Official Press Release
When Ball State University decided it was time to enter the hyper-competitive world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), it knew that nothing short of a heroic effort would be required.
So the faculty member responsible for converting a small seminar class about gender and comic books into a free online course suitable for thousands of students asked for help from an appropriate source: Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics legend who helped create such superhero icons as the Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the X-Men.
"He was totally receptive," said Christina Blanch, an anthropology instructor who created and teaches the Gender Through Comic Books class. "He is a big believer in education."
Specifically, Lee narrated a promotional video in support of a crucial first step in Ball State's effort to launch the free online class next year. The university hopes to unveil the course in March during the South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas, a widely-attended program held the week before South by Southwest's famous film and music festivals.
To do so, Ball State must secure a place on the conference agenda for a panel discussion about the class, its subject matter, and how faculty members developed it for use online.
Landing a spot at SXSWedu, as the conference is known, is no simple matter, however. Panels must gain the support of the conference's staff and advisory board - and mount a public campaign to win enough online votes to show that a panel discussion has widespread interest.
"It's a little like competing on a reality TV show," said Richard L. Edwards, director of Ball State's Integrated Learning Institute (better known as iLearn), which helps faculty members develop online classes.
"Thirty percent of whether or not a panel gets selected is audience voting, so we needed to figure out a way to get our voice heard."
Enter the video - and the voice of Stan Lee.
Blanch, who has taught previous classes using comic books, has met and befriended a number of the industry's leading writers and artists at conferences and conventions. Last year, she met Lee at a convention in Baltimore, spent some time with him and felt comfortable asking whether he would be willing to narrate the video for the South by Southwest panel competition.
"I just emailed him. I said, 'Hey, we're putting together this video. This will take, literally, a minute of your time, if you wouldn't mind recording this.' Then, within four hours, he came back: 'Of course, Christina,'" Blanch said.
Lee, she said, likes the idea of using comics to explore serious subjects, which her class certainly does. Blanch uses comics ranging from early Superman titles to popular recent books, such as "Y: The Last Man," to examine how men, women and their roles in society are treated.
"When people say, 'Why comics?' I say, 'Why not?' Anybody who has read anything by Grant Morrison or anything by Alan Moore knows their works are masterpieces. They're comic books, but they're literature, too. They're modern day myths - and they're put out every month, so what's happening in the world is reflected in them.
"We can look and see in the 1950s, this is what's happening. In the '60s, you can see the whole women's movement play out in the comics. A couple of months ago we had the first gay marriage in comics: Northstar and Kyle got married in "Astonishing X-Men." We see what's going on in the culture, and we see that reflected in the comics."
Comic books also are particularly useful teaching tools, Blanch said, because students read them without complaint. "They start out thinking they'll be easy, but once they get into them they see there's a lot going on. One of my students said, 'Hey, you tricked us into learning!' I had to pat myself on the back for that one."
Edwards, for his part, hopes that thousands of students across the country can share that experience with Blanch - but knows Ball State will need help to make it happen. The 22,000-student public university, after all, will be competing in the massive online class arena with such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford universities.
"We're trying to launch a national course from Muncie, so we need our friends and neighbors to put some backbone into it - we need their help," he said. "There's no one better than Stan Lee to help put a little wind in our sails, but we also need the support of our students and faculty and neighbors in Muncie - and everyone who watches that video - to cast a vote.
"If everyone takes a minute to do that, we can make this happen."
Voting for panels opened on Monday and will continue through Oct. 5.
To view the Stan Lee video and cast a vote for Ball State's presentation, visit http://ilearn.bsu.edu/supermooc/.