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Over the moon: reimagining knowledge creation (a dissertation in comics form)

Over the moon: reimagining knowledge creation (a dissertation in comics form)

(post authored by Nick Sousanis & Brooke Sheridan)

Challenging the very look and form of scholarship wasn’t my primary intent from the outset. The comics I produced prior to coming to Teachers College pointed to the idea that I could create comics for powerful impact in educational contexts and simply put, that was work I wanted to do. It was not until I was deeper into the process that the political implications within academia became more apparent. In my proposal hearing, some of my colleagues expressed concern, cautiously suggesting I consider doing half of it more traditionally to “explain” what I was doing and why I was doing it in comics. At that point, I’d realized that either this work could stand on its own or it couldn’t. If I was going to do it, I had to commit to arguing for its very legitimacy within the work itself and fully embrace the challenge I was putting forth to long-held traditions (and fortunately I have a committee who recognize the need for new approaches).

As word of this work has been getting out, I’ve been pleased and emboldened with the enthusiastic response it has garnered. The more I connect with people through the work, the more I find how hungry they are to see the boundaries of legitimate scholarship pushed on in ways that consider means beyond the verbal-linguistic. This has been denied for too long. Working in comics enables me to see possibilities I might otherwise be blind to by more traditional means – and I believe the same expansive means of seeing extends to the range of modalities through which people explore and express. Why shouldn’t we be able to bring our whole selves to a discussion? And as we consider this within the realm of learning, shouldn’t we approach teaching from a way that considers the whole selves of the learners?

This brings me to Brooke Sheridan. I was thrilled to learn of the podcast that she and her colleague Chris Malmberg, professors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, made around my work titled “Why Can’t My Dissertation Have Pictures Too?” It’s a thoughtful and deeply considered conversation that I found extremely insightful. I’m grateful to have this outside vantage point from which to help me better understand my own work and consider its broader implications within academia. Brooke, Chris, and I have since connected, and Brooke joins me here….

Brooke: I’ve come to feel that, as far as the humanities go, much of the way we approach scholarship comes from the way we approach writing. That approach can be pretty formulaic (the five-paragraph essay many students are yoked with in high school, for example) and therefore not terribly conducive to the generation of new knowledge. The approach is linear, assuming there is no place for the organic or intuitive in academia, and students must get on the track that starts with grammar training, sentence structure, thesis building, research practices, and first-next-then-and-in-conclusions.

Robert Brooke states: “Writing, in the rich sense of interactive knowledge creation… necessarily involves standing outside of roles and beliefs offered by a social situation – it involves questioning them, searching for new connections, building ideas that may be in conflict with accepted ways of thinking and acting…it involves living in conflict with accepted (expected) thought and action.” This “interactive knowledge creation” is why we (ideally) engage in the collaborative scholarship of the classroom, physical or virtual, and why we don’t just give up after we read the umpteenth paper on the subject about which we thought we were saying something new – it’s impossible that’s it’s all been said, because we by no means have exhausted the ways of saying, of seeing, of meaning-making.

That’s why I was over the moon to stumble on Nick Sousanis’s comic-as-dissertation – I’m an advocate for students demonstrating their learning via different kinds of “projects,” and not just “papers.” The essential role of images in Nick’s project demands a different type of attention from the creator and from the consumer, which in turn will create a different, hopefully new type of discourse.  A lot of us grew comfortable, or at least conversant, with the essay – and I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s obsolete – but there will always be students for whom the traditional essay is a limiting factor in developing their scholarship. It’s the work of these students I’m most curious to see.

We invite you to check out the conversation on the podcast and welcome you to join us in continuing the conversation on this forum. – Nick and Brooke

December 5, 2012

Listen to the conversation here

Samples of Nick’s dissertation in progress, interviews, and more here:

Brooke’s reflections on instructional design, composition, and challenging educational forms can be found here:

In the podcast, Brooke and Chris discuss the page below from piece The Shape of Our Thoughts. I've posted sketches that led to its creation on my site here.




Since we posted this, Brooke, Chris, and I had a lengthy conversation over skype. That'll be edited into a forthcoming podcast by Chris, but in the meantime Brooke wrote and drew her reflections on the conversation, and took up in part, a comics-making exercise i do with students and in public talks to get people thinking deeply about what it means to construct their thoughts in space. Anyhow, Brooke's post is here, and continues to grow this conversation... - Nick 


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