Media in the Classroom: Using Batman and ‘The Simpsons’ as Teaching Tools

Every year, the Comic-Con and Wonder-Con Conventions greet hundreds of thousands of fans, industry insiders, and reporters from across the world in order to showcase the latest and greatest of all things superhero- and comic book–related. While the conventions have been taking place since 1970 and 1987, respectively, for the past 20 years there has been an added facet to the festivities: the Comics Arts Conference. Known as the CAC, the purpose of its panels is to showcase work in the academic field relating to the world of comic books and superheroes. This past March, I was lucky enough to attend five of the different panels, whose topics range from utilizing The Simpsons as a learning tool to questioning the morality of DC Comic’s “The New 52” relaunch. What follows is a summary and analysis of some of the first panel I attended, titled “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned from Batman and Bart, Man: Embiggening Brains Without Crayon Implants.” This panel featured three different professors utilizing comic book and animated characters in an academic setting to improve student learning.

The first panelist was Dr. E. Paul Zehr from the University of Victoria, Canada, author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine. Dr. Zehr’s background is in kinesiology, and the focus of his talk was how he utilizes the Batman story to teach science to undergraduates. He posed the question, “What science is involved in going from Bruce Wayne to Batman?” His answer: genetics, exercise physiology, biomechanics, motor control and skill learning, repetitive strain injury, and performance across a lifetime. Thus, using Batman as a case study, he is able to teach these different facets of science to his classes.

Following Dr. Zehr was Dr. Travis Langley from Henderson State University, an expert in psychology. His talk focused on the psychological characterists of Batman in a presentation titled “Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight,” based on his book of the same title. Langley’s talk covered a wide variety of psychological issues at play throughout the Batman series, from comic books to television to the newest films. Much of the talk was centered around the fear and phobias that have driven Batman to become who he is and their psychological implications on the character. He also looks at the Oedipal issues stemming from the relationship of Batman and Robin, as well as the role of the father in Batman’s relationships with Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Lucious Fox. Finally, he spent time on the psychology of humor in the character of the Joker, and the question of “insanity” surrounding the villain.

The final panelist of the session was Dr. Karma Waltonen from UC Davis, whose talk focused on how she uses The Simpsons as a teaching mechanism. Dr. Waltonen, who teaches in the writing program at UC Davis, has written a book titled The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. Her talk centered on the main points of the book and how to utilize The Simpsons (or any other well known media, for that matter) in a classroom setting to improve student learning. Her main takeaways were that first and foremost we are complex and contradictory creatures, as represented by the satire in the show. While it is a very powerful tool, especially in writing, satire is something that is often very difficult to teach. Thus, she uses The Simpsons and the satire in the show not only to present examples, but also but to dissect satire and demonstrate how it works.

The most profound thread through all of these presentations was the fact that despite the clichés, these forms of pop culture can be used as impactful learning tools at the university level. The fact that there are academics focusing their scientific research around characters such as Batman and Iron Man suggests a heightened level of importance of the genre in studies outside the field of cinema and media studies. Additionally, the utilization of well known media entities as learning tools across the academic landscape raises the question of what other media titles and worlds can be used in the same manner. I, for one, would not be surprised to find university course listings in the near future focusing on the physics of Star Trek, the sociological implications of the DC Comics universe, or racial representations in Johnny Quest.

As a scholar in cinema and media studies, I was delighted to see that some of the media that I love are being explored by those in a variety of fields. The fact that media and cultural forms are being recognized and investigated by other areas of academia not only lends more credibility to our field, but also gives hope to a day in the not-so-distant future when media is studied in a more interdisciplinary fashion.

In upcoming posts, I will analyze some of the other CAC panels from last year’s Wonder-Con, as well as preview this upcoming year’s festivities.

Author bio:

Matthew Perkins is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Cinema and Media Studies Department at UCLA. His focuses include film sound, genre, sports media, and concert films.

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