Exploring relationships between lines and letters

Skills: Writing

Written for the UAlberta Department of Secondary Education
July 22, 2015


Words. Pictures. Teaching. Reading. Love. Rockets. Musicals. And crystal meth.

These are the thoughts that constantly swirl about the active mind of David Lewkowich. Having recently joined the Department of Secondary Education as a professor in English Language Arts, he has a thousand and one ideas on where to take his research, and only a lifetime to explore them.

Though born in Winnipeg, Lewkowich grew up in Victoria, and then moved to Montreal at the age of 18 to attend McGill University and receive his BA, BEd, and PhD. He spent year in California between Bachelor’s degrees and taught high school in Montreal prior to his doctorate, and then completed his post-doctorate at York. From this impressive resumé, Lewkowich’s academic career has been consistently informed by how readers experience and interact with literature.

Lewkowich’s Master’s work allowed him to meet with reading groups in collaboration with the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, exploring how literature is used in health and healing, such as in book clubs. During his PhD research, he focused on the young adult reading experience, developing an understanding of the emotional interactions young people form with literature. Over the course of this research, he paid particular attention to the ways that young readers use the characters and events in literature as a way of framing their own lives.

“It can often be hard to be yourself. There are certain things that you maybe don’t want to admit about yourself in the company of others, or even to yourself. I find that using these texts allows people to be more critical of what is happening,” he says.

By using literary works as a proxy for their own experiences, Lewkowich says this allows students be introspective without fear of feeling too candid or vulnerable. That’s also been key to many of his own publications, where he’s used TV shows and other pop culture touchstones to analyze the relationships and challenges that teachers face in today’s classrooms. In recent years, he’s explored the pedagogical encounters present in the TV musical, Glee, and applied psychoanalytic theory to chemistry-teacher-cum-drug-kingpin Walter White and his teacher/student relationships in Breaking Bad.

It can often be hard to be yourself. There are certain things that you maybe don’t want to admit about yourself in the company of others, or even to yourself. I find that using these texts allows people to be more critical of what is happening.

Lewkowich says that his focus is constantly shifting, allowing past research to expand, not constrain, his future endeavours. After spending his PhD studying the relationships that young readers form with literature in general, he’s now focused on two key areas. In addition to studying the psychoanalytic idea of sublimation, Lewkowich wants to examine the connections between lines and letters as he embarks on a new journey to research graphic novels.

“I’m interested in two things: one, how is the adolescent represented in the graphic novel? And what purpose is the adolescent serving?” Lewkowich asks. As part of his work in the Department of Secondary Education, he wants to dig deeper into the ways that pre-service teachers read graphic novels and figure out how they relate to characters, what assumptions are made of them, and how the interaction of words and pictures influences those relationships.

Lewkowich is no stranger to the graphic novel as a medium. As an avid reader, his bookshelves are stocked with a constantly growing and shifting array of works, which makes it difficult to pin down a favorite. These days, he says, he’s been captivated by the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets series, Drawn & Quarterly’s Lynda Barry, and the works of Mariko and Jilliam Tamaki, including Skim and This One Summer.

As an instructor, he’s used graphic novels to help his own students ask the very same questions he explored in his doctoral research, allowing them to reach a better understanding of how they engage with those narratives. In doing so, he says that many pre-service teachers often begin to identify with certain characters, viewing them as the teachers within a story’s world.

“It was almost like they identified with [a character] so strongly that they needed him to be a teacher,” Lewkowich says. Conversely, many of his students were especially critical of characters whose actions opposed the values they considered emblematic of good teachers.

Now, he wants to delve even deeper into that world, using a medium that has only recently found its way into legitimate academia. Lewkowich hopes that his research can reveal the powerful emotional connections that readers form within those pages, where visual art can fill in the gaps left by words alone.

“I love the fact that I have a very respected position, and I can read comics!”