Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Amazing Adventures of the Comic-Book Dissertator

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, Nick Sousanis likes to joke, his dissertation has exceeded the standard length and then some.

Sousanis, a sixth-year doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary studies at Columbia University’s Teachers College, gets to deliver that line a lot. He is, after all, doing something pretty gutsy with his academic opus: completing the whole thing in comic-book form.

A quick glance at his dissertation—“Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry Into Learning in Many Dimensions”—makes clear that it’s a stark deviation from the traditional, oft-expected monograph. Flip to one page, and you’ll find a series of intricately drawn eyeballs interspersed with a quote from Mikhail Bakhtin about “our own monolithic and closed world.” Turn to another, and you’ll see a rendering of a human face, slightly submerged in water, alongside several notes about the concept of immersion.

“Text is powerful and useful,” Sousanis says, “and it shouldn’t be thrown away because someone did something with comics. But why are we privileging one form over the others?”

It’s a question more and more academics are asking. As digital projects become more prevalent and as more scholars brainstorm ways to make graduate work user-friendly and widely accessible, it’s clear that doctoral study is evolving. At the center of that change is the dissertation.

Sousanis’ work is just one example of this evolution, says Sidonie Smith, director of the Institute for the Humanities at University of Michigan, who is a former president of the Modern Language Association. Smith has also seen dissertations presented as series of articles, as public blogs, and as interactive digital projects, to name a few.

“‘One size fits all’ is no longer a tenable model,” Smith says. “We had a system for long time where there were two modes of communication: the book and the article. Now, all these changes are coming about. We ask, ‘What is the best form for what I’m trying to get at here? For the intervention I want to make? For the shape of the project?’ That serves the people better.”

But does it serve the scholars themselves? That remains to be seen. To some academics, alternative dissertations can seem innovative; to others, they can seem unserious. A comic-book dissertation might sound fun, but preparing to defend the thing? That can make extra work for the author and the advisors, as Sousanis can attest.

A Project of Comic Proportions

Sousanis’ relationship with comics has been a long one. He doodled as a child; developed his first superhero comic, “Lockerman,” in junior high; and continued serializing that character’s adventures through the end of high school. In college, he dabbled in a few side projects. But he didn’t get serious about the artform until after college, when he found himself running an arts-and-culture webzine in Detroit.

During his time there he participated in several art shows using comic work. For one exhibition—on games as art—Sousanis wrote an essay, in comic form, about the history and philosophy of gaming.

“If there was an ‘aha moment,’ it was having made this piece,” he says. “It really demonstrated that I could reach a wide audience and still convey deep concepts.”

When he arrived at Columbia, he shared the piece on games and suggested to his advisors that he could do the same type of work with a focus on education. Thus his unorthodox dissertation came alive.

The work is now in its final stages, and the medium is a huge part of the message. Sousanis argues that, by interweaving visual and textual elements, comics open up avenues for creating and learning that aren’t possible through writing alone. The dissertation comprises a series of chapters, each representing a different dimension of learning.

When discussing perception beyond the visual sense, for example, Sousanis depicts his dog, Sledge, navigating deep woods in the darkness. The dog uses many modes of perception to experience the world—incredible hearing, night vision, a strong sense of smell, and an acute concept of time. In doing so, Sousanis writes, the dog accesses dimensions of experience that humans can’t fathom. In other words: Perception and thinking come in many forms.

“We make sense of the world beyond text,” he says. “The visual system is really powerful. I don’t think of this work as illustration. Rather than illustrating things, the images and the composition are the thinking.”

An Advising ‘Rabbit Hole’

“So how did I get away with it?” he asks, laughing. “I didn’t think that it was that big of a deal. You can be just as smart with a comic.”

Still, he had to make a convincing case for a nontraditional format. “My approach was ‘Why not?’ Then I realized part of the dissertation also had to be ‘Why?’ I had to show why comics do what they do.”

His advisors, all new to comics, bought in. “I’m of a generation where ‘comic’ means Superman,” says Robbie McClintock, one of those advisors and an emeritus professor of the historical and philosophical foundations of education. “But his work as an artist is reflective of visual thinking. The images that he’s constructing, his artwork, fits very well with the intentions of his dissertation.”

It’s one thing to sign off on the concept; it’s another thing to shepherd it to a successful defense. The advisors, just like the author, were in uncharted territory. Ruth Vinz, Sousanis’ primary advisor and the chair of the arts and humanities department, admits that she wasn’t initially sure how much help she’d be able to provide.

In the early stages, advisor and student met regularly, and Sousanis guided Vinz through his frames. They discussed where the sketches might lead, which concepts he was trying to demonstrate, and which parts of the process he had yet to understand. “These were conversations around little lines and squiggles, sometimes,” Vinz says.

Other times, Sousanis brought in pages, and he and Vinz just talked about them. Over time, Vinz says, she became a better reader of his work.

“It’s a bit like reading a poet that you haven’t managed to get to know beyond the obvious words,” Vinz says. “One day, you suddenly fall like Alice through the rabbit hole, and this completely different way of seeing and understanding the medium in front of you opens up.”

Between the steep learning curve and the detailed discussions of how image and text interact, the project has been time-consuming for both advisors. Though comics are generally thought to be quick reads, McClintock says that Sousanis’ work actually takes more time and analysis than most traditional dissertations.

Sousanis continues to send his committee progress reports, and they provide feedback on both the visual and textual aspects of the comic. There have been few major revisions so far. McClintock says he expects that Sousanis will be well-prepared to defend.

Sousanis is hoping the defense will come in late April. He’s just shy of 100 pages, with a final target of 120.

After all these years, he says, he’s confident about his work. But he admits that he’s had to overcome his own hesitations about whether the comic form would count and whether he should include a larger text component. But, he says: “I felt I shouldn’t hedge.”

“If I was going to argue that this is relevant,” he says, “I had to jump in all the way.”

Meeting Halfway

Other students who are taking on alternative dissertations are a bit more cautious. Dani Spinosa, a fifth-year doctoral student in the department of English at York University, is writing her dissertation on a publicly available blog. But for her defense, she’ll be turning her blog posts into a monograph.

“That wasn’t totally my decision,” Spinosa says. She had the blessing of her immediate advisors to defend her work in blog form. But others were less enthused. “Chairs and the head of the graduate department said a blog is not a dissertation. The print version is halfway between what the department wanted and what I was willing to give.”

But creating the print version means double the work. In addition to publishing to her research to the blog, she is editing and reworking the posts to recast them as cohesive book chapters. She is also incorporating comments from the blog into the print version, turning them into footnotes.

“What I’ve edited so far still retains some of the fragmentation of the individual posts, which I like,” she says. “I don’t want the process to be a distant past when I defend the print version.”

So why publish the dissertation online when you know it won’t be evaluated that way? Spinosa says she’s doing so because the blog format fits her dissertation topic. Her work, which focuses on the texts of 11 poets, seeks to reconcile political philosophies of post-anarchism and adapt them into a literary theory of reading and actively engaging with the texts.

“My work complicates this issue of authorship, the supposed authority of the author of a text,” she explains. “The whole point of the dissertation is to signal that authority of the writer and break that down. The idea of authority of ridiculous. It’s all a communal process, all copying someone else.”

Every Tuesday she publishes a piece of her dissertation and offers it up for anyone to read and critique. “What everyone is seeing is a first draft,” she says. “I’m exposing that not only to my committee, but to everyone. There’s a pressure to write usable, publishable content every week.”

Andy Weaver, Spinosa’s primary advisor and an associate professor in the department of English at York, is her most faithful reader. He checks out each of the weekly posts and offers comments.

This is the first dissertation of this type he has supervised, he says, and he was both “intrigued and hesitant” when the idea was proposed. Though he believes the quality of a dissertation is more important than the form, he says, he worries that some of the scholars who could one day give Spinosa a job might not be as open to the medium.

“As far as I know, my colleagues have been supportive of Dani’s blog dissertation,” he says. “The only concern I’ve heard from colleagues is that nontraditional blogs can sometimes be overlooked by hiring committees. On the other hand, some hiring committees are intrigued by nontraditional dissertations, since it shows an ability to think creatively and independently.”

‘A Double-Edged Sword’

The job market is a concern for both Sousanis and Spinosa. While they hope they will stand out for their creativity, they also worry that their outside-the-box approaches could hinder their chances of getting hired.

“This might make me seem cutting-edge,” Spinosa says, “but it could also hurt me in some ways. People might not think this is adequate. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Sousanis agrees. There’s a lot of interest in alternative dissertation models, he says, but “I’m not sure if there are homes for us yet.”

Smith, a former liaison for the MLA’s Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, said these are “legitimate concerns.” “We’re in this moment of change,” she says, “but we’re at the early part of this.”

There are still many hiring committees that may consider a deviation from the standard model “an erosion of tradition,” she says. “My prediction is in another couple decades, there will be a lot of different forms, a lot more collaboration.”

Until then, students who take on alternative dissertations, as well as those who go the traditional route, need to articulate the quality of the research, not the form.

For Sousanis, though, form and quality go hand in hand. “I can say this about my work: my comics are smarter than I am and smarter than I would be in just text,” he says.

And even if the format doesn’t score extra points with his dissertation committee, it might help him start a few conversations. “I hand this out to people on the street,” he says of the comic book. Between that and the blog, he says, “people around the world are reading a doctoral dissertation, and that’s really exciting.”

Below: Images from Nick Sousanis's dissertation in progress. All images courtesy of Nick Sousanis.

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