Courtesy Nick Sousanis

University of Calgary researcher mixes comic books and academic thought

By Rachel Woodward, May 28 2015 —

Most students view their dissertation as little more than a lengthy paper or research project standing in the way of graduating. The opposite is true for Nick Sousanis, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Calgary who wrote his entire thesis in comic-book form.

The dissertation Sousanis wrote at Columbia University, Unflattening, is being published by Harvard University Press. The book, which argues for the “importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning,” is the first doctoral dissertation ever presented as a comic. Sousanis says working in the medium was an easy choice.

“I make comics. I make educational ones that do complex, sophisticated thinking, but I can also make them accessible. So [when I wrote] my doctorate,  I wanted it to be something people read,” Sousanis says. “I wanted to take advantage of what I think is my best way of thinking, which is through comics.”

Sousanis says he didn’t expect the book to have such a large impact, but is glad his work is helping to change ideas about what a dissertation looks like.

“It’s not until I got into school and [Unflattening] started to make some waves and people started questioning it that I realized that this was a political act. We are reconfiguring what scholarship looks like,” Sousanis says.

Sousanis wants Unflattening to show that not every learner is able to make connections in the same way, especially in the classroom. With a comic-book format, Sousanis uses movement to express concepts otherwise difficult to explain in words.

“I can draw a slumped-over figure and you read lots of information in it instead of me writing ‘there was a sad man.’ The visual way that you organize space allows for a lot of different ways to convey stories and ideas,” says Sousanis.

Sousanis’s post-doctoral research at the U of C is being done with English professor Bart Beaty, who recently wrote a book examining how children’s media, like the Archie comics, deals with social issues.

Sousanis will be teaching ENGL 517 in the fall semester. The class is called Comics as a Way of Thinking and will discuss the influence comic books have on teaching and everyday life.

“We’ll make comics, think about how you organize ideas in the spatial way that comics allow and how they can facilitate new ways of expressing yourself,” Sousanis says. “It’ll give an insight into [student’s] own thinking and their own ways of working.”

For more information on Nick Sousanis’ book Unflattening, visit spinweaveandcut.com

Note: The original version of this story mistakenly referred to Nick Sousanis’ book as Unflattened. We apologize to our readers for this error.

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