Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Talking Visual Lit @ Toledo & Princeton

This Friday, November 7, I'm pleased to be giving a keynote session at the International Visual Literacy Association's annual conference, held at the Toledo Museum of Art. As the organization puts it - "visual thinking is a form of critical thinking," "the ability to derive meaning from images of everything that we see - to read and write visual language." It is to, to be sure, a great fit for my work, and i'm excited to be a part of it! I'll be talking about my comics dissertation, what I mean by Unflattening, and what happens when we do research through the visual - giving equal weight to both visual and textual elements, where the whole meaning only emerges from their interaction. In my session, i will also be making comics with those in attendance - so should be a lot of fun all around!

If you're in the Toledo area - all the keynote talks are free and open to the public (there are fees to attend the entire conference). Check out details about the conference here and info about invited speakers here. Also, my hometown Detroit radio station AM760 WJR interviewed several of those involved with the conference, including me, for a special program on the Trend of Visual Literacy. You can listen to the audio of that here on the Relevant University show with host Larry Burns out of the University of Toledo. Updates about the conference on twitter will be at #IVLA2014

Immediately following that, Monday the 10th, I'll be speaking at Princeton University, in their Department of English, a guest of professor Kinohi Nishikawa. The focus will be somewhat more specifically on the dissertation and reimagining scholarship and academic writing (as with the recent #remixthediss event at CUNY) - but I will also be taking attendees through hands on theory through practice with some comics-making explorations. If you're in the Princeton neighborhood - come on out!

And, as I mentioned in some detail in my last post, my dissertation is coming out March 9, 2015 in book form from Harvard University Press! I am to say the least, excited to be able to share it all in one volume - and to work with such a supportive editor and publisher to realize this work in published form. I'll be sharing many images from the dissertation/book in all these talks and giving away, as I do, mini-comics excerpts from the work.

To close this post, I want to share a few excerpts directly referring to concepts of visual literacy and perception (and eyes) - key themes that run through the work and that I'll be addressing in the coming talks.  (These excerpts came from pages that have appeared previously on my site. You can see the entire pages by clicking on the respective links for the OdysseyParallaxKaleidoscopic vision, and Saccadic Motion, to see the entire sequences.) Look forward to conversations to come at these gathering. Thanks for the support! - Nick 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Unflattening Harvard UPress

I'm pleased to announce that my comics dissertation will be published by Harvard University Press in March of 2015! Check out HUP's catalog here to see all the specifics about Unflattening.

This has been in the works for over a year now and I'm thrilled to be able to officially share the news! I've been extremely fortunate to work with a wonderful editor in Sharmila Sen and just a great team at HUP all around. Since defending and handing in the dissertation back in May, with their input I've been plugging away on prepping the book version. The most prominent addition to the dissertation version is the cover - displayed here. (The full cover wraps around the back and onto the flaps as well.) The cover is based on the interior pages that emerged from the "put your feet in my dissertation" invitation and features the outlines of feet from people around the world.

One of the most exciting things for me in seeing this come to fruition is to look back over all my sketches (I've been scanning them as something that will be shared in the notes section) and look at the genesis of ideas scrawled out onto sheets of newsprint as early as 2011 and see how much of what the final work looks like was present in those earliest notes, what changed along the way, never made it in, and only came about much later on. I see it a bit as revealing that our ideas don't emerge like Athena, fully formed from Zeus's brow, rather our thinking coalesces from initial inklings and may take on many forms before the finished appearance in which most people encounter it. Many of these will be in the book, and I plan to share more on my site in the coming months. (The page shown here is the very first page of notes when I started on the project.) 

(Upcoming: I'll be a featured speaker at the International Visual Literacy conference at the Toledo Museum of Art November 7th and all the keynote talks will be open to the public. New to this work? The Chronicle's recent profile is a good way to get up to speed quickly, or click the dissertation label on the upper right for excerpts.) 

Thanks to all for the support over the last several years - it's been a great privilege to develop this work in public conversations - both in person and virtual. Looking forward to being able to share the complete work in just a few short months! - Nick 

From the jacket copy on Harvard University Press's website:

The primacy of words over images has deep roots in Western culture. But what if the two are inextricably linked, equal partners in meaning-making? Written and drawn entirely as comics, Unflattening is an experiment in visual thinking. Nick Sousanis defies conventional forms of scholarly discourse to offer readers both a stunning work of graphic art and a serious inquiry into the ways humans construct knowledge.
Unflattening is an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint. Weaving together diverse ways of seeing drawn from science, philosophy, art, literature, and mythology, it uses the collage-like capacity of comics to show that perception is always an active process of incorporating and reevaluating different vantage points. While its vibrant, constantly morphing images occasionally serve as illustrations of text, they more often connect in nonlinear fashion to other visual references throughout the book. They become allusions, allegories, and motifs, pitting realism against abstraction and making us aware that more meets the eye than is presented on the page.
In its graphic innovations and restless shape-shifting, Unflattening is meant to counteract the type of narrow, rigid thinking that Sousanis calls “flatness.” Just as the two-dimensional inhabitants of Edwin A. Abbott’s novella Flatland could not fathom the concept of “upwards,” Sousanis says, we are often unable to see past the boundaries of our current frame of mind. Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge, Unflattening teaches us how to access modes of understanding beyond what we normally apprehend.
Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening is a complex, beautiful, delirious meditation on just about everything under the sun; a unique and bracing read.”—Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics and Making Comics
“An important book, Unflattening is consistently innovative, using abstraction alongside realism, using framing and the (dis)organization of the page to represent different modes of thought. The words and images speak for themselves and succeed on their own terms. I couldn’t stop reading it.”—Henry Jenkins, author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Upcoming Talks & Process Sketches (Multimodality)

Last week (10/10/14), I participated in the #remixthediss event on New Dissertation Models at the CUNY Graduate Center here in NYC. It was a terrific gathering, invigorated live audience, and it was live-streamed to audiences around the country and the globe - and in many sites they hosted their own parallel discussions. Primary organizer, Professor Cathy Davidson now of CUNY called it not an event but the start of a movement. And as part of that, a publicly editable document was made available for listeners to ask questions and presenters answered them live and have continued to build on the document since. You can see that document here, and watch the recorded video of it right here. (If you came to here me, I'm around the 50 minute mark). Cathy Davidson was featured in Inside Higher Ed this week and speaks about the event movement in the interview. (This resonates with previous panels on new forms of scholarship that i've been involved in from Expanding Forms of Scholarship to Beyond the Protomonograph).

This week, I'm off to Michigan State University to present at the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies annual conference. I've been fortunate to participate with this inclusive organization for about six years now, and this time around I've been invited to give a few remarks about my work at the opening, as well as my individual session, which will also include a comics-making workshop! 

And in early November, I've been invited to give a keynote talk/workshop at the International Visual Literacy Association's conference at the Toledo Museum of Art. Looks like a fascinating gathering and I'm honored to be partaking in it. You can get a little sense of some of the things I'll be talking on from this poster I made for the Oxford Illustration Symposium last year. The Chronicle's feature on my work is another good way for those unfamiliar to get up to speed. 

I want to close this post by sharing some process sketches. I've been scanning all the sketches that went into the dissertation (for inclusion in the book version!), and that's led me to reflect further on my process and how ideas emerge between the collaboration of thoughts in our heads and sketches on paper. It's something i find that makes my work in comics smarter than I am on my own. Anyhow, what follows are a slew of sketches that went into making a page on comics and multi modality from the third chapter of the dissertation, which sets out to theorize on how comics do their work. I posted them here in what in pretty close to the order they were made. You can see that my initial idea was going in a totally different direction (though i still like the idea of talking about omelets as a kind of multimodal process). I then came up with a concept that is more or less what i went with, but then you see all the attempts to get the composition to flow correctly. This culminates in transforming the large hand on the "keyboard" into an arrow of sorts that helps move the reading eye back up after going down for the initial content. Anyhow, I think this offers a sense of the thinking that goes into a page. I'm frequently asked how long pages take to make - and while the drawing in many cases can take a long time - for me, it's always the thinking, how to orchestrate the page to embody the ideas. It's a journey of wrong turns and surprising discoveries. Which is what I feel research always ought to be. - Nick 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Remix Diss and McGee at 90

This site has been quiet for a little bit. But that's not to say I haven't been busy. I'm looking forward to sharing a few announcement as to what I've been up to in just a few weeks. But in the meantime, I wanted to share an upcoming event I'm participating in and a non-comics/education work. 

First up, on October 10 at the CUNY Graduate Center from 4-5:30 pm, I'll be participating in a panel called "What is a dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media." As the name indicates, it'll feature doc students and recent grads talking about their experimental and innovative scholarly forms including digital, multimedia, and, in my case, comics! It's hosted by the super awesome Cathy Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative and founder of HASTAC. I'll be paneling alongside Jade E. Davis of University of North Carolina, Dwayne Dixon of Duke, Gregory T. Donovan of Fordham, and Amanda Licastro of the CUNY Graduate Center. 

The event will be live streamed here and live tweeted at #remixthediss. Virtual partners are invited and there'll  be a collaborative component on google docs. In putting this on, the hope is to gather information and resources about other alternative forms that have been achieved beyond the panelists. (For a past post I did on other researchers working in comics form, see here.) See more details on the HASTAC website here or click here for an interactive version of the poster. It'll be in the English Department Lounge (Rm 4409) ad the CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave, NYC. Hope to see some of you there - and please spread the word!  (For the Chronicle's look at my and Dani Spinosa's dissertation work, see here. This came out of a session at MLA called Beyond the Protomonograph.)

On a different front, I'm the biographer of legendary Detroit artist Charles McGee. Charles turns 90 this year and is being featured with an exhibition at Mongerson Gallery in Chicago. I wrote a brief exhibition essay for the show, and share that below. If you're in that city - definitely recommend checking it out. And to learn more about Charles, you can see my earliest interview with him from 2004 here, a 2006 interview in Detroit's MetroTimes here, an interview we did for an exhibition on process here, and the comic I made about him here. Charles is ever an inspiration.

More news and new works soon. Thanks for following along. Onward! - Nick 

Charles McGee at 90: Mongerson Gallery Chicago exhibition essay

An exhibition celebrating the 90th year of an artist’s life might suggest looking back. For Charles McGee, however, making art is always an attempt to speak the language of the time and explore new means for expression. Thus, this milestone marks simply another day on his journey toward “what’s next?” His eye on tomorrow is not a disregard for what came before. On the contrary, McGee folds past into present, transforming and evolving in a continuity of growth. In some sense, each piece is autobiographical as it evokes the full continuum of his accumulated experiences.

For this exhibition, McGee’s masterful handling of charcoal that first brought him to prominence in Detroit is once again on display. In “Jazz Shouts and Whispers,” his rich textures accompany the patterned surfaces of the amorphic dancing figures that have populated his compositions for the past decade. Layers of experience mingle together as these distinct elements are joined in new conversation. In “Lineage,” the vibrant red highlighting of jagged edges glows against the black and white line work and brings to mind his explorations of neon from the late 1970s – which in turn hearkens his earliest experiences of being dazzled by the signs and lights he saw upon arriving in Detroit, a visual shock for a farm boy from South Carolina. The electricity of that formative moment still burns strongly.

McGee insists that art is necessarily informed by life, and the changes in the work reflect his own changes. Although he recovered his strength and spirits following the stroke he suffered in 2011, his mobility remains hampered. Embarking on new large-scale painting and assemblage pieces became untenable. But as ever, out of a limitation McGee has brought forth a new set of possibilities. McGee’s true affliction, he will tell you, is a life committed to making this work, to obeying his calling. Forging ahead has meant leaving his cavernous studio to work on his dining room table or a board on his lap in bed. Spartan conditions not so different from his young adult explorations into serious art making in a tiny basement apartment where he used a dresser drawer as an easel. By turning to the computer and industrial processes, he harnesses the power of technology to achieve the scale his work demands. His imagination is only emboldened by what these new tools and materials can offer as he translates his sketches into three-dimensional space.

For McGee, art is a sustaining force – a means for him to learn something new each day. And time has been his greatest teacher, continually enriching his quest and providing him with a thirst for greater understanding that he can never quench. In McGee’s words, “I came into art asking questions and I’ll go out asking questions.” - Nick Sousanis, August 2014

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

RSCON5, Visualizing References, and behind-the-scenes sketches

This Friday, July 12 at 5pm EST, I’ll be doing an online presentation of my work and the educational promise of comics as a keynote for the Reform Symposium Free Online Conference (RSCON5). This annual virtual gathering is put on by an organization of educators called “The Future of Education,” and I offer my thanks to organizer Shelly Terrell for the kind invitation to share my work with this community. I'm pleased to be among such a strong and diverse field of educators, and I recommend checking out the programming and tuning in.

If you can’t attend virtually, I hit some similar points at my talk at Microsoft Research last summer, which was recorded. I also turned an even earlier talk from the Sequential Smart conference into an illustrated article (the pdf of which is available here). (And if you're new to this work, the Chronicle of Higher Ed's recent interview serves as a good primer.)

As the dissertation is complete, I’m now in the process of prepping the work for its next phase (about which I’ll speak more of later). One of the things I couldn’t do for the dissertation, but intend to do in its forthcoming iteration, is to take the text-only parts – my acknowledgments, references, and endnotes – and give them more visual form as befitting the rest of the work. I’m dreaming up approaches at the moment – but I’m also seeking suggestions for good examples of what’s out there. I welcome your dialogue on this – drop me a line at nsousanis @ – I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts along these lines.

Since there aren’t new pages that I can post, I thought I’d share a page I’d posted earlier, from Chapter 3, and offer a behind the scenes look at the progression of sketches that led to its creation. This page set up an indepth discussion of the workings of comics and addresses the trouble of the form’s name. I think this is one of the few examples where the development from start to finish, in all its twists and turns, is relatively easy to follow along by looking at my dated sketches. My comments from the endnotes section accompany the images below. Onward! – Nick

From the end notes: 
Page 53: Various alternative names for comics are listed or integrated into the imagery here (for a list of alternative names for comics, see Duncan & Smith, 2009, p. 18). Manga, bandes dessinées, and fumetti are terms for comics respectively in Japan, France, and Italy (specifically of the photo-comics variety). McCloud (1993) and Hogben (1949) connect comics back in time to a lineage that began with the cave paintings at Lascaux. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” stems (ha!) from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet argues that the names of things do not matter, only what things are.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Thank yous & Foot Project winners

So the dissertation is defended, finished, and I graduated. But as I prepare to move on to next steps, I thought it was important to pause here and publicly acknowledge all those whose support has helped make this possible. I’ve not only had a good team backing me on the home front, but also, as I said in the opening of my talk at UCLA a couple weeks back (my first post-graduation(!)), I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to engage in an ongoing public conversation around the work – this includes  people I met at talks around the country and all whom I've interacted with right here on the web and social media spaces. It’s all helped shape the work as I went along.

Of the many things that this virtual space made possible was my “put your foot in my dissertation project” – and the support of all the participants from around the globe who willingly (and eagerly) shared their feet with me! So before I list the dissertation acknowledgements, I want to get to announcing the winners of my foot project contest. In addition to getting a credit in the dissertation (as well as its future published form…), participants were entered into a random drawing to win a signed 11by17 inch print of one page from the dissertation, with three runners-up receiving a signed-mini excerpt. I ended up with just shy of 100 feet from the individuals, families, and groups listed below. I’m both grateful to have gotten all of these and also grateful to not have gotten more! For not only did I end up retracing all of them for clarity of line quality, I then turned each of those tracings into brushes, which I used to then draw the distinct footpaths that make up these trio of pages. (While this sequence was not displayed as a triptych in the dissertation, I’m hopeful there will be a way to display it properly in its next form.) Every SINGLE one of the feet submitted appear on these pages – though I understand if you can’t identify your own easily! There is also a different sequence with only men’s 10.5s overlaid on top of my foot outline, which perhaps I’ll share at another point. I was really pleased with the tremendous variety in foot shapes – and I think it helped make my visual argument – if our feet are this distinct – then how different must be the ways in which we learn… (Note, this is a screenshot of three separate, still unlettered pages in low-res.) 

Contest winners, randomly drawn: 
Runners-up: Cathy Peet, Sue Uhlig, Steph
Grand prize winner: A. David Lewis

Since I knew all of the opening round of winners to some degree or another, I decided to spread rewards around further and drew again, and then one final time for good measure. And so:
2nd Runners-up: Cathy Rosamond, Devin Berg, Tracy Dawson & Parkes High School, NSW Australia
2nd Grand Prize Winner: Edgar Castro
3rd Runners-up: Ronelle Kallman, Donald Davenport, @cogdog
3rd Grand Prize Winner: Sean Kleefeld

Special prize goes to Hattie Kennedy and Damon Herd for sending their feet in from the UK within 20 minutes of my posting it! Winners will be notified by email and I will mail rewards to provided addresses.

All have my gratitude for their contribution and for all the support of this project. The roll call:

Hattie Kennedy, Damon Herd, Carly Piirainen Davis and family, Ruud Cox, Maudi Cox, Alyssa Niccolini, Linda Allen, Marta Cabral & anonymous, Sarah Chauncey, Paddy Johnston, Leigh Graves Wolf, A. David Lewis, J. Nathan Mattias, Devin Berg, Cathy Peet, Russell Willerton, Chris Moffett, Paul Tritter, Charles Shryock IV, Cathy Rosamond & Family, Adam Bush, Marcus Weaver-Hightower and family, Kathleen Moore, +M, Jennifer, Louis Bury, Rebecca Kuhlmann Taylor, Gray Evelyn Taylor, Remi Holden, Marcelle, Marcos, Tim, Steph, Anna Smith, Sharon Farb, Leslie M, Todd Grappone, Eliza Lamb, Donald Davenport, Vanessa Chang, Sean Kleefeld, Lauren Albert, Ivory Kris, Maggie Whitten, Kurt Hozak, @cogdog, Edgar Castro, Ronelle Kallman, Sue Uhlig, Pedro Cabral, Adele Holoch & boys, Tracy Dawson & Parkes High School, NSW Australia, Elizabeth Branch Dyson, Samantha Cooper, Jesse Carbonaro, Tracy Scholz, Michael Hoffman, and Dean Sousanis.

A first test of all the feet re-traced on a single page
Below, you’ll find acknowledgments from my dissertation, more or less as they appear. (I'm thinking to do a more visual version of this for its post-dissertation form.) Since it isn’t readily available anywhere else just yet, I thought it was important to share my words of gratitude in full here. I can say that the next steps for this work have been determined and that it will be available in published form not too far off, of which I will speak of much more at a later time. As for my own next steps? Those remain to be determined... 

Thanks to all mentioned below and thanks to all who’ve been supporting this project all along or just visiting for the first time… Onward! – Nick


We don’t get where we’re going alone. The journey that has been making this work has emerged from the conversations, advice, inspiration, and support of those mentioned here, to whom I express my deep gratitude.

I am moved by the openness from the outset with which my advisor Professor Ruth Vinz embraced the decidedly unfamiliar territory that is my work, and for her wise understanding that meaning making takes many forms. As I meet others whose efforts to forge their own paths were stopped short by those who possessed a narrow concept of what research can look like, I’m particularly grateful for Ruth’s trust and encouragement for me to follow my curiosity in the directions I needed to go. My advisor Professor Robbie McClintock’s courses with his colleague Frank Moretti were a wellspring of edification, and the thoughtfulness and humanity that both modeled in their teaching have left a lasting impact on my thinking. I have a sense that Robbie understood where I was headed before I did, and with a few thoughtful words that stayed with me throughout the entire process, he helped me stay on track and deepen my exploration between our ways of seeing and ways of learning.

I had the good fortune to happen upon Professor Maxine Greene’s 90th birthday talk as my first outing at Teachers College. That unexpected occurrence was a jolt of inspiration, which led me to her class, and has since spiraled into an ongoing conversation that I cherish. Maxine’s commentary as she read over my pages has been a constant source of delight, and I’m extremely fortunate to have that opportunity to engage with her spinning,whirling mind. (Sadly, Maxine passed away two weeks ago, just a few weeks after the defense. I wrote about her here.) 

Professor Mary Hafeli came on board near the end of this journey as final reader but immediately brought with her tremendous insight, support, and encouragement for which I am grateful and eager for conversations to come. (Please note, while university formatting requirements allow only a candidate’s first two committee members to appear on the title page, both professors Greene and Hafeli also served on my committee, and I want to make special note of that here.) Even at a distance, Professor Graeme Sullivan has been a steady and extremely generous rock of support and counsel. His work and dedication are ever an inspiration to keep pushing forward. And to Mary Sullivan, for all her kindness, warmth, and encouragement.

There are many faculty members at Teachers College whose contributions have helped shape and buoy this work throughout. This includes courses and conversations with Judy Burton and Barbara Tversky, conversations and boundless encouragement from Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Lalitha Vasudevan, Olga Hubbard, Sheridan Blau, and the aforementioned Frank Moretti, whose absence is a tremendous loss to the intellectual and human community of Teachers College.

I’m grateful for the support and advice from Vice Provost William Baldwin and Provost Thomas James, and additionally grateful to them and the award committee for the support and recognition of the Provost’s Doctoral Dissertation Grant. A big thank you to Rocky Schwarz along with his team at TC’s Business Services Center, including Aklilu, Michael, Isaac, and Chan, for their generous support and dealing with my difficult and usually nearly last-minute printing requests. Margaret Scanlon and Carey Reed in the English Ed office were a bit of sunshine and a big help sorting through things throughout my time at Teachers College. To Russell Gulizia for ensuring this all came together properly.

I’m indebted to the conversations over the years between my friend and collaborator Professor Fred Goodman, who is always prompting me to turn things over and look from other sides. My conversations with CharlesMcGee serve as a constant source of inspiration and are ever present in my thinking and my voice. 

I cannot emphasize enough what the impact of Professor CathyDavidson’s championing of this work early on has meant, and I am deeply grateful for her support and that of the HASTAC community all along.

I’ve benefited from terrific, inspiring, and supportive colleagues at Teachers College, including Andrea Kantrowitz, Marta Cabral, Tara Thompson, Daiyu Suzuki, and Razia Sadik. I can’t say enough about Suzanne Choo, the best partner I could have in navigating graduate school – our collaborations and spirited bickering made this adventure so much the better. Ryan Goble got me into this in the first place, and our conversations and his humor have helped sustain me over the years. I am grateful to list Timothy K. Eatman, Adam Bush, Donald Blumenfeld-Jones, Bill Ayers, Jim Hall, Anastasia Salter, and Adam Bessie as colleagues and collaborators. I’ve been fortunate to draw together wonderful colleagues in comics and education from across the country, including Christy Blanch, Yen Yen Woo, Stergios Botzakis, Jarod Roselló, Marcus Weaver-Hightower, and Andrew Wales. Friends old and new whose counsel and insight have helped broaden my thinking: Susanne Beechey, Andy Malone, Matt Sikora, Sambuddha Saha, Andrew Butler, Adam McGovern, Remi Holden, Alexander Rothman, Andrea Tsurumi, Paul Hirsch, Lou Bury, Daniel Powell, Mark D. White, and Meg Lemke. A special shout out to Leo Tarantino and Stephanie Huffaker, who read chapters as I finished them and kindly shared their insight.

The support of REDACTED and the team at REDACTED Press has been incredible, and I’m eager for our next steps together.

Thank you to Donald Brinkman for supreme generosity and boundless curiosity, and for putting on an amazing solo exhibition at MicrosoftResearch! (Video interview from that occasion.)

So much of this work has grown from conversations I’ve had in public forums. Thanks for sharing the work to Sydni Dunn and NickDeSantis respectively, at The Chronicle for Higher Education, Katya Korableva for Russia’s Theory&Practice, John O’Reilly of the UK’s Varoom Magazine, Maureen Bakis, Nate Matias, Hannah Means-Shannon, Patrick Cox, Brooke Sheridan,Chris Malmberg, Anthony Salcito of Microsoft’s Daily Edventures, Hybrid Pedagogy & Jesse StommelBrett Terpstra, Nicolas Labarre, Morna McDermott, Paul Thomas, Anastasia Salter, Matt Finch, and Siddhartha Mitter. A big thanks to Professor Jill A. Perry of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate who has been a rock of support and counsel all along.

I am grateful for my involvement with the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies and its similarly difficult-to-define membership, including Bill Newell, Julie Klein, Roz Schindler, Rick Szostak, Angus McMurtry, Tanya Augsburg, Jennifer Dellner, and James Welch, III. A similar shout out goes to the folks of Imagining America and their PAGE graduate fellows for welcoming me and their vision for and dedication to intersecting arts and scholarship, academia and the larger public. Thanks to the support of the Stanford Graphic Narrative Project/Ideograph Journal and my new friends and colleagues there: Angela Becerra Vidergar, Vanessa Chang, and Haerin Shin.

To my students at Teachers College, Parsons, back at Wayne State University, and on the tennis courts, from whom I have learned so much from about learning and teaching, and whose interactions have inspired me to constantly expand my thinking.

In the comics world, I’ve benefited greatly from the support and camaraderie from Scott McCloud, David Small, Ben Katchor, Lynda Barry, Matt Madden, R. Sikoryak, Karen Green, Kent Worcester, Gene Kannenberg, Jr., and Charles Hatfield.

For the inspiration and all that their work has made possible for comics: Alan Moore, Scott McCloud, Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly, Will Eisner, David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Marjane Satrapi, Lynda Barry, and Chris Ware.

A special thank you to my earliest comics collaborators: Joe Jokinen, Matt Kaspari, Kyle Roberts, and Tim Newell.

Thanks to Russell Willerton and Everett Maroon, who responded to my call for help in sentence diagramming!

To my dear departed dog Sledge and his ways of seeing that stick with me and run through this work.

To my brother John, his wife Autumn, and their growing family – a kaleidoscope of different eyes to learn from. A conversation with Aurora Sousanis about testing day at school followed by watching her learn a new skill on the monkey bars has served as an essential lesson to me about what’s important in learning. To my brother Dan, with great appreciation for opening my eyes to distinct ways of making in the world.

To my parents Dean and Anne Sousanis, educators in the best sense of the word, for their inspiration and endless support for my explorations, and for instilling in me through their example the importance of keeping one’s eyes open.

And of course, to my wife Leah. Having a partner who understands you and can articulate your work better than you can is monumental. From her tireless support and belief in me to her passionate editorial input (!), her presence enriches everything I do. – W. N. S.


For Rosalie Anne Goodbear Sousanis – and all the possibilities that lay ahead for her…

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Reflecting on Maxine

This day, I’ll sadly be attending the funeral of professor Maxine Greene. A legendary educator and philosopher, Maxine was to me my teacher, an advisor, and most importantly my friend. I wanted to share a few thoughts on my time with her here.

I had the good fortune to happen upon Maxine’s lecture in celebration of her 90th birthday at Teachers College shortly after moving to NYC. I hadn’t known of her work beforehand and was absolutely thrilled with all that I heard. I knew I’d found the right place to be a student – hearing Maxine resonated strongly with my past years in ongoing conversation with celebrated Detroit artist Charles McGee (only in his early 80s at the time). Despite all his accomplishments, Charles has never been able to sit still, and is always seeking new frontiers, guided by the mantra of “what’s next?” Deeply missing our regular conversations, I now found myself in the presence of someone who preached “I am what I am not yet,” and stated the importance of unanswered questions. Where Charles spoke of there being no separation between art and life, Maxine was getting at learning and by that, living, through the arts. (See here and here for past interviews with Charles, and here for my comic on him.)

And so I made sure I’d be in her class when school started up that fall. Sitting in the back of her living room classroom, I started dreaming of how to capture her in comics. I quickly opted not to draw her appearance, but rather her presence. And for me that came out as a top – something that at times was motionless, seemingly lifeless, and when set spinning had a dynamism to it that was unstoppable. This was Maxine – seemingly frail in one moment and in the next like lightning in a bottle, bursting forth. I turned in the comic for my main project for class. Making a comic about your professor may always be risky and depicting her as a top perhaps even more so. But I suppose, I needn’t have worried. As Charles would have said, “I love the new!” and similarly, Maxine quickly embraced a form of which she was more or less unfamiliar and one that was dismissed over her long career within academia. (And apparently she enjoyed the top metaphor enough that she gifted one to my wife and me for our wedding…)

Of course, for those who knew her, this will not come as a surprise in the least.

Fast forward a bit, as I was deep in the dissertation, any time I’d accumulated a decent stack of new pages I’d visit Maxine to share the work. And she’d read them forwards and backwards, commenting, asking questions about the drawing, and always giving great intensity of attention. If her memory sometimes slipped in these last years, when it came to thinking about ideas – she was still as sharp as anyone I’ve ever known – and able to make connections across fields in a way that’s hard to describe. On many occasions, she’d talk of wanting to draw, particularly the tree outside her window across Fifth Avenue on the edge of Central Park. I did get her to draw in my notebook once, but not sure she ever took to drawing the tree. I’d hoped to make a piece about the tree and its forking branches with her, but that may be left to remain only in my imagination.

On April 21st of this year, I had my dissertation defense at Maxine’s home, where we were joined by my advisors Ruth Vinz and Robbie McClintock, committee member professor Mary Hafeli, professor Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz serving as witness, Daiyu Suzuki, my cohort, who’d been helping run Maxine’s classes the last few years, and Maxine's devoted caretaker Anna. It was a lovely gathering all around, but what stands out to me is the fact that at its end, my wife Leah brought our then three-week-old daughter Rosalie by to join the celebration. Maxine was transfixed and tickled by this new life and her wide eyes. Rosalie for her part was silent and absorbed in looking around at this room of books and paintings. I’m guessing she won’t remember it, but I will, and I will always be grateful my daughter got to be in the presence of this powerfully bright spirit. Maxine was always alive and awake to this world with a curiosity for exploration akin to a newborn. I see the message in her work as reminding us of the wide-awakeness that we enter this world with and something that burned strong in her over her entire life.

I got the news of Maxine’s passing just before speaking at UCLA last week. Near the front of my slides was that piece I’d made on Maxine, one of the first comics I made as a doctoral student and a work that set the metaphorical tone for my explorations to come. It was a heavy pause, and one I hope I used to open a new audience to her work. Even seeing Maxine in the hospital a few weeks before her death, she still lit up, marveled at baby pictures, fretted about not being able to host me properly, and wanted to talk ideas. I left thinking she might be down for the moment but would be up and spinning again before long. And we’d be back at her dining room table talking about education, art, and what it’s like to be a baby or a tree once again.

It’s hard to imagine that I can’t stop by again, that I can't laugh with her again, that I won’t hear her electrify another audience of educators. But I suppose I have to accept it, as we all must, and what we can do is hold a part of that spirit inside ourselves, and keep asking questions and being courageous in the way Maxine that was. And in that, her energy keeps spinning through us, as we impart it further outward. – Nick

(I’d promised a follow up on the foot project this week. Due to this unforeseen event, I’ll address that next time around. Thank you. – N)