Don Quijote, the Graphic Novel, and Snapchat: Alternative Assessments in the L2 Literature Classroom

For this post, I’m sharing details of my most recent article, “Snapping the Quijote: Examining L2 Literature, Social Media, and Digital Storytelling through a Cervantine Lens”, which was published in September 2020 in Hispania (vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 323-39). You can read the abstract and view the accompanying images here, access full article via Project Muse, or email me if you’d like a copy.

Snapping the Quijote


In the Spring (2018) I taught a course rather outside my general area of teaching and research expertise: our department’s Cervantes’ seminar on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). Half of the experience was challenging, productive, and fun… the other half was overwhelming! While Golden Age Theater and Prose was my secondary area of study during graduate school, since becoming a professor I had spent minimal time teaching and researching in those areas — only informally, here on my blog about Cervantes, the Quijote, and the Golden Age in general. To try to make the course — and a very long 400-year-old novel —  more “relevant” to students (and also a bit less daunting for me to teach!), I wanted to take a non-traditional approach and experiment with some creative assignments and projects. I decided to start my modifications by doing with a Pop Culture theme to the course, titling it Pop Culture and Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha. In addition to the full-length novel (Tom Lathrop’s Legacy edition) for the main close-readings and discussions, I included the following supplementary materials: the graphic novel, The Complete Don Quijote (by Rob Davis), to aid in full comprehension of the original novel and pique students’ interest right away, while also opening discussions on issues of translation, interpretation, and representation; select films sharing certain narrative elements or modes of characterization relevant to the Quijote (like Into the Wild; ToyStory; and Stranger than Fiction; adaptations of the tale for different audiences and with different goals (from the musical Man of la Manchato the children’s program Wishbone); and carefully selected critical articles (there are SO many!). You can download my syllabus at the end of this post and on my teaching page. I’m excited to be teachign this course again, with new modifications, in the Spring of 2021.

syllabus picture

Pop Culture and Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha (SPAN 732, Kansas State University)

I won’t go into detail about the course content in this post, but I will lay out the plans for the “alternative research and narrative project” that I created for the course… based on Snapchat… and which formed the basis of my article. Given the 2-year lag between this project (Jan-May 2018) and the final publication (Sept. 2020), there are certainly some things that may now be modified in terms of which social media applications may be the most popular or appropriate with students. For example, while Snapchat was SUPER popular in January 2018, and was one of the only platforms with a “STORIES” feature, now, in 2020, TikTok offers a constant barrage of mini-narratives, both Facebook and Instagram offer “stories,” and it remains to be seen if Instagram or TikTok will fully eclipse Snapchat in popularity. In any case, I anticipated this, to some degree, and framed my project and article within a semiotic view of literature and communications. As such, my rationale and the L2 Literature pedagogical strategies I propose are applicable to a range of social media and mobile applications beyond Snapchat and should remain relevant for…a few more months…?!? #Technology. Essentially, I view the new changes and new additions to our (social) media landscapes as further evidence that alternative assessments and non-traditional approach to L2 literature are not only “relevant,” but more essential and urgent than ever. Or at least that’s my version of optimism in 2020.

Quijote plus Snapchat

A visual of my experiment… since one of the goals was to communicate and represent complex ideas regarding Spanish literature, culture, and history, with both words AND images.

To explain what prompted my decision to use Snapchat as an alternative narrative project, I’ll return to the graphic novel. Because I was assigning the graphic novel — in ENGLISH — to complement the reading of the full-length Spanish novel, I wanted to make sure that students read it critically and considered the way in which images and text, as well as translation, functioned together to transmit the story to an English-speaking audience who may or may not be familiar with Cervantes’ original novel. As we read the graphic novel alongside the Quijote every week, the main questions I wanted students to consider were:

  • What visual strategies were used to communicate the story (plot) and themes?
  • What literary strategies or techniques could they identify?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the English translation (vocabulary, figurative speech or expressions, omissions, etc.)?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of adapting these chapters of Don Quijote to the graphic novel ?

It was important to create questions like these in order to ensure that students didn’t simply focus on plot or read the graphic novel as quickly as possible as a substitute for the “literary” novel. I also wanted them to consider the genre of the graphic novel as something more than “comic books,” children’s/YA literature,”\ or frivolous entertainment. To do this, I assigned select chapters from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art — Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics, and Chapter 6: Show and Tell…. since it was during my initial reading of McCloud’s book prior to the spring semester that I began thinking about Snapchat and general smartphone communications, whether via apps or text messages, for their literary potential. The below image from McCloud’s book should illustrate why, as the illustrated icons and symbols immediately bring to mind today’s emojis:

comics_icons-semiotics

A page from chapter 2 of McCloud’s Understanding Comics, “The Vocabulary of Comics”.

Below are a few lightly-edited excerpts from my article – again, you can access the full text in Hispania here.

On the graphic novel and semiotics:

In only a few pages, McCloud presents the complexity and variety of icons through which humans communicate, from the pictorial to the non-pictorial (26-30), or words, which he terms “the ultimate abstraction” (47). In fact, McCloud’s elaborations of the intricacies of graphic novel design and narrative structure connect perfectly to our modern forms of interpersonal communication and private or public storytelling through social media. Despite being written in 1992, these pages are replete with images of symbols, sketches, and simple drawings that resemble, on first glance, much of our current modes of twenty-first-century communication that allow, even encourage the combination of pictorial and textual icons (email, messaging apps like WhatsApp and GroupMe, and social media like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, to name a few). Almost prophetically, McCloud ends this chapter by observing: “Ours is an increasingly symbol-oriented culture. As the twenty-first century approaches, visual iconography may finally help us realize a form of universal communication” (58). Indeed, my students immediately connected these pages to the communicative value of a simple emoji, the popularity of which Marcel Danesi (2017), in The Semiotics of Emoji, cites as an “incipient paradigm shift in how people perceive writing, literacy, and communication today” (4). McCloud’s sixth chapter, “Show and Tell,” only amplified this real-world connection for students by focusing on how it is precisely the combination of both words and pictures together that allows us to tell more complex stories (152). McCloud frames this discussion by noting that, in the lengthy course of human history, the written word has only recently been elevated or privileged over pictorial or visual modes of communication like drawings, images, and simple demonstrative gestures (141-45). Suddenly, my students began to see their most frequent modes of informal communication as having not only academic, but literary relevance. (p. 326)

Blog_header

Blog header for the course website, Quijote Snaps at http://www.quijotesnaps.wordpress.com

This semiotic approach to the graphic novel is a perfect segue to Snapchat, and McCloud’s book allowed me to bring the app into the classroom as a way of increasing student engagement while illustrating innovative narrative structures in both traditional and popular print media. Snapchat relies on a mix of visual imagery and text, including photo-editing features like filters, color manipulation, and facial recognition masks; stickers, emojis, and geotags; cartoons and Bitmojis; short captions that can be written in a variety of colors or fonts; hashtags; and even animation and video features. But the most exciting part about Snapchat (and now Instagram and Facebook) for the purposes of my Quijote course were the “Story” features. Snapchat’s “Stories” allow users to combine a series of “Snaps” (singular images or short videos) to create a narrative of their lives during a 24-hour period, whether it be during the school day, over a weekend, or on a study abroad trip. The concepts of telling one’s own story (history) or sharing a narrative (story) with others are key to the Quijote, and the dual-meaning of the Spanish word historia (story and history) offers an additional dimension to the examination and creation of narratives. Nearly every character in the novel either recounts their own historia, has their historia told by another individual (often with discrepancies and from several viewpoints), or listens to historias told by others for informational or entertainment purposes. Evaluating Snapchat in this Quixotic context, we might consider that students actively practice strategies associated with literature and literary analysis each and every day when they use the app: they create a point of view, perform the role of narrator or narratee, construct a tone, emphasize a setting, or develop a unique narrative structure with common features or symbols. In all likelihood, the vast majority of students had never considered their social media usage to be literary, or even remotely akin to literary production or interpretation. (p. 326-27)

On Narrative and Storytelling:

Recognizing Snapchat’s potential for composing and storytelling, by way of assembling textual and visual narrative devices that will be read by others, offers the perfect bridge to a literature course centered on a novel featuring so many complex personal narratives and multiple viewpoints (see Cascardi; Allen, “Style”). Although a 17th-century novel and a 21st-century mobile application may appear antithetical, they are linked by their narrative capacities and their appeal to individuals, on both creative and receptive levels. As Jonathan Gottschall has stated, “humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives” (15). []As I began to research Snapchat in the langauge classroom, I found very little to go on, given the newnew off the application in 2018]. However, in terms of its narrative capacity, Jill Walker Rettberg (2016) has demonstrated Snapchat’s narrative (or storytelling) capabilities by using the app’s Stories feature to create her own Snapchat Research Stories – which she shares on YouTube – that examine and explain concepts like narratology, phatic communication, and visual storytelling in social media. (p. 327)

While Rettberg (in a chapter on Snapchat in Appified: Culture in the age of Apps, 2018) acknowledges that Snapchat’s “ephemerality” and association with playful filters popular with teens may lead researchers to view the app as “frivolous, mundane, [or] boring” and thus not take it seriously, she also rightly points out that Snapchat has led to “reemphasizing social connections… [and] opening up new forms of storytelling and narration” (190-91). Rettberg also describes the app and its stories feature as “a conversation not an archive” (192), echoing the way in which many literature professors like myself encourage students to consider the research process. As they perform close-readings of literature, explore secondary sources of criticism or Spanish cultural history, and document their key findings, students begin to enter a scholarly conversation about the primary text. In this sense, Snapchat fits perfectly within the goals of an L2 literature course because it allows users to become a part of a broader conversation with others through narrative techniques dependent on the creative combination of semiotic tools, or linguistic and pictorial icons. Moreover, the app has enormous potential to help students unpack literature in new ways by analyzing it through the frame of Snapchat Stories, which we may in fact classify as a sort of twenty-first-century “literary genre” in which most students are well versed, invested, and engaged. From both semiotic and narratological perspectives, Snapchat not only overlaps on thematic and structural levels with Don Quijote as a literary narrative, but with the theory and design of popular graphic novels and pictorial modes of communication. In fact, in light of the theories informing the graphic novel, my course’s emphasis on popular culture, and the centrality of storytelling to the Quijote, the Snapchat interface suddenly became the perfect portable graphic-novel-creating-tool. (p. 327-28)

Assignments and tasks:

I had observed in previous semesters a “medium-mismatch” among students in introductory, intermediate, and even advanced L2 literature courses. By this I mean that there is a gap, or sometimes a complete disconnect, between how I expect students to express and demonstrate critical thought and textual analysis, and how, or where, they already practice these skills, often unconsciously. (p. 329)

My Quijote seminar’s final project included two types of Snapchat-based essays. First, each student wrote four short “Snap Essays” (one Snap with a 350-500-word essay), in which they were required to cite the original novel and one or two secondary sources, such as academic articles or monographs (citing the graphic novel was optional). Additionally, each student also wrote two “Snap Stories” (between four and eight connected Snaps with a 1000-1200-word essay), in which they were required to cite the original novel, and two to five secondary sources. One of these “Stories” was composed individually and the other in a small group of three. Given that each student created four unique “Snap Essays” and two different “Snap Stories,” they ended up researching and writing about six different themes or episodes of the Quijote rather than focusing on only one broad research topic. Thus, students worked to develop six unique thesis-based arguments, supported with textual citations and secondary sources, which they represented both visually (Snaps) and in writing (analytic essay). In reality, the four short “Snap Essays”, combined with the mid-length “Snap Stories,” made their total written output range from 3400 words at minimum, to 4400 words at maximum. This is the equivalent of about 10-14 double-spaced pages, which is on par with the expectations for traditional research papers at this level. Also like a traditional research paper, the combined total of secondary sources was 6-12 (1-2 per Snap Essay; 2-4 per Snap Story). At the end of the term, all essays would be posted to a collaborative, public course blog. The relatively short length of each “Snap Essay” (350-500 words), combined with the visual component of the “Snap,” lent to ideal blog posts that were both attractive and readable for a general audience beyond the professor and classmates. (p. 330)

You can view most of my students shorter and longer projects on the course blog, www.quijotesnaps.wordpress.com, and I detail the pros and cons of this experiment in the article. Here is one example:

reglas-libertad-mujeres

Concluding thoughts:

“Given the rapid and technologically-advanced innovations that have affected modes of written communication and their global implications over the past three decades, I propose that L2 literature faculty reimagine traditional courses not merely in terms of content, but of assessments – even, and especially, if that reexamination challenges our ideas of what literary or academic scholarship does or should look like. Many professors have indeed documented their successful efforts in connecting literature and its historical era to contemporary issues and cultural production that are familiar to students, especially when teaching such a complex, fun, and engaging text like the Quijote (Burningham; Castillo; Miñana; Parr and Vollendorf; Simerka and Weimer). Additionally, the field of Digital Humanities is booming with qualitative and quantitative software offering alternative modes of interpreting, analyzing, and presenting research on literary texts. Yet the culminating assessment, or the traditional research paper, tends to remain a touchstone of many L2 literature courses – even those with non-traditional thematic approaches. This, despite the fact that in our current “Internet Age” (Danesi), the term paper is no longer the only type of assessment that might coincide with the objectives we establish for today’s students, the majority of whom want to easily and readily relate linguistic skills and cultural knowledge to their daily lives and future careers. When McCloud laments that comics are viewed as a recent invention (despite pictorial communication being centuries old) and thus excluded from serious literary discussions, he states that the art of comics simply “suffers the curse of all new media. The curse of being judged by the standards of the old” (151). While the move away from a traditional academic research or conference paper may initially appear to represent a bowing to requests from students for “easier” assignments, or a fueling of their resistance to engage with serious scholarship and literature, this Snapchat project demonstrates that it is possible to emphasize the same linguistic and literary skills in another medium. Analyzing, synthesizing, providing evidence for one’s ideas and interpretations, articulating a precise thesis or guiding argument, writing explanations of textual, literary, or visual icons… all of these skills can – and should – be adapted to the twenty-first century. By (re)examining and adapting traditional practices, L2 literature instructors will not only increase engagement and demonstrate the relevance of literary analysis skills to students’ lives, but also foster appreciation for the study of classical literary texts for their insights into the past and their potentially universal values, which are often present in today’s cultural productions.” (p. 336)

Have you tried alternative assessments or final projects in your L2 courses, whether language or literature? What has worked well, or perhaps is still a work-in-progress? Share your experiences in the comments!

Course materials/resources:

Novel: Don Quijote. Miguel de Cervantes. Ed. Tom Lathrop. 10th Legacy Edition. European Masterpieces / Cervantes & Co. 2012.

Graphic novel: The Complete Don Quijote, illustrated by Rob Davis. SelfMadeHero, 2013. English edition.

Comics Theory: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Scott McCloud. William Morrow, 1994. (1st Harper Perennial edition, 2001).

Syllabus – Pop Culture and Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha (Dr. Rebecca Bender, Kansas State University): SPN 732_Don Quijote_Syllabus_BLOG

Additional articles/select bibliograhy:

Danesi, Marcel. The Semiotics of Emoji. The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet. Bloomsbury, 2019.

McRoberts, Sarah, Haiwei Ma, Andrew Hall, and Svetlana Yarosh. “Share First, Save Later: Performance of Self through Snapchat Stories.” CHI 2017 – Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: Explore, Innovate, Inspire, vol. 2017 (May), pp. 6902-6911. https://doi.org/10.1145/3025453.3025771.

Pomerantz, Anne, and Nancy D. Bell. “Learning to Play, Playing to Learn: FL Learners as Multicompetent Language Users.” Applied Linguistics, vol. 28, no. 4, 2007, pp. 556-78. Doi: 10.1093/applin/amm044.

Rettberg, Jill Walker. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Open Access.

—. “Snapchat Research Stories.” YouTube, 1 Nov. 2017. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Wargo, Jon M. “Spatial Stories with Nomadic Narrators: Affect, Snapchat, and Feeling Embodiment in Youth Mobile Composing.” Journal of Language and Literacy Education, vol. 11, no. 1, 2015, pp. 47-64. http://jolle.coe.uga.edu

About rebeccambs

Spanish professor
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