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Prof pas prof, j’y vais: A comic book demystifies the teaching profession

Five academics draw on their own experiences to paint a portrait of the ups and downs that await new professors.


Andréanne Gagné, Jo Anni Joncas, Geneviève Brisson, Claire Moreau, and Myriam Villeneuve-Lapointe are all professors from Université de Sherbrooke. Together, they co-authored a book chronicling the challenges university professors face as they embark on their academic careers. But their brainchild is not your typical textbook. Prof pas prof, j’y vais, is a comic book based (mostly) on factual anecdotes and is meant to help reduce the isolation professors can sometimes feel when they’re first starting out. In this article, we asked two of the co-authors about where they got the idea for their project.

“A university career is like a triathlon,” Dr. Gagné, a professor in U de Sherbrooke’s faculty of education and the instigator of the project, mused. “But instead of swimming, biking, and running, it’s administrative tasks, teaching and research. As a PhD student, you’ve typically got the running bit down pat. You might even be really good at it – but it’s the only thing you’re good at,” she recalled with a smile. “Then you become a faculty member and you learn that there’s also a biking and a swimming component. You figure out pretty quickly you have neither the training nor the stamina to do a triathlon! It’s like you’re used to dog-paddling about in the kiddie pool, and suddenly you find yourself swimming in whitewater rapids. I kept looking around at my colleagues and thinking, ‘So how’s your freestyle coming along?’”

Dr. Gagné wanted to create a space where professors who were in the same boat could talk freely about their experiences. “We were all struggling along in our own little corners,” said Dr. Villeneuve-Lapointe, who also works in the U de Sherbrooke faculty of education. The pandemic was in full swing at the time. “Andréanne got a group going on Teams, where we could just shoot the breeze, chat about everyday things like you do when you bump into each other in the halls. It wasn’t long before we came up with the idea of creating something together.”

And presto! The comic book was born. Sort of.

First, they had to go through the multitude of anecdotes and sift out the juiciest tidbits before actually getting to the creative part. “We’d never made a comic book before and we didn’t know the first thing about making one,” Dr. Gagné continued. “It was a huge learning curve. To put it mildly, the project was beyond the scope of our skills and expertise at the time. But it was well worth the effort. And we just had so many stories to tell! We knew we wanted to keep things interesting, push ourselves and go beyond our own experiences. Diversity was also on the menu.” For Dr. Gagné, the comic book is a way of paying it forward to the next generation. “We wanted new profs to know that they weren’t the only ones struggling, either on a personal or professional level, with their ‘new normal’.”

In many ways, the book provides an honest heads up on what’s to come for PhD students, but also those making the transition to an academic career. “They’ll realize that even though they’ve given it their all, they’ll never be quite ready, and that’s okay. It’s a transition period with no security blanket. It’s important that we not only demystify the process of becoming a prof to profs themselves, but also to the people around who can’t fathom what it’s like.”

Some see their colleagues in a few of the anecdotes, but in the end, who’s to say? “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” they both joked. Whatever the case, humour definitely has its place in this book, which is as light-hearted as it is instructive. “It was also a way to allow people to poke a little fun at us. It’s a humorous peek into our daily lives and experiences as profs. A chance for everyone to be part of the gang!”

Working on the comic book was a liberating experience for all five co-authors, creatively speaking. It taught them how to let loose and let the writing take over. “It was a welcome change from the academic texts we’re used to producing,” Dr. Gagné confessed. “Personally, the whole experience also taught me to accept that just being a prof is complicated. Things don’t always work out. And maybe creativity and competition aren’t such strange bedfellows after all.”

Adding artwork and finding the right illustrator were also at the heart of the project. “Throughout the creative process, we really tried to picture visuals to go with the text. The publisher [Éditions JFD] then suggested Mathieu Lampron as our illustrator. Mathieu was great. He totally got the point of the book. You could tell he’d worked with academics before. He was used to our muddled, multisyllabic ramblings.”

The comic is now also available in English. And the question that’s on everyone’s minds is, will there be a sequel? “It’s a matter of funding, not ideas,” Dr. Gagné said. “We still have a ton of material we can use. And plenty of people have come up to us with anecdotes of their own, saying the first book was too short.”

The co-authors are also regularly asked about the book on social media, and people have been raving  about its success. “People want us to do one for elementary and high school teachers, not just university profs. The idea works for all kinds of fields. People well into their careers, or even on the verge of retirement, want to see their own experiences illustrated. Everyone wants a comic book! It just goes to show, all of life’s transitions come with their share of upheavals, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Dr. Villeneuve-Lapointe said.

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