This Dissertation Will Be Comic

Nick Sousanis

April 01, 2012

For Nick Sousanis, editing his dissertation will be much messier than pressing the delete key and retyping passages.

That's because Mr. Sousanis, with the blessing of his advisers, is writing and drawing his dissertation about comics in comic-book form. He believes his dissertation, in interdisciplinary studies at Columbia University's Teachers College, is the first of its kind.

Mr. Sousanis grew up reading comics—he says his first word was "Batman"—and he drew them in high school. But his dissertation doesn't involve the usual superheroes who fight villains bent on world domination. Ever since Superman's first appearance in 1938, Mr. Sousanis says, people have associated comics with a limited range of genres. But they're increasingly being created and used in the classroom to help students retain information, so last fall he taught a course about teaching and learning with comics.

His dissertation, "Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry Into Learning in Many Dimensions," expands on that subject. It ex­plores how comics' interwoven el­ements open up new ave­nues for creating and learning that aren't possible through writing alone. Mr. Sousanis calls the work a series of "philosophical essays" that employ images and metaphors. He uses a text outline as a scaffold to flesh out sketches on large sheets of paper, and finishes the final drawings on a computer.

He hopes the results will be richer than the typical double-spaced, 12-point font format.

"I know if I took a research paper I wrote of the same topic, the same density, there's no chance I could hand it to somebody on the street" and they would read it, he says. "My mom might read it, but that's about where it would end."