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 at Teachers College, Columbia University 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. He has spoken on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at institutions including Stanford, Harvard, and Microsoft Research, and his comics art has been on exhibit in the Netherlands and Russia. In addition to Unflattening, his other comics have appeared in numerous scholarly publications, The Boston Globe, and most recently the journal Nature. More at www.spinweaveandcut.com
How did your educational trajectory and past professional experience shape your current work?
My educational trajectory has been circuitous. I studied mathematics as an undergraduate. When I finished, I spent the next several years traveling on the bottom rung of the professional tennis tour. After I stopped competing, I taught tennis (and would continue to do so all the way through my doctoral program) and then a couple of years later decided to go back to school. I enrolled at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit thinking that I would continue on with mathematics. I planned to take a course or two to get back into things before going on to a doctoral program. But, I saw that WSU had a good art program, and although I’d made my own comic in high school and been involved in other art-making my whole life, I hadn’t really taken devoted art classes. So I decided rather spur of the moment—why not?—and dove into mathematics and art classes. I ended up in an interdisciplinary studies program where I drew together both fields to do a thesis on creativity. At the same time, because I was taking so many art classes, some of my professors asked why I wasn’t in their program, so I decided to do that too and ended up getting a second masters in art simultaneously. Shortly before I finished at Wayne (I finished the interdisciplinary degree a semester before the arts one), my brother, who was working as a theater critic for a Detroit paper at that time, came up with the idea of starting an arts and culture web-magazine and suggested that I write art reviews to go along with online versions of his theater reviews. Again, I figured—why not—and dove in headfirst. Writing reviews, interviewing artists, and running the magazine would consume me over the next six years as I was so taken by all that was going on around the arts in Detroit. This work in the arts also led to me chairing a non-profit arts organization and later becoming the initial director of the University of Michigan’s Detroit exhibition space. In both the writing and exhibition work, I saw my purpose as educational, trying to bridge the gap between the work artists do and the general public.
Through all of this I was teaching tennis—which for me has always been an opportunity to really think about how people learn and push myself to be imaginative in finding ways to reach each person uniquely. I was constantly inventing new analogies to get ideas across and I love the psychology of the interaction with people. Each student taught me so much about teaching. My other teaching opportunity came out of the blue. Two weeks before the start of semester, I was invited to teach public speaking back at Wayne State—and once again, I jumped at the opportunity despite no particular experience or training in such things. I ended up teaching this and later some writing courses for several years, all in Wayne State’s now, sadly, defunct Interdisciplinary Studies department. It turned out to be a transformative experience for me and I feel it set the tone for all my teaching going forward. Each term, I had this amazing mix of students in terms of life experience—students from the city, from the suburbs, true freshman and a few grandmothers. I organized the courses around the premise that they all had something to say and that through their voice, they could make a difference. And then, for the most part, I turned the course over to them. I ended up sitting in the back of the classroom the majority of the time as they each taught the class. This course really taught me how much each person comes into the classroom with and how much they can bring to the table. We think so often we need to fill them up, but that discounts how much we need to learn to listen. I’m not equating the two, but I see a similar thing raising a toddler. I’m not teaching my daughter, I’m trying to keep up with her and always searching for ways to help support her own learning.
On the comics making front, while I had produced my own ongoing comic all through high school, from college onward, that practice mostly stayed in the background. It wasn’t until I was invited to be in a political art show in Detroit around the 2004 election that comics started to return to the foreground. For that exhibition, I ended up making two short comics and those pieces propelled me back into making comics and more importantly helped me recognize the educational potential comics offered. Shortly thereafter, I created an essay in comics form for an exhibition on games that I helped organize. And it would be that piece that I would use as part of my admissions interview materials to come to Teachers College.
These may all seem like eclectic pursuits, but I saw the common thread linking all these different roles as a deep concern for educating. From the tennis courts to the art gallery, from my writing to my classroom, I wanted to help people better understand themselves and how we might grow. The comics I make, including Unflattening, are all about perception, trying to offer different ways to look at ourselves and our own thinking. This is what I’d been doing all along—and in comics, I’d found a natural extension of that in a form that really let me bring my whole self to the conversation. At the same time comics offered an accessibility, a way to reach across the public-academic divide that had always made me uncomfortable and draw more people into important conversations.
How do you hope your work will change the learning landscape?
I’d like to see the idea of what scholarship can be and what counts as learning expanded and made more inclusive of the diverse ways people make meaning. Certainly I’d like to see the idea of a dissertation in comics form as not so out-of-the-ordinary accomplishment, and even more so, that comics become but a single option among many that people can choose from and invent to best express their learning.
What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
It’s a funny thing—I feel like every few months I read an article about the importance of play in education. And I think, do we really have to learn this lesson yet again?! This keeps being true and yet institutions continue to maintain a system that ignores the complexity of who we are. So, I guess I’d like to see some of this being heeded. That the importance of play is recognized. That drawing is seen as an important literacy skill for everyone. And so on. I feel like the reception to my work here and in places as far off as Russia and Brazil points to the fact that people are hungry to shake this up, shake off a system set up to train factory workers. And that just maybe there will be enough projects out in the world that people can’t help but take notice and institutions will start to turn their big ships in new directions. But I can’t predict such things. Like I started my response here—we keep having to relearn the same lessons at least as far back as Dewey. When will they take hold?
What are you currently working on & what is your next big project?
Over the past few months I’ve contributed pieces to Nature and The Boston Globe where I presented complex science comics in a broadly accessible way. The Globe pieces have been large single page comics that have allowed me to play and really push on the poetics of the form, but still maintain the accuracy of the science. It’s a tricky dance that I really enjoy and I feel like the more I do, the more I understand where I want to go with the work. For the eight-page comic on climate change I did for Nature, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a seasoned science journalist, who brought a different perspective to the work. I was thrilled to contribute to such an important conversation and to see comics being used in this sort of forum. Next on my docket are some short collaborative pieces and I have a few directions in mind for a bigger project. Beyond saying that they’ll deal in some way with perception and learning, it’s a little too soon for me to say more.
I do have a Twitter account and I’ve been quite fascinated by the new kind of networks that are forged through platforms like Twitter—linking people together across the globe, a whole new set of associations that wouldn’t have been possible before. Learning to balance those possibilities without being swept away by the ceaseless stream of information is the trick!
Please see the following Vialogue to hear Nick talk about his creative process.
Image: Courtesy Eliza Lamb