This past semester, I have served as an external evaluator for a high school student’s independent study project, the creation of a graphic novel called The Story of Sasha. I got into this role almost accidentally: I met a girl at a friend’s 40th birthday party, and somehow we got to talking about comics. Turns out “Anna” is a senior and needed an evaluator, so even though it’s a bit beyond my scholarly expertise, I agreed to it.
The student created a blog at thestoryofsasha.wordpress.com, and I encourage you to check it out. I have shared it with some professional artists and designers, and they all agree that it’s phenomenal for a high school project.
Although comics are not my area of expertise, I am a longtime fan of the medium and I’ve done a bit of light reading on the form, the most relevant of which is Understanding Comics. (See also Scott McCloud’s excellent TED talk on the topic.) During the Q&A after the presentation, I got the feeling that most of the crowd was not actually interested in deep discussion, so I suppose I’ll have to schedule a coffee meeting with Anna to dive into such topics. (It is worth noting that her writing and art instructors, who were giving her the independent study credits, did not know anything about graphic novels, which I think left me as the “expert” in the room. Not the first time, but never in this subject!)
Two things struck me about the project that I want to write about here: the project-as-capstone and the presentation itself. I’ll start with the latter, since quite briefly, it was excellent. No bullet points, no gratuitous animations. Anna clearly has a good sense of style and design, even if she was not aware of their application to effective presentation delivery. She was well-prepared, speaking confidently from her knowledge of the topic, clearly showing adequate preparation in terms of both the content and the delivery. I found myself wishing that my Computer Science majors could have been there to see a truly excellent presentation. As I’ve written about before, I fear that many of our university students actually get worse at presentations during their time in higher education due to both exposure to and indoctrination in ineffective techniques.
It became evident during Anna’s presentation that the project itself was a capstone in the fullest sense. She cited her art, writing, and biology classes as being explicitly influential on the project. When I asked for elaboration, she mention also math, history, and other science classes as being places where she was able to both explore and expand on her work. This is a phenomenal example of the power of intrinsic motivation and cross-cutting projects. It’s not that her school is any less bureaucratic than any other, but she made the opportunity to explore The Story of Sasha wherever she could. I get the feeling that within the University, there may be less opportunity for this: students get loaded with “other peoples’ work” rather than being able to bring their unique interests and background into cross-cutting experiences. (Originally wrote “learning experiences”, which is redundant, since all experiences are learning experiences.)
I look forward to tracking Anna’s progress as she moves on to art school and from there, to a successful career.