A Comics Dissertation


In this interview, Maureen Bakis talks with Columbia Teachers College doctoral student Nick Sousanis, who is in the process of submitting his dissertation in comics form.

(Click on the images to see larger versions.)

What's your educational background and how did it shape your work in comics and education?

I studied mathematics and philosophy in undergrad, and then did an interdisciplinary masters in art and mathematics and a masters in painting in grad school, before coming to Columbia Teachers College to do an interdisciplinary doctorate in Education. Also, my parents are both teachers - my mom teaches environmental studies in elementary school, and my dad physics in high school, and also coaches tennis.

My brother, who is eight years older, was really into comics when I was little. He got me interested in them so much so that my first word was "Batman." I always liked reading them, and I never stopped making the kinds of drawings we ALL make as children - where pictures and words flow together across the space of a page. Apparently, I could draw well, and always enjoyed concentrating and thinking through images - even as I wrote text, so I just kept at it. My parents are drawers in the official sense of the term, but they draw a lot to accompany their teaching and their thinking.

My education before this point discouraged comics for the most part. The only time I got in trouble in junior high was for drawing in the margins of my notebook during class. Apparently that's seen as useful cognitive activity now. I'm pretty sure I knew that then. I think comics were so on the margin in the academic realm, and likely in my own head, that it was always something you did outside of your "real" work. Things have changed!

How long have you been involved with sequential art/comics?

Specifically I produced my own superhero (of sorts) comic book throughout junior high and high school. I started a number of projects in college and beyond, but most of them are still partially complete, as I always had to get to other things. It's not until I was in Detroit, immersed in its arts community, when I was asked to be in an art show around the 2004 election, when I turned to comics for what I could make in a hurry! I created two short comics in brief sequence, and that really set the stage for my mature, metaphorical comic explorations that I am pursuing today. The piece I did after that was for a Detroit art exhibition on games at the suggestion of a friend of mine. I made the essay for the show in comics form and produced a historical and philosophical exploration of games and their meaning in our lives. When I was coming to Teachers College, I used that piece to show what I felt was possible in terms of comics and education. Apparently, people believed me!

CosmologyHow did you end up at Columbia's Teachers College teaching a comics course?

I've been doing much of my work in comics and presenting at conferences on comics for a while now. I'm in the midst of doing my dissertation entirely in comics form, what we believe will be the first of its kind. I'd been asked on numerous occasions to guest lecture in English courses on the day that they covered comics with their teachers. From these presentations, the talks I’d been doing and my own research more generally, it seemed kind of crazy to keep condensing that to a thirty minute conversation, when instead we could spend a semester exploring the medium and its potential together. And so, sometime last spring my proposal was accepted and the course was green-lit.

Explain your doctoral work. I hear you are doing your dissertation in comics form. Can you talk about where you got the idea, the approval process, and the pros and cons involved?

I am doing my dissertation entirely in comics form! And we do think it's a first. As I said above, I came to Teachers College with the idea that I would be doing my work in educational form. However, over this process, what started out as using comics for their accessible nature has evolved into a broader idea about the medium as an important vehicle/tool for thinking and representing thought. In part I'm arguing about the educational importance of thinking through more than just the verbal - specifically, obviously, I address visual thinking in a visual medium. And in this way, my form can match my content, walk the talk as it were. As I think more about comics through making them, researching on them, and now teaching them, I see their capacities for multi-layered, tangential, and multimodal narratives as truly unique and distinct from other media. An important concept I've been playing with recently is that comics in many ways mirror "the shape of our thoughts" in ways that a lined sheet of paper is quite limited in representing or facilitating. I think an education that embraces the multiple ways we think and that our ideas take shape is one that allows students to more fully explore the possibilities for expression and opens pathways for them to find their own way. Comics and visual thinking more generally, I believe, are an important piece of that.

My dissertation proposal was approved last December. I'd say I didn't have much trouble getting it approved. My advisors have been supportive in wanting to see this come to fruition. One, Ruth Vinz, invited me to contribute a chapter to her recent book on Narrative Research. It's fun. You're reading text, text, text, and then a page turn and it's all comics for a chapter. I think they agree on this idea that what two advisors consider a dissertation is a dissertation. And it'll be quite a change of pace to read! So, I definitely feel supported in that way. One of the harder things about it is due to the nature of comics hardly anything I’ve done already can just be cut and pasted and tweaked a bit to fit into the document. The very form itself, unlike text, determines how the pages look and how content flows. This means that while I've laid a lot of the groundwork for what goes in the dissertation, I've got a lot of designing and a heap of drawing to do in the time ahead. But that also sounds like a lot of fun!

Where does your inspiration to create visual narrative come from?

Yow. I don't know. It's different each time. Or maybe you mean more generally in the medium. To that, I'd say, in some sense I find that my thoughts when I’m out running achieve a certain sort of clarity that when I sit down to compose on a lined sheet of paper or keyboard never quite takes shape. Even my straight text writing, emerges from organizing thoughts spatially on a sheet of paper. So partly, I just think that's how we think, or at least I do. But also, I like to draw - both the realization of specific images and the action of thinking visually - so comics is a way to pull together that interest alongside words, and I also like to write. Together though, I often find I can say more than I can with text alone, and often say it with less. Comics force you to leave out a lot and preserve empty spaces; for me at least, it’s like having a built in editor! And a little more specifically, in terms of creating a specific piece, I’m often asked, which comes first words or pictures? To which I say, yes. Not to be cute (ok, maybe a little), but it's really a dance between the two. An image suggests text; a line I've written suggests an accompanying image. Sometimes I feel like playing with pictures and words within the constraints of the page, the creative process almost takes off on its own, and I just get to watch as things emerge I hadn’t anticipated in the least. It’s a lot of fun and exciting to see where it leads.

What ways do you share your work with others?

I have my website, a pretty simple blog at this point, at www.spinweaveandcut.com- the spin, weave, and cut refers to what I consider is my d.j.-like way of working with references, spinning together narratives from pieces of theory, myth, and popular culture). I post almost everything I do on the site. I print comics up and give them away to people. This comes back to what I said about accessibility. I tend to write pretty dense, complex essays - perhaps even more so than what I do in straight up text. Yet, I can hand one of my comics to someone I meet at a gathering, a friend I’m bumping into on the street, whomever, and they’ll be glad to have it and then they’ll read it. I try to imagine doing the same thing with a paper I wrote! (Perhaps I should try that as a candid camera experiment - "would you like to read my research paper?") I've been presenting on comics and my work at conferences and always have plenty of things on hand to share. I haven't gotten business cards yet, but people seem to appreciate a stack of comics instead. Also, a few of the pieces have been in books. I mentioned my chapter in the book by professor Vinz, I've also got a piece in a book on education philosopher Maxine Greene. A work expressing my philosophy about how comics work is coming out in an academic journal this spring, and I have a collaborative piece with an established comics writer coming out next year in non-academic press. I enjoy the idea of dancing between those realms and helping facilitate connections between them.

What advice would you give comics educators today from your perspective as both researcher and cartoonist?

I'd say, read more comics. Find stuff you like and explore more from there. I'd also say try your hand at making them—it's fun, and I think it's an important exercise in thinking visually that might surprise you, and this will give you greater insight into how comics work. In making your own you put theory into practice, and when going back and reading the theory, [Scott] McCloud or others, it will have that much more meaning to you. I'd say, as McCloud suggests, and he's not the last word on comics, from French theorist Thierry Groensteen to RC Harvey, there are all sorts of texts and articles on how comics tick, reading them will broaden your view.

FableThere's a ton to be read about comics and education specifically - from McCloud's work and Madden and Abel's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, to a new line of texts on using comics in the classroom—notably Ms. Bakis's work, as well James Bucky Carter, The Comic Book Project, and many more. In addition, there are online communities galore sharing resources for how to understand and teach with comics. I’ve posted a lot of resources on my comics class wiki site, and I definitely recommend looking into and joining Ryan Goble's Making Curriculum Pop Ning - the graphic novels section where pros, authors, and teachers all in one group share resources. Good place to start digging for information to get you more informed.

What else would you like to share with publishers, educators, or comics fans?

Comics are a funny case of a medium saddled with an inadequate name and then just as the form is emerging in full force alongside the superhero a genre ended up hijacking and eclipsing the medium. We're in a place now where that view is shifting. Comics are clearly being seen as valuable narrative stuff and as a useful means in education for helping reluctant readers and aiding in literacy as well as transcending literacy barriers altogether (see for example, The Comic Book Project (which came out of Teachers College) and World Comics Finland. I believe these are important uses for comics, but they are a unique and essential medium in their own right, and some would argue (myself included) a visual language that emerged before textual writing in our history. So in some sense, comics aren’t a new thing, but a return to a unity of picture and words that we left behind and perhaps lost something in the process.

I believe, just as we are committed to literacy, we should consider visual literacy along similar lines. Not so that everyone can be a Picasso, no more than everyone should be a Hemingway from learning to write,  but so that people can express themselves and have access to an important thinking tool in our creative arsenal. I encourage publishers and educators to take comics seriously as being a vital mean of expression and thought. And maybe fans too - not to see comics as a hobby on the side, but a legitimate form for discourse that they were onto all along.