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New forms of scholarship conversation

New forms of scholarship conversation

Several weeks back, the Chronicle of Higher Ed ran an interview on my in-progress comic book dissertation, which prompted a fair amount of conversation in the comments and elsewhere. Article and comments here. While the kudos were lovely, I was particularly interested in the singular voice of dissent – and that has prompted some thoughts I felt would be relevant to HASTAC discussions. “Chronanon” wrote, The best advice I got going into my doctoral program was that a dissertation is not your opportunity to do something new and exciting; it is your opportunity to complete a degree requirement.” The poster went on to caution me about all the things that could go wrong and turn out to be a roadblock for me, and then “Chronanon” added this final point:

Beyond the difficulties of getting the comic dissertation pushed through the system, there's also a huge missed opportunity.  One of the reasons you do a dissertation is to learn how to write a large scholarly monograph.  You're missing out on some important training. With as many obstacles as there are to completing a doctorate already, why would an advisor permit a student to go down this path?

In my response, I first acknowledged the poster’s cautions, and used this prompt as an opportunity to share some deeper explanations about WHY I’m doing what I’m doing that weren’t included in the very brief article:

Why can't images – and the comics medium's particular synthesis of image and words – be tools for thought to rival or accompany text? The dismissal of image as anything outside of aesthetics and spectacle goes back to Plato calling them "shadows of shadows" and that attitude persists. Yet, we make meaning in a range of ways beyond the verbal-linguistic (look at Arnheim, Gardner, among others). So instead of squelching that – let's tap into it, and find out what forms of understanding and discovery become possible. By no means won't this be a scholarly work – it just won't look like what we've come to expect. In my view, it's far more rich and expansive than what it I can accomplish in text along. To be sure, it'll take me a lot longer than a traditional scholarly monograph (though in chapter breakdowns, it'll resemble one to a large extent), and i suppose in taking this risk - there's added pressure. If it works – I hope it helps others push on some boundaries. If it flops (!) – I hope it's not a setback for anyone else... 

I closed by mentioning HASTAC and Imagining America – two organizations I’m pleased to have connected with in the past year, who support and foster this sort of work and are populated with people actively making changes within the academy. Subsequent commenters were more forceful in their counterargument to Chronanon…

A few weeks later, I presented on my work at AERA in Vancouver, in a session titled Disrupting Representations in Research, which included a diverse panel of researchers working in dance, film, and more. When it was over, a professor in the audience asked a question that suggested that in some ways I’m seeking to rebel against the system (this is not a word I used) and yet seeking legitimacy from that same system. It’s an interesting concern (and an interesting position to be in), and one I keep returning to in thinking about the Chronicle conversation. My answer to her was something like this – I’m excited about the conversation of ideas that happens in higher education and I believe strongly in the promise of what can come out of there. But at the same time, I believe those ideas need to reach our communities, need to be made accessible to all sorts of people who would benefit from them. Pushing on those boundaries invites other participants into the dialogue and allows for greater potential in the ways we make meaning – and I think this leads to stronger, more meaningful work.

All of this prompts a final thought – as these boundaries within academia open (as I believe they will), new questions are raised in order to ensure that new forms of scholarship have something going for them beyond novelty. Traditional criteria are more well-defined – one can check for proper margins, citation formatting, etc. But in choosing to walk the line between bridging scholarship and aesthetics – we are entering more uncertain terrain, developing tools for navigation as we go. I welcome thoughts from fellow travelers…

Nick Sousanis

(My comics work is all at Spin Weave and Cut and for a quick overview of what I’m up to in the dissertation, I created this visual-verbal version of the presentation I gave at HASTAC (!) back in December:



Thanks for sharing this, Nick. Just quickly, my own response to the question about "rebelling against the system yet seeking recognition from it" is often used to folks trying to make change within institutions, organizations, ideologies, or just regular old quotidian practices. This retort is basically premised on a false assumption that if you are not 110% thrilled with a given institution or set of practices, you have two choices: (1) Rebel and Leave, (2) Stay without complaint or without trying to change. Note: there is no real understanding of how to functionally stay and work to change that institution.

To be sure, sometimes there is no way to functionally change an entire ideology, and working to build an entire alternative would be the preferable political act. But that's not always practical, preferable, or even always the most admirable. Changing the institution from within can sometimes be the most radical option of all! 

Using comment such as those to really interrogate your own motivations is certainly an admirable and worthwhile practice. Critiques can be such useful interventions, and they can sometimes lead to great insights about your own decisions and intents. But beware of critics who want others to replicate their decisions in order to justify their own path. 

I just found your poster advertising your new class on "Understanding, Making and Teaching Comics: A Semester-long Course in Practice, Process and Pedagogy." I hope you don't mind me sharing the amazing poster here but I will remove if so. This looks like such a great class!

Can we look forward to some posts as you develop and teach the class? Insights from behind the scenes? Maybe a shared syllabus or a sample from it? Maybe your students can cross-post a post here too... we'd love to see their progression. What a great way to "rebel" against the system and help to build a better alternative :-)


Thanks, Nick. It was great to hear about your reflections on all of this (and great to hear about your own work!). I agree with Fiona. That comment ignores the fact that our institutions only stay relevant if they can respond to ongoing discourse in meaningful ways. You may want to know about the Journal for Artistic Research, which is a relatively new digital platform that can support you by offering peer-reviewed publication for such practices. There's a little more about it here.





Thanks for the comments and support, Fiona and Joey (and sorry for my delayed response...). 

Exactly - we can believe in the possibilities of education and higher Ed, without having to accept it as being finished. And in fact, I think the idea of something being finished is what leads to a lot of trouble in the first place - we stop questioning, stop challenging, stop thinking... So yes, i think there's a place for what I'm up to in higher ed, and grateful for the support of orgs like HASTAC that help make it possible - and since you mentioned it Fiona - the response to my class for teachers is further evidence that people are hungry for alternatives and new ways to reach their students. Thanks for posting the poster - the class just started last week, and yesterday they all shared what for almost all of them were the first comics they'd ever made. Some great stuff - and this is a class of primarily people who classify themselves as non-artists. But the lessons on thinking visually and in space, as opposed to in lines, work for all of us and i think facilitate our creative process. Let me check with them about posting and I'll think on what i can share on this forum going forward. 

And Joey, thanks for the recommendation for the J of Artistic Research. I'll explore further. Very cool. I've got a piece (on how comics work and facilitate the creative process) forthcoming in the journal of visual arts research - online on my site here

to be continued...



Nick, this sounds like a fascinating project, and I'm glad you're doing it! And I think that Fiona's comment about the change from within in is also especially pertinent. I'm curious to know more about the department you're in and how it's structured. Aside from the Chronicle article, have you encountered any kind of issues or resistance from your university?


Hi Anya, Thanks for your comment - i'm glad i'm doing it too! I'm in the school of education (Teachers College) at Columbia U, and I'm in interdisciplinary studies - which means i float between departments. My closest cohort and my primary advisor have been in English ed, but i also spend time in Art ed, philosophy, and others... I had a good sense of what i was up to before I applied, which i shared with professor Ruth Vinz, who would become my advisor. She and others were onboard and excited about the prospect of it (even though no one else is a comics person there), so in that regard, i didn't exactly spring this on anyone out of left field. Once i got to school, i started turning in assignments as comics and doing research on why this was legitimate - a way of educating my audience as i went about it. Response from profs/cohort continued to be positive, and in fact dr Vinz offered me the opportunity to create a comic to serve as the last chapter of her latest book on narrative inquiry. A great show of support that was further affirmed by faculty readers at other universities who hadn't been primed for it. 

There are some trivial limitations imposed by the university in terms of not being able to double-side it and restricting the margins, but these aren't things i can't work with. I think I hit just the right time and the right place to pull this off. I've since connected with other folks who'd like to do something similar, but they are running into walls with their faculty. I hope the existence of this work will help their case and those to come after... 

One more note - part of my goal in this work has always been to create something accessible - that could connect ideas from academia with a larger public. And i see this happening and am eager to continue to bridge these too long-divided realms. 

Thanks for the support! N