Interview: Bill Ayers & Ryan Alexander-Tanner, authors of To Teach: The Journey, in Comics
Wednesday, May 19th, 2010
By Todd Blackmore
“In a world as out of balance as this world, everyone can find something to do. And the question isn’t can you do everything; the question is, can you do anything?”
Bill Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner collaborated on the new nonfiction graphic novel, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, a plea for smaller classes, better resources for teachers, and standards that push students without punishing them.
You may have heard of Ayers, for all the wrong reasons, so let’s get it out of the way: When Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” throughout Campaign 2008, she was referring to Bill Ayers. There are countless news articles and Wikipedia entries devoted to Ayers, his radical history as a member of the Weather Underground in the 1970s, and how, decades later, he and Barack Obama met and served on some of the same boards as active community members in Hyde Park, Chicago.
You probably haven’t heard of Ayers’ collaborator, Ryan Alexander-Tanner, a 27-year-old Xeric Foundation Award-winning cartoonist from Portland, Oregon. Alexander-Tanner lived in Hyde Park with Ayers in 2008 at the height of the campaign hysteria, working on a project totally unrelated to all the stories airing about Ayers on the evening news, in an area of Ayers’ expertise that most media outlets ignored.
For over 30 years, Ayers has been a teacher and an advocate for public education. In 1993, he wrote a book about his experiences, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher—part practical guide to teaching, part meditation on the reciprocity of successful teacher-student relationships.
When Columbia University’s Teachers College Press approached Ayers to update To Teach for a third edition, he said that he would only do the book again if he could do it as a comic. Before long, Alexander-Tanner was moving into Ayers’ house and the two were collaborating. The result is To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, just published by Teachers College Press.
At coffee with Ayers and Alexander-Tanner, I talked about adapting prose to panels, collaborative relationships, and what to do when faced with the seemingly inevitable question, “What do I do?”
Click on the images below for an excerpt from, To Teach.
What did you learn from making this book?
BA: I had to learn from Ryan that six pages of text from me could actually result in just two panels. I wrote all these elaborate descriptions of everything and thought every word counted and it turned out that it didn’t. And the way I learned that from him is really what we’re saying with the book.
Do you think that your collaboration making the book was a living example of the fluid, reciprocal student-teacher relationship?
BA: I think the relationship that we built—that’s the heart and soul of teaching. It’s relationships. The idea that teaching is somehow the delivery of the goods is such a misunderstanding of what actually goes on.
RA: This kind of sounds like my “party line,” but it’s true: The best thing about Bill is that he gave me total freedom and the worst thing about Bill is that he gave me total freedom. He really thought that I could just translate this book. And if the original had been a story—if I’d been working on his memoir, Fugitive Days, then I could have adapted it using whatever reference materials were available. But To Teach wasn’t a story or even a bunch of scenes, it was a bunch of ideas. And you can’t just illustrate someone’s ideas without taking a lot of liberties. I didn’t feel like it was my place to tell Bill or anyone else what Bill’s ideas were. So I needed this intense, back-and-forth, ongoing conversation to work out these big ideas. Bill wasn’t so precious about his stuff—there wasn’t a conflict of ownership—and that was inspiring. It freed me up to generate ideas, that constant back-and-forth dialogue.
BA: I would say that collaboration like this is a living example of writing into the contradictions. Not trying to run away from them all the time, but embracing them and letting them drive the project forward. If we hadn’t had the conversation, if we’d just illustrated the existing book as a set of ideas, it would have just been dead. It had to have that tension between ideas and narrative, between Ryan’s experiences and mine, between young and old, between teacher-student and student-teacher, and that’s what the final book came to embody.
RA: When we were working on the pitch our publisher sent me Marx for Beginners and I think they were very much thinking of this [project] like an illustrated textbook, with just these supplemental illustrations. One thing I didn’t like about Marx for Beginners was the notion that maybe it was for beginners because it was a comic. It was important to me that this new visual representation of To Teach was as challenging and had as much depth as the original text. I didn’t want to do the “easy” version, I just wanted to do an alternate version. It’s like turning a book into a movie—it’s a different medium.
You’ve acknowledged that the format of To Teach was influenced by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. How do you feel about being compared to McCloud?
RA: It’s funny, people are very careful about mentioning Understanding Comics to me, like I’m going to get mad or something, but that’s a great book to be compared to. We both read it and were inspired by it. Another book that we read that had as much influence on To Teach was Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass—maybe my favorite graphic novel ever. That’s another example of taking these large, difficult concepts and translating them into visual ideas. Going back to Understanding Comics: that’s a great book and I’m glad that we have comics on comics, and McCloud does that very well. To truly treat comics as a medium, why not use the same things that are effective in comics on comics to make comics on teaching?
Along with The Wire and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, is the comics version of To Teach part of a new wave of progressive education reform media?
BA: What comes to my mind, when we point to this book or point to The Wire and other things, is that the discussion on education is a profoundly conflicted discussion and we’re entering that conflict with an approach to teaching that we take to be humanistic and deeply rooted in notions of justice, fairness, decency, honesty, and authenticity. The Wire is by far, in my view, the best critique of No Child Left Behind that’s yet been written and yet the show never mentions No Child Left Behind. That’s the power of art, the power of story. If I were to outline where we are in that fight, I take a lot of hope from seeing, on the ground, people resisting the worst aspects of narrowing the curriculum, narrowing education, thinking of it like a product, like a box of bolts that you buy at the store. It’s not that. Education is a right, it’s a journey, it’s a process, and it’s something we have to stand for, as hard as it is.
What does it mean “to teach” in this kind of dysfunctional, narrowly standardized system?
BA: When you go into a college of education you’ve got aspirations of making a difference in people’s lives, of loving children, of working with kids, but none of that is affirmed in your college of education. Then you go working in schools, especially in places like New York City and Chicago that I’m most familiar with, and you find these huge aspirations are beaten out of you in a very systematic way—and still people persevere. What we’re trying to do with the book is present the possibility of entering into that contradiction and being successful in your own mind and in your own way with the children, in terms of offering alternatives to the soul-crushing reality of both teaching and schooling as it’s practiced.
It’s astonishing, looking at Newark, where they’ve cut out everything that doesn’t have to do with test prep for a very narrow standardized test that will punish you. And they keep cutting away so the next thing that’s cut is recess, and yet Newark has the highest childhood obesity rate in the state. So they’ve done away with recess so that these kids can learn the skills to take a test—the most narrow kinds of skills—and that’s the catastrophe waiting to happen. That’s the education you have to overcome, rather than an education that speeds your development and participation in this society.
RA: In a lot of ways I feel like a casualty of the education system. School for me was about getting away with doing as little as possible. When I think of high school, I don’t even think of school. I think of working at the comic book store. I had a job and a girlfriend, and that’s what I remember. Everything else was just going through the motions. I didn’t take the SATs or think that I was going to college. I think at that point in your life, you’re processing a lot of personal shit, so it’s a strange time to be learning Spanish III. I’d say the system failed me, but in the end I made a comic book about it.
Discussions about improving education usually end with overwhelming questions of, “But where do we start?”
BA: The problem is overwhelming, and part of the problem is that the reactionaries who are in the driver’s seat—the privateers and so on—have simple sound bites. You say, “How do we deal with our problems?” And they say, “Charter schools,” or “Fire the teachers.”
RA: “Let’s return this country to what makes it great!”
BA: Exactly. And those kind of things sound great, but they don’t really say much. What we need is a gigantic, messy community conversation about what is teaching and learning for the 21st century. We need to engage communities. One of the great crimes of the Bloomberg/Klein administration [in New York City] is that they’ve removed themselves from communities, as if communities have nothing to say about what their needs and aspirations are for themselves and for their children. It’s the connection between schools and communities that creates greatness in schools. We illustrate that here with the story of the Little Village Lawndale High School.
BA: In a world as out of balance as this world, everyone can find something to do. And the question isn’t can you do everything; the question is, can you do anything? One of the things that you can do is come into a world like the world of teaching prepared to make a difference in kids’ lives, prepared to change yourself, and prepared to link up with others who can possibly change the world, and that’s what this book invites you to do.
RA: When I come up with a “What do I do?” question, I ask someone like Bill. And sometimes he asks me what to do. That might be terrifying if we all start asking each other what to do, but it’s also hopeful. You don’t sit and have lunch with Bill or read a book and have the answers. There’s no simple answer to any huge, sweeping question, but the act of investigation is a step in the right direction.
Class is almost over. What are your Six-Word-Memoirs?
RA: Oh! Oh! It’s all so amazing!
BA: Hatched; still making my twisty way.