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March 20, 2018

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Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Work; Research Associate, International Migration Research Centre (IMRC)

I teach in the Faculty of Social Work, and I do international research with a focus on war-affected populations. I am always looking to find ways to connect my research with my classroom. Not only do the students learn a great deal from "real-life" research, but they also give me ideas of directions to take my research. So it's a win-win situation. For one class I was working in Lebanon, and so I Skyped with my students to give them a "virtual field visit" of the Syrian refugee crisis in the country. But I cannot always connect them to the field in this way.

Another way that I connect my students to my research is through the integration of comics into the classroom, which I discussed in my recent publication: "Beyond Words: Comics in the Social Work Classroom". I first used comics in my syllabus for an International Social Work course at McGill University that focused on crisis-affected settings. The students really enjoyed the integration of this genre into their syllabus, which tends to consist predominantly of academic journal articles and book chapters. I was curious to know what the students really thought of the comics, and so I convened two focus group discussions with students who had completed my course. I found the following:

  • Comics can help them improve students' communication skills: observing, listening, asking questions. Reading a comic can be like reading a role-play, which is an important learning technique.
  • Comics represent a different way of student learning. This is especially important for students who learn differently. For example, we know that some students learn better with the use of visuals. Comics integrate visuals (through drawings) with narrative/words/voice.
  • Comics are an experiential kind of learning. As one student said, "It puts you in the story. You're at eye level. You're not just reading the words, you're seeing it."
  • Comics can help students to explore complex social issues. One of my students commented how comics helped her to realize that there are not just "good guys and bad guys", but there are people in-between, showing the complexities of these global issues.

I am always intrigued by what different students think of the comics in the classroom. Some students are enthusiastic supporters and are eager to talk about every element of the comic, while others approach comics as just another assignment. I also continue to learn a lot from my students about how to best integrate comics as a teaching and learning tool. My students have given me advice that comics must be properly introduced to the class, the author/artist should be contextualized, class should include critical discussions, and comics should supplement other course material. The students are pretty honest about their experience, and they appreciate when their instructors take their advice.

I have been inspired by how many people are interested in comics as a way to learn about a context or social issue. Whenever I work with international populations (who often do not speak English and many who are unable to read), I wonder how I can convey the research results to them. Most of my research is disseminated through academic journal articles and book chapters, which is not necessarily accessible to non-academics.

In my current research with Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, I have started to develop and plan to creatively disseminate the findings from the project with a broad audience, beyond predominantly academics. The first idea I have is to create a short animated cartoon, which could include subtitles in multiple languages. The other idea is to develop a graphic representation of the experiences of Syrian families in Lebanon. The idea would be the development of a book that would include illustrations, photos, and the narratives of the families I have interviewed in the course of my research.

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