|Common Reading 2005 - 2006|
Maus, winner of a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, renders an oral history of the Holocaust in cartoon images. Shifting between 1970s Rego Park, Queens and World War II Poland, Maus captures the difficult relationship between author, Art Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, as they set out to recover the past. Through this graphic memoir, readers gain insight into the conditions under which people lived during the Holocaust as well as how survivors and their families coped afterward.
Maus serves as a powerful teaching resource that can be used in a wide variety of college classes. However, before you get started, you may want to think about a few pedagogical issues elicited by this book.
Using a Graphic Novel or Memoir
This may be your first time using a graphic book in one of your courses. While graphic books may not seem academic on the surface, they require a significant amount of cognitive processing as readers simultaneously decode text and images. At the same time, research shows that students not only acquire substantial content and vocabulary from graphic books, but also take pleasure in reading them. Thus, there is potential for increasing students’ desire to read other graphic novels and memoirs, encouraging them to read more traditional types of books as well.
Working with Maus’s Use of Non-standard English
Students may be surprised that this year’s common reading includes a great deal dialogue in Non-standard English. Students can benefit from a discussion of the value in literatures of authenticity of voice. However, you may also need to emphasize that Standard English is expected in other academic and professional writing. For a useful discussion and lesson on Non-standard English, please visit the link below.
Dealing with the Holocaust and Genocide in Class
Spiegelman’s portrayal of people as animals, particularly his use of pigs to signify Poles, may raise eyebrows among students (and even faculty). In many cultures, pigs are viewed as disgusting, vulgar and stupid. Deconstructing these images with your students may help them gain a broader understanding of the cartoons and Spiegelman’s artistic purposes. Besides cats, dogs, pigs and mice, in Maus II, Spiegelman portrays a French prisoner as a frog and a Gypsy as a moth. Though the national comparisons may not always flatter, it may help to refer to well-known fables such as Aesop’s or allegories such as Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Spiegelman also portrays his father as both heroic and unpleasant, especially in his old age. At moments Vladeck's behavior appears to exemplify some anti-Semitic stereotypes. In Maus II, Vladek also expresses bigoted opinions himself. Authorial and historical honesty as well as authorial perspective can be discussed here. Does the fact that Vladek is a flawed individual make his story less or more compelling? Does Art as an American brought up in the security of the 1950s and 1960s have limits to his own knowledge or empathy? The fact that he writes a book is not so much a sign of perfect understanding but rather an attempt to come to grips with its imperfections.
Additionally, you may want to expose your students to not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also the heroic acts of rescuers. Please refer to our Rescue and Recovery page, linked below. Students can conduct research about other genocides, including those taking place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and the Sudan. This will give them insight into history and moral dilemmas as well as actions they can take to help prevent human rights abuses.
Facilitating Conversations about World War II