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Web Comics as Creative Outlet to Learning

June 6, 2016

ChE Assistant Teaching Professor Lucas Landherr, working under the pseudonym Dr. Dante Shepherd, has created a series of web comics not only as a creative outlet but also to help students understand difficult engineering concepts.


Source: News @ Northeastern

How do you cope with your unful­filled dreams? Do you cook or write poetry, run marathons or travel the world?

It was the spring of 2008 and Lucas Land­herr was con­tem­plating this very ques­tion. He was a doc­toral stu­dent of chem­ical engi­neering at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, keenly aware that achieving his pro­fes­sional goal of becoming a pro­fessor was still sev­eral years away. As he recalls, “I really needed a cre­ative outlet to dis­tract me.”

He had written a spec script, he says, a comedy “that wasn’t going any­where,” and rea­soned that he could use some of its jokes to form the basis for a daily web­comic. “Ques­tion­able Con­tent” had opened up his eyes to the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties of the genre, and now he wanted to try his hand at cre­ating his own.

The result was “Sur­viving the World,” a slice-​​of-​​life series aimed at addressing every­thing from pol­i­tics and sports to romance and reli­gion. “I was just trying to main­tain my sanity while waiting for the job I really wanted,” says Land­herr, now asso­ciate teaching pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Chem­ical Engi­neering. “What I found is that it really helped sus­tain me throughout my final two years of grad­uate school and my post-​​doc.”

Lucas Landherr

So long as you’re inter­acting with people and expe­ri­encing life,” Land­herr says, “you can find things that are funny.”

Land­herr didn’t want the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity to know that he was moon­lighting as a web­comic artist, so he worked under the pseu­donym Dr. Dante Shep­herd. And he couldn’t draw, so he dab­bled in pho­tog­raphy instead. Vir­tu­ally every entry in the series is a photo com­prising two main ele­ments: Land­herr, clad in a white lab coat and Red Sox hat, and a chalk­board, on which a daily lesson is written in big white cap­ital letters.

Over the past eight years, Land­herr has riffed on hun­dreds of topics to create more than 2,800 unique comics. One focused on reality TV, another on the sim­i­lar­i­ties between social net­works and cars. When he’s des­perate for inspi­ra­tion, he’ll visit Wikipedia and click the “random article” button, but it’s rare for him to suffer from writer’s block. “So long as you’re inter­acting with people and expe­ri­encing life,” he says, “you can find things that are funny.”

Lesson No. 321, titled “Archri­vals,” is a prime example of the series’ brand of humor, a comic in which Landherr’s left hand is placed over his chin as if to con­tem­plate the words of wisdom embla­zoned on a class­room chalk­board: “If you don’t have a nemesis,” it says, “then you’ve prob­ably never had the plea­sure of human interaction.”

Working under the guise of Dr. Shep­herd, Land­herr recently launched a Kick­starter cam­paign to raise $26,000 for the devel­op­ment of “Sur­viving the World” page-​​a-​​day cal­en­dars. “You could plaster your door or your fridge with them,” he jokes on his crowd­funding page. “You could plaster your dog with them.” The cal­endar, he says, will include 50 orig­inal “Sur­viving the World” comics as well as a rudi­men­tary word-​​of-​​the-​​day. One of the words-​​of-​​the-​​day for his Kickstarter-​​backed 2014 cal­endar was “kiwi.” As he puts it on the crowd­funding page, “Who needs to learn new words when you’re already good at words.”

Lucas Landherr

Landherr’s “Sur­viving the World” web­page receives an average of 10,000 views per day.

His audi­ence is rel­a­tively large. Although he tried to keep it a secret, vir­tu­ally every stu­dent in the first class that he taught at North­eastern knew that he was the person behind “Sur­viving the World.” And his web­site has amassed mil­lions of page views, receiving an average of 10,000 vis­i­tors per day. From time to time, he’s har­nessed his online voice to advo­cate on behalf of the LGBT com­mu­nity in his own quirky way. As his mother is wont to tell him and his sister, “You guys didn’t get much out of the ordi­nary basket.”

Landherr’s pop­u­larity in the web­comic com­mu­nity has led to a range of new oppor­tu­ni­ties both on and off campus. Within the past few years, he’s attended the Emerald City Comicon, deliv­ered a stand-​​up comedy rou­tine at AggieCon, and made friends with the car­toonist behind a pop­ular web­comic series called “Girls With Sling­shots.” In 2015, he received a grant from the Office of the Provost to create a series of science-​​based web­comics to help his stu­dents under­stand dif­fi­cult chem­ical engi­neering con­cepts. One of them, which fea­tures Land­herr in car­toon form, attempts to explain a con­cept called fugacity. “Stu­dents like them,” says Land­herr, noting that pro­fes­sors at more than two dozen other col­leges nation­wide have asked to use the comics as part of their lessons. “We’ve seen an improve­ment in their learning as well as an improve­ment in their confidence.”

He is cur­rently working to secure grants to create science-​​based comics for kids, a project that dove­tails with his schol­ar­ship focus on the devel­op­ment of research-​​inspired STEM exper­i­ments for K-​​12 class­rooms. “My cre­ative outlet is min­gling with my real life more than I expected it to,” he says.