Theresa Tensuan enjoys the lighter side of teaching, which she calls a “transformative practice.”
“Drawing” Parallels Between Art and Social Change
Surprise—and a bit of awe—flit across Assistant Professor of English Theresa Tensuan’s face when she realizes that 2009 marks 20 years since she graduated from Haverford. “The students in my courses weren’t even a gleam in their parents’ eyes,” she says with a laugh.
Two decades may have passed since her undergraduate days, but Tensuan hasn’t abandoned the world of academic deadlines; the book she’s currently writing, Breaking the Frame: Comics and the Art of Social Transformation, is due to her editor in August. And the classroom, where she strives to give her students the same kind of thought-provoking, interactive learning experience that she remembers, is still one of her favorite places.
Before entering Haverford, Tensuan—the daughter of a physician—first thought she wanted to pursue medicine, but her love of literature and writing compelled her to search for a school that was strong in both the humanities and sciences. From the beginning, Tensuan embraced the College’s sense of community; it reminded her of her close-knit hometown of Somerset, Penn., population 5,000. An English major with a concentration in women’s studies, she says that she did not discover the “language of feminism” until she’d been in college for a couple of years. “I did feel [Haverford] was a feminist place,” she says, “where people’s differences were seen as productive rather than reasons to establish a hierarchy.”
The year following her graduation, she worked for a Philadelphia nonprofit called Public/Private Ventures, which developed public policy initiatives such as the Summerbridge program for public school students from underserved neighborhoods. The experience cemented her desire to be an educator. “As much as I appreciated the integrity and good intent of my colleagues, it made my skin crawl to hear terms like ‘producing people with skill sets,’” she says. “I was steeped in the liberal arts model of producing critical thinkers, active agents for change.”
She went on to pursue her Ph.D. at Berkeley. Her dissertation focused on the autobiographies of women of color, echoing her Haverford senior thesis on women’s autobiography—specifically, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Harriet Jacobs’ late 19th-century narrative entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. “They were two works from two different centuries, both grappling with the question of what it means to be marginalized,” she says.
As she was finishing her doctorate in English, Haverford called her home, this time as a new faculty member. She admits that the transition from student to teacher required a period of mental adjustment: “I ran into [Professor of History] Paul Smith, and I wondered, ‘Do I call him Paul or Dr. Smith? Is he going to remember that I gave him a paper late my sophomore year?’”
It was while teaching her class “Contemporary Women Writers” that Tensuan found the catalyst for her current project on comic books and graphic novels. Two of the books she assigned were One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry and Persepolis by Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi—both memoirs told in graphic form. It was a genre new to Tensuan and many of her students.
“They just went to town with it,” she says. “We had compelling, thoughtful conversations about ways in which the medium of comic books could lead to new and complicated perspectives.” For example, a vignette in One! Hundred! Demons! Called “Common Scents” reflected on the different smells that Barry encountered in friends’ houses while growing up. “One student said that it was an ongoing reflection on the way in which people identify racist responses but have no language for it,” says Tensuan.
During the fall of 2005, when Tensuan was on sabbatical, she participated in a visual culture studies seminar sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum, and spent the following spring in Los Angeles as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the L.A. campus of California State University where she began to lay the groundwork for her project on graphic narratives. Because she is primarily a literary critic, she says, the subject intimidated her at first: “There are many people who are more visually astute than I am.” What has been most exciting to her, about both the seminar and the projects that followed, is “the process of learning to see the world differently.”
She had never before thought of comic books as agents of social change: “The media,” she says, “makes [them] seem cheap and disposable.” Then she made two discoveries: a graphic biography of Martin Luther King Jr. by cartoonist Ho Che Anderson and a comic book created by the Fellowship of Reconciliation she found in Swarthmore College’s archives, depicting the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. What had begun for Tensuan as simply a one-time essay blossomed into Breaking the Frame, in which she ponders how questions of inequality and change are explored by a variety of artist/writers.
Tensuan involves her students in her research as often as she can. A couple of summers ago, she hired Jacob Carroll ’09 (whom she calls “not just my right arm, but the right side of my brain”) as an assistant and sent him to the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University. Carroll, who has been writing about comic books since his high school days, had ample opportunity to explore the archives. “I can’t thank [Tensuan] enough for this opportunity,” he says. Carroll also joined Tensuan and several other Haverford professors in co-curating the January-February Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery exhibit “Visual and Textual Technologies: The Illustrated Book.”
The professor also encourages her students to pursue their own artistic endeavors, advocating social justice through art. In the fall of 2008 she brought Los Angeles-based artist and activist Pato Hebert to collaborate with students in her “Arts of the Possible” class. (For more on that project, see page 56 of the magazine.)
Aside from finishing her book (which will be released by the University of Mississippi Press, a leading publisher of comic book criticism), Tensuan is currently working on a film project with documentarian and Haverford bookstore buyer Mary DiLullo, which has received funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Humanities. The two will invite Lynda Barry back to campus this coming fall (she last visited in 2003) and film her as she conducts writing workshops with Haverford students and members of the surrounding community. Tensuan and DiLullo plan to distribute the film to writing teachers and public libraries around the country.
Outside of her College life, Tensuan is expanding her repertoire of Filipino dishes (both of her parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines) and trying once again to grow a viable garden (after, she says, a “completely unsuccessful attempt to grow some sunflowers last year”) at the Haverford home she shares with sevenyear-old son Sam, four-year-old daughter Mira, and husband Quinn D. Eli. A professor at Community College of Philadelphia, Eli is also a playwright whose work My Name is Bess premiered at the Trustus Theatre in Columbia, S.C. this winter and whose comedy Hot Black/Asian Action was revived by Turtle Shell Production in New York this spring.
Tensuan is already thinking about her next book, which may take the form of a series of essays on teaching, inspired by a seminar she took in the spring of ’08 sponsored by the education department’s Teaching and Learning Institute. “Teaching is such a transformative practice,” she says. “The classroom is an amazing place; the conversations that take place in it seem almost ephemeral, but can catalyze radical changes for those who take part in these exchanges, folks who have the ability to reshape the communities in which they work and live.”