1. Ben Saunders University of Oregon.

2. Brian Haimbach Lane Community College. 

3. TIE: Andre Sirois University of Oregon. 

3. TIE: Jerry Rosiek University of Oregon. 

What does 16th to 17th century poetry have in common with comic books? To the average reader, maybe not much. But to Ben Saunders, English professor at the University of Oregon, there’s little difference.

“I think poetry and comics actually have something fundamental in common in that they are representational forms that often draw attention to their own status as representational forms,” he says.

Teaching comics was an experiment that took off because of student demand. “This is all a function of working in a department which encourages strong teaching,” Saunders says. “Somebody with less imagination could easily have said, ‘No, you know, we didn’t hire you to do that.’”

A great teacher — and Saunders says there are many in his department — doesn’t just want to get their students excited about a topic. Rather, Saunders says, the goal is to give students the tools and appreciation to want to pursue it on their own time. “What a good teacher is trying to do is make themselves unnecessary,” he says.

Saunders points to a class he took as a teen called the Invention of Shakespeare, about how the works of William Shakespeare transformed from “the second most successful playwright in Elizabethan England” to “this cultural truncheon that you can club people with.”

“Ever since that moment, I’ve been equally fascinated not just with the art, but with the claims that this is good or this is bad,” Saunders says. “And the moments people are telling me, ‘This is bad art,’ I actually become interested.”