A&H Alumnus Nick Sousanis on TC, Alternative Scholarship, and Serious Educational Comics


Nick Sousanis at Book Beat in Detroit, photo by Patty McCormick.

by Tim Ignaffo

Comics artist and educator Nick Sousanis is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies at the University of Calgary. He received his doctorate in education from the English and English Education program in 2014, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comic book form. Titled Unflattening, it argues for the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning, and it is now a book from Harvard University Press. www.spinweaveandcut.com

Nick will be presenting a Book Talk on Unflattening on 9/21, 4-5:30pm, at TC.

What was your experience before coming to TC?  

Prior to coming to TC, I was heavily involved in the arts in Detroit. I ran a web-magazine about arts and culture, chaired a non-profit arts organization, and was the director of the University of Michigan’s exhibition space in Detroit. The arts community there, to say the very least, was quite dear to me. I also taught public speaking and writing courses at Wayne State University in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department (through which I had also received a masters degree). Watching students grow leaps and bounds, in the speech course in particular, was a tremendously moving experience. I learned so much about what learning looks like. In the midst of all these things, my comics practice, which had been more or less been something I did on the side since I’d graduated high school (where I made/published my own superhero/humor comic for many years), was reawakened initially by an invitation to participate in a political art show in Detroit. The two pieces I made for that event opened up new possibilities for me in terms of what kinds of things I could do with comics. Shortly after that, I created the exhibition essay for a show we put on about games, art, and education entirely in comics form. It was a relatively long and very heavily researched piece, where I delved deeply into the history of games, theory behind their workings, and brought the comic to a close making the connection to how we could think about games in terms of our lives. This was a serious educational comic – that was dense and complex, but playful and accessible at the same time.

What brought you to TC? What made you decide to pursue a doctoral degree? What made you want to become a Professor?

When my wife-to-be ended up in New York City, she asked me to join her there. In considering this big leap, I looked at all that I was doing (including my tennis teaching, which I’d done steadily since I stopped competing a decade or so prior), and saw that even though it may not have fit some people’s definitions of schooling – it was all tied together by an educational thread. I loved being in the classroom, and knew all too well that adjuncting was not a sustainable situation. So I reached out to a friend/mentor of mine, Fred Goodman, professor emeritus from the University of Michigan – we had worked on the games exhibition and other projects together — and asked him if he knew anyone doing anything interesting around education in NYC. He suggested I connect with his former student Ryan Goble, who was in the interdisciplinary studies program at TC, doing work with pop culture in the classroom, and he was also the organizer of the Teach Think Play conference that used to take place there. Ryan and I hit it off. TC sounded like a place I could combine my interests in education, arts, and comic books, so he connected me with his advisors. I met with them, including Ruth Vinz who would go on to be my primary advisory and staunch supporter over the entire journey. I shared my games comic as part of my application, along with my intent to do my work in comics. I confess, I knew almost nothing about TC when I applied, it just seemed like a place that would support me to do the kind of work I wanted to do.

A page from Chapter 3 of Nick Sousanis' dissertation.

A page from Chapter 3 of Nick Sousanis’ dissertation.

Tell us about your doctoral research? What made you want to write a graphic dissertation?

The work I’d done prior to coming to TC pointed to the educational potential of comics, and drawing and writing interchangeably in the way that comics allow suits me well as a way to do my thinking. Because of my experience as a maker and familiarity with smart works in comics – Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, to name just a few – I didn’t see doing my work in comics form as much of a big deal. Given the increasing integration of comics into all sorts of classrooms, this seemed like a small extension of that trend. Furthermore, while I have always enjoyed what I have taken from academia, I’ve also found myself frustrated that the vast body of knowledge created there tends to stay sequestered within its halls. With comics, I saw a way to take the kind of deeply involved thinking outside the academy and share it with a broader public. And this didn’t have to mean simplifying it or dumbing it down, rather with comics, I could make the work both accessible and richly complex through the visual.

Of course, in actually setting out to do the dissertation, I became aware rather quickly that this was far from the norm. And so my work became very consciously political, and as it developed, it became an argument for itself through its form and a metaphorical argument for the need to expand what learning looks like and the very forms it can take. As my work began to get attention, which actually began before I’d drawn anything of the actual dissertation, I became aware that this attention upped the ante in ways I hadn’t thought about. I felt if the work shined, it could help other people go down their own paths. But if it fell flat (no pun intended), it might be a setback for other projects. I’m not one for shortcuts to begin with, but if I were, I knew that this couldn’t afford any such thing. Every aspect of it had to be as considered as I could possibly make it.

What was your hope for the project?

I think my hopes evolved as the work went along. Initially, it was just to study something that felt important to me around education and to do so in comics, so I could share it broadly. As the focus turned more political, I wanted to see this have some kind of impact in terms of what was acceptable and that while mine might be a novelty, the next one wouldn’t be. That is, this argument wouldn’t have to be made again – and instead the criteria would be around quality and what the author had to say with the work and how well they used the form, but not the form itself. I’ve been fortunate from fairly early on to be involved in a number of conversations around alternative scholarship – usually with folks from Digital Humanities, where a lot of activity on this front is going on. I feel like these sorts of conversations are growing and happening in more places with greater frequency.  

Who were the people that most inspired you?

In terms of comics, certainly Scott McCloud. His comic Understanding Comics had a tremendous impact on me and really opened up the possibilities for what comics could be and what types of subject matter they could address. In an early research course at TC, Professor Vinz had everyone choose a researcher to shadow and consider their methods in terms of our own. I chose comics author Alan Moore, and deeply explored how he constructed meaning through the use of the form. I’ve studied and learned from many authors/artists in comics, but probably these two stand out most prominently.

All my work is driven by this deep appreciation for how capable humans are, coupled with some sadness for how we may fall short – and not explore the possibilities of what we could be. Very much Unflattening was trying to get at that, and I think the people who inspire me demonstrate that in how they live. Back in Detroit, I was the biographer of the legendary artist Charles McGee – who I first met just before he turned 80, and yet he possesses this boundless energy and vital spirit as of a child. He’s been constantly reinventing himself and always asking questions. Meeting Maxine Greene felt like that same kind of energy – a whirling dervish of curiosity. I think we recognize it in people who have it, but how do we cultivate it? I want to ask through my work how we can educate and keep that same sort of wide-eyed openness that we had when we first entered the world. My daughter was born just weeks before I finished the dissertation, and her presence is anticipated in the work (in fact my notes from three years prior show my final image, a newborn’s eyes looking out at the world). I was inspired to make something that preserved possibilities for this potential child, in a way that I feel I had the great fortune to have parents who helped me see and keep my eyes open through their own example and support.

Cover of Unflattening (Harvard UP, 2015)

Cover of Unflattening (Harvard UP, 2015)

Unflattening has received tremendously positive press. How does it feel to have your work recognized and celebrated? What are your next goals?

Response to it has far surpassed my expectations, which is fun. After working on my own on it for so long, it’s a good feeling to know it connected with other people. Even though there was great interest before, that was mostly for the novelty of it – very little of that was due to the strength of the work itself. Now that it’s been seen and people have read it – to have readers and reviewers come across it and have it really resonated with them in a meaningful way, means a ton to me. I’m particularly excited that it has come from such diverse quarters – those interested in science, comics, education, literature – it’s a book that is difficult to classify, as has been its readership. I’m most thrilled to see it in use in classes already, and that students are taking it as a jumping off point to make their own explorations. The fact that it came out of TC/CU and the book version from Harvard, I think helps give license to other programs to begin to flex their existing institutional boundaries. And I’m encouraged to have already seen examples of this happening.

As far as next steps – I want to make more work, make it better, push more on the boundaries between scholarship and art, blurring them to a degree as to make works that belong equally in both camps. I want to help other people find ways to do work in comics and other alternative scholarship – and help this broader idea along so that perhaps we’re no longer talking about them as alternatives, rather just one of a slate of options available to all. I’ve got a postdoc now at the University of Calgary to work on such things, and one hopes the book will help land a more permanent place to do this sort of work and educate.

You worked with both Maxine Greene and Frank Moretti. How was it working with them?

I feel beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity. I moved to New York the spring before I started school in 2008, and happened upon Maxine’s talk for her 90th birthday. That was my first experience with her, and I was so struck by her energy that I knew I had to take her class! I ended up doing so that first semester, and made a comic book about her, for her. That piece sparked a conversation between us that went on for the next six years. I would always go visit when I had new pieces or pages to share, and she pored over the work – it was such a delight. I had my defense, which would be her last, in her living room where I’d had that first class with her. At the end of the defense, my wife brought our then three week old daughter to visit. Maxine at 96 had the same sort of wide eyes for life as our newborn – it was a delightful encounter – and I am so grateful that my daughter got to meet this grand woman. Even though she won’t remember, I will, and will tell her about Maxine as she gets older. I had started a comic with Maxine about the tree outside her window, and it never got far. But upon her passing, her assistant and my classmate, Daiyu Suzuki, and I collaborated on that piece, and it is due out in the TC Record in the fall I believe.

I had several classes with Frank, and those he co-taught with Robbie McClintock, who became one of my advisors. They taught from such a place of humanity – I’m not sure I know how to articulate it properly. The experience of reading along and learning with them exhibited such a great sense of care for what it means to be human and to think about the conditions we find ourselves in, and consider ways to alter them. It was a really vital and lasting experience on my thinking. To me, Frank always felt a bit like a bear – a little gruff maybe, but also this incredibly warm and caring man that I’m so grateful to have worked with. He drew so many people to him and to the projects he championed. Amazing presence. His passing leaves a big hole on the TC community.

Listen to Nick Sousanis discuss visual thinking in teaching and learning on BlogTalkRadio’s Creativity in Play podcast. 

All images courtesy of Nick Sousanis.