Graphic Narratives as Inventive Pedagogical Practices: Re-envisioning Research Writing through Una’s

My recent scholarship explores the intersection between feminism and young adult literature. With thousands of young adult titles being published each year, I often find myself at the Amelia Bloomer Project’s website. The organization is a division of the American Library Association and focuses on feminism and social responsibility. The project’s mission is summarized: “Our work affirms the power of hearing, sharing, and trusting women’s voices.” Each year, the project publishes lists of fiction and nonfiction feminist books in the categories of Early Readers, Middle Grade, and Young Adult.

One of its 2017 top ten selections is Becoming Unbecoming by Una. Although I usually do not gravitate to comics, either in short or long form, the summary of this graphic memoir intrigued me: “Beginning with her own childhood experiences with rape, slut-shaming, and the search for the Yorkshire Ripper, Una examines the societal attitudes that create our culture of sexual violence.” While this book was not intentionally published for a young adult audience, it would be intriguing for readers as young as 14; however, this powerful memoir, told with stark images, personal observations, and compelling research, has many potential uses in higher education.

Stories told in graphic/comic book style are appealing for the play between visual and verbal. Consider the first page of Una’s memoir:

More is being “said” on this page than students sometimes write in their essays. Here is the greatest use of graphic narratives/comic books: they often show more than tell. In our classrooms, whether they are about political science, math, French, nursing, etc., our students need to think metaphorically and demonstrate their knowledge in transformative ways. Why not ask them to make a visual argument, no words allowed? Defending why a particular visual element translates into data compels students to think at a much different level. For another creative way to present information, I suggest John Bohannon’s “modest proposal,” a Ted Talk that shows how dance choreography can help understand scientific findings.

The first words of Becoming Unbecoming are: “My name is Una. Una, meaning one. One life, one of many.” Although this last sentence potentially has multiple interpretations, one is particularly appealing: Una is just one of many who experience sexual trauma. In fact, the book is dedicated “to all the others.” Sarah Hildebrand’s moving blog about her own sexual assault includes this statement about Becoming Unbecoming:

Una’s discretion in regards to her own experiences—and even her identity—made me realize that my story is not for someone else’s entertainment, and that even in silence I can find solidarity. She dedicates her book “to all the others.” It’s the first book I ever read that was dedicated to me.

What if our students, as they present arguments and original research, were required to dedicate their work to a particular person or group? That requires them to think of the interconnectedness of knowledge. If that does not seem useful, perhaps an epigraph would work. What compelling quotation could begin an academic study of bees? How would an essay about education be affected by beginning with this Ta-Nehisi Coates quote: “The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free”? The student’s academic voice and ethos, at the very least, would be altered.

Another way to use Una’s work in the college classroom is to deconstruct the ways the personal and public intersect. Una’s own experiences with sexual assault and slut shaming are juxtaposed with the police investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, who murdered 13 women in the 1970s. Una’s argument is that victim blaming and patriarchy on the police’s part lengthened Sutcliffe’s killing spree. Had they listened more to the surviving victims, he could have been caught much sooner. Una uses this as a parallel to her own experience of being marginalized by her parents and peers. She was forced into sexual acts before she understood what they meant, yet no one questioned the reasons for her so-called promiscuity.

Using a first person approach to research writing is not new. Judi Marshall’s First Person Action Research: Living Life as Inquiry is just one publication that shows the importance of reflexive research. Student writers and researchers would gain different insight if they had to discuss their findings in terms of how their own lives would be impacted.

Una ends her book with a meditation of alternative history. As the girl pictured on the first page of the memoir holds onto a life preserver, the narrator says, “Too many girls have to flight in silence, alone, to stay afloat, because of the trouble that can’t be named. Mostly we muddle through. Some are not so lucky” (171). Then she references the 13 victims and wonders what they, each “one of many,” would be doing now. Those victims are then memorialized through drawings of what they could have looked like had they lived. Instead of trying to sketch from the fuzzy photographs available online, Una provides an alternative reality that is moving, certainly, but also offers another unique way to translate research--how would the world be different without that scientific finding or famous battle?

Although many graphic narratives and longer comics also use strong visuals, words, and techniques, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming takes the genre to new places. It is a postmodern intertextual quest to find understanding for the author while compelling readers to question how they come to know, act, and interrogate their own understanding of sexual assault, serial killers, and patriarchy. If studied for its rhetorical moves and then used as an exemplar of scholarly writing, our students’ work could potentially reach new levels.

(For general reviews of Una’s graphic memoir, see Sue Rainsford and Rita D. Jacobs).