Comics Corner Column: Interpreting Political Cartoons as Primary Sources

I have a confession to make: when I teach my seventh grade library/research class, I have a favorite unit. Don’t get me wrong, I love citations and evaluation and note-taking as much as (some might say alarmingly more than) the next person! But it’s always exciting when I realize we have time at the end of the quarter for even some of our media literacy unit.

The full unit, when I have time for it, takes about four classes. During the first two classes we read and discuss comics and political cartoons, breaking down how to interpret them and considering how they could be useful as primary sources. (The third and fourth classes focus on historic radio broadcasts.) I save it for the end of the quarter because it’s something we can skip if we run out of time, but it’s also a fun change of pace for what is otherwise a stressful time of year. More importantly, it’s one of my few opportunities to focus on “reading” sources–and especially primary sources–that aren’t based in text.

Today I want to focus just on that first lesson. There are two main ideas that I hope students take away with them:

  1. Observation comes first; conclusions come after and are based on observation. If you jump right to making conclusions you can miss important details or make assumptions that get in your way.
  2. Primary sources in general, but political cartoons especially, depend on context. The more you understand about the context and references an author or illustrator is making, the more meaning you can find in their work.

I start with a comic that should be approachable for all of my students: Chan Lowe’s political cartoon titled “How to Increase Voter Turnout . . .”.

cartoon1_Tersoff_1_15
Lowe, Chan. Sun-Sentinal Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2015. <http://weblogs.sun-sentinel.com/news/politics/broward/blog/2008/05/political_cartoons_galore.html&gt;.

 

I begin by asking students to write down everything they notice, but to avoid value judgments: “she has weird hair” is not useful, I tell them, but “she has spiky hair” is. (Some students need more reminders about this than others.)

Once they’ve had a couple minutes to write down their answers I ask students to share one observation each. “She’s wearing a really short skirt.” “She has a lot of piercings.” “She has tattoos.” “She’s wearing a necklace like a dog collar.” “She’s voting.” Sometimes I’ll prompt them, if there are important details no one mentions on their own: “Okay, so you pointed out she’s voting, which is great — what is she voting for? What does it say on the ballot?”

Only after we’ve discussed as many details as possible do I let them start drawing conclusions. I’ll ask them how old they think she is. (“How old do you have to be to vote? Would you expect someone older or someone younger to dress that way?”) I’ll ask them why they think the ballot is written the way it is, and what it has to do with the heading “How to Increase Voter Turnout . . .” We talk about what a caricature is, about about who is being made fun of and who is meant to find it funny. But this is also, almost always, the part where I point out that before they jump to judgment they should remember that if we’re just going by how many of her tattoos are visible, well, I have more tattoos than she does.

Our second comic tends to go faster, because our focus is more specific: cultural references. Now that we’ve all had some practice reading a political cartoon, I say, let’s consider a second cartoon about Malala Yousafzai.

cartoon2_Tersoff_1_15
Lowe, Chan. Sun-Sentinal Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2015. <http://weblogs.sun-sentinel.com/news/politics/broward/blog/2008/05/political_cartoons_galore.html&gt;.

 

Many students recognize her right away (some even before seeing her name), but often there will be one or two who don’t know who she is, or who recognize her story but not her name. Few if any of them, though, know the NRA argument that the cartoon counters (“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”), so I supply that quote if none of the students is able to.

 

I have mixed feelings about using a cartoon that requires so much explanation on my part, but I’ve stuck with it because this is how cartoons, especially political cartoons, work: they rely on cultural references, and you need to understand the references they make in order to read them. And while this is especially true of political cartoons, it’s also true of primary sources in general. In fact, I think that’s one of the hardest things about working with primary sources. Any given primary source, whether it’s a letter or a photograph or a radio broadcast or a political cartoon, gives one tiny snapshot of a time and place; it’s only when we consider them all together that they become meaningful, and it takes a lot of background information to get to that point. That process becomes even harder when students assume a source must be text-based and end up looking past so much of what’s out there without seeing it.

At the very end, if there’s extra time, I’ll ask students to try drawing political cartoons of their own. It’s always interesting to see who is able to come up with a controversial topic right away (school lunches! snow days! too much homework!) and who struggles either to choose a topic or to express their ideas in pictures. On occasion I’ve received some very sophisticated, even moving, results.

All of this works on its own, and I’ve certainly done this as a stand-alone lesson (especially when, as I mentioned before, that’s all we have time for). However, it also sets us up very well for our second day of comics. That lesson focuses more on the different ways artists can represent people and how that in turn affects our reading of older political cartoons, and I’ll write more about that next time.

Emily Tersoff is the librarian at the Norwell Middle School.

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