Ask Northrop Davis about his current and former students, and be prepared to settle in. You’ll hear about best-selling authors, thriving careers in Los Angeles and former students writing shows for Apple TV and Netflix. There are grads selling scripts to the “Harry Potter” producer and the “Downton Abbey” people, winning a screenwriting award at the South by Southwest Film Festival, directing feature-length films and making big graphic novel sales.
Then ask him why he loves to teach, and, again, be ready to hear about his students. The ones who start the semester nervous and unsure of their writing abilities but end the year excited to share their work with classmates. The students who take his course so they can try something completely outside their major. The graduates who return to his classroom to talk about their career paths.
But read through the scads of nomination letters recommending Davis for the Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, the university’s most prestigious teaching honor, and you’ll finally hear about Davis. His students — past and present — use words like supportive, kind, accessible, engaging, encouraging, enthusiastic. Or, as one student wrote, “He is truly what all professors should aspire to be — a beacon of light and a guiding voice for all of his students.”
Davis, a professor in media arts at the School of Visual Art and Design, teaches TV and screenwriting courses at the University of South Carolina. He also has developed an enthusiastic following of students, including those who also have taken his classes on manga — the Japanese art of cartooning, comics and anime (Japanese style animation).
He is a screenwriter who has sold multiple projects to Hollywood and the author of the sold-out-of-print book Manga and Anime Go to Hollywood (Bloomsbury Academic). He has lectured around the country and the world, including at MIT, the American writers and the directors guilds, UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program, Nanyang Technology University Singapore and at the premiere manga program at Japan’s Kyoto Seika University. For 10 years, he has spoken at the Anime Expo academic symposium in Los Angeles. He has been regularly quoted in publications such as France’s Le Monde and BBC News and has appeared in international and Hollywood documentaries.
But he has made his mark on the USC campus by teaching, encouraging, mentoring and guiding his students. And it’s a connection that lasts long after they walk across the graduation stage. Davis is well known for connecting graduates into his large number of relationships in Hollywood and the manga and anime industries, which has led to some spectacular career starts.
A path to the classroom
Davis earned his undergraduate degree in history from Duke University and headed to the California Institute for the Arts for his MFA in screenwriting.
He had always been good at public speaking — dating to his days as president of the high school debate club — but says he didn’t know if he had what it took to be a good teacher. That question was quickly put to rest when he started teaching for fun in a late-night class at the University of California, Irvine.
“I had sold scripts to 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Warner Brothers and a script of mine is owned by Disney, so I was a guest speaker for another teacher at a night extension class on screenwriting,” he says. “The head of the program saw on my CV that I had manga knowledge, and he asked me if wanted to start a course at night for fun.”
Davis had a lot of interest in the Japanese art of comics and graphic novels — an industry that was starting to grow in popularity in the U.S. He decided to give it a try, driving 90 minutes each way to teach an extension class on manga.
“It got so popular that people wouldn’t want to leave,” Davis says. “So, we would go till 2 or 3 in the morning. One of the people in the class would actually cook for everyone because people would get hungry at about 1 in the morning. For our end-of-semester event in one class, I took them to pitch their mangas to an executive at Tom Cruise’s production company. They couldn’t believe it.”
The manga class got so popular that he developed a second and then a third class. When he was offered a tenure track teaching job at USC, he converted those three classes into a full semester course, which to his knowledge, is the only class in U.S. higher ed devoted to students creating manga. He also advises the We Make Manga student club, which often meets on weekends in his office in McMaster College.
It’s a change from when he started at USC in 2008, when manga hadn’t yet made a big impact in South Carolina. He laughs now, remembering the story of an advisor who told a few students, “’Just sign up for the class. He’s some new cool professor. Something about Japanese comics or something.’ And, of course, now it’s just like the biggest thing there is.”
As for what makes him such a good teacher, he believes there isn’t one secret or method to success in the classroom. “But for me, a major part of what I do is I attempt to make students believe in themselves, believe that they really can achieve things.”
And the students respond enthusiastically. In screenwriting, manga and TV writing courses, he shows them the steps a person must take, including pitching, outlining, critiquing each other. And then he watches them soar — in class, and in the years to come.
“They find their niche and they’re becoming so sophisticated at it. So then when they talk to me and they tell me what they’re doing, I bring their cutting-edge knowledge back to my current students,” he says. “I have them talk to my students, and I travel to LA to connect the grads and current students to each other and my own contacts there.”
But while the students enjoy the classes — and Davis enjoys teaching them — what they are learning can be difficult to master.
“What I teach my students is not easy to do. The Mungo Awards selection committee anonymously polled them on the difficulty of my classes, and they said they are hard and challenging. I am so proud of our students, and when I was asked to speak to a class at MIT, where they were using my book, I bragged about the quality of my students and said they are just as good. I believe we have something really special here at USC in our wonderful students, faculty, staff and administration. And I am so pleased that the Mungo family is supporting that.”