Comics style a unique way for professor to look at social movements

Jim Carlson
May 27, 2021

Because learning scientists long have tried to understand learning as it is embedded in social, cultural and historical contexts, Tanner Vea is enthusiastic about how looking closely at social movements with a learning lens can help illuminate critical processes of social change in new ways.

IMAGE: Provided by Tanner Vea

Vea, assistant professor of Learning, Design, and Technology and Learning Sciences in Penn State’s College of Education who also is affiliate faculty with the Rock Ethics Institute, is in the middle of a project that he hopes prompts activists to see ideas that can be put into practice and for scholars to see ingenious and sophisticated ways of learning that takes place in social movements.

The twist is that the message conveyed is fashioned in cartoon/comics style. “It was very important to us as co-editors and as contributors that we use these comics to communicate complex ideas in usable ways that movements and communities can understand and take up,” Vea said. “In so many ways, movements know how to get things done and make change happen.”

Vea said the comic book project grew out of a grant that he and Joe Curnow at the University of Manitoba received from the Spencer Foundation to convene a group of learning scientists working on issues related to civic engagement across formal and informal learning environments. 

“It was such a refreshing experience, and a challenge, to work in a more visual medium. In my pre-academic life, I worked for a few years as a digital media producer in the PBS network, so it was fun to exercise some of those old muscles,” Vea said. “First, you have to be very succinct and straightforward in how you write about the academic concepts when you translate them into comics form. Second, things have to unfold over time in a comic, so it helps to have dialogue and action.”

Vea explained that when the coronavirus pandemic kept people apart in 2020, they created a limited softcover print run of the comics using funds from the grant and shipped them for free to hundreds of people — activists, academics, K-12 educators and other community members — in the U.S. and several other countries.

“I was really surprised by how many people requested them. In a time of social distancing, it felt really nice to send a colorful object out to other people around the world, something we had put a lot of care into crafting. We received a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “To have something I worked on draw someone in and become an occasion for conversation with others, that’s something special I haven’t had happen a lot as an academic. Now that it’s available online for free, a lot more people can access it, and I hope it has a long life and continues to circulate in ways we can’t anticipate.”

Vea said he hopes that other academics can be reminded of the importance of public engagement, and that such engagement can take many forms. The commitment to the various contexts, according to Vea, allows learning scientists to see how learning is not just an individual, mental phenomenon. 

“Learning researchers have shown how as new members of a community come to take up the practices of that community, the community itself is also changed. Learning scientists have been interested in explaining the links between individual-, community- and society-scale development for some time,” he said.

“This makes social movements a very interesting kind of learning setting to study, in my view, because they are sites of learning in the most conventional sense — individual people who join them gain new understandings and take up new kinds of practices — but they are also explicitly oriented toward broader social change.”

Pedagogical practices within social movements are plentiful, Vea said, because inbound activists have to learn to see the world in particular ways, taking up certain political analyses of how the world works. “They also have to learn literally how to be an activist, which encompasses gaining certain skills, engaging in new practices, building new relationships and coming to feel and emote in certain ways,” he said. 

“Movements do a lot of things that are explicitly pedagogical, including running workshops and trainings. At the same time, I’m very interested in the learning that happens when no explicit teaching is going on. Modeling behaviors, eye gaze, storytelling and emotion are all powerful ways that more experienced humans bring newcomers into the ways of the world, as child development research has shown. Movements are also engaged in teaching society at-large new knowledge, new ways of seeing, and new ways of doing things,” Vea added.

What intrigues Vea is the plethora of topics that a movement can include. “Voices in the field have become much more attuned to issues of power and justice, both in the sense that power and injustice shape learning processes and in the sense that learning itself can transform power arrangements and move us closer to just conditions,” he said. 

“This shift has happened alongside broader shifts in society, from the Me Too movement, climate justice movement, and movement for LGBTQ+ rights to Black Lives Matter and pro-democracy movements around the world. If we want to live in a world where everyone has access to what they need to live a thriving life, then scholars have a lot to learn from movements. And, since learning scientists are committed to design as part of scholarly practice, I hope that we scholars can also be of service to movements and help them achieve their goals for a just society.”

Vea said the learning sciences program at Penn State continues to get stronger.

“There’s so much opportunity for collaboration and cross-pollination, including with folks outside of the learning sciences,” he said. “I’ve become a member of the Coordinating Collective of the recently formed Consortium for Social Movements and Education Research and Practice at Penn State. 

“That effort is bringing together scholars and outreach professionals working across a range disciplines on issues related to education and social movements. I’m excited for the opportunities and encouragement we have in the College of Education to do work that is community-engaged and justice-oriented.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 27, 2021