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Siena Heights brings superheroes to the classroom

It’s the first day of class. Your professors walk in. Pretty normal so far, right?

Except they’re wearing superhero costumes. And they’re talking about comic books as art.

Welcome to “Comix and the Graphic Novel,” one of the most popular classes last semester at Siena Heights University. Part creative writing and part art and design, the academic mash-up emphasizes collaboration and creativity. And oh yeah: Tons of fun. Because students don’t just study writing and art. They make their own graphic novels.

“Originally, the idea was for it to be a literature course, I thought making it a creative writing and art workshop would be really exciting for students,” said Alexander Weinstein, an assistant professor of English.

One problem: He can’t draw. So he recruited Erin Zerbe, an assistant professor of photography and digital media. The two teach the class together — appearing the first day as superheroes the Mad Scientist and zerbeTRON — and emphasize both creative writing and art in a fashion that Weinstein says is “really breaking a lot of boundaries.”

Not surprisingly, it was a hit with students who filled up the class immediately.

“This is by far my favorite because it combines all the things from different classes into one,” said student Alex Hamilton. “It doesn’t matter if you’re really bad at drawing. I can do stick figures and that’s considered a comic. That’s what I love about this class.”

Doing things differently is hardly new for either professor or Siena Heights. Weinstein is an accomplished writer who founded the prestigious Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. Zerbe is a new media artist whose multi-media work “explores the body and its relationship to fatness, sexuality and body policing.”

The class is proudly unorthodox, and so are Siena Heights and Michigan’s top 15 independent colleges and universities. The schools aren’t afraid to mix things up and take untraditional approaches if they’re the best way to reach students. Just last year, Siena Heights based an entire chemistry class around cooking and food.

The colleges firmly believe that just because things have always been done a certain way, it doesn’t make it the best way. It’s one of many differences at Michigan independents. The schools are small enough to experiment and chart their own path. They emphasize community over crowds.

Often less expensive than public institutions, the independents boast higher four-year graduation rates and smaller class sizes for a truly unique and affordable experience.

Be bold. Be different. Go independent.