Where Have You Gone, WordPress?

I have advocated for WordPress over and over again since beginning this blog in 2005 (although back then, I used a now-defunct engine called Blogspirit to host this site). WordPress is, or maybe was, the best thing on the market for a highly customizable, easy-to-use web site or blog. I’ve made dozens of WordPress hosted sites over the years for my English courses (yes, I am still a Blackboard holdout–they’ll never take me alive), and I’ve championed it with pre-service teachers as well. I’m not alone: something like 25 percent of the most visited sites are run on the WordPress platform. I should probably get a WordPress T-shirt.

But something happened at WordPress.com. Likely they got too big, or like Ning, decided that giving the good stuff away for free wasn’t good business sense. In any case, there are a number of things that you USED TO be able to do with WordPress.com, but can no longer do. Here is my list of gripes:

EmbeddingEmbedding anything (a Scribd document, a Google map, a Vimeo video) used to be oh-so-simple, even on the free WordPress.com sites. You just cut and pasted the embed or even i-frame code into your post. And it worked. But now, the only real embed that WordPress allows is from Youtube/Google, which is very limiting. Even with the Premium upgrade, it is still nearly impossible to pull off. Here’s a recent conversation I had about this subject with a very nice WordPress support person:

rozemar I want to embed a slideshow in a Premium account blog. The Gallery slideshow does not look good, and I can’t seem to modify the CSS sufficiently to make it look the way I want it to. Is there a way to enable the embed or iframe HTML tag in a Premium account?
DW hi there
DW for security reasons, certain types of external code can not be used on WordPress.com sites, and iframe is one of them
DW you can read more about that here: http://en.support.wordpress.com/code/
DW what’s the issue you’re having with the slideshow? maybe i can help with a suggestion
rozemar It’s frustrating to pay the Premium amount and to be so limited in the kinds of things I can do.
rozemar The slideshow has the wrong color background (black), is too large, and can’t be moved around on the page very well.
DW understandable. our service is managed, which is great for those who don’t want to be responsible for adding extra features, but not as exciting for those who do 😉
DW would one of the other gallery styles work for you instead of the slideshow?
DW i agree with you, the slideshow layout isn’t one of my favourites. i’m a big fan of the tiled gallery layout, or thumbnails
rozemar I want a simple, autoplaying slide show with no background and no controls. Other gallery styles show thumbnails. I just want a single image replaced by another, by another, etc.
DW got it. are you familiar with our css forum?
DW our CSS support is done in the CSS Customization forum by expert staff and volunteers: http://en.forums.wordpress.com/forum/css-customization
rozemar No. I did find some CSS versions online, but they are not working well.
DW that’s where you’ll find the most expert help for WordPress.com
rozemar I was hoping that an individual site could have the embed or iframe tags enabled.
DW no, all sites on the network are subject to the same rules. for certain services, we build special embed functionality
rozemar If I remember correctly, even the free version of wordpress.com used to have embed and iframe tags.
DW you can use whatever code you like on self-hosted WordPress.org installations. here’s a bit of info on the difference: http://en.support.wordpress.com/com-vs-org/
rozemar Yes, I have a self-hosted WordPress at secondaryworlds.com.
DW yes! exactly.
rozemar So, what does it take to get the special embed functionality?
DW it depends on what you want to embed. we develop special embed features for certain services, based on demand
DW for instance, you can embed a youtube video just by copying the url of the video into your post, eliminating the need for iframes or anything else
DW we have the same functionality for flickr, but I’m trying to figure out if that extends to flickr galleries or just single images
rozemar Okay, so a Flickr gallery might work?
DW I’m not sure, I’m trying to find out right now :)
rozemar The problem with Youtube is that it doesn’t autoplay in WP, which is what I want.
DW of course
DW okay, did a test and it doesn’t look like it can display a flickr album
rozemar Boo.
DW just individual photos :(
rozemar So, I’m creating a site for a client with a puppy breeding home business. Site is cpuppies.wordpress.com
DW yeah, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. for slideshows, you’ll need to work with the current slideshow for WordPress.com
DW sure
rozemar Or try to modify the CSS, which may not respond well to mobile access.
DW yes, but I do really recommend checking with the css forum. they’ve seen these same modification requests time and time again, I’m sure
rozemar Hard to tell client that $99.00 year can’t get a decent slideshow :(
DW sure, understandable
rozemar Okay. Thanks for you help.
DW I think a lot of the slideshow design focus goes to the full-screen slideshow that’s triggered from clicking a gallery item
DW the Carousel is really popular, but you need to display your images in another type of gallery to access it
DW you’re welcome! wish I had a better workaround for you on the spot. but best of luck with the CSS, that might make a difference for you

So, the service is now managed, and embeds from sources constitute a security threat. Hmm. Makes me wonder why they didn’t represent a threat before . . .

I’m also a little miffed about the lack of access to the PHP and HTML of the site with a premium account. Paying $99.00 per year should let me modify these templates, but again, WordPress seems to be on lockdown. If I want to modify a theme to allow categories to be shown with each post, for instance, it is impossible, except on a self-hosted installation like this one.

The 3GB limit is also a little restrictive. 3 GBs is really, really tiny if you plan to include a lot of videos in your media library. Most cloud storage starts with at least 5GB (though Dropbox is down to 2GB, it appears).

A final gripe is about the wonkiness of the responsive design layout, particularly in adding images to a post. I can’t get the images to not wrap unexpectedly, for instance, and while every monitor/device looks different, it would be great to have an interface that makes responsive design a little bit simpler.

The newish login process is also needlessly confusing. I go to WordPress.com, but from there I am taken to a blue screen with some stats (which I never check), and I then have to go to WP Admin, at which time I may or may not be on the correct blog. It’s also almost impossible to find where to create a new blog! Seriously, I had to leave the site and Google it to figure it out.

Okay–that’s my big gripe. Of course, I am still using it in my courses. Still maybe the best game in town, but not as good a game as it used to be.

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The Global Reach of the LAJM

The LAJM is published through Scholarworks, a service that our university uses to encourage academic publishing. It is a very powerful tool that archives and indexes all of the past issues of the journal, while providing editorial tools to manage the production of the journal. One of the coolest things that Scholarworks does, in my opinion, is to keep track of downloads. As the map below shows, downloads of LAJM articles occur all over the world, and more often than I would think.


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Pearson and Data: It’s a One-Way Street

Call me curious. On January 17, I took the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification (MTTC) subject area test in English. My department has asked me and my colleagues to examine the teacher certification tests in Michigan, and while my colleagues took the much more challenging Professional Readiness Exam (PRE) that all would-be teachers must pass, I took the subject area test.

Last night, I got the results from the test. I am pleased to say that I passed. But what surprised me was the paucity of data Pearson actually sent me. Here is the report in its entirety:

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 4.06.55 PM

As the image shows, I scored ++++ in all four areas of the test. A key included in the report indicates that ++++ means I answered “most of the questions correctly.” It is the highest of four possible ratings. But that is it. No comparison to other test takers on that day. No specific data on which items, if any, I missed on the test. Full disclosure: I know I missed one question, but I was ready to fight against what I thought was a poorly worded question. But the report did not let me see this information.

This is probably par for the course for all major standardized tests, but the truth is, Pearson has all of the data. If I wanted to compare my test results against all other English majors taking the test in 2014, I should have been able to do so, even on subareas, and perhaps down to the individual question type, as in, “56 percent of all other English subject area test takers also got question 32 (parallel structure) incorrect.”

That at least would tell me, hypothetically, which specific kinds of questions I could study for future retakes, if I had failed. Does Pearson have this much data? Absolutely: they have reams on it on individual questions–this particular subject area test has been unchanged for at least the last five years.

On a related note,GVSU even has a subscription to Mometrix, a database dedicated to offering study tips for teacher certification tests.

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Google Classroom: Bare-Bones Course Management System

My opposition to Blackboard has been pretty well established over the years that I’ve kept this blog. I have advocated for free and open course management tools such as WordPress, Wikispaces, Ning (when it was good), Mightybell, Weebly, and other sites and services. These past two week, however, I have been taking my first Blackboard seminar at the university, with the explicit purpose of getting certified to teach online and hybrid courses. I admit I have not been inside Blackboard in a long, long time, and it seems like the number of tools it offers instructors has expanded, and expanded, and expanded. Suffice to say that if can do it on the web, you can probably do it in a less cool, more complicated way inside of Blackboard. This means recording audio, uploading large video files, chatting with users in real-time, and organizing content. It’s not all bad.

Still, there the high cost of the institutional license. And the closed nature of the system, with no contact from the real web. And the way Blackboard institutionalizes classroom discussions into exercises in teacher-pleasing. I don’t mind creating a course inside of Blackboard (either hybrid on entirely online), but I’m not sure it would ever be my first choice.

One interesting new player in the learning management system market is Google Classroom, which is available (free) for users of Google Education Apps, the suite of Google tools that includes Google Drive. GVSU uses Google Apps, so I have access to Google Classroom. I’ve been playing around with it for the last few days.

One of the chief faults of Blackboard is its unnecessary complexity, but Google Classroom is dead simple. Maybe too simple. Really, there is only one main interface/page, where students view the “stream” that has been posted by the administrator, and maybe other students, but I haven’t figured this out yet. Posts can include video, attached documents, or Google Drive items such as forms or spreadsheets. Classroom interfaces with the Google Drive of the administrator, who can decide whether to let students edit or just view the document. That’s about it–no gradebook, dedicated discussion board, or anything. Anyone else out there using it?

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How to Create and Share an Interactive PDF

For now, at least, PDF is still the king of digital document formats. Even with its limitations (such as fixed screen width), it can be read in the widest range of platforms–it will work in your your browser, your media tablet, and your ereader. Adding interactive or multimedia content to a PDF, however, is still somewhat clunky, with no real guarantee that the PDF will function correctly on your iPad, your mobile, or your browser.

So, if you wanted to share interactive PDFs with your students, for example, the best workaround seems to be as follows:

Create your document in a word processor with a save-to-PDF option. I use Microsoft Word for this, but Open Office and Pages have similar options. The key is to leave space for your multimedia content, whether this is video or audio. Save the file as a PDF.

In Adobe Acrobat (free 30-day trial) or a free alternative (such as pdfforge for Windows), open the PDF file and use the built-in tools to insert your media. In Acrobat, the tool looks like this:
Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 11.17.25 AM

Locate your media and use the tool to draw the size you would like (for video, this matters, so pay attention to your original resolution and replicate it in your PDF). When you finish inserting all of your content, save again as a PDF.

To share the document, I recommend Dropbox. If you’re more ambitious, of course, you can publish them through Google Play or the iBooks Store, but you will likely lose interactivity with Google, and you’ll need to author your document with iBooks Author for iBooks. To use Dropbox with a class, set up a folder and share it with your email list. Recipients will be prompted to create a Dropbox account, which will enable them to download the file and upload their own. If all goes well, you’ll have a small library of interactive PDFs, privately available to you and your students.

To read the interactive PDF on a tablet, students should install Dropbox, grab the file, and read it with a good PDF reader that can handle the interactive content. There are several options here, but I use the cheap EZPDF. Note: currently, Adobe Reader, Kindle Fire, Bluefire Reader do not handle multimedia content.

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Graphic Novels, Comics, and the Comics Brain Trust

Every teacher knows that summer is for reading: that’s when we get to catch out breath and finally get to the pile of books on the nightstand. My pile, these days, consists almost entirely of comics and graphic novels. I’ve been participating in a GVSU brain trust / nerd club that whose purpose is to raise awareness of comics at Grand Valley. The brain trust members (so far) are Patrick Johnson (Writing), Rick Iadonisi (Writing), Hazel McClure (Library), plus me and three students–Anna White, Mark Jemerson, and Kevin Joffre. We’ve met a few times to geek out about our favorites and set some modest goals.

One of our big projects was to expand the collection of comics at Grand Valley. To this end, we consulted a dozen or so lists of celebrated comics and graphic novels, contributed our own picks, divided all of the entries into genres, and voted on which selections we’d like to see added to the GVSU library. Our ballot is below:

Memoir, Autobiography, Biography

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths–Shigeru Mizuki
You’ll Never Know–Carol Tyler
Paying for It–Chester Brown
Diary of a Teenage Girl–Phoebe Gloeckner
What it Is–Lynda Barry
Curses–Kevin Huzenga
It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken–Seth (Gregory Gallent)
Our Cancer Year–Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack
Alec: The Years Have Pants–Eddie Campbell
Epileptic–David B.
The Complete Robert Crumb–Robert Crumb
Love and Rockets–Los Bros Hernandez
The Tale of One Bad Rat–Brian Talbot
Stitches–David Small
Drinking at the Movies–Julia Wertz
In the Shadow of No Towers–Art Spiegelman
American Widow–Alissa R. Torres
Marble Season–Gilbert Hernandez
The Property–Rutu Modan
Exit Wounds–Rutu Modan
Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz–Peter Kuper
My Friend Dahmer–Derf Backderf
Special Exits–Joyce Farmer
The Nao of Brown–Glyn Dillon
Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life–Ulli Lust
Dockwood–Jon McNaugh
Everything We Miss–Luke Pearson
Tamara Drewe–Posy Simmonds
The Tale of One Bad Rat–Bryan Talbot
Calling Dr. Laura–Nicole J. Georges
Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey–G.B. Tran
Asterios Polyp–David Mazzucchelli
Ethel & Ernest: A True Story–Raymond Briggs
American Splendor–Harvey Pekar
Bottomless Belly Button–Dash Shaw
Essex County–Jeff Lemire
Mother, Come Home–Paul Hornschemeier
Summer Blonde–Adrian Tomine
A Drifting Life–Yoshihiro Tasumi

Fantasy, Science Fiction
Preacher–Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Sandman–Neil Gaiman
Transmetropolitan–Warren Ellis
Bone–Jeff Smith
Puma Blues–Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli
Multiple Warheads–Brandon Graham
Finder-Carla Speed McNeil
Pluto–Naoki Urasawa
Sex Criminals–Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Saga–Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Dal Tokyo–Gary Panter
Mister X--Dean Motter
The Incal–Alejandro Jorodowsky and Moebius
FreakAngels–Warren Ellis
Black Hole–Charles Burns
Cerebus–Dave Sim
The Invisibles-–Grant Morrison
Tank Girl–Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin
Saga of the Swamp Thing–Alan Moore
Swamp Thing--Scott Snyder
WE3–Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Walking Dead–Robert Kirkman
DMZ–Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
Y the Last Man–Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
Fables–Bill Willingham
Hellblazer–Jamie Delano and Alfredo Alcala & John Ridgway
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
Hellboy–Mike Mignola
V for Vendetta–Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Anya’s Ghost–Vera Brosgol
The Maxx–Sam Kieth
Planetary–Warren Ellis
Airtight Garage–Moebius
I Killed Adolf Hitler–Jason
Chew–John Layman
The Massive–Brian Wood
The Underwater Welder–Jeff Lemire
Punk Rock Jesus–Sean Murphy
American Vampire–Scott Snyder
Rising Stars–J. Michael Straczynski
Locke & Key–Joe Hill
Sweet Tooth–Jeff Lemire
The Unwritten–Mike Carey
The Wake–Scott Snyder
Cairo–G. Willow Wilson
Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars–Frank Beddor
Trickster–Matt Dembicki

Journalism/History

Berlin–Jason Lutes
Safe Area Gorazde–Joe Sacco
Palestine–Joe Sacco
The Great War–Joe Sacco
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths–Shigeru Mizuki
Hark! A Vagrant–Kate Beaton
Journey–William Messner-Loebs
Unterzakhan–Leela Corman
From Hell–Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
300–Frank Miller
Alice in Sunderland–Bryan Talbot
Louis Riel: a Comic-Strip Biography–Chester Brown
Northlanders–Brian Wood
Los Tejanos–Jack Jackson
Comanche MoonSuperhero

Superheros
Daredevil: Man Without Fear–Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.
Astro City: Life in the Big City–Kurt Busiek
New Avengers: Breakout–Brian Michael Bendis
Batman: The Long Halloween–Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale
Astonishing X-Men Omnibus–Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
Punisher MAX: In the Beginning–Garth Ennis
Kingdom Come–Mark Waid and Alex Ross
All Star Superman--Warren Ellis and Frank Quitely
Authority:Relentless–Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch
Wanted--Mark Millar and JG Jones
Ex Machina–Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris
Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl?–Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
Batman: The Killing Joke–Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Ultimates–Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch
Batman: Year One–Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Marvels–Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
Batman: Arkham Asylum–Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
2000 AD Judge Dredd-John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra & Brian Bolland
Spider-Man: Blue–Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale
Superman: Red Son–Mark Millar
Uncanny X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga–Chris Claremont
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills–Chris Claremont
Daredevil Born Again–Frank Miller
Hawkeye–Matt Fraction
Animal Man–Jeff Lemire
Batman Court Of Owls –Scott Snyder
Irredeemable–Mark Waid
Gotham Central–Ed Brubaker
Invincible--Robert Kirkman
Runaways--Brian K. Vaughn
Umbrella Academy–Gerard Way
The Cape–Joe Hill
Promethea–Alan Moore
Tom Strong–Alan Moore
Top 10–Alan Moore
Concrete–Paul Chadwick
DC: The New Frontier–Darwyn Cooke
Doom Patrol: Crawling from the Wreckage–Grant Morrison

Adaptations
Goliath–Tom Gauld
Hamlet–Neil Babra
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–Hope Larson
The Odyssey: A Graphic Novel–Gareth Hinds
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451–Tim Hamilton

Crime/Noir
Sin City–Frank Miller
Road to Perdition–Max Allen Collins
Scalped--Jason Aaron
Whiteout–Greg Rucka
Parker–Darwyn Cooke
Stray Bullets–David Lapham
Violent Cases–Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
100 Bullets–Brian Azarello and Eduardo Risso
Criminal–Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Manga
Bleach–Tite Kubo
Dragonball–Akira Toriyama
Naruto–Masashi Kishimoto
A Distant Neighborhood–Jiro Taniguchi
Monster–Naoki Urasawa
Buddha–Osamu Tezuka
New Treasure Island–Osamu Tezuka
With the Light–Keiko Tobe
Battle Royale–Masayuki Taguchi
Akira–Katshuiro Otomo
Usagi Yojimbo–Stan Sakai


Other/Hard to Classify

The Cowboy Wally Show–Kyle Baker
Twisted Sisters–Various
King-Cat–John Porcellino
Uncle Scrooge–Carl Banks
Achewood (The Great Outdoor Fight)–Christ Onstad
The Adventures of Tintin–Herge
Hicksville--Dylan Horrocks
Scott Pilgrim--Brian Lee O’Malley
Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories–Gilbert Hernandez
Celluloid–Dave McKean
The Arrival–Shaun Tan
The Invention of Hugo Cabret–Brian Selznick
Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea–Hugo Pratt
Why Are You Doing This?–Jason
Asterix–Rene Goscinny
Robot Dreams–Sara Varon
Caboto–Lorenzo Mattotti
The Book of Genesis–Robert Crumb

That’s a long list, and not a super organized one at that. But it gives you a pretty good starting place for reading comics and graphic novels. As for me, I read quite a few this summer–among my new favorites are Scalped, Saga of the Swamp Thing, and Comanche Moon.

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Make Cool Infographics with Piktochart

Design matters–more than ever–to adolescents. I have been an advocate for teachers knowing more about visual/graphic design, chiefly so they can develop more interesting, attractive, and professional looking documents. While I have no native talent for design, I know a good one when I see it, and I know a few good shortcuts and tools. One of my new favorite tools is Piktochart, an online service (Zendesk) that lets you create beautiful infographics, reports, and presentations. Piktochart is very easy to use, has a free option (limited templates), and a deeply discounted educator price. It still has a few bugs to work out–it does not seem to play nicely with Chrome, for instance–but I really like it overall. I just used it to create this graphic for the Michigan Council of Teachers of English.

By the way, feel free to download and distribute this flyer. It’s meant to encourage in-service English teachers to think critically about their professional development opportunities.

Teacher Leader Final 4

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What Video Game I’m Currently Playing, and Why

The_Elder_Scrolls_V_Skyrim_coverSo after about four years and twenty-odd games with the Wii, I finally decided to purchase a more grown-up gaming system. No, I didn’t splurge on the PS4 or the Xbox One; I bought a second-hand Xbox 360 from a pawn shop. My main goal was to get a system that would output in high definition, which the old Wii did not. But I also wanted to play some critically acclaimed games that I have recently read about in the context of one of my favorite topics, gaming and education. I have long been interested in the idea of immersive literary worlds–this subject made up part of my dissertation, has been featured in a few of my publications (such as Literature and the Web), and has been kind of a hobby. Also, if I call it an academic interest, I can play video games all night with impunity.

So enter the Xbox, and my first game, Skryim: the Elder Scrolls (Bethesda, 2011). I’ve read rave reviews of this particular RPG, and the reviews are right: it is an amazingly immersive game. There are a few game elements that make it very notable in the swords-and-sorcery camp: first is the open world, which is a newish concept in videogaming, though some would claim game designers were at least shooting for this as early as the 1980s. What makes Skyrim and open world game is its huge terrain, its non-linear approach to objectives, and the sheer number of in-game goals to chose from. As narratives go, video games are generally pretty linear: the player advances his character/avatar through a series of increasingly challenging levels, gaining skills along the way that help him toward the final objective. This is news only to me, but Skyrim is much different: I can wander around, taking on small challenges presented by NPCs, gaining experience and choosing particular skills to hone. I’m a level 15 Khajilt, and so far, I have pretty much stuck to looting various crypts around Skyrim, something for which stealth and night vision come in pretty handy. I’ve been to quite a few locations in Skyrim and even purchased a horse to help get me around.

At the same time, I am aware of the larger story arc of the game: my character is something called Dragon-born, which means I have the ability to absorb Dragon souls, making me pretty rare indeed. There is some kind of civil war happening, too, and some doomsday dragon named Alduin is threatening to end the world. I’ve tried to kill him but so far have failed. What all of this geekery means is that game developers are getting awfully close to creating actual open-ended narratives, the kind that hypertext theorists were dreaming about in the 1990s, where there is no beginning or ending to the story and infinite possibilities within it.

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Reading and Writing Digital Comics: Process and Pedagogy

Over the past two years, I have taught both graduate and undergraduate courses on comics. Many of the comics read by my students were digital, available through Google Play, Amazon, Comixology, or digital comic archives. And while some comic authors such as Craig Thompson resist digitizing their work, I believe that the comics medium is uniquely suited for digital environments. In fact, my recent comics course syllabus has drawn heavily on digital comics, which in turn has shaped my teaching.

Getting Digital Comics: Apps, E-books, Archives, and DIY

comix_logoThe best way to read digital comics is through a media tablet with a high resolution screen such as the iPad Retina, loaded with apps from each book vendor. There are a number of comics apps that deliver a wide number of titles, but the most extensive is Comixology. Comixology offers thousands of titles from DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, and other mainstream publishers. Signing up for an account is free; the comics range in cost, depending on the issue or the collection. The latest issue of The Walking Dead, for example, runs $2.99. You can manage your purchases on the Comixology web site or through the Comixology app (IOS or Android) itself. One downfall of Comixology: all of the issues are stored in the cloud, so you never really own the files. On the plus side, you never have to worry about being unable to read the format.

viz_logoManga, the name of the immensely popular Japanese comic style, is widely available on the web, but most of the web sites and apps offer copyrighted material and are definitely illegal, as Chris Adamson notes in his critique of the Apple store’s ongoing support of pirated Manga. Sites/apps such as Manga Rock, Manga Stream, Manga Fox, and others rely on user scans to provide enormous archives of free Manga. But to stay legal, avoid these archives and download from legitimate Manga publishers such as Viz Manga and Yen Press, where most issues are relatively inexpensive. Viz Media offers multi-platform support, as do other mainstream Manga publisher. For a good list of these publishers, see this compilation by The Organization of Anti-Social Geniuses.

Most major book retailers have collections of comics and graphic novels available for purchase. Whether a distributor has a digital version of a given comic depends on the author, the publishing company, and the vendor, so it is hit and miss if you are looking for an individual title. The Google Play Book Store, for example, has Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, which was originally published by a small press, as well as a small collection of comics from DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Viz, and others. Amazon has a larger library of digitized comic books and graphic novels for its Kindle Reader, including titles such as Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner that Google does not carry. Barnes and Noble seems to have the largest digital comic library. All of these retailers offer apps for Android and IOS.

daredevil_logoIf you interested in older comics from the Golden Age, there are excellent archives on the web. Both the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus contain thousands of user-scanned comics from the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s. Both sites also claim their content is legal. In some cases, this seems true, as in the Daredevil #1 pictured here, whose original publisher (Lev Gleason) has been defunct since 1956. In other cases, though, the publishing company is still in operation, making the claim a little suspect. It’s probably safest to pay attention to the Fair Use exceptions outlined below.

A final way to get digital content is to create your own version to distribute to your students. Remember that distributing copies of a copyrighted work is illegal under U.S. copyright law. Under the auspices of Academic Fair Use, however, you can distribute digital copies of a work for one-time, educational use, provided you keep the copy within a course management system and limit the total amount of copied material to 10 percent. If no digital version of the comic is available, you can use a high resolution scanner to scan pages and a PDF creator to assemble them. This can take a long time. A better solution is to purchase a digital copy of the comic and take screen shots (with your tablet) of the pages you want to share. Upload your images to Dropbox or another share/sync service and put them together with your PDF creator.

Pedagogy: Comic Resources and Practices

mccloud_logoOver the past decade, graphic novels have become popular in many academic settings, leading to a spate of professional books on how to teach them. Of the many offerings, I recommend Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels by James Bucky Carter, one of the earliest and most compelling advocates for comics within the broader field of literacy education. Still, most of my teaching approaches comes from two key books: Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Eisner is the pioneer of the graphic novel genre, of course, and the first to articulate a formalist understanding of the medium in Comics and Sequential Arts. McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a more detailed and nuanced formal analysis of comics. Taken together, these two works equip a teacher (and students) to read comics more critically, providing a vocabulary for discourse of comics criticism.

critical_logoAnd speaking of comics criticism, the emerging field of comics studies is a good place to start for culturally relevant analysis of comics. I like the online journal ImageText for accessible articles, and I also draw on two outstanding collections of criticism: A Comics Studies Reader edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester and Critical Approaches to Comics: Theory and Methods edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. Both collections contain provocative and current articles from a wide range of sociocultural perspectives.

Central to teaching comics at any level is visual analysis, by which I mean careful examination of the structure and content of a given page or panel. Ideally, this analysis happens both individually and collectively. My students use a WordPress blog to post about meaningful or important images/pages/panels. To do so, they embed a screen capture of the page in their post, discussing it with the vocabulary provided by McCloud and Eisner (e.g. line, gutter, perspective).

In class, we view and discuss pages as a large group. With a digital copy of the comic on my iPad, I connect it directy to the projector and flip from page to page as students guide the discussion. An alternative is to upload screenshots from the iPad to Dropbox, which can then be accessed through the instructor station. Of course, schools with Apple TV can connect wirelessly to the screen. For a kind of poor man’s Apple TV, you can install Air Server on your laptop, hook up your laptop to the projector, and then stream images from your iPad, which already has Air Server, to the laptop and onto the projector. The key thing is getting the image on screen.

Composing Comics: Apps and Software

bitstrip_logoWhen I teach comics, I require that students compose their own short comic strips in response to course readings. I think this helps students 1) understand the process of translating ideas into verbal/visual representation; 2) apply the vocabulary and ideas they have learned about the comics medium through the comics medium 3) explore a creative realm that is typically off-limits and 4) learn more about composing software that they may use with their own students in the future.

There is no shortage of apps and software for creating comics. For a comprehensive review, check out this piece at Top Ten Reviews. For teaching purposes, I recommend free online services such as Bitstrips (app version available), Pixton (which offers a pricing plan for educators), and Toondoo. While all three of these services yield somewhat generic-looking end results, students can choose from a variety of characters, backgrounds, and more (see this excellent example by Amanda). The most important part, I think, is the ability to final embed the comic elsewhere–in a class blog, social network, or weebly, for instance. I have yet to find a really good comic creation app for the iPad, so my recommendation is to stick with web-based services for now.

This post was created for the 2014 GVSU Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium.

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Early Career English Teachers in Action–We Have a Cover

ecet At the risk of more shameless self-promotion, I am happy to announce that my newest book (co-authored with Linsday Ellis) now has a cover. It’s due out in August 2014.

In others news, I’ve spent a few hours revamping this site once again. Don’t ask me what the fingerprint image in the masthead actually means–I just thought it looked cool. Ironically enough, I went back to the 2010 WordPress theme to get what I wanted: a clean, minimalistic blog (this theme is a favorite of mine–check out my class blog for my graphic novel course.). I’m going to add a WordPress Mobile plugin sometime soon to make this site a little more responsive to the range of platforms that can access it.

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