Seeing in New Dimensions

Harvard University Press will soon publish its first comic book -- a dissertation by a Teachers College Columbia University graduate about the power of images to help us think in new ways.

March 17, 2015

Ask Nick Sousanis to explain how he wrote his new book, and you’ll get less a rigid recipe than a fuzzy description. 

Did the words come first? No. Then the images came first? Not exactly, he says. They came at once, reinforcing and advancing each other, leading to research and then revisions, the pages almost taking on a life of their own.

“It might be easier if I drew you a picture,” Sousanis says with a laugh.

A fitting way to sum up his work, since, as Sousanis is fond of saying, his comics are smarter than he is.

Sousanis earned his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies last year from Teachers College Columbia University, where he produced his dissertation entirely in comics form. Next month, Harvard University Press will publish the book, the first time the press has printed a comic.  

Sousanis’s book is both a demonstration and defense of the power of visual literacy.

For centuries, words have been considered the superior currency of intellect. So much so that our reliance on the written word, like any other kind of dominant perspective, is so pervasive that we don’t even realize our role in perpetuating it, Sousanis argues.

In that case, consider Unflattening a wake-up call, an attempt to disrupt the status quo. The very word -- the title of Sousanis’s book -- is defined as using multiple vantage points to create new ways of seeing. 

Sousanis explains the science of perception through the discoveries of Eratosthenes and Copernicus. He describes history of image through the philosophies of Plato, Descartes, Francis Bacon and Herbert Marcuse.

He does all this with a combination of words and images. You read and you see. You see and you read. You absorb it sequentially, but also all at once, said Sharmila Sen, Sousanis’s editor at Harvard University Press.

The book makes your brain work on two planes, almost bilingually, she said.

“That pushes us intellectually, cognitively,” she said. “I feel like this book does that for me, and I really hope it does for others, too.”

After all, that’s why university presses exist, she said. They’re meant to explore new scholarship and give readers fresh ways of thinking about intellectual ideas.

Evolving Dissertations

The centerpiece of doctoral education, the dissertation has remained largely unchanged for the past several generations. The format can be so inflexible that it’s not unheard of for advisers to pull out rulers to measure page margins.

But there’s a growing recognition that the dissertation shouldn’t be one size fits all any longer.

A dissertation shouldn’t be viewed as a hoop to jump through driven by institutional requirements, said Ruth Vinz, Sousanis’s main adviser. Instead, a dissertation should represent the way a particular person makes meaning and wants to spread knowledge with others, said Vinz, who’s a professor of English education at Teachers College.

With Sousanis, it was clear to him and his advisers that his knowledge was best expressed in visual form, Vinz said. His major goal wasn’t to disrupt the typical dissertation format, but instead to create meaning the best way he could.

Vinz told Sousanis to take risks, trust his talents and not let form get in the way of substance.

As Vinz asks, “Is the dissertation a ‘pathway’ to a degree or a pathway to further understanding, meaning and knowledge... a pathway to sharing with others what one is learning?”

Sousanis says he kind of stumbled into the school of education at Columbia. He studied math as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University and has an interdisciplinary master’s degree in math and art from Wayne State University, where he also earned a master's in fine arts. While running a magazine with his brother and writing about the Detroit art scene, he fell back into an old habit of drawing comics.

When he got to Columbia, he pitched the idea of comics, saying that he could make complex arguments through that medium that he couldn't with words alone. Like other comic makers before him, he saw the potential for teaching with a new medium.

“Maybe it was naïve on my part, but I thought, ‘why not?’” Sousanis said. “This form was as meaningful and as complex and could handle as much academic discourse as anything else.”

There is some recognition on his part, though, of the novelty of his achievement. His was the first doctoral dissertation at Teachers College produced completely in comics form.

Sousanis sat on a panel in the fall that focused on mixing up the traditional dissertation format. He says he also had trouble at first believing that Harvard Press editor was interested in his work.

Sen had been following Sousanis’s blog, where he was updating readers on the progress of his dissertation. 

“His drawings were just dazzling,” Sen said. His work was a fresh approach. It woke her up and made her think in a different way.

When she contacted him and expressed her interest as a book editor, Sousanis thought it was an elaborate prank.

As an undergraduate, Sousanis would never have thought it was possible that Harvard would publish a comic, he said. Now, he hopes his work will help make it easier for others to pursue their own experiments with academic work, whether in comics or another medium.  

Picture Writing

James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, says it’s only a matter of time before more universities have visual literacy programs.

In fact, Sturm think academe is a bit behind the curve in its acceptance of comics as a medium for serious thought.

Today’s world is so visual, and research has shown the importance of images in remembering concepts and absorbing information, he said. Applied comics are being used in business planning sessions to encourage new ways of thinking and in medicine to improve the way doctors and patients communicate.

In these ways, there’s a wide recognition of the idea that word and image together are more than their parts, and that’s the very heart of comics. The best comics don’t illustrate what the text says. The best comics, Sturm said, are literally picture writing. 

The problem is, with comics, people often confuse genre and medium.

“It’s important to remember that comics is a medium, and like every medium, it does some things really, really well and some things not so well.”

When Sen pitched the story to others at Harvard University Press, there wasn’t necessarily pushback or skepticism, but rather, unfamiliarity. A lot people might not understand the allure of comics because they’re not familiar with them, she said.

Sen, who used to teach English at the high school and college level, has read many comics, and she’s taught a few, too. There are many comics that are talked about by intellectuals, and there are books written about visual literacy. 

But there’s a theme in all that existing work: words.

Sousanis doesn’t write about images. That, in a way, would reproduce the very bias he’s discussing, the idea that images can serve as illustrations but serious ideas require words, Sen said.

Instead, Sousanis is making an intellectual argument about images with images, she said.

There are, of course, some words in the book and many references to the words of great thinkers. One important reference is to the 19th-century novella Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott, a tale about a two-dimensional world that was an allegory for Victorian society.

What if, Sen asks, we are like the square of Flatland, unable to imagine the world of a sphere? What are the things that we’re missing because we’re only considering one perspective? 

Ultimately, Sousanis hopes his work advances the conversations about what he calls the narrowness of the education system. In schools, comics mainly have been used as a gateway to other forms of literacy. That limits their potential, he said.

Sousanis isn’t trying to bash literature or written work. He only wants to point out that there are other possibilities.  

He writes in Unflattening that there is no sole correct view. Thinking in a new medium means seeing the world beyond the confines of a singular direction.

As Sousanis says in one panel, “Nothing changed, except the point of view -- which changed everything.”


Back to Top