are two images: one is of a person opening a door to someone waving at them, and the other is of two people at the start of a track race.

Moreover, the image of Ayers himself is predominantly rendered with no eyes or mouth, thus his visage remains somewhat wooden, and the reader is forced to understand him primarily via words, not subtle facial expressions. The verbosity required to make up for this apparent lack of graphic subtlety is profound, and Ayers often relies on long speeches and detailed and unnecessary explanations to make his points. Simply said, without revealing illustrations to complement the text, and with no keen editing of copy to make room for them, the point of the graphic novel seems eviscerated.

Text and image together succeed when there seems to be a political statement, and the assertions are hardly subtle; it cannot be an accident that Malcolm X books are shown or mentioned three times, or that an image of a raised fist appears as another trifecta.That’s not to say public schools shouldn’t employ alternative reading or study unconventional social theories, but once is a random example; thrice makes an agenda. But is this the agenda of the book? 

I appreciate the legitimacy of Ayers’s concerns about education and am sympathetic to his cause; I am no stranger to the politik of school boards and educational administrators, having taught in public school myself. Also, with the debris of “No Child Left Behind,” the oft-debated (particularly by teachers) Act of Congress that promoted standards-based education with a focus on standardized tests, Ayers, as a teacher affected by this edict, is justified in promoting educational reform. His criticism of standardized tests, the “epidemic”of labeling students, stultifying learning environments, and textbooks that are “anesthetizing”and the “vapid, formulaic style in which they are written functions as a sort of muzac [sic] for the mind” are well-argued. But just as Ayers is suspicious of “people with the clipboards,” I am suspicious of absolutes and overgeneralizations in theoretical texts, where political imagery appears as often as a Coke can does on American Idol. Lines like “White privilege is a hidden curriculum throughout our society” are indelicate and presumptuous. Ayers goes on: “Teachers suffer low status in society, in part as a legacy of sexism: Teaching is largely women’s work, and it is constantly being deskilled, made into something to be performed mechanically, covered over with layers of supervision and accountability and held in low esteem,” or “Teachers are badly paid,” or “teachers often work in difficult situations under impossible circumstances, with too many kids, too little time, stingy resources, and heartless bureaucrats peering through the door.” These zingers, combined with his distrust of the “Tzzzt” of the classroom intercom, clipboarded administrators, and children being corralled into organized lines, overshadows the good bits and the premise of the book.

Bona fide examples of teachers and colleagues working within the parameters of their classroom, not just tossing aside what they don’t like (Ayers actually dismantles his intercom with a screwdriver) tender some practical and illuminating teaching methodologies. A colleague, Alice Jefferson, taught sustained studies on broad topics such as whales or quilting, involving herself in the learning process alongside her students. Another teacher, Meredith McMonigle, used alternative texts to enhance the history units she was required to teach. Also, Ayers encourages vibrant learning environments, student-teacher relationships, and students taking more of an active role in their own learning: all to be applauded. But while good ideas persevere, Ayers can be a tad heavy on saccharine doublespeak, making it taxing to extract the essence of his idea. While speaking to his classroom, he says, “The challenge is to see one another generously... rather than bit by behavioral bit,” and again, “And when I look at each and every one of you, I see unruly sparks of meaning-making energy on a voyage of discovery through life.”

While many of Ayers’s practices and theories are sound, the book suffers from an overabundance of words and lack of constructive illustrations, and the incontrovertible rhetoric makes the book feel pedantic, rather than salient, obfuscating its original intent. 

To Teach: The Journey, in Comics by William Ayers, illustrated by Ryan Alexander-Tanner
Teachers College Press
ISBN: 080775062X
144 pages