July 29, 2019 11:39 am

Students in Nathan Chang’s English classes (99, 101 and 102) are often surprised when he assigns them graphic novels to read instead of more traditional literary works.

“Some say they’re not sure they signed up for this,” Chang said with a smile. “Many have never read a graphic novel before.”

But Chang’s approach has a purpose behind it.  

“Reading graphic novels helps students build their confidence, particularly if they have never taken a college course before or it has been a long time since they took a class,” said Chang, adjunct professor in the English Department at Pierce College Puyallup.  “These works are more accessible, especially for people who don’t read much on their own time, which is what I hear from a lot of students.”

While similar to comic books, graphic novels are typically longer, with more complex story lines. A writer himself of short stories and novels, Chang has long been a fan of graphic novels and manga (Japanese comic books).

“I assign specific graphic novels for their ability to take students out of their familiar world,” he said. “For example, ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi is an autobiographical story about an Irani family and Satrapi fleeing Iran. At first, some students are baffled because they don’t know much about Iran or the Middle East, but then they come to appreciate other cultures.”

Another graphic novel he frequently teaches is “Footnotes in Gaza,” by Joe Sacco. “It’s about the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Chang said. “Students say they have gained perspective from reading this.”

Beyond teaching reading and writing, Chang’s goal is to help students develop critical thinking skills that will serve them well no matter what their path in life.

 “For me, critical thinking means not taking the world at face value, not to say ‘that’s just the way things are,’” Chang said. “It means opening your mind to other perspectives. Academically, it means not to rely on one source or the same source over and over again.”

Returning student Becky Locken can attest to Chang’s emphasis on critical thinking. She recently completed his English 101 class.

“He made us think every day, not just about the book, but about the world and issues that are happening now,” Locken said. “As an older student, I really appreciated that. Everyone participated and was engaged.”

Chang joined the faculty of Pierce College in 2017 and also teaches at Green River College. “I like the atmosphere here,” he said. “I really like the diversity of students. I have Running Start students, older adults and veterans in my classes.”

Chang also likes to infuse some creative writing into every course he teaches, including a fun assignment for students to write short (10-page) screenplays.

“There are always some amazing scripts in there,” he said. “I tell the students, don’t give up on this, you’ve got something here.”

Chang is gratified when former students tell him that they ended up taking more English and writing classes than they intended to at college because of their experience in his classes. Some are even reading more in their personal lives.

“That’s awesome to hear,” Chang said. “I hope I can help students become not just better writers, but better thinkers, and ultimately, better citizens.”