An interview with

June 26, 2010

Dr. Bill Ayers is a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also the author of To Teach: The Journey, In Comics, which uses the comic book format to reach out to teachers. Recently, Dr. Ayers took the time to speak to about his work.

Dr. Ayers, to many readers, especially to those of us in education, your name and reputation is one of esteemed legend. I am honored just to be interviewing you. Thank you so much for the opportunity! My first question, then, is, If you were asked to introduce yourself to the general graphic novel reader, what would you want them to know?

I’ve been a teacher, a peace activist, a troublemaker, an artist-in-residence, and a work-in-progress for many decades. As a lifelong comics reader and a serious fan of the medium, I feel honored and privileged to be experiencing a rebirth of sorts as coauthor of a comic book.

When did you become aware of/interested in the comic format? As a child? An adult?

I began reading comics early, and like a lot of suburban kids growing up in the soft illusion of 1950s suburbia, I was an instinctive anarchist. Mad magazine was a canonical text that let me know that, while I may be crazy, I’m not alone in the world. My love of comics grows and grows: Crumb, Spiegelman, Satrapi, Sacco, Bechdel, Ware, Barry, Alexander-Tanner…I’m so happy to be alive in the most propulsive and yeasty moment, diving every day into the wide, wide universe of comics.

Why did you want to publish To Teach in comic format?

I was asked to do a third edition of a book I wrote long ago, and I was bored with the thought of it. So rather fliply I told the publisher that I would do it if I could make it a comic book. I thought that would be the end of it, but to my surprise they said okay, and launched me into an excellent adventure.

What do you hope readers of To Teach: The Journey, in Comics will take away from their reading experience?

I hope that people might see that teaching at its best is profoundly intellectual and ethical work, filled with joy and challenge, agony punctuated with moments of ecstasy, and certainly that all the ideas of teaching as clerking are not only reductive and morally repulsive, but they are also aesthetically unappealing and unlovely, entirely unworthy of our deepest humanistic dreams.

As a scholar of comics and their use in educational settings, I am deeply impressed by how well you and your coauthor/artist, Ryan Alexander-Tanner, use both words and images to convey meaning. The words and the images in To Touch are seamless. Can you offer GNR readers some insight on the writing process behind To Teach?

Working with the dazzling Ryan Alexander-Tanner was a joy for me as well as a powerful education. I’m a slow learner and a bad student, but Ryan was patient and nourishing. It took a while for me to really get the fact that we were writing an entirely new book, not an illustrated version of something I had already written, and not a floppy gateway drug into the “real” To Teach. He insisted from the start that the comic would be as nuanced, complex, dense, and profound as any book on teaching. Our writing process included lots of pizza and mind-altering experiences.

As you know, To Teach is aimed at classroom teachers. As a fellow scholar and professor of teacher-education, I wonder what your thoughts are about teachers using comics and graphic novels in K–12 settings?

Of course teachers should use comics across the curriculum, just as they might use film or poetry or painting. I can’t imagine teaching the Middle East without Sacco, the holocaust without Spiegelman, gender without Bechdel.

Dr. Ayers, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with GNR readers (and for giving the comic community a wonderful new addition to its list of accolades!). I have one last question: To Teach creates a much-needed link between the comic community and the education community. What do you hope the two communities can learn from each other?

Teachers need to recognize that teaching has an aesthetic—they might be nudged to strive for beauty and something pleasing and lovely in their work—and that the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic. Wake up! Get moving! Nourish the imaginative and the weird and the queer! Art urges voyages of discovery and surprise. The comics world might give teaching a chance—at least I hope a zillion artists and marginalized bodies flock into classrooms to lend a hand.

— Katie Monnin

High School Haiku

June 26, 2010


take out the “sh”

and it’s cool

The great Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in the early 1950’s and Poet Laureate of Illinois for many years, asked in her Dedication to Picasso, “Does man love art?” Her answer: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”

Exactly. Art, which often begins in pain and horror, when it’s good ends in the imaginable; art embraces the entire territory of possibility. Art stands next to the world as such, the given or the received world, waving a colorful flag gesturing toward a world that should be, or a world that could be but is not yet. So if we believe that the world is perfect and in need of no improvement, or that the world is none of our business, or that we are at the end of history and that this is as good as it gets and that no repair is possible, then we must banish the arts, cuff and gag the artists—remember, they urge voyages. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as works-in-progress, catapulting through a vibrant history-in-the-making, and if we feel a responsibility to engage and participate, then the arts are our strongest ally. It depends.

Perhaps that’s what Ferlinghetti was thinking when he published a slim volume with the provocative title Poetry as Insurgent Art, or what Picasso had in mind when he said, “Art is not chaste. Those ill-prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Art is dangerous. If it is chaste it is not art.” Add to that Einstein’s famous observation that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Wow! The poet meets the most famous painter and the most renowned scientist of the century, and think about it: they are on the move and on the make, propulsive, dynamic, unsettled and alive—of course.

Haki Madhubuti, Gwendolyn Brooks’ publisher as well as her artistic son, claims that art is a “prodigious and primary energy source,” and then turns to the connection of art to education: “Children’s active participation …is what makes them whole, significantly human, secure in their own skin…” His poem then becomes a chant, each line ending with the words “with art” or “through art.” Every teacher or student, parent or community member can play along and add on:

Magnify your children’s mind with art,

jumpstart their questions…

keep their young minds running, jumping and excited…

Keep them off drugs, respecting themselves and others, away from war…with art!

Your turn.