Why not? A partial postmortem on creating a dissertation in comics form

A personal account of the process and experiences of writing and drawing a doctoral dissertation entirely in comic book form

Contributed by Nick Sousanis Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Calgary
November 11, 2014
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One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “How did you get away with it?” That is, how did you get a dissertation in comics form past the censors that your university (not known for its radical openness) must have in place?

The answer is rather less dramatic than folks might expect, so let me dispense with that at the outset. First off, I think it’s most significant to note that I came to the doctoral program as a comics maker planning to do my work in comics form. Having been out of academia proper for a time (though I had been teaching at a university), I wandered back into the university with perhaps Forrest Gump-like naiveté. I’d been making comics of an educational, research nature and there were plenty of profound examples of comics already engrained in classrooms and institutional settings (Spiegelman’s Maus and McCloud’s Understanding Comics – to name just two seminal works). My decision to do my work in comics form was more “why not?” than revolutionary manifesto. (That would come later.) I was admitted into Columbia on the basis of my existing work and the understanding that that was how I would be proceeding. It helped that I chanced upon a particularly receptive faculty who, despite a lack of experience with comics, found that different aspects of my work spoke to their particular educational interests as their distinct strengths contributed to my work. A brief rundown for speculative rather than explanatory reasons: My primary advisor, Ruth Vinz, in English education, who works in poetry (which has conceptual overlap with comics) and is engaged with expanding the possibilities for literature. Robbie McClintock, technologist and philosopher of education, who throughout his career has been concerned with challenging the forms and places in which learning took place. And Maxine Greene – at 90 when I met her – was long an institution unto herself as a philosopher of aesthetic education championing the importance of imagination in education. The university granted me a great fit in their selection for my final committee member, Mary Hafeli in art education, who teaches and works in arts-based research. Did it help, as some have suggested, that all of my committee were well past tenure concerns (half were emeritus), and so were unencumbered from the pressures a young faculty member might have? Perhaps. But as Robbie said once, and I think this is valuable to others, what one’s advisors and a committee determine to be a dissertation – is a dissertation. And from that view, the dissertation is ultimately negotiating that agreement.

Had there been any initial hesitation from my committee, my making comics for my coursework from the get go helped win them over. This of course aided me in further developing my craft and ideas, but just as importantly it also served to educate my committee and others about how to engage with the form. Thus by the time I reached the dissertation proposal, I had accrued a mountain of justification in both theory and practice for why this form should be accepted. But I do confess to a brief moment of hesitation during the dissertation proposal seminar. I recall looking at what everyone else was doing and asking myself, how does this fit? Does this count? I didn’t doubt the work I was doing, but I started to feel like perhaps there had to be some element along the lines of what all my colleagues were up to. (To their great credit, my advisors never suggested such a thing.) This came to a head when some of my cohort proposed in seminar – purportedly for my own good – that I include a text-only document to make sure the work would be accepted and understood. (Dani Spinosa recounts almost the identical experience, suggesting that mine was not anomalous.) Hearing this suggestion to hedge voiced out loud, whatever the motivations behind it, convinced me that the work absolutely had to be all in comics form – there was no question about it. To do it only half way was to concede that it couldn’t stand up on its own. And I believed firmly that the work could. From that point forward, I fully embraced the political ramifications of what I was doing and never looked back.

Post It Notes

In working outside of the traditions of my institution, I think it was essential for my journey to find a cohort that could respond to my medium and methods from perspectives that my advisors wouldn’t have. It’s something I can’t emphasize enough as being essential to others thinking to go down similar paths. You have to take this upon yourself to seek out. For me, this meant getting to know people working in comics, and eventually I found myself immersed in the comics community and a growing set of new colleagues to learn from and share with. As time went on, I spent as much time engaging with the comics world as I did at school, and that balance between the two was extremely important for my development and ensuring that the work was able to maintain its quality in terms of both form and content.

Besides the simple fact that I like making comics, I saw using them in this setting as a way I could make things accessible to a broader audience, without simplifying ideas but rather elevating a reader’s own expectations of his or her comprehension for difficult concepts. I have gaps between my degree programs primarily on account of a discomfort with being isolated in the academy – where the broader public that I wanted to speak with was left out. I felt that my comics could span that divide. To that end, I regularly printed my comics and gave them away – at conferences and other academic venues, yes, but also to people I struck up conversations with in my neighborhood, in restaurants, cabs, wherever. I handed acquaintances and strangers excerpts from my dissertation and they willing took the work, read it, and most importantly, they got it. At the same time, academics were taking the work seriously. In addition to sharing the physical excerpts, I’d been steadily blogging my comics, so when I started the dissertation, I simply kept on going. Again, I approached this more like “why not?” than any effort to push on traditional boundaries. So the work bounced around, got picked up by various websites, media outlets, was used in classes, often was read by people in other countries before I got around to sharing it with my advisors. For me, this all extended the idea of making work that could be read and that could bring the academy out into the world. This ended up bringing a lot of attention to the work early on, and from much different quarters than the institution I was attending.

One of my favorite anecdotes comes from a University of Alaska-Fairbanks podcast episode devoted to my work and comics in education (all unbeknownst to me). They sent me a link to the podcast, and at some point in the recording, the woman who’d been closely studying my work for a while said, “and he’s not just some guy in an apartment!” I am, of course, listening to it at home in my apartment and feeling exactly like just some guy in an apartment! But her point speaks volumes about the weight we ascribe to institutions. On account of my doing this work with the official sanction of Columbia University, it gave legitimacy to what I was doing in a way I wouldn’t have outside the institution. The most positive outcome of this being that it could serve as an example to point to in giving license to others to explore different outlets.

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One of the cooler benefits of engaging with a public through social media meant that I was able to tap into my readers for a crowdsourcing experiment in the dissertation. I had wanted to examine the variations in foot shapes from people with the same shoe size and expanded this by putting a public call on my website asking people to “put your foot in my dissertation.” Spread via various social media, I ended up receiving traced outlines of people’s feet from all over the world! Since I had to retrace and manipulate all of them, it was far more than I could handle, but the resulting image came out beautifully in a way that really relied on having this diverse cast. I felt that all those different people leaving their mark on the work resonated neatly with my interest in bridging academic and public discourse. 

With the work out in public, it came to the attention of an editor from Harvard University Press who contacted me to explore publishing it. I ended up signing with them when I was a little less than a year from completion. The benefit that came from this early and unexpected entrance into the publishing world came with one unforeseen complication that’s worth noting. Since the work was copyrighted as art that meant that publishing it in academic journals prior to it coming out in book form would make my same content available for excerpting and whatever, by sources other than its publisher. And given the copyright stipulations most academic journals offer, I might have had to get the rights from them to publish my own work in the book! While it’s fairly typical to publish excerpts from one’s dissertation as articles before the final work is completed, because I was working in image I couldn’t. (Which is also why I’m only including sketches here.) I did in fact have some excerpts from the dissertation in the pipeline for a few journals that I had to pull before publication. I think the situation of artwork as scholarship is something that will become increasingly common and hopefully we’ll see a conversation around copyright and publishing arrangements to reflect that.

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Regarding format – the main university requirement I had to conform to (which I did make sure I inquired about before I started drawing actual pages) was sticking to the established margins – 1 by 1 by 1 by 1 ½ inch margins on an 8 ½ by 11 inch sheet of paper. Single sided. In an age where only a digital deposit of the dissertation is accepted, this all seems rather ludicrous, but in my view it was an easy thing to do (though to be honest, I did break the margin purposefully in a few specific locations) and it didn’t hamper what I wanted to do in any meaningful way. (I had wanted to do two-page spreads and full bleeds in places, but I figured any post-dissertation version of the work could do those, which mostly did end up coming to pass. I could’ve used color, but I stuck to black and white on account of printing copies of the work myself, which is prohibitively expensive to do in color – especially if you’re giving away it away all the time!) When I handed in my dissertation draft to the office of doctoral studies, I got it back with comments focusing on a single page – 47. (I also wrote about this here.) Page 47 happens to be the only page that is not in comics form but is designed to look just like a dissertation is supposed to look (font, spacing, etc.). I intended it as a way of breaking the fourth wall and turning directly to the audience to say why I was doing what I was doing. The last line on the page prior referred to the way I’d been carrying on with image and text, and I wrote, “it’s not always done this way.” And with the page turn, the reader is jolted by a reminder of what they would typically be reading in this setting. This was in part prompted by that conversation with my cohort suggesting I hedge. I wanted to emphatically say why that wasn’t the right way to go, and this page specifically explores the history of the bias against images in influential Western thinkers from Plato to Descartes. In the midst of all the text, there is an illustration that is intentionally offset and separate from the text as illustrations are done in such texts. To add authenticity I typed beneath it, “Figure 1.” The corrections from the office of doctoral studies singled out this image, and said that because of this figure, I needed include a “List of Figures” page in my front matter that pointed to page 47 and listed “Figure 1” on it. Long pause. I wanted to think that it was a joke – yet I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. But it so beautifully reinforced the point I was making with the work and explicitly on this very page, and in such a way that I would never have thought of it myself. It’s this poetic moment – a list of figures in front of a text of 130-some drawn pages that cites a single image on the page with the most text and least images. It sums up the absurdity of tradition that I was pushing against, and I’m oddly grateful for the oversight that introduced it. (You can see that page on my site here.) 

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I want to close this reflection by taking a brief look further back at my journey from undergrad to the doctoral defense and how my own shift in mindset over that period speaks to this transitional moment I think we are in the midst of. I made comics as a kid and published my own comic book through high school. But when I went to college, I studied what I considered more serious subject matter (mathematics), the kind of thing you’re supposed to do in school, and while I kept making comics, they were always off to the side. Comics remained in the background when I went on to do my masters – where I continued to study mathematics alongside fine arts. And it’s not until sometime later when I made comics for some art exhibitions that I stopped putting them off in a corner. Despite being quite diverse in my studies and interests, I’d been creating unnecessary boxes. A central premise of the dissertation that emerged in making it was that we are able to see more and have a greater means to grasp and convey our own thinking by incorporating multiple modes into our work. In bringing our whole selves to the creative and critical process we are better able to make discoveries. For me, working in image and text in the ways that comics allow sent me in unanticipated directions, pushed my research in ways I wouldn’t have gone otherwise – and the work was far richer for it. I’m not suggesting by any means that the future is that everyone makes comics for their doctorate. But I do think it’s imperative that we stay open to the different ways by which each of us constructs our learning and that all are encouraged and empowered to bring their distinct selves into the research and presentation process.

Nick Sousanis completed his doctoral dissertation in comics form in the spring of 2014 from Teachers College, Columbia University. Titled “Unflattening,” a book version of the dissertation will be published by Harvard University Press in March of 2015. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Comics Studies at the University of Calgary. You can see excerpts from Unflattening and his other comics at www.spinweaveandcut.com

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