Graphic Neuroethics: A Comics-Making Curriculum (Part I of II)

By Ann E. Fink

Why Comics?

Figure 1: Notecard illustrations of “Agency”, “Autonomy” and “Coercion”.
Description: In “Agency”, a person watches a boat on the water. 
“Autonomy” shows the figure of an animated marionette breaking its strings. 
In “Coercion, a person is seen scolding a dog.
I make comics in the neuroscience classroom. These aren’t serious anatomical illustrations, or graphs and charts, but comics. Wandering, storytelling, crude, surprising comics. I couldn’t imagine teaching neuroethics without them.

Why teach neuroscience, or ethics, in this way? Drawing in analog forges a connection to course material in a way that differs from more conventional assignments. Most writing assignments are now submitted online with a distance and detachment that is useful in some instances but not in others. Drawing in the classroom brings us into the moment: students and instructors. Like others before me, I have observed that to draw a thing is to think about it differently, to understand its symbolic nature, to reveal underlying assumptions and schemata at work. The act of bringing a creative work into the classroom is to intervene substantively in a conversation, in place of responding passively. Making comics is a critical and vital process. This process sustains a narrative; it is generative and material; it calls forth the presence of the person who created it. Making comics can allow a radical sincerity.

Neuroethics concerns itself in part with the roles and obligations of people within neuroscience. As such, this field is built on narrative and relationality. To teach and study ethics is to acknowledge that understanding a topic is not equivalent to a simple recording of facts. It is to understand that people make choices about how they assemble, interpret and use facts. It is to critically examine how those facts come to be facts, to distinguish between reliable, useful facts and shaky assertions presented as fact. It is to highlight the conditions and assumptions that must be fulfilled in order for a fact to hold true. This ability to assess the value of the premises and logic that compose an argument may be one of the most valuable skills that a person can learn.

In the study of ethics, one not only makes claims about what one ought to do, but one explores the reasoning behind such assertions. This process builds an aware, reflective practice of conducting science, of interpreting science, of using the technologies that come from science. Such a culture recognizes and values the social nature of science and is able to frame this relationality in an articulable logic. It is a mode of teaching that values and prioritizes responsible communication of scientific concepts.1

Comics in the Neuroethics Classroom

Figure 2: Lynda Barry, a.k.a. Professor Hot Dog, 
a.k.a. Professor Chewbacca
In its best moments, teaching neuroethics invites difficulty into the classroom. Doing so productively invites students to consider abstract concepts like harm, benefit, justice, and autonomy within a complex humanity. This process disrupts myths that posit a scientific mind as a cold and callous mind, a mind full of quantitative analysis as antithetical to compassion and creativity. Such teaching also disrupts related myths about culture and belonging in neuroscience, pushing back against the notion that scientific and technological development is synonymous with culturally monolithic forms of power. Comics open a door to the fluid storytelling and critical reappraisal so needed within neuroethics.

Figure 3: Cover of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto,
by M.K. Czerwiec et al.
In part II of this post, I will draw primarily on a recent writing-intensive Neuroethics course to illustrate the richness of comics-based narratives in the classroom. This course design and my general philosophy toward comics in the classroom are informed by the practices of artist Lynda Barry, who teaches courses on making comics (see Syllabus, 20142, and Making Comics, 20193).

My neuroethics courses also take place in the tradition of Graphic Medicine, an interdisciplinary community and that uses comics to tell complex and nuanced health narratives from a variety of perspectives. The Graphic Medicine Manifesto (2015)provides an introduction to this highly collaborative field and an exploration of the possibilities that open when engaging in this mode of storytelling. As Part II of this post will illustrate, comics can provide the context and the narrative that allow a thorough consideration of key cases and questions in a neuroethics curriculum.

I would like to acknowledge the work and insight of my Neuroethics (and other) students, past and present. All works shown here represent a combination of student and instructor creations, and most are collaborative. 

References
  1. Caulfield T, Rachul C & Zarzeczny A. (2010) “Neurohype” and the Name Game: Who's to Blame?, AJOB Neuroscience 1(2): 13-15. 
  2. Barry, Lynda. Syllabus. [Published in the USA by Drawn & Quarterly]. 2014. 
  3. Barry, Lynda. Making Comics. [Published in the USA by Drawn & Quarterly]. 2019. 
  4. Czerwiec, M., Williams, I., Squier, S.M., Green, M.J., Myers, K.R., & Smith, S.T. (2015). Graphic Medicine Manifesto. University Park: Penn State University Press. muse.jhu.edu/book/58781
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Ann Fink, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist, educator and artist. She received her doctorate in Neuroscience from UCLA, and her publications on the neurobiological basis of memory, emotion and mental health have appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Neurophysiology, PNAS, AJOB Neuroscience, and other journals. Ann’s interdisciplinary work addresses the ethics of neuroscience in relation to topics surrounding identity, mental health, and social justice. She was a prior Wittig Fellow in Feminist Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently a Professor of Practice in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University.  


Want to cite this post?

Fink, A. (2020). Graphic Neuroethics: A Comics-Making Curriculum(Part Iof II). The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2020/04/graphic-neuroethics-comics-making.html

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