The Dissertation Shared Round the World

| December 19, 2016

TC alum Nick Sousanis wrote the dissertation that has everyone at TC talking. Why? It was written as a graphic novel. Read the following excerpt from an interview Nick had for the site Confessions of an Aca-Fan where he discusses why he chose the graphic novel form and how academic dissertations can reach a broader audience. Check out Nick’s dissertation, called Unflattening, on Amazon here,  or read more about the project on his personal website.

“You’ve said in a number of interviews that you wanted to use Unflattening to help broaden the circuits through which academic ideas travel, so that these conversations were able to reach people who would not otherwise encounter scholarly or philosophical works. What is it about comics which seems to open up those possibilities and based on what you’ve observed so far about your book’s reception, have you found a general reading public ready to think of these levels? Does this link your book to other contemporary projects, such as work to convert ideas about film analysis into videos that circulate on YouTube?

Certainly comics offer the appearance of approachability. Pictures are inviting and the prevailing attitude around comics are that they’re easy. I see this as a means to subvert expectations – you pick up one of my comics assuming it will be simple and light, and yet because of how much information can be conveyed through images, through page composition, and through the interaction between image and text, they can be deceptively complex. While the title “Unflattening” must seem like it came about as a reference to Flatland or Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, works I do draw on heavily, it actually came to me as a way to describe what comics could do, and how they could fit more density of information than seems possible in a small space and offer an expansive dimension for communicating ideas. It was only as I got deeper into my work that the notion of unflattening merged with the broader philosophical concerns I was after. The inclusion of Flatland at all was almost an afterthought, because I figured given the title I should do something with it, and then it ended up becoming a central metaphor!

In addition to blogging my work as I went, all through my doctoral program, I printed up and gave away excerpts of it to anyone I encountered long enough to have a conversation about what I do. People read it. And they got it. And that has continued. I’m thinking I couldn’t have done the same thing with a more traditionally formatted scholarly article! (The looks I would’ve gotten handing out a typed paper with APA formatting on it…)

But again, that doesn’t mean any of this was simplified. I made a conscious choice early on to not use domain specific terms or what felt like loaded language, and keep the work deeply in the realm of metaphor. This to me was a way to make it more accessible while maintaining depth of content. It was not about dumbing down but providing a means for readers to come up and find their own way into the work. And again, I’ve seen that happen.

And now that the book is out, I’ve had the curious experience of having people tweet me pictures of their children – one as young as six – reading it! That caught me by surprise. I expected it to be read by advanced high school readers and upward (and along with college and graduate courses, it is already being used in high school situations). But I think this speaks to the ways that we can read images – even when the words aren’t yet in our vocabulary.

I have seen my work listed alongside the “dance your dissertation” and other such phenomenon of academia made fun or easy. I like these – anything that communicates the ideas to broader audiences seems positive to me. But it was central to me that the work be the work – not some watered down version of the real thing. If the means of communication are truly up to the task – as I was certain that comics were – then it’s essential to let them stand on their own.”