University of Vermont

Michael Giangreco gives University Scholar Lecture

“What turned me on to cartoons is that I loved Gary Larson’s Far Side.” So admitted Michael Giangreco, Professor in the College of Education and Social Services (CESS) Department of Special Education Program at the University of Vermont, and one of this year’s recipients of UVM’s distinguished University Scholar award.  Professor Giangreco revealed his cartoon fascination during his public University Scholar lecture on Wednesday, October 30 in Memorial Lounge, aptly entitled, Cartoons, Critical Issues, and Research: The Absurdities and Realities of Special Education.

Echoing Harvey Pekar, the author of the popular 1970’s American Splendor comic book series, who after seeing the comic art work of his friend Robert Crumb, proclaimed, “Man, comics are where it’s at,” Michael had a similar epiphany more than 15 years ago when viewing Gary Larson’s work. “I was always looking for ways to include his cartoons into my presentations,” he said, explaining how he came to settle upon cartoons as a vehicle to represent the content of his research findings.  This, after realizing, he said, that like many academic writers, he was in danger of being read in the specialized journals in which he published by “only a very small subset of people."

Implying there is no greater dread for an author, particularly an academic writer, to not being read, other than being ignored, Michael turned to doing his own cartoons when Larson’s didn’t always work to convey the points he wanted to get across. “Sometimes using Larson’s cartoons became a stretch.  His job was to make something funny.  Sometimes he had a point, but not always.  Sometimes he was just funny.“

At first, Michael did his own cartoons, he said, “not because I thought it would go anywhere,” but because “my wife, Mary Beth, encouraged me, first as a labor of love,” and then when with the support of colleagues and others, to whom he would show his ‘work,’ he began to see the potential of his efforts to reach wider audiences than those who would show up at academic conferences to attend his sessions.

But like Harvey Pekar, who turned to his friend and artist, Bob Crumb, to illustrate the droll content of his comic narratives, Michael, too, acknowledging that his artistic talent was “arrested at the second grade level, and a bad second grade, at that,” turned to his friend, the artist, Kevin Ruelle, to do the same for his research ideas and findings.  Kevin, Michael said, “agreed to work with me and he would redraw my drawings and then we would edit together until we got it into the place where it was the vision I had in my head.” 

In this way, Michael has been able to reach audiences far wider and vaster than he otherwise would have been, and as a result, has made a significant impact on the education of children with special needs across the globe.  In addition to his formidable academic publishing record, Michael has also authored four books of cartoons about the absurdities and realities of special education.  And his cartoons are widely used by colleagues and advocates in conferences and classes and reprinted in dozens of publications in the US and other countries.

The one small irony in all this success, Michael was quick to point out.  “So while I’m very pleased with my career, having been able to publish as many things in scholarly outlets as I have.  Yet, to a lot of people in the field, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re that cartoon guy.’ So I think my legacy might be cartoons not my scholarship, which is even more ironic since I’m being given a scholarship award.”

But it is, of course, for his scholarship that Michael has garnered the reputation he has in the field of inclusive education.  At one point in his lecture, he tells the story behind one of his cartoons, which he had displayed on dual screens in Memorial Lounge, one which he had not shown before, for “it’s brand new,” he said.  He continued, saying, it “was inspired by the sabbatical trip that Mary Beth and I took to Italy to study what is referred to as integrazione scholastica, which is basically school inclusion of kids with disabilities in Italy.”  He went on say that “one of the things we really liked there was the idea that what was normal was very wide.  And as a researcher we are always supposed to be aware of our biases, and I know I have a lot of biases.  And one of them is this.  I really like the idea that when it comes to inclusion normal should be wide.” 

And so whether in his ideas about inclusion to which he has dedicated his career to resisting all efforts to narrow what passes for normal, a constricting which he regrettably sees currently happening in the country and in Vermont.  Or in his use of cartoons to carry the message that wider is better, a conviction he feels strongly benefits not only students with intellectually disabilities, but those who come into contact with them.  In either case, no one can ever say that Michael Giangreco has ever settled for doing things the normal way.