A couple of weeks back on Twitter, I tweeted about my mental health diagnosis and how I am currently pursuing a English Ph.D. on comics as a method to process trauma and negotiate marginalization. This tweet got hundreds of likes and caught me by utter surprise, because until recently, the only people following my academic rants on Twitter were my dissertation adviser and maybe three people from my grad school. Admittedly, this tweet was a part of a larger viral post about normalizing mental illness in academia, but I also happened to mention in this tweet I am writing my doctoral dissertation on trauma as a graphic memoir. The academic Twitterati were curious -- a dissertation in the form of a comic? Wow, they said. Show us, they said. So I showed them excerpts from my work, and they showered me with generous, overwhelming support. It was glorious.
In December 2019, when I defended my choice to write my dissertation as a graphic autoethnography (in simple terms, it is a long comic book that extensively talks about race, illness and sexuality from a personal perspective) to my committee at Stony Brook University, I was met with more support that I had anticipated. However, I never thought this enthusiastic show of support would extend beyond the confines of my exceptionally congenial department. I thought my choice was risky and most academics would not consider what I am doing as adequately scholarly. Over the past few weeks, the online academic community with their keenness for my research (my thanks to A. David Lewis, Bridget Marshall and Nick Miller, among others) proved me wrong.
In posting about my ongoing work on Twitter regularly, I have come across many others who are pursuing drawing as a method of research in their doctoral dissertations about trauma and illness, among other topics. In fact, graphic medicine, which makes use of comics in medical education and patient care, is now a prominent subfield in the medical humanities field. Through using the hashtag #graphicdissertation, I encountered John Pollard, a graduate student in clinical psychology, who is currently working on a dissertation that explores the use of sequential art in the practice of psychotherapy.
From my dissertation director, Lisa Diedrich, a disability studies scholar who coined the term “graphic analysis” (i.e., “a long and difficult therapeutic and creative process of doing and undoing the self in words and images”), I found out about visual ethnographer Ebony Flowers’s doctoral graphic dissertation, DrawBridge (2017). Ebony Flowers is also the author of HotComb (2019), an incisive graphic ethnography on the experiences of Black women and the relationship to their hair. Recently, at the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference in Boston, I met Dawn K. Wing, whose work visually illustrates the life stories of two historical Chinese American women, Tien Fu Wu and Tye Leung Schilze, who were translators for justice during the early 20th century.
Through the generosity of academic Twitter, I also came across Meghan Parker’s master’s thesis "Art Teacher in Process" (2018) -- a graphic narrative that focuses on the use of art in education. Then there is of course, the inimitable Nick Sousanis, whose work Unflattening (2015) started as a doctoral dissertation at Teachers’ College, Columbia, got published by Harvard University Press, got nominated for the Eisner award, won the Lynd War and went on to inspire a new but steadily growing generation of multimodal visually experiential dissertations.
Personally, I made the switch from purely textual to multimodal forms of scholarship because I was perturbed by the inaccessibility of academic writing. When I initially started thinking about my dissertation, I was concerned with how formal aspects of comics enable nonreductionist representation of marginalized identities and how they subvert mainstream representations of illness, migration and sexuality. I was writing extensively in an academic capacity about how autocomics deliver an insight into the actual lives of the marginalized through intimate life narratives, instead of relying on spectacles or caricatures often seen in media or impersonal studies, as seen in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir and Amruta Patil’s Kari, among others.
However, the more I thought about how comics accommodate narratives by people who have been historically pushed to the margins, how they help readers overcome social biases about gendered/racial/cultural Others, the more I was compelled to think about modes of production. Primarily, if I am concerned with comics’ appeal to social justice, I need to ask questions about accessibility: Who is my audience? If I seek to address people beyond the confines of academia, the people who share the marginalized position/s my work is predominantly concerned with, how can I readjust or tailor my work to appeal to them? These questions led me to comics -- as a medium as well as a method -- to address issues of accessibility of academic discourses, as well as to push the boundaries of visual art-based research in addressing social inequities.
The traditional doctoral dissertation ideally turned into academic monographs that played a significant role in securing tenure. However, nothing is traditional about academia anymore. The job market has been shrinking consistently over the past few years, ensuring that a sizable percentage of doctoral scholars will never have a shot at tenure-track positions. Echoing Sara Ahmed, albeit in a different context, "What’s the use," then? What is the use of sticking to a model of discourse that was made for a different time? Humanities Ph.D. candidates across the United States spend anywhere between three and seven years (or more) on their doctoral dissertations. Considering the sheer enormity of time and effort that goes into it, should we not aim for our dissertations to have a life beyond the doctoral defense?
My wonderful adviser once told me that it is always graduate students who take the most risks and, as a result, often do the most cutting-edge work. Maybe it is time we reimagine dissertations and as well as what counts as scholarship. Instead of focusing on what has always been the norm, perhaps it would be more conducive to focus on the usefulness of the work we produce. By usefulness, I do not just mean whether it is useful to the academic community, but also to the doctoral candidate writing it. Does it serve our career goals? Does it make us competitive in the job market, across academic and nonacademic postings? Needless to add, I am not suggesting all dissertations be multimodal or creative inquiries.
Nevertheless, perhaps it is time that as a community we start recognizing the problem posed by the obscure nature of a lot of academic scholarship. What can we change to make our work more accessible? How do we get more eyes on our research? Especially for those of us working on social justice issues, how can we take our academic inquiries to the public sphere? These concerns require us to take form into account along with the content, and urges us to recognize the value of using art-based and multimodal methods of inquiry to address the issue of inaccessibility. To create scholarship that appeals to a wide-ranging audience; that educates and enthuses; that is simultaneously creative, engaging, rigorous and useful.