CU's William Kuskin takes comics seriously
Leila Del Duca
"This is a bold stroke, an anti-authoritarian project on many levels." William Kuskin, eyes flashing, stands at the very edge of the stage in the University of Colorado at Boulder's iconic Old Main building, leaning his five-foot-three-inch frame toward his audience and clenching his fist in excitement. He calls this stance, which he often uses in his lectures, his "Captain Kirk routine," and he's speaking as though he's not simply participating in a panel discussion on education technology, but instead embarking on an intergalactic do-or-die mission. He tells the parents gathered for Family Weekend of "a gutsy project," "a process of transformation," as if they were all on the verge of some fantastical world-changing cataclysm, where the stakes have never been higher and everything hangs in the balance.
Maybe he's right.
Public universities like CU are under siege, buffeted left and right by increased public scrutiny and dwindling funding. And no departments are more beleaguered than those in the humanities, including CU's English department, which Kuskin chairs. As reports mount of plunging enrollment numbers, academics mutter about the "crisis in the humanities." Can anything be done to stop the slide?
Enter the "gutsy project" Kuskin is describing, the "bold stroke" undertaken by the university: This fall, CU launched its first-ever massive open online courses (MOOCs) — Internet-based, jumbo-sized college classes open to anyone around the world. Among the four free, not-for-credit CU-Boulder courses being offered through Coursera, a major MOOC provider, is Kuskin's Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Of the hundreds of MOOCs currently offered by Coursera on topics ranging from video-game programming to behavioral economics, this is one of only eight English courses — but it's also the most popular of CU's MOOCs. Comic Books and Graphic Novels, now in week five of seven, has drawn 35,492 students, logging in from Japan and Argentina and Sweden and every point in between.
The 48-year-old Kuskin has worked hard to ensure that the class is worth everyone's time, infusing his MOOC with the sort of boundary-pushing, edge-of-your-seat instruction that has made him a rising star at CU — kind of like Professor X of the X-Men, teaching his young mutants how to wield their superpowers. In detailed slide shows, he deconstructs comics, page by page, with the same depth and detail he uses to analyze medieval manuscripts. In online videos, he reads superhero clashes aloud with the drama of a stage-play performance. Working with an artist, he's crafted an online comic that tracks his progression through the course as if he were the hero of his own adventure. There's even a course play set, with a cut-out Kuskin action figure and easy-to-assemble Coursera spaceship, complete with an ejection seat.
For Kuskin, this isn't just fun and games. It's about metamorphosis. "My goal for all of my courses is a sense of human transformation," he declares from the stage of Old Main. "My sense is that comics and MOOCs are a way of going about it. They have the power of educational transformation."
Kuskin knows what he's talking about: Like the best superheroes, he's well acquainted with transformation.
William Kuskin has developed four rules that inform the way he analyzes literature, hard-and-fast tenets he uses to parse everything from medieval poems to superhero stories. But these are also "life rules," tools that give structure and meaning to his daily existence.
The first Kuskin Rule is Circle the Details: Break down a problem — a page, a book, a topic — into its component parts. So let's circle the details of Kuskin's life. In the east Boulder ranch home he shares with his wife, Richelle Munkhoff, also a CU-Boulder English professor, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, circle the beautiful glass-fronted dark-wood bookcases, the sort usually used in law libraries, that are filled with graphic novels. Down the hall, circle the self-portrait of Kuskin's mother, May Asher, a New York artist looking out from the painting with a haunting stare that captures what Kuskin describes as "a determined depression."
On Kuskin himself, circle the windburn that curves up his cheeks, the remnants of his recent decision during a trip to Minneapolis to ride all 916 miles back to Boulder without stopping for a break on his Harley-Davidson Softail, a chopper he also uses for his daily commute. "One of the things I like about motorcycling," says Kuskin, "is that it makes going to work a life-and-death event." On his left biceps, circle the large tattoo of the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the image taken from a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript. And on his right biceps, circle the equally imposing tattoo of an early-era Batman, one of the many comic-book figures he grew up idolizing and identifying with.
"Batman is the story for all those kids who have some trauma," he says. "I don't think that pain ever goes away."
Growing up in New York City as a short and hefty kid, Kuskin often felt like an outsider. It didn't help that his parents, though brilliant, were at times emotionally or physically absent, or that their marriage imploded in a brutal divorce when he was barely a teenager. When he was young, Kuskin sought escape in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four and other staples of the late silver age of comics. By high school, he was ready to move on, however, selling his entire collection for a measly $50 and focusing on what seemed like a more mature pastime: acting. He was good at it, too, landing roles in television commercials and on a Saturday Night Live skit. He didn't like the slick, self-serving vibe of the business, though, or his tendency to get pigeonholed as the geeky outsider. In the 1983 slasher film Sleepaway Camp, he was cast as "Mozart," the nerdy camper. "The combination of reliving my childhood endlessly for comic relief, and the schmoozing — no way," Kuskin says now of his acting career.
So at a young age he left acting behind, too, and turned to academia. At Vassar College, he fell in love with literature, discovering how works like T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and William Burroughs's The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead could be endlessly interactive, providing readers with every kind of insight imaginable into the human condition. "It's like a sandbox," he says. "You can ask any question you want of James Joyce's Ulysses, and you'll get back a smart answer."
He planned to focus on postmodern poetry while pursuing his Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but instead he became infatuated with medieval literature. From the thorny archaic language to the dense historical context to the complicated interactions between handwritten manuscripts and early printed books, medieval literature was tough — and that's what attracted Kuskin to it. "I like a challenge," he explains.
He excelled in the subject, says Munkhoff, who met her future husband in Madison when they were both taking the same Chaucer seminar. But even in this academic field, he was still an interloper. "In some ways, he has never fit well in medieval literature," she notes. "It can be very, very traditional." And Kuskin was the sort of guy who began his book on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English literature with an extended quote from Life, the rollicking memoir of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
Kuskin's irregularities as a medieval-literature scholar might have been one of the reasons his career seemed to stall after he got his Ph.D. from Wisconsin; he ended up in what seemed to him a dead-end job as an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. The situation came to a head in April 2003, when the university denied him tenure. At the same time, he was drinking too much, his marriage to Munkhoff was on the rocks, and a cardiologist had warned him that he had "a turbulent heart."
In the face of it all, he found himself one morning crying in his car as rain beat down on his roof. At that moment, two similar situations came to mind: the time as a sixteen-year-old when he was crying over his parents' divorce as the rain came down outside his Manhattan bedroom, and the issue of The Invincible Iron Man he'd read as a child that featured the comic's hero, Tony Stark, stripped of his wealth and identity and running desperately through the New York City rain as his electronic heart slowly ran out of power.
The second Kuskin Rule for life and literature is Synthesize the Details: Take the relevant facts and pull them together into something new, weaving the disparate strands together into meaningful patterns. That's just what Kuskin did in his car that day. He integrated the three moments, threaded together the three narratives, and realized something: All these years later, he was still struggling with love and abandonment issues triggered by his parents' divorce, a struggle that was robbing him of all potential — and, like Tony Stark, he was running out of juice.
"Stories are all about time travel," says Kuskin. "It's not just about traveling to the Middle Ages when you read The Canterbury Tales. It's also about using stories to travel to different moments in your own chronology, to move around the narrative structures, to revisit your past and try to understand it better through stories." That's what remembering the Iron Man story did for him — just like reading a powerful piece of literature, it allowed him to understand the narrative of his own struggle, a narrative he was doomed to repeat unless he made a break with his past. Just like Stark, who'd used a car's battery to jump-start his heart and lived to fight another day, it was time for Kuskin to fire himself back up and chart a new course.
Thanks in part to his rediscovery of comics, he had the spark to do so.
The adventure begins here!" reads the colorful comic-book cover that graces the home page of Kuskin's Comic Books and Graphic Novels Coursera class, alongside an illustration of a spacesuit-clad Kuskin reading a floppy as he drifts through the cosmos. Such geeky exuberance sets the tone for the rest of the course. Each week, through a new set of slide shows and video lectures Kuskin films in his home, he traces the evolution of comic books from their origins as simple pamphlets of reprinted comic strips in the early 1930s, weaving in references to Greek myth and Shakespeare and exploring concepts like censorship and commercialism. In essay assignments, he asks students to deconstruct a comic-book page with the sort of depth usually reserved for high art, and in online tests, he quizzes participants on their knowledge of subjects like the underground-comix movement of the '60s and '70s. As a final assignment, students have to create their own short comic.
It's quirky stuff, but Kuskin is so viscerally excited about the course that it's impossible not to get sucked in. "In a way, he's incredibly childlike, but also amazingly educated," says Kuskin's friend and colleague Illya Kowalchuk, executive director of the nonprofit Comic Book Classroom program in Denver, which uses comics to teach underserved eleven- to fourteen-year-olds about literacy and the arts. "There's this childlike wonder about everything I've gotten the chance to experience with him. Everything becomes this carefully thought-out, intense conversation, and his body language and whole persona gets wrapped up in the moment."
The same sort of intense excitement runs through the comic he's written for the course with the help of Timothy Foss, a Minneapolis-based artist and illustrator whom Kuskin mentored while Foss was pursuing his Master of Fine Arts degree in visual storytelling from CU-Boulder. "I will do anything for William at this point," says Foss, who's volunteering his time. "He was incredibly generous." In the story, which unspools page by weekly page, Kuskin's character is sent by CU in a Coursera-brand space capsule (one programmed to "forever unite knowledge with global education") on a reconnaissance mission to discover why the humanities are declining and higher education is collapsing. Unfortunately, in typical comic-book fashion, Kuskin's Coursera ship malfunctions and ends up destroying the last remnants of higher education, sending the world spiraling into disaster.
As in most open-access MOOCs, just a fraction of the 35,492 students who've enrolled in the course are actually following along with the story. Only about 7,000 students, or roughly 20 percent, are active in the course. Still, many of those 7,000 are highly engaged, exploring such topics in the class forums as women in the comics industry and comic books' ethical responsibility to children, and posting reviews of comic-book shops in Shanghai and Reykjavík and hundreds of other locales on an interactive map.
At the end of each lecture and assignment, Kuskin signs off with an exuberant "Onward!" as if he's cheering his army of students on to their next feat of derring-do.
Ten years ago, Kuskin used that same sort of pluck to pull himself out of his funk in southern Mississippi. He reined in his unhealthy lifestyle, fixed his marriage and recommitted himself to his professorial duties, this time gaining tenure and then becoming chair of the university's English department. When Hurricane Katrina left the region in a shambles and his recently purchased Mississippi home in disrepair, he partnered with comic artist Justin Adcock, owner of a New Orleans comic-book store he'd begun frequenting, to write "Water Mark," a short comic exploring the hurricane's destruction of New Orleans that was published in the academic journal Southern Quarterly. Then, in October 2005, he got a call from CU-Boulder, asking if he was he interested in a job.
Kuskin was hired by CU as a medieval-literature scholar, but in the spring of 2006, his department chair, knowing of his interest in comic books, encouraged him to teach a daily, four-week-long class about them as part of CU's Maymester intensive session. Since the department didn't consider the subject worthy of financial support at the time, to make it happen Kuskin had to win funding through a special dean's-office program. The resulting course "remains the best teaching experience of my life," says Kuskin. "It revitalized my love of literature. Eighteen kids and I met every day, and it was an adventure. I was figuring out the comics canon as we went along."
Like the medieval books he'd long studied, these comics were earthy, inherently physical literary objects, and like illustrated manuscripts, they interwove images and text in ways that other forms of modern literature had largely abandoned. "It makes perfect sense that a skilled scholar in medieval texts would be interested in comic books," says his colleague, English professor Adam Bradley ("Word," April 21, 2011). "If you think about the nature of his work in medieval texts, you can see the combination of text and visuals, and how the text itself becomes a visual representation. We have left behind that aesthetic sensibility, but where we see it now is in comic books and graphic novels."
And just as the meter, line breaks and illustrations of each page of an illuminated Chaucer manuscript can be parsed like a work of art, Kuskin realized that in comics, "each page is a poem." The way its imagery draws the reader's eyes across the page, the way the gutters of white space between each panel expand and contract time, the way the scenes play with literary tropes — it all combines to make each page its own work of art, its own singular story.
Kuskin's students were as invigorated by the work as he was. "My students get tired of the literary canon," he says. "The authority of literature is heavy, and sometimes it can suppress creativity. Studying comics is a liberating approach; it reawakens the possibility of literature at a time when books can feel like an outdated mode." That's why Kuskin continued teaching comics, first as a semester-long lecture course for about 100 students, then as a small online class for a couple dozen students offered through the university's Continuing Education Division.
Along the way, he was establishing himself as an authority in the growing field of comics scholarship, including putting together an entire issue of English Language Notes — CU-Boulder's peer-reviewed literary journal — devoted to literary criticism of graphic novels. "When I was going through school, the big thing we were trying to give legitimacy to was film studies. Now we have film-studies departments. I think we are approaching that with comic studies," says Denver Comic Con director Christina Angel, a Metropolitan State University of Denver English professor who teaches comics courses. And she thinks Kuskin is at the scholarly vanguard. "One of the things comics and all pop-culture fields suffer from is a lack of seriousness," she says. "We think it's a pop-culture topic, so we don't have to bring a serious scholarly framework into it. William brings real scholarship to it. He really pushes the boundaries as to how we can interpret things like comic books."
Kuskin's boundary-pushing work in comics led to the third Kuskin Rule: Writing Creates a Persona. Just as many comic-book characters create a second, public identity for themselves through their superhero alter egos, Kuskin concluded that when you write something — whether it's a novel, a comic book or just a college English paper — you are crafting a public persona for yourself that's separate from your private self. "The minute your identity goes onto the page, it is separate from you," he explains. "As it goes out to various readers, it is no longer you; it is something else. It has its own identity, and it has its own history."
Writing, in other words, allows people to transform themselves — just as Clark Kent becomes Superman. "You have a chance to craft who you are through writing," says Kuskin. "You have a chance to craft a public identity, a superhero identity."
Through his comics scholarship and other work, Kuskin succeeded in reshaping his own public persona, one that impressed his academic colleagues. In 2010, he was elected chair of CU-Boulder's English department, the largest humanities department in the state, with roughly fifty professors. At the time, the department was plagued by low morale and faculty divisions, so Kuskin went to work with the same can-do vigor he displayed in his college courses. He hosted boisterous cookouts for the entire department. He turned faculty e-mails into rousing calls to action, ending each one with his signature "Onward!"
"I think he has changed the department since he became chair," says CU-Boulder English professor Stephen Graham Jones. "He has tried to navigate for us to have a better place in the university as a whole. I like to have someone at the front of the ship who likes to be the first one in a fight."
And the English department could be facing the fight of its life.
John Stevenson, dean of CU-Boulder's graduate school, sits in his office in the stately Regent Administrative Center and admits that he and everyone else at the university is part of a grand American experiment — an experiment that could be coming to an end.
"This country has always had an ambivalent attitude toward higher education," he notes. "We want our children to be educated, but there is a deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism in this country." For much of the past century, he says, that skepticism was put on hold because of a social contract embraced by the populace: The federal and state governments would fund big public university systems in exchange for highly subsidized education for the masses. The result would be high-quality, all-access learning — with very few questions asked. "Since World War II, higher education has gotten a bit of a free pass," says Stevenson. "People didn't look inside these institutions very much. It was considered that what they are doing is good and valuable, and we have other things to think about as a general population."
That free pass seems to be coming to an end.
For decades, state appropriations for higher education in this country have been dwindling. Between 1974 and 2000, the portion of per-student public-university schooling costs covered by state funding dropped from 78 percent to 43 percent, and since then, appropriations have dropped another 25 percent. As a result, tuition fees have skyrocketed. CU-Boulder has seen its out-of-state tuition rate nearly double since 2000, from $15,832 to $30,528, while at the same time in-state tuition has more than tripled, from $2,514 to $8,760.
The resulting sticker shock has brought the country's anti-intellectualist streak back to the surface: Are our students getting their money's worth? Where's the return on our investment? Compared to the biotech patents and start-up success stories being generated by degrees in the natural sciences, economics and other fields, disciplines in the humanities — philosophy, English and the visual and performing arts — have a tough time withstanding scrutiny.
The problem, says Kuskin, is that the value of a humanities degree isn't easily quantified by starting salaries or other objective measures. A humanities education is all about process — learning how to reflect on and be inspired by the world around you. Or, as Kuskin likes to put it, "Art is generative, so there is always hope. When you are down and you are beat, take solace. Read a novel, read a comic book, draw a picture, write a story. These things will literally save you from the worst."
It's a clear and elegant defense — one that most of Kuskin's colleagues failed to bother with for decades. In the 1970s and '80s, the literary academy, in some ways straitjacketed by paltry federal funding compared with the billions going to science and engineering courtesy of the National Science Foundation, immersed itself in critical theory and theoretical abstraction. "What they got was a system of scholarship that was inward-turning, self-critical, isolationist and ultimately cannibalistic," says Kuskin. It was not the sort of system that inspired widespread public excitement.
No wonder, then, that humanities departments nationwide are withering. According to a recent Harvard University study, between 1966 and 2010, the number of bachelor's degrees in the humanities fell by half, dropping from 14 to 7 percent of all degrees awarded. Five years ago at CU-Boulder, there were about 1,200 English majors. Now the number stands at 750. Inspired by a dire report released last June by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, newspapers far and wide lamented what a New York Times editorial called "The Decline and Fall of the English Major." Even with all the hand-wringing, there were not a lot of suggested solutions.
Except for the concept of the MOOC. Coined to describe a 2008 course on technology in teaching at the University of Prince Edward Island that attracted 2,200 tuition-free, non-university online students, MOOCs are different from traditional online classes like the ones Kuskin taught through CU-Boulder's Continuing Education Division, in that anyone in the world can take them, and enrollments are essentially unlimited. A single class can involve tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students. Here, it seemed, was a way to continue, if not expand, the United States' foundering higher-education social contract: People around the country and the globe could engage with and learn from some of the world's greatest professors at low or zero cost, with comparatively little technological investment per class by universities.
In the past few years, schools like Harvard and MIT have dropped millions on the concept. Some universities are launching for-credit MOOCs, and the Georgia Institute of Technology has announced a $7,000 MOOC-based master's degree. Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform launched by two Stanford University professors in April 2012, currently has 17 million student enrollments in the 440 online courses it hosts for universities around the world. One Coursera class boasts 240,000 students. In the midst of the excitement, the New York Times declared 2012 the "Year of the MOOC."
This fall, CU got in on the action, launching four Boulder-based MOOCs through Coursera, along with a fifth MOOC out of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Next month, the Business School at the University of Colorado Denver will launch one as well. "We wanted to be part of the experiment," says Russell Moore, CU-Boulder's provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. "It looked like it could be a disruptive educational strategy. We wanted to be a part of shaping this; we don't just want to be responding to it."
The topics of the CU courses chosen for the experiment appear well-suited to the exam-based learning that MOOCs are designed for — computer programming, electrical engineering, introductory physics. Except for Kuskin's comic-book course. That was by design, according to Michael Grant, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education. "We needed something from the humanities in there, something very different from the others, and this seemed very different," he says. "We want to be a comprehensive university here. Comprehensiveness includes the humanities and the arts, and I want to be sure those don't go away. Sometimes we are too focused on 'Can we get a starting job at a good salary?' — and I think that's a little shortsighted for an institution like ours."
The MOOC platform could be just the sort of progressive, all-access development the humanities need for a shot in the arm. And the fact that the MOOC humanities course chosen by the university is taught by a highly engaging professor and covers a wildly popular, boundary-pushing literary medium? Even better. But how, exactly, do you design an essay-based English course to accommodate 35,000 students?
Kuskin was the perfect guy for the challenge. His fourth and final Kuskin Rule is this: Create a Plan for Success. Just as he created a plan to turn his life around in Mississippi, just as he created a plan to excel professionally at CU-Boulder, he crafted a detailed plan as to how he'd tackle the MOOC. With a $7,000 budget and the help of five of CU-Boulder's academic-technology consultants, a group Kuskin affectionately named "Team Zero," he took the comics syllabus he'd developed for his semester-long online course and broke it down into seven weeks of online videos and slide shows. He figured he'd have all the online lectures completed and filmed before the course launched on September 23. Then he'd have the rest of the semester to work on other projects, since he's technically on sabbatical. And as there was no way to replicate the one-on-one interactions he has with students in his traditional courses, class participants would have to help each other with various questions in the course's discussion forums. "When you have 20,000 or 30,000 students in one class, nearly all of your traditional modes of working with the class go out the window," says Cory Pavivich, one of the academic-technology consultants working with Kuskin. "We are just putting the material out there for students to chew through and process. In this design, the student communities themselves become the best resource for learning."
Kuskin is using the same crowd-sourced approach to grade the thousands of student essays being generated by the MOOC. Students will evaluate each other's writing once they've completed a training exercise on how to score them; each essay's final grade will be based on the average of several peer evaluations. The process isn't perfect, concedes Kuskin, but it might end up generating better essays: "Grading papers does make you a better writer."
Plus, as Kuskin is likely the first to concede, a course like this isn't just about getting a final grade. It's about learning that art is generative, so there is always hope. Already, some students seem to be grasping that.
Several weeks ago, Timothy Ferguson, who lives on the Gold Coast in Australia, posted a link in the discussion forums to a rough draft of the comic he was creating for his final project, asking for feedback. Titled "Four Weeks Ago, When Amber Died," the five-page comic, with basic stick figures and images, chronicles Ferguson and his wife's recent loss of their daughter while she was still in the womb. "Maybe you are reading this because your baby is going to die," notes the comic. "There are some things you need to know.
"Bringing home her ashes will divide all of time into two parts," it continues. "But at least you live in the second half."
In an e-mail, Ferguson explains that he hadn't planned on tackling the subject in his comic book. As a librarian, he saw the class listed on the Coursera website and signed up to use it as a training tool, so he could sharpen his knowledge of his library's graphic-novel collection. So far, he's enjoyed the course, although he's a bit taken aback by Kuskin's teaching style: "I can't think of an Australian lecturer I've had who has named his rules after himself, presents lecture materials where the cartoon characters talk about him, and refers to himself in the third person in quite the same way." At the start, he figured he'd design a fantasy comic, since he writes game supplements for a roleplaying company. But then Amber died, and nothing else seemed to matter.
"I wrote it in a single evening," he writes. "I'm thinking of just submitting the rough draft as my final work on it, because it feels like it's finished to me." He created it for others who might go through the same experience — but also for himself. "There was a lot of catharsis in forcing myself to express my feelings in words," he adds. By putting his story down on the page and sending it out into the world, by following Kuskin's third rule, he created a new public persona, connecting his pain and grief to something much greater than himself.
Or as Ferguson notes at the end of his comic: "Other people whose babies have died are all around you. Your grief is intensely personal, but you don't have to be alone."
Kuskin steps into Time Warp Comics on 28th Street in north Boulder and inhales, savoring the pungent odor of millions of pages of serialized adventures. "That smell of paper is pretty intoxicating," he says with a grin.
He comes here often to check the file system the store keeps for regular customers, where he finds new copies reserved for him of Batman Black and White, Fatale and roughly a dozen other pre-selected titles, so he never misses an issue. Then he browses the shelves, maybe grabbing the latest The Walking Dead or a Doom Patrol trade paperback. He also visits comic-book stores to take stock, to appreciate the sheer number of comics being generated these days. To look around at all the colorful covers and outlandish action figures and goofy T-shirts and remember that comics, at their core, are all about having fun.
Especially since these days, comics for Kuskin feel like a lot of work.
"This has been the most unpleasant teaching experience of my life," he says bluntly of the MOOC. In fact, it's been the exact opposite of the experience he had with his first intimate, intensive comics course, the one that launched his academic comic-book career. There's just so much work — so many slide shows to craft, so many comic-book voices he has to perfect when he reads pages aloud in his video lectures. Kuskin Rule Four — Make a Plan for Success — is out the window: Far from completing all the lectures before the class began, he's already put in between 300 and 400 hours of work on them, and he's not done.
"I severely underestimated the workload," he says. "I underestimated how hard it would be to create finished videos and slide shows that I think would be acceptable to 35,000 people." Even worse, he's gotten little feedback as to whether his finished product has worked. There's none of the invigorating give-and-take of a typical college classroom, none of the spirited academic discussion that can energize students and professor alike. There's just Kuskin assembling slide shows and gesticulating in front of the camera, sending his knowledge out into the ether. "With the MOOC, there's just radio silence," he says. "I am just isolated in a little box." The intergalactic comic cover he chose for the course seems more appropriate than he ever imagined: It's like he's all alone in outer space.
The lack of student-teacher interaction — to the detriment of both students and teachers — is one reason Kuskin believes MOOCs will never fully replace the brick-and-mortar version of colleges and universities. "Higher education, in the end, has to be premised on that personal connection, especially in the humanities," he says. "For my own daughter, I will damn well make sure that when she goes to college, she has direct access to professors who help her learn." And it's why he can't imagine ever giving college credit to the fraction of students who actually make it through his MOOC: "The fact that I am so isolated from them suggests that my grade evaluation of them would not be accurate. I have no idea of what is actually going on with them."
Perhaps that's why, in the comic Kuskin and his colleague Foss developed for the course, it's not Coursera's space-aged technology that ends up saving the world from academic disaster, but Kuskin, sitting down with a group of students and teaching them the old-fashioned way.
Still, Kuskin isn't about to write off MOOCs and other new academic technologies. That's the sort of thinking that got his field into trouble in the first place. "If the humanities back away from this, it's to our own detriment," he says, adding that all CU-Boulder departments should better integrate technology into their curricula, to maximize learning and minimize costs. Maybe there's a way to use such advances to shake up the traditional semester system, he suggests, to implement a program where for part of each course, professors rely on MOOC-like systems to allow students to spend time away from the university, applying what they're learning to the outside world, then eventually bringing everyone back to the classroom for communal instruction. For his part, Kuskin could see himself moving into a more administrative role at the university, working to transform undergraduate education along such lines. That, and getting a chance to do the Batman comic he's always dreamed of writing.
In the meantime, however, he can't help but slave endlessly over his comic-book MOOC, to make sure every detail is perfect. It's not just because he wants the end product to be worthy of such a large audience. It's also because of Kuskin Rule Three: Writing Creates a Persona. Through his work, through his lectures and slide shows and comic-book story, he's creating a new public version of himself, on the largest and most ambitious stage imaginable. "I am trying to craft a persona," he admits. "And that persona is all wrapped up in my sense as a teacher and my sense as an authority. I don't know why I feel so driven to make this persona, but I feel the need to do this."
It could be that crafting new narratives for ourselves isn't just an act of creation; it's also a form of escape. Just like Bruce Wayne donned Batman's cowl to escape his childhood trauma, just like Jewish high-school kids Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the character of Superman to escape the pain of their outsider status. "Instead of being a powerless minor character on the stage, I can become the hero," says Kuskin. By creating a new tale for himself, that of the academic superhero, the mad scientist of comics, he can escape the tale of the sad, lonely kid crying alone in his bedroom.
We create such tales, says Kuskin, to give our lives meaning. We study the humanities to give us hope, to remind us that no matter how dire seems our fate, another adventure awaits.
"It's what we do in life: We are just telling stories," concludes Kuskin. "We buy things, we sell things, we love people, we hurt people, but in the end, it's just a story. And then it's on to some other story."
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