Comics, literacy and self-help

Neill recently spent a week pouring out his passion and commitment to children’s comics on his blog. I thought it made remarkable reading. It is indexed on a side panel, or you can get the series from Readlists (a site I didn’t know about) or as an ePublication from Amazon.

In short, his argument is that a serious decline in children’s literacy has coincided with a catastrophic decline in the availablity of cheap children’s comics; everyone says we should do something about literacy, and comics have a big part to play in any such campaign. But rather than just bewailing the fact that publishers no longer produce, and corner stores and newsagents no longer stock, comics for kids, there is something else we can do: encourage children to produce their own comics, and help them with alternative distribution channels, which might be on the Internet, or comics clubs in schools or local libraries, or whatever.

His own observations of doing workshops for children (and living with one) make it clear that children love reading comics, even (or especially) comics by other children, and with a bit of encouragement they can become engaged in both the creative and the entrepreneurial side of producing them. Moreover, there are books about how to do it that can be put into their hands, and talented people around who run workshops.

Why am I mentioning this here? I think there are some surprising similarities, as well as some differences, with mathematical publishing. If you look at what I wrote, and substitute “mathematicians” and “theorems” for “children” and “comics”, a lot of it makes sense. We love reading theorems, especially if the presentation as well as the content are creatively done; our job is proving new theorems and crafting presentations of them; and some mathematicians at least can become engaged in the distribution side. In particular, I’d like to pay tribute to Herb Wilf and Neil Calkin, who founded the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics.

What are the differences? With us it is not that publishers will not produce the stuff and put it into our hands; but what they ask (for subscription or page charges) is rather higher than “prices realistically within the realm of pocket money while still maybe even leaving enough change for a bag of Skips”, as Neill puts it. So we can’t get them ourselves, and depend on our employers to buy them for us, or to pay the steep entry fee for us to publish in them (which means putting power over what we read and where we publish into the hands of the bureaucrats).

Of course, what keeps us locked in is the insistence of bureaucrats that we publish only in “approved” journals (approved by whom? by them, of course, not by us) or our publication won’t count in evaluations of our research (evaluations by whom?).

Here I would echo Neill and say, we can wring our hands and bewail the situation, or take what steps we can to remedy it. Expertise in running freely available journals is available; we should use it. If those of us who are no longer subject to these stupid bureaucratic rules support this enterprise, eventually “they” will not be able to ignore these outlets.

So I wish the comics creators every success, and at the same time I wish every success to the committed and creative people who are trying to provide us with outlets for our best work. Support them! Help them if you can, and send them good papers.

As a final note, I am delighted when Neill’s world and mine link up in this way.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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