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A Graphic Text

August 20, 2010

Jeremy Short’s students read comic books in class. Then they take exams, do well, and finish the semester with an understanding of the fundamentals of business management. In an effort to make dry content more interesting, Short co-wrote a set of two graphic novels together with Talya Bauer, professor of management at Portland State University, and Dave Ketchen, professor of management at Auburn University. The second of their books was released this summer.

“Textbooks are just plain boring,” said Short, who is a professor of management at Texas Tech University. He said that standard business textbooks use a lot of disconnected examples and irrelevant stock photos, and he wanted to create something that would be “more like a movie,” that would get the necessary points across while keeping students engaged. Atlas Black: Managing to Succeed was his first attempt at a graphic-novel textbook; it covers, Short says, all the bases of what his students need to learn, while telling a story in panels about a college kid named Atlas and his friends. His adventures continue in Atlas Black: Management Guru?

Atlas is a bit of a slacker, but eventually graduates from college, learns to run a business, and becomes a fledgling entrepreneur. The graphic novel introduces concepts from principles of management, organizational behavior, strategic management, and entrepreneurship while illustrating Atlas' quest to make money, get over a breakup, and open the No Cover Cafe, where college students can listen to free music and buy moderately priced pizza.

To convey some of the important concepts, Atlas talks to his girlfriend about how he is doing better in school and applying a "balanced scorecard" (a strategic performance-management tool) to his life, and later in the book explores the options necessary for hiring employees and suppliers, and developing the best business model for his restaurant. When Atlas's friend has trouble understanding motivation, Atlas takes him to his baseball coach, who uses straightforward examples from running a baseball team to illustrate complex ideas about motivation -- a key concept in business. Atlas plays chess with his friend and they discuss the similarities: "In both chess and business you have to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. You have to anticipate your opponents' moves. You have to consider a lot of potential options that aren't necessarily clear or perfect. In business and chess, you can take 'old moves' and put new twists on them."

The graphic-novel genre appeals to a young audience, Short said, and he wanted a medium that would be a more interesting and effective way to communicate with students, who live in an increasingly visually-oriented world. He’s used the books in his undergraduate and M.B.A. classes, and has received praise for the books from both types of students.

Paul Barowsky, an M.B.A. student at Texas Tech who took a class with Short, said he liked the book and would prefer graphic novels to traditional textbooks in most courses (with the exception of numbers-intensive classes). “A story format forces the author to ‘net out’ his/her ideas in a concise, easily comprehensible dialogue compared to traditional textbooks, which tend to be repetitive and long-winded,” he said in an e-mail.

Formal evaluations showed that 86 percent of his students that used the book said they agreed or strongly agreed that it “compares favorably” to other management textbooks they’ve had, Short said. He added that the most rewarding part of the process teaching with Atlas Black is having students wonder what happens in the story when the book ends. “The idea of a student asking what comes next in a textbook is really just unfathomable,” he said.

Though the idea of teaching from a graphic novel may have its skeptics, the response to Short’s books has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When I first told [my colleagues] that I was going to do a graphic-novel textbook, a lot of them gave me a sideways glance,” Short said. “But I haven’t heard anyone ever say that they look at the first chapter and say it’s a bad idea.”

Likewise, professors at the University of Vermont School of Business "rolled their eyes" at the idea that E. Lauck Parke, an associate professor there, was incorporating such a nontraditional teaching tool into his course. Parke is nearing retirement, and said that many professors of his age are used to the straightforward black-and-white texts that they read in college. "You were lucky if you got a Wall Street Journal black-and-white sort of sketch or visual in a chapter," he said. "So we're sitting here having been taught in one methodology, and many of us haven't gotten used to all the new literature about trying to understand the different ways in which a human learns."

Parke said Atlas Black provided a good skeleton for the concepts he taught in his course, and is considering using it again.

“It’s not a typical graphic novel by any stretch of the imagination,” said Thomas Moliterno, assistant professor of management at the University of South Carolina. He incorporated Atlas Black into an undergraduate class, and said that he would use it again in future courses. “Textbooks tend to be imposing to students and expensive, and I think it’s a real challenge to find a textbook that students are willing to buy and/or read,” he said.

In addition to telling a story with pictures and text bubbles as a traditional comic book would, Short’s book also has paragraphs of text on certain pages, which allows the author to create a richer discussion of content than a normal comic book would, Moliterno said. On the other hand, he noted that it’s difficult to skip around in the textbook because it follows a narrative arc, and confines the professor to framing a course entirely around the book.

Dale Dunn, professor and chair of the pathology department at the Texas Tech School of Medicine, is currently also in the M.B.A. program and took Short’s organizational behavior class, in which he read Atlas Black. He said that the graphic novel, as a genre, has yet to overcome a stigma of existing just for entertainment purposes, and it may be a challenge to get students to take it seriously. However, he said it certainly has a niche in education, and he has even been discussing the possibility with Short of creating a graphic-novel textbook for health care risk-management courses.

“As you start reading it, you start thinking, ‘Can I take this seriously?’ But as you get involved you realize there’s more to it than just entertainment,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of didactic information, and from my vantage point it was more memorable and unique because you could identify the information with specific characters.”

This isn’t the first time comic books have been used to communicate educational concepts. Professors at the Duke Law School created a comic book to illustrate issues in copyright law, and the Federal Reserve published a series of comic books targeted at a younger audience to explain financial and economic issues. But creating an entire textbook is a unique project, Short said.

“This is the first that really covers all the concepts and frameworks and that is age-appropriate,” he said. “I don’t know of any other thing that’s like this.”

Big textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill do not have any textbooks in the graphic novel format, said a spokesman for the company. Atlas Black is published by Flat World Knowledge, and it is the first book of its type for the open-source textbook publisher, which Short chose because of its affordability. Students can order the book for $14.95, but it is expected to be free to read online by spring 2011.

Jeff Shelstad, CEO of Flat World Knowledge, said the Atlas Black books are among the company’s more successful products, though it might be “a slow build” for Short because faculty are hesitant about change. Still, of the 1,300 faculty members using any of Flat World’s products this fall, about 25 will be assigning Atlas Black, he said.

Short is currently at work on a third graphic novel -- about franchising.

 

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