Comics in the Classroom: Business Schools Get Graphic

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on March 12, 2010

You knew it had to come to this eventually. Just when you thought the b-school curriculum at some programs couldn’t possibly get any more knowledge-lite (you can get an MBA in 8 months now) along comes this: At least one school is trading in a textbook for a comic book.

At Texas Tech’s Rawls College of Business (Rawls Full-Time MBA Profile), the graphic novel Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed (published by Flat World Knowledge) is now required reading in both undergraduate and graduate business courses taught by its co-author, Jeremy Short. The book’s other co-authors are Talya Bauer at Portland State (Portland State Full-Time MBA Profile) and Dave Ketchen at Auburn (Auburn Full-Time MBA Profile). The illustrator is Len Simon.

Short, in a news release, says the book was conceived as a way to help college students better understand and retain the information they receive:

Think of all the textbooks college students have to wade through during their college careers. I’ve found that the traditional textbooks have a disconnect with the students. So the students have a hard time retaining the information—but Atlas Black uses a fixed set of characters that apply the material to their story.

There’s some precedent for using fiction in business school classrooms—in ethics classes, for example, professors frequently use detailed hypothetical examples to get students to think about ethical dilemmas they may face in the business world. So what’s Atlas Black about? Well, according to the publisher, quite a lot:

This graphic novel is about Atlas and his struggle to navigate his college career and plan his new life. With the help of his sidekick (and honors student), David Chan, the witty insights of their local barrista, Tess, his sage management professor, and the mysterious "Black", Atlas will work to fund his college expenses, start a new business, and act as a fledgling entrepreneur, along the way illustrating key concepts from principles of management, organizational behavior, strategic management, and entrepreneurship. In contrast to the often 'dry' descriptive approach of traditional texts, and the superficial cheerleading of the latest "pop management" books, Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed brings concepts to life using a graphic novel format that undergraduates, MBA's, entrepreneurs, and anyone interested in more deeply grasping business is certain to find both educational and entertaining.

There's a YouTube video of Short describing the book, for anyone interested in hearing more. The book itself sells for $14.99 on Amazon.com.

Short says other colleges and universities (nationally and globally) are considering the book for their own curricula, but this is the first one I've heard of that's actually using it in the classroom.

So what's the verdict: comic books in the b-school classroom--is this a good idea? I'm torn. In a world of disappearing attention spans, this may be a fine adaptation. Then again, it could be the precipice of a very slippery slope that someday finds MBA students getting everything they need to run a business from Twitter. What's everybody think?

Reader Comments

The Le

March 12, 2010 4:20 PM

Comic books can be a good tool in the classroom... if implemented correctly.

From a literature standpoint, there are many self-contained "graphic novels" that puts traditional novels to shame.

There are also historical comics that do a far better job of unfolding historical events than a standard textbook.

After all, whose to say that seeing Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, or Little Bhudda is any more or less informative than reading a comic book based on those experiences?

That being said, there's a lot of crap comics out there, but the same is true with school books. We just to remember that comics books are a tool, like everything else.

A smart professor will be able to use said tools correctly to get students to learn, and in the end that makes it a good idea.

Dave Ketchen

March 12, 2010 5:56 PM

Mr. Lavelle-

We would love to send you a copy if you would be interested in reading the book. I am confident that you would find that the book has far more substance than your sight-unseen comments would suggest.

Regards,

Dave Ketchen

BW's Louis Lavelle

March 12, 2010 6:55 PM

I don't doubt that the book is substantive Dave, and I wouldn't presume to judge it having not read it. Actually, I filed the post because I'm kind of fascinated by the idea and really haven't made up my mind. That's why I'm hoping others will weigh in on this blog. I'll admit that the idea of using a graphic novel (or fiction of any sort) to teach business did strike me as odd. But no offense was intended, and frankly you'd have to be trying pretty hard to be offended by what I wrote--the "knowledge-lite" crack was in reference to the incredible, shrinking, b-school curriculum, not your book. Anyway, best of luck with the book.

Dave

March 13, 2010 7:47 AM

Thanks for the good wishes!

I wanted to provide a couple of links that some might find helpful.

The first chapter can be viewed for free here:

http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/node/15264

Here are reviews of the book from Amazon:

http://amzn.com/098236184X

Aaron McKenny

March 13, 2010 11:36 AM

To me, the graphic novel format seems a logical step in the evolution of business instruction. Business schools have taught using the case method for some time. Many of these cases come from real scenarios, but there are also a good share of fictional cases designed to elicit a certain discussion.

When it boils down to it, a graphic novel might be seen as an illustrated hybrid of cases and textbooks. Having read Atlas Black, I'll use it as an example. Atlas Black is similar to a textbook in that it explicitly introduces, defines and illustrates the use of key concepts in management. On the other hand, it is also similar to a case in that it uses a realistic scenario to paint a picture of a situation in which management concepts may be applied to help make sense of the scenario.

Do graphic novels accomplish everything that traditional textbooks and case studies do independently? Probably not, but I don't think that they are supposed to (and I don't know that I'd want to read a graphic novel that would go as in-depth on minutiae as many textbooks do). Nevertheless, I do think that one could structure a class around a graphic novel, drawing on supplemental materials such as cases, white papers, or other readings where more detail is desired.

Of course this is just my opinion, but I certainly think that this concept merits exploration.

Rachael Simmons

March 13, 2010 9:59 PM

As a comic book artist that works for a textbook company, I feel the need to weigh in my opinion as well.

There have been several historical and literary comics that not only engage the reader, but makes them think.

Art Spiegelman's Maus is usually what everyone references when referring to comic book literature. But there are also historical comics about everything from the war in Bosnia, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the history of Buddhism to the more contemporary comic book works like Blankets by Craig Thompson or Black Hole by Charles Burns, which are fantastic works of literature in their own right.

And this is by no means the first time comics have been used as teaching materials. The earliest educational comic for adults I can think of is Will Eisner's Preventive Maintenance Monthly, which he drew while in the Army. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud has also been used as a textbook in Contemporary Comics Classes in Colleges for several years now. And aside from being a very intelligent read about the aesthetic value of comics, Understanding Comics is a very intelligent read about the art history of comics and about the hopes of it becoming a respected literary and art form.

Comics don't have to be a way of "dumbing it down" for college kids. It may just make the information more easily approachable. Some people are more visual learners and a comic book format makes it easier for them to retain the needed information.

I recommend you check out any of the books I listed above for your own research before you come to a decision on educational comics. You may be surprised by what this medium has to offer.

Urs Mueller

March 15, 2010 6:54 AM

At ESMT European School of Management and Technology in Berlin (http://www.esmt.org) we made excellent experiences with a 5-page comic case study around the topic of responsibility.

There are different learning styles - and accordingly we as teachers need to mix different learning formats and learning materials. As some people are more visual than others, they can profit from visual material. And reading a comic case study is often a welcome change from all these long and text heavy case studies.

And we made a surprising experience: Even though the case works very well with degree students, our executive education participants really love it! We believe that the old saying still holds true: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Best regards,
Urs

Rachel S

March 16, 2010 10:37 AM

I think incorporating comic books into an otherwise traditional curriculum is a fascinating idea. Used as a supplement to textbook-style learning, I think it could produce a new breed of MBA's. Is it too optimistic to think that such innovative classroom strategies can foster innovative thinkers?

Ten years ago, in my senior year of high school, my teacher incorporated a comic book version of Macbeth -- in addition to reading the real version, we read the colorful comic version style. My parents scoffed at the idea, but it's the reading I most clearly recall and teacher I most fondly remember.

Indeed, there needs to be a balance and active awareness of the dangers inherent in a Twitter-based way of thinking. But I think that we will fall behind the curve if we are too afraid of forward-thinking classrooms.

Riad

March 30, 2010 11:37 PM

I am an MBA student who has to read this book for the class I am taking.

actually, it is an interesting way of learning. I can read this book on the bus to work. what I am having difficulties with is the way the book switches between presenting the "serious" materials and the "lite" materials. it has been throwing me off a little. I think once this experiment is developed more it will prove to be a good tool in the tool box.

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