Your Next Textbook In Business Theory: The Comic Book?

A little self-awareness, and a lot of illustration, breathes some life into the justifiably maligned segment of entertainment education.
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"Raquel es abogada."

Those are the only words I can recall from three years of high school Spanish.

For what seemed like an eternity on most every Tuesday and Friday, our teacher dimmed the fluorescent lights, rolled down the dusty projector screen and popped in a VHS tape. So began Destinos, the mind-numbingly dull, and nearly endless, educational Telenovela series. If there was ever a way to demystify lush Catalan culture, this was it.

To spare you the 52-episode (!) story arc, think of a Spanish soap opera that meanders through 35 half-hour episodes before the two leads even kiss (we snickered as they came close). Or even better, a trip to Andalucía where the main event is picking up every individual piece of fruit at open air markets (and mechanically repeating the names) while nearby vendors patiently nod with ear-to-ear grins.

I can't begin to recall the dialogue — only that the characters spoke with near Forrest Gump-like deliberation, and that the intrepid lawyer Raquel, of course, wore ridiculous shoulder-padded suits.

For me, Destinos exemplified everything wrong with idea of interactive, entertaining educational materials aimed students above the age of 12. Too often they're overstuffed and undercooked. Not only do they fail to convey the nuance of traditional hardcover textbooks, but they also paste together flimsy storylines filled with sterile characters that seem specially designed to annoy high school and college students.

Several generations, I'm sure, can commiserate.

It seems that ever since Sesame Street, and even before, educators at all levels have constantly been tinkering, often with the latest technology, in an attempt to find more engaging ways to reach students. They've peddled TV shows, games, guidebooks, cartoons and comic books in, admittedly well-intentioned, attempts to illuminate difficult subjects like science, math and especially foreign language. And, to be fair, some of these of these gimmicks productions worked. But for every "Conjunction Junction" there's been plenty of "Mesozoic Mind" flickering on screens in classrooms with near-catatonic students.

With this in mind, I approached the recently published journal article, "The Graphic Novel: A ‘Cool' Format for Communicating to Generation Y" with a more than a little hesitation. In it, the author, Texas Tech professor Jeremy Short, makes an argument defending and promoting the graphic novel as an innovative tool for teaching graduate-level business theory to the current crop of media-saturated college students. (Why business theory? The historically tedious subject material is ripe for a more interactive, immersive approach. Atlas Black: Managing To Succeed, the professor's recently launched and ongoing graphic novel series, hopes fill this particular void.

His reasoning goes like this: Graphic novels might be able to help bridge the gap between aesthetically challenged educational textbooks and the much more salient options of today's interactive entertainment by way of the novel's dynamic illustrations and immediately engaging storylines.

Previous research has bolstered this type of conclusion and has encouraged more pronounced visual stimulation to accompany traditional instruction in the classroom. Short specifically notes that the line has always been blurred between education and entertainment (a good thing when exacted responsibly) and also cites benefits particularly among the growing segment of verbal-visually oriented students.

But the graphic novel format isn't exactly new, even if we ignore the Classics Illustratedcomic books of the last century. It's no secret that the recent legions of serious-minded movie adaptations have helped garner a copious amount of mainstream attention, even respect, for the genre. Graphic novel classics like Persepolis, Maus, A History of Violence, Watchmen, V for Vendetta and many more have paved the way for this critical acclaim and added much needed (in the eyes of cynics) literary heft. Perhaps more importantly, these titles proved that a "glorified comic book" can vividly depict complex political and social upheavals ranging from the Holocaust to the Iranian Revolution.

So it's not that preposterous to propose the genre as an educational tool (there's already a growing usage of them to promote children's literacy and other elementary subjects). But college-level business theory? Now that's trickier proposition.
Fortunately, Short's foray as an educational graphic novelist is bolstered by two assets: a refreshing sense of self-awareness and a stringent belief that, if done well, the graphic novel can dispense just as much complex information as a traditional textbook - but in a much more digestible way.

The first point — a semblance of self-awareness embedded in the characters — is, thankfully, one of the most convincing aspects about Atlas Black. Where many educational protagonists simply but earnestly wander through their prefabricated plot points, Short's protagonist, a sometimes slacking college senior, might shrug and fall asleep on his desk.

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En route to becoming a successful business entrepreneur, Atlas Black dreads going to class, forgets to pay his bills, waits tables, spends too much time playing videogames and worries about how to translate his miniscule arsenal of professional skills into "real-life" experience.

Sure, the formula is little bit hokey (reminder: It's still a textbook) and subject to one looming pitfall: namely that the professor might be no closer to depicting reality by pandering to the stereotype of the "typical" male college senior. But in most cases, the plot is handled deftly; it's certainly better than the blandly inquisitive alternative.

And, surprise, the actual business concepts aren't largely sacrificed in the process.

The first volume ruminates on Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Frederick Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management, and the illustrations focus on providing slightly more than just a Cliffs Notes version of both.

"In many [traditional] texts there seems to be a series of unrelated examples, and any graphics or pictures (often stock photos) are often similarly unrelated to the material," Short explained. "In contrast, with the Atlas Black series, the story progresses in a manner that walks the reader through the practical application of key business concepts. The specific illustrations help paint the picture of concepts into the reader's mind, which is probably especially important for more visual learners."

That seems to be the primary reason why the graphic novel genre was employed: Unlike the random, floating boxes in traditional textbooks, graphic novels were built to accommodate short, disconnected bursts of information in overlapping, and reader-friendly, comic book cells.

But, even if educational graphic novels do catch on in more college classrooms, I have a nagging suspicion that there has to be something lost (other than tedium) by making the switch from the traditional 8-pound texts.

Short doesn't see a problem. "At the University level, what we want to convey is the practical application of key management concepts and theories. So, if this can be done without a traditional text, that is certainly a possibility in the future."

After all, he reminded me, "one-to-one interaction between the professor and the students," and not the textbook (or graphic novel), is the most indispensable asset in any lively classroom.

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