Drawing on Inspiration: Challenging the World of Learning through Comics – USA

“In their capacity for juxtaposing and intersecting diverse elements visio-spatially, comics facilitate the making of unexpected connections, and in this way can be fertile sites for discovery,” says Nick Sousanis. Sousanis is a unique soul: he’s a mathematician, a former professional tennis player, comic artist, educator and doctoral candidate at Columbia University. He is writing and drawing his dissertation entirely in comic book form – the first of its kind. His doctoral work has the power to change the world of academia as we know it. Rather than me describing his work, take a look:










“A lot of what I’m up to has to do with the notion of how working visually-verbally expands the possibilities for our creative discoveries,” says Sousanis. “The process itself facilitates the making of unexpected connections.” Sousanis’ approach strives to help others find the connection between art and text. Comics allow students to explore their own creativity and integrate multiple perspectives to create a rich medium for expression. According to Sousanis, the spatial integration of visual and verbal that defines comics creates a multi-dimensional discourse that goes beyond what “words alone” can achieve. Sousanis sees the value of incorporating visual approaches in education, not purely as an aesthetic or cultural concern, but as one of the utmost importance in terms of expanding our thinking.

Fascinating. Groundbreaking. And just plain cool. Sousanis recently took time to give us insight into his world, and to what (and who) inspires him.

What inspires you most?

I’m actually going to go with people who inspire me most – and this will speak to my thoughts about education and who has inspired me in that regard. First up, my parents. Both educators – my dad a high school physics teacher and tennis coach, and my mom an environmental studies educator in the elementary school. Their approaches to educating overlap, though I’ll make distinctions here. At their core – I see them as teaching from a belief that everyone can learn and that learning about our world is essential to participating in it. My dad has expressed his teaching/coaching philosophy as learning alongside learners rather than pulling from in front or pushing from behind learners. Learning is a shared experience, and furthermore learning of information has to be grounded in how that information was acquired. That is, rather than simply dispensing equations and putting them into action, his students follow alongside the discoverers, making that process of discovery their own. So instead of learning as answers in the back of the book, this is learning as a real, dimensional, and participatory experience – one that becomes a part of us. (This is NOT the direction standardized testing is pushing teachers to go…) The heart of my mom’s teaching on environmental studies is that we are connected to things beyond that which we can see. This extends the limitations of our immediate vision across space, as well as time. Our actions have impact – and we can never only touch one thing. Both address the importance of understanding our world and understanding ourselves within it.

During my time writing about the arts in Detroit (as editor and co-founder of www.thedetroiter.com) I got to know celebrated Detroit artist Charles McGee. This is a man of many accomplishments in his now 87 years, but one who is always seeking new frontiers, guided by the mantra of “what’s next?” Imbued with a constant curiosity, his cup is never full and he’s ever thirsty to keep learning, to find the new. Over time, I came to be his biographer, and in the years we’ve spent talking together and I’ve spent reflecting on his words – they’ve come to infuse how I think. I imagine what Charles would say or do – and it would always be to dive in with gusto for what’s around the corner. Charles suggests we take our learning from everything – from blades of grass, from trees, from beauty, from ugliness. Everything supplies us with information if we take the time to pay attention. For my comic on him: http://spinweaveandcut.blogspot.com/2009/02/conversation-with-charles.html

When I first came to Columbia, I encountered legendary education philosopher Maxine Greene, now in her 90s, and took part in the class she conducted in her living room. Maxine is constantly asking questions, seeking possibilities in the face of the status quo – preferring unanswered questions rather than the staticness of “certainty.” Frail in body – her mind is a dynamo. In her class, I made a comic about her in which I depicted her as a swiftly spinning top – this whirling dervish making connections, unstoppable. She liked the comic – and has since become a big supporter of what I’m up to and the possibilities for expression in comics. http://spinweaveandcut.blogspot.com/2011/03/in-print-maxine-says.html

My inspiration doesn’t stop here, as Charles would say, we take our learning from everything. But those are four that I have comics about!

What is your proudest professional achievement?

I feel extremely lucky to be able to get do what I do today – and even more fortunate that this has been the case throughout my life. I attribute this as a gift from my parents – a privilege not of wealth but of possibilities. Their parenting, as with their teaching, said to me that the doors I wanted to go through, the pathways I wanted to explore – were open, and as a result, I never had any doubts that if I was interested in something I was free to pursue it. I always have felt I could be who I want – and I think this is exceedingly rare. But it shouldn’t be. This privilege of possibilities is something everyone should have. We are such a diversely capable species and yet I feel this so often is never allowed to flourish. Perhaps it’s a sadness for this that motivates my work. I gave the valedictory speech at my high school about the idea that everyone graduating that day had something to say and share and that we could all learn from. Many years later, this notion informed the public speaking course I taught at Wayne State University in Detroit. I grounded the course on two simple tenets – “Your voice matters” and “What you have to say does make a difference.” I think in many ways this was a shock to students – the idea of being listened to, and perhaps more so, that they had to something to contribute. It’s so simple and yet a powerful realization, I think.  (Much of this is expressed in this piece: http://spinweaveandcut.blogspot.com/2009/09/bibliography-final-version.html)

I see doing my dissertation entirely in comic book form as an extension of that work. In its form, it’s challenging the accepted view of what is considered academic or scholarly. Similarly, in its content – it addresses validating the various ways that people make meaning. We come at the world from different approaches, but in recognizing that we have something to learn from one another and that each of us has something to contribute, changes the paradigm. School is not about filling us up with information so that we can fit into what is expected. It’s about learning in order for what’s inside us to blossom, to find ways to become who we are and contribute in the way that is most authentic to ourselves.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I hope that by offering up this dissertation contributes to a shift in what counts and is perceived as acceptable forms of scholarly work and that this work opens possibilities for other people in their projects. Perhaps we’ll see a time (soon) in which alternative forms of scholarship start to become standard – and that the multiple ways we see are seen as vital to the conversation.

How can other educators implement what you’ve learned?

Stay true to what you feel is important. Work to continually find your way through things.

What conditions must change to better support education?

I think that there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we value education and what we think its intent is. I see the trend for standardizing quite counter to what we hope to achieve. I think there is an honest desire to see more creative, capable people in our future. But I think we’re going about it in a way that narrows our vision, and restricts that creativity.


About Nick Sousanis

Nick Sousanis cultivates his creative practice at the intersection of image and text. A doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, he is writing and drawing his dissertation entirely in comic book form. Before coming to NYC, he was immersed in Detroit’s thriving arts community, where he co-founded the arts and cultural web-mag thedetroiter.com; chaired the non-profit arts organization the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (2005-07); served as the founding director of the University of Michigan’s Work:Detroit exhibition space; and became the biographer of legendary Detroit artist Charles McGee. His comics have been infiltrating the academic realm through numerous publications and he furthers his advocacy for the medium in the comics course he developed for educators at Teachers College. Sousanis also taught public speaking and
writing at Wayne State University. A former competitor on the professional tennis circuit, Sousanis continues to teach the game to students of all ages. For samples of his comics,
please see http://www.spinweaveandcut.com; for more about his course: ww.comicsclassroom.wikispaces.com <http://www.comicsclassroom.wikispaces.com> .

In 2011, he co-organized the conferenceCreativity, Play, and the Imagination across
the Disciplines
” in conjunction with “Game Show NYC,” an exhibition blending art, games, and education. “Through these concurrent events, we created a space that merged theory and practice, bringing artists, academics, teachers, and game-makers together in conversation to play and learn from one another.”
Birthplace: Michigan, USA
Current residence: New York City
Education: B.S. in Mathematics – Western Michigan University (1995); Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies Art/Mathematics – Wayne State University (2002); Master of Arts in Fine Arts (Painting) – Wayne State University (2002); Doctorate in Education –Teachers College, Columbia University (2012 expected).
Favorite childhood memory: To pick one – exploring the woods with my dog at night. Relying on his senses to guide our explorations…
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Vancouver – AERA conference in April
Favorite books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/The Inner Game of Tennis/Watchmen/The Wizard of Oz…

If you would like to see more of Nick Sousanis’ work, check out his incredible blog: Spin, Weave and Cut.

You can also read part of Nick’s dissertation here.

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2 Responses to Drawing on Inspiration: Challenging the World of Learning through Comics – USA

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