Digital Humanities in The Classroom: The Trial of Galileo in Comic Strips



This semester, I was looking for ways to enliven the way students and I engaged with primary source material as I taught a survey, gateway course on the history of science and medicine from the 17th century onwards. As a 18th and 19th century historian of disability and colonial medicine, finding new ways to teach early modern science, and particularly the ‘Scientific Revolution’, is more challenging than later, more modern histories. This semester, I was particularly focused on how to get students working on unpacking the story of the Trial of Galileo from primary source materials. 

A summer spent researching digital pedagogies had impelled me towards using digital tools more in class. Last semester, students produced videos and blogposts and they had already been using online archives to identify and analyse primary sources and learning to build narratives and tell stories about the past. But I was really interested in getting students further invested in the processes and products of their research. And, lets face, in trying to make learning about the duels between the Church and Galileo interesting and fun for my students–who are lovely, but usually take the class for the Gen. Ed. credit and are therefore ‘not very interested in history’ (this last is a direct quote from a student evaluation. Sigh.)

A significant amount of work has recently identified the importance of the comic book as both a historical source as well as a site to examine representation and social change. The recent spate of work on graphic medicine, for instance, has in itself become an important site for disabled and chronically ill authors and artists to narrate their experiences. But, beyond the value of comic books as sources for researchers, the comic book is also a fun way for students to present the fruits of research projects and discussions. This exercise, where students worked with producing their own comic strips based on a historical event, turned out to be quite a learning experience for both me and my students!

Here are some of the products, and I must admit they are quite wonderful…

galileo comic 2

Trial Comics

Trial Comics II

For anyone interested, here are the guidelines I used for the assignment. I will be using it again and will upload it!

Learning Goals:

1. To gain a substantive understanding of the complex, multistoried relationships between the Catholic Church and science.

2. To do the primary and secondary source research to identify the material necessary to tell a well-sourced narrative of the heresy trials of Galileo.

3. To use the products of the research to recreate the trials with and to present the sides of both the Church and its actors as well as the defendants.

4. To become more proficient in finding interesting and meaningful ways to tell stories.

Before Class:

Each group is assigned a character or characters in the episodes in the sturm und drang of Galileo’s trials. Students were asked to read all the relevant documents that allow them to examine the contributions made and roles played by this character/s in this story.

In Class:

As groups, students were asked to identify other secondary sources and materials that allow them to flesh out the story behind the characters assigned to them. In two class sessions, students worked with their sources and built a script for a comic book strip. They were given complete artistic license to choose the style, format and design of their comic books. They were asked to make sure to include a brief introduction or biography of the character and explain their interactions with Galileo before moving on to the conversation between Galileo and your character, and to never assume that the reader knows anything about the subject, and make sure that this section is detailed and well-researched. Second, students were encouraged to remember to always center the theme of the relationship between religion as embodied by the Catholic Church and science.

There are a range of free online comic book creators that you can use for this purpose:




As a final note, students not only were really invested in the process of research, they were also intrigued by the final products. The substantive nature of the assignment involved the engagement and analysis and contextualisation of primary and secondary sources, while the final product was an interesting way to showcase their work. While their work is by no means professional grade, it strengthened their group dynamics, encouraged historical thinking while utilising digital pedagogies in and out of the classroom. And may I say, I do love their work!

I should add that all the students gave their permission to share the images they produced here!

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