I was introduced to Nick Sousanis’ work through a Twitter connection, shout out to @AndrewJ, as I wanted to spend more time over the summer with what are broadly called graphic novels. Probably like many listeners, I had read comic books as they appeared in pop culture over the years, The Dark Tower adaptation, the Walking Dead, even “classic” graphic novels, I suppose, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. As a history major, I read the first book of Maus in college. but other than that I never really knew where to go from there. Now, just last month, I had a friend recommend Marjan Sahtrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic memoir of her childhood before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution. I borrowed it from the library, read it in a single sitting, and was hooked. So I immediately put a call out on Twitter on where to go from there and got dozens of suggestions. I’ve spent the rest of the summer catching up on a number of graphic memoirs including the March Trilogy, The Best We Could Do, and Fun Home. Then came Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening.
Nick Sousanis is an Eisner-winning comics author and an associate professor of Humanities & Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, where he runs a Comics Studies program. He received his doctorate in education at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2014, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comic book form. Titled Unflattening, it argues for the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning, and was published by Harvard University Press in 2015. Unflattening received the 2016 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE Award) in Humanities, the Lynd-Ward Prize for best Graphic Novel of 2015, and was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Scholarly/Academic work. To date, Unflattening has been translated into French, Korean, Portuguese, Serbian, Polish, Italian, and Chinese.
0:00:12.0 Nick Covington: Hello, and welcome to Episode 117 of the Human Restoration Project podcast. My name is Nick Covington, and I'm the Creative Director here at the Human Restoration project.
0:00:22.2 NC: I was introduced to Nick Sousanis's work through a Twitter connection, so shout-out to Andrew J. As I wanted to spend more time over the summer with what are broadly called graphic novels, probably like many listeners, I had read comic books as they appeared in pop culture over the years, like the Dark Tower adaptation, The Walking Dead, even classic graphic novels, I suppose, like Alan Moore's Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. As a history major, I had also read the First Book of Mouse in college, but other than that, I never really knew where to go from there.
0:00:55.1 NC: Now, just in June of 2022, I had a friend recommend Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a graphic memoir of her childhood before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution. I borrowed it from the library, read it in a single sitting, and was hooked. So I immediately put a call out on Twitter on where to go from there and got dozens of suggestions. I've spent the rest of my summer catching up on a number of graphic memoirs including the March Trilogy, The Best We Could do, and Fun Home. Then came Nick Sousanis's Unflattening.
0:01:29.2 NC: Nick Sousanis is an Eisner-winning comics author and an associate professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University, where he runs a Comic Studies program. He received his doctorate in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2014, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comic form. Titled Unflattening, it argues for the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning, and was published by Harvard University Press in 2015.
0:02:00.2 NC: Unflattening received the 2016 American Publishers Award for professional and scholarly excellence, the Prose Award in humanities, the Lynd Ward Prize for best graphic novel of 2015, and was nominated for an Eisner Award for best scholarly academic work. To date, Unflattening has been translated into French, Korean, Portuguese, Serbian, Polish, Italian, and Chinese. There's an irony here that we are going to attempt to discuss these very visually linked ideas in an audio podcast, but I will also provide links to the excerpts of Unflattening that are available on Nick's website. So Nick, thank you for speaking with me today.
0:02:41.6 Nick Sousanis: Yeah, so I'm Nick Sousanis, and I run a comics program at San Francisco State, and as pointed out, I wrote and drew my dissertation entirely in comics form, and then it was subsequently published as Unflattening, which I guess is a graphic novel, though it's not a novel in any sort of way. So, these words are all a little complicated. But I'll say I was a comics-maker as a kid, and I read comics, I'm certainly somebody who could attest to the learning to read strains of comics. I read very early, and I think reading comics definitely helped that, and I see it in my own... In my daughter, who was a very early reader, and I read comics to her. So I was really into comics as a kid, and then I made my own superhero comic through junior high and high school. But when I got to undergrad... Undergrad, comics is not a thing to do. It's not like if you wanna do intellectual things, it didn't exist, number one, and even if it did, I wouldn't have thought about it as an intellectual thing, and I wanted to do those kinds of things.
0:03:53.4 NS: So I studied mathematics and I was always making comics in the background. And it's not till quite a bit later, I was still reading them and still sort of making them, but not much finished for a long time. But I was in Detroit, I'm from rural Michigan, but I was in Detroit for about a decade, and I ran an arts and cultural magazine and wrote about art, and I got invited to be in an art show around the 2004 presidential election, and I only had a couple of days to do it. And so I was like, "Oh, I'll make a comic," so I made this short essay, comic as essay. And then right after the election, there was a second show, so it's like I got four days to do it again, so I made a second one. And those two pieces really set the tone for my return to comics in a quite different way than I had as a kid. And shortly after that, we put on an exhibition of art and games, and a buddy of mine said, "Why don't you do the essay as a comic book?"
0:04:52.1 NS: So I was like, "Okay." So I did this long-form comic on the history of games, philosophy of games, how games work, it was a really involved study of games. And having finished that, it really set the stage for what I could do. And at the time, I was teaching at the university, and I was teaching, I had a master's in interdisciplinary studies in Math and Art. And I taught a public speaking class at the university, which I really loved, and I taught a little bit of writing, but mostly the public speaking class. And I thought, being an adjunct, it's not a really sustainable career, but I love being in education. I'm the child of a physics teacher and tennis coach, and my mom is a naturalist environmental studies teacher. So, I'd been the child of educators and I do and have done all these educational things. I'm a tennis pro, so I made my living teaching tennis for most of my young adult to middle adult life.
0:05:57.0 NS: So, I would see that all the stuff I'm doing is educational, but not in the traditional sense. So I decided, I might as well get my doctorate 'cause I like doing these things, and the comics that I was making, I saw them sort of come together and bringing the stuff that I'd love to do with the stuff I cared about educationally and that that all could all come together. So, I sort of stumbled into Columbia Teachers College education program. A friend back home knew somebody there and they said they are interested in people doing curious things, and I was like, "I'm doing curious things." So, I showed some potential advisors the kind of comics I did, and they seemed intrigued, and I applied and I got in.
0:06:44.6 NS: So I came... This is a question I get a lot, like, did you have a lot of trouble getting your dissertation approved? And the truth is, I didn't know it was a big deal, I had no idea, I just thought because of things that you'd mentioned, like Miles and Persepolis had already been out, I kinda thought that the argument for comics as intellectual and educational had been long won. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics had been out a long time at that point. But it's not really till I got into it that I realized that there were still a lot of barriers to break down. So my work, I knew I was gonna do comics for my work, but I didn't know that the comics were gonna argue for themselves. That became more apparent as I got into it and realized that I had to champion, at least I felt that had to champion, that comics belonged here and the comics could should just be one of the many options people can use to do their thinking.
0:07:52.8 NC: Would you mind unpacking a little bit more of like... You just said, letting them comics speak for themselves. When you were talking about that, what do you mean by that? You were expecting to have a lot more pushback or...
0:08:03.2 NS: I get this question a lot, that people expected that I had a big fight to make the work happen.
0:08:10.7 NC: Right.
0:08:11.8 NS: And I don't know if 'cause I hit the right time in history because I was an older student, or 'cause I was just too naive to know that it was a deal. I was just doing it. I was like, "This is what I wanna do and I'm gonna do it," and I had a bunch of very senior professors, so they didn't have much to lose. They didn't have much knowledge necessarily of what I was doing, but they didn't... They were intrigued and supportive in those ways. So, I think a lot of times, you see projects like this in the past, where you would do the thing, but then you'd have to write a text thing to explain why you did the thing. And that was really important to me that I didn't do that. That... I don't think I said this before, but I think the comics speak for themselves, like this is a legitimate form of scholarship, and it's a legitimate form of meaning-making. And in fact, there's things I can do with comics that I can't do purely text.
0:09:12.6 NS: So, very much, my work is an argument for itself and things sort of like it, that it doesn't need that other layer of explainer. And obviously, comics are a little bit... If I was doing performative dance, that might take... Comics still have words in them, they can still have notes, they can still have these things that we recognize, so, in some ways, they're not that big a leap to make from what you might have thought of as scholarship before. But they still are. People are still either intimidated or dismissive of pictures and can do a lot and really complicated. It's a lot harder. If I was writing my dissertation, it would have been a lot faster.
0:09:58.7 NC: [chuckle] I bet, yeah. Especially if anybody has read Unflattening or if you check out the excerpts, yeah, I think you'll see that that is self-evident. It really is something to say the pictures by themselves, the images, the visual, by themselves, maybe requires some of the context to help provide it some context, but then the words by themselves need the visuals perhaps to imply the deeper meaning. And so it really is just the marriage of both of those factors, and especially in the way that you use them to literally think out of the box. I think a lot of us, when we think of comic books or graphic novels, think of the squares on the page, and I think you've kind of really opened up that... Just to use it as a visual space, like you said, for meaning-making and to do your thinking on the page. And you write a lot in Unflattening, too, just about that physical process, the connection of the physicality of the pen and the paper and constructing the meaning as you go through that.
0:10:56.3 NC: Yeah, I think you said it really well. Constructing meaning on the page or this space to explore is... We're sort of accustomed to thinking as being this thing you put your hand under your chin and you sit still for a while. But thinking when we move, thinking when we're on the run, thinking when we're making marks. I work solo, I make solo, but I had this partner in my drawing. The drawings pushed me to think in ways and ask questions that I wouldn't have asked in other ways. It doesn't mean... It's not necessarily better. I think it's better, but it's different. It's different. It pushed me to ask questions and go directions I just would not have gone if I was purely writing. So they'd be... If I had written this thing, started at time zero and watched two timelines here, and I just stuck to the writing one or just stuck to the comics one, and you saw that they would diverge quite a bit. It wouldn't just be an illustrated version of my written one.
0:11:52.9 NC: And it is interesting, just as a side note, how text as a mode of thinking is really valued both in society, but particularly like in academia, and so it is interesting to see a work like Unflattening just challenging that norm. Why would we not be able to submit a YouTube video or like... Let's imagine a director at a film school trying to submit a piece of writing. It's just interesting to see how multi-modal, multi-medium thinking as a legitimate form of academic expression as much as it is self or self-expression.
0:12:29.3 NS: We're complex creatures. We express ourselves in many forms and we learn in many forms, so, why not use more of it? Why not use more of it? And it's challenging. It's hard to... A lot of our formats were created because they fit in something that we could manage. It's harder to deal with pictures in a lot of ways, but I think we can handle it. Yeah.
0:12:52.3 NC: So there have been a handful of ideas that have been conceptual game-changers for me as an educator in terms of shifting my perspective or adding a new lens of looking at a problem or thinking about the world. One of those would be Seymour Papert's constructionism, that notion that we're in dialogue with the objects we create. So whether they're physical or digital, Papert was a big proponent of coding in schools, for instance, that those outer physical models influence and help us construct our inner mental ones. So we're constantly in dialogue with those spaces. And you even spend a chapter in your book that we just talked about, actually, connecting that physical act of drawing with the notion of construction. And you say in there, "We draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads, but to generate them in search of greater understanding." And I think to this pile of conceptual game-changers, this list that I have in my head, the notion of Unflattening seems to kind of have that power for me as well. So, to get to kind of the thesis of that book, what do you mean by unflattening? What are the core concepts at play in that work? And how can our listeners get involved in doing that for themselves and unflattening their own thinking?
0:14:04.6 NS: Part of what I mean by it is that answer is unique to everyone. And one of the biggest... I'm not sure how I'll answer this question, but I often... People make typos when they refer to the book and I get "Unflattering" a lot, which is funny and I don't mind it that much, but "Unflattened" is the one I dislike the most. Because unflattened implies a finished thing. It implies something that's done. And I'll get questions like, "Do you feel like you're unflattened?" And I'm like, "No, of course not." This is... The idea is that it's something that's always ongoing in the same way that our vision is. Your eyes are moving around, both of them are moving around and like picking up spots and what we do. That's how our senses work. We're always sort of adjusting how we experience the world.
0:14:57.3 NS: And so that is sort of the core of what I meant by it. It's like always coming from multiple vantage points and changing how you understand your own experience or how you make meaning. So that's definitely part of it. It became a way to fit all these ideas I had about interdisciplinarity, about justifying my own sort of curious background of math and art and tennis, like this physical part and this sort of abstract mental part and the whatever arc. They weren't... Those are all supposed to be boxes that don't fit, that are separate. And I was trying to say that they are just parts of being human. So some part of Unflattening is the simple come from two eyes or more. Some part of it is to come from different modes. And a big part is that it's never done. It's never done.
0:15:52.0 NS: And there's things... I like the thing I made, but there's plenty of things I do differently. There's plenty of things that I moved on from, and I think... And when I talk to teachers, a question that's sort of... And I don't wanna say this disparagingly, but it bothers me, is, "I liked your book, and what do you think I should do in my classroom?" And what do I know about you? That's not... I'm not there. If I was there, we could talk about it and we could come up with ideas, but part of the goal is that you can do it. You can get there on your own two feet and sort of that idea that you can ask your own questions and you can find your own answers and they won't be... They might not be the best answer you got until the next year when you get a better one or whatever, but you can figure it out. And you can ask... It's one thing to be inspired by things or have conversation about it, but I'm not capable of telling other people what to do. [chuckle]
0:16:53.2 NC: A partner idea in that, too. You've got a lovely illustration, and I... And again, if we could show the illustration, I think people would catch on to the idea pretty quickly, but this idea that is a theme in the book is this notion of rhizomatic thinking, which, I don't know if that's an original kind of like lens of looking at things. I had never encountered that concept before, but of course, mapped out visually in the way that it is on the page is very striking. I didn't know if you could help us understand what's going on with that lens of rhizomatic thinking or how that differs from the sort of linear kind of thinking that you critique earlier on in the book. How do we help support that version of rhizomatic thinking?
0:17:34.9 NS: Yeah, I didn't... Imagery is all me and putting those pieces together is me, but it's certainly not Deleuze and Guattari I'm referencing and lots of other people.
0:17:47.8 NC: Right, right.
0:17:48.8 NS: I'm not the originator of such things and I don't know that I can speak for any of them. I used it a lot to say text is a great thing. This is... It was... I think in my early years talking about this, it often sounded like I was anti-text. And that's not it at all. But there are... As with everything, everything has its own limitations. The text has its limitations in its sort of linear form. And you try to... You can put only so many parentheticals in your thing before it's a little annoying. But images allow parentheticals in that sort of branching that a rhizome does. So a rhizome is something, unlike a tree which has a trunk, and then it splits off into the roots, everything is sort of interconnected. So grass is like that, aspen is like that, and the banyan tree, which is what I used in one of those pages, is like that. Where everything is sort of all connecting. You cut one part of it, you're still there. You're still still there. There's still other ways to get around, whereas you've cut the trunk of a tree and that's gone.
0:18:47.6 NS: And writing is a lot like that. You break the chain of writing, and it falls apart. You break the chain of an image, there's other ways to connect around it. So, I don't know how to say that rhizomatic thinking so much. I think that's a little beyond my ability to speak to it, but I think images work in that way, and comics work in both ways. That is one of the things I thought was so amazing about them, is that we do think sequentially. Like I know I had to get my kid to preschool and I gotta run back and I gotta talk to you and then I've got something after that. There's a very linear sequence of things that is gonna happen to me today, or I'm gonna do today.
0:19:31.3 NS: But at the same time, our conversation is gonna make me think about what I was doing in Detroit in 2004. And I'm thinking about ideas that I might need to do in my class now that something you've said, or in my new work. So my thoughts are all at once and simultaneous and going in lots of directions, even while I'm marching sequentially through time. So I think the comics page is cool because it can really... It can handle that sequence, but it can also allow you all the unusual connections that we make. We make them all the time. We make leaps. We make sideways leaps.
0:20:13.3 NS: So comics are, as you said in the opening, yes, there's this marriage of word and image, which is super important and allows us all these things, but it also changes what reading. Reading, we're used to sort of read as left, right, carriage return. You go and the typewriter thing goes back, I guess maybe people don't know what a carriage is anymore. But the carriage return, it comes back, it comes back, it comes back, right? But comics allow carriage returns if that's what you want, but it also allows you to move upward and move right to left once in a while. Or just a simple thing like, when do you encounter the words in a comic, you read the words and then look at the pictures, which comes first? Which comes... Or do you take in the whole page and sort of view the page and then sort of make your way in and out?
0:21:00.9 NS: So the whole hierarchy of reading is sort of cut up a little bit in comics and allows for these different possibilities, which to me is one of the... I really thrive on trying to push what reading flow looks like, and even moreso in my new work, because I just got intrigued about that. How can I take you on a little journey each time you encounter the page and make that journey feel a little bit like the idea what I'm talking about? So each page moves in a way that is supposed to feel something like I'm talking about. And so that adds another layer of... I'm able to convey another layer of meaning, even while the pictures are saying something, the images are saying something. That is just a lot coming together.
0:21:54.1 NS: So, yeah. Comics aren't simple. And you might think they are. I think that's the sort of dismissive part, you're like, "Oh, I can read that quickly, I can look at... " And they can be, but so can books, you can make Whatever for Dummies or any of those things exist. You can have light reading and you can have not light reading, and you can have light comics and not... But if you want, you can put so many layers. That's really where, to come back to what Unflattening meant, the word came to me when I was... Some of the early classes, I had a class with my advisor Ruth Binns, who is in English education, and we had to shadow a researcher for the semester, find another researcher you were interested in and read a bunch of their works and analyze and do stuff with it. And I picked Alan Moore, which, not really an educational researcher, but I was already quite versed in his work, but I read everything and I tried to think about, well, how is he and his collaborators using the page to make meaning, and try to understand that aspect of it.
0:23:03.5 NS: And so as I did it, what I... Coming back to the point here, is that I was thinking about how much information a piece of a comic book page could contain that made it go far beyond the capacity of what a flat sheet of paper seemed like it could do. So somehow, I could layer information and interconnect information to make something that was really not flat. A flat piece of paper does this much; a comic book page with all of its images interacting, its composition interacting, its words and pictures interacting, all of a sudden, this thing was really expansive, came out in dimension. So the first time I wrote Unflattening as a word, it was thinking about how comics could present information in a really less than flat way, which also has the connotations of not boring and all that, too, but I meant that less than just sort of pure density that you could get on a... It takes a lot of time to do that, but yeah.
0:24:07.4 NC: Now, this might be kind of a related follow-up to some of that. I just wanted to mostly point this out to listeners as well, and I had shared the page with you when I had this revelation, and this was really the thing where I... Where this came to me as, "Okay, this is something special, this has gotta be away, a new way of thinking about things," but perhaps we can unpack this here as well. But on page 81 now, you followed up with that rhizomatic thinking with this wonderful collage of shapes representing the perspectives as text boxes and visuals. Your eye kind of follows diagonally across the page toward its conclusion. A human figure stands on these swirling waves, geometric shapes, and the knotted strands, representing the intertwining of thought in the text boxes read, and you referenced Root-Bernstein: "Found that scientists versed in the arts possess a distinct advantage in making discoveries. So equipped, they are able to see from other sides, play, make connections and look at problems in expansive ways."
0:25:07.0 NC: Finally, the bottom text on the page reads, "To prepare good thinkers, we need to cultivate good see-ers, or seers." And it struck me that this was probably more than just a play on words. Could you help us understand the meaning and power behind behind that statement?
0:25:24.1 NS: Yeah, I don't talk about this one enough. This is, on this surface level, and that's what Root-Bernstein's study discovered, is that scientists versed in the art. So this goes back to CP Snow's... What is PC's Snow's where I quoted in here at least once... The two cultures. CP Snow's, the two cultures, which is the humanities and the sciences, that they really shouldn't be separate. So this is, on its basic level, an interdisciplinarial thing, that the examples I have here and in other places are... People that were versed in arts could look at a crystal in a different way, or look at DNA in a different way, and see things that maybe people with more data had trouble seeing. And some of these stories have some issues with them so I won't go into the specifics 'cause I think they've been challenged over the years.
0:26:21.9 NS: But the concept, I think, is clear enough. But I think... And some of it also certainly an argument just for me being who I am, that I'm interested in arts and mathematics, and I don't think that's so weird. But I think it's really true. I mean, clearly, you need to have lots of expertise in something to make big discoveries. But I think when your expertise gets really narrow, it can be really hard to make the connections that make big jumps. You can be really cut off from seeing all these other kinds of ways of thinking. So I think, very clearly, I mean, look, obviously we might talk about the blind project, too. So this... Say it carefully, that we are visual creatures, that's how we've come to be, and we engage with the world with our senses. And visual's not part of our senses.
0:27:29.8 NS: We're still engaging with our world through a variety of senses, and to pretend we're not, to pretend that we're creatures that sit and think, it narrows us. I think it really narrows us. So, I think cultivating, as I said here, the cultivating good seers, our ability to see, our ability to make connections with visuals. Which I think in my current thinking, I would expand... I would try to find other words to use besides purely visual here, but I am talking about comics, so it's okay I think to stay in that. The more versed we are in the visual arts or other arts, I think the more able we are to think in whatever form we're doing. Whether it's mathematics, whether it's the sciences, whether it's whatever, we've got those very basic human skills.
0:28:20.9 NS: And I think the truth's really even deeper, is about movement, like we're creatures that... We're animals, animals move, that's what they do, that's what makes them animals. And I've been reading Maxine Sheets-Johnstone as part of my new work, thinking about her work, which is all about movement as sort of as our first way of thinking, as our first... And that is like, what did things do at the beginning, they moved. Did they say, "I want this"? Maybe, but they moved to it. They moved to the thing, they moved to the light, they moved to the smell, they moved away from something scary. When you're a baby, you move to the smells that you want, you recoil from something that hurts, that's kind of...
0:29:12.2 NS: So how do we cultivate the sort of core level of our senses? Again, to come back to the visual, how do we cultivate that so that you can bring that to bear? And I don't think it's that some people are artistic and some people aren't. I don't think that's it at all. I think we, by nature of the kind of species we are, are sort of oriented around visual things, or our other senses that are very strong, if the visual is not. So, how do we say that those things matter, and they would've mattered to all of us for our survival 30,000 years ago, but how do we not sort of let them die? [chuckle] I know that's too strong a word, but how do we keep them fresh and keep them important? And if you wanna apply this to schools, it's pretty simple. What's the first programs to get cut? Art music gets cut first, maybe gym class gets cut first.
0:30:12.6 NC: Yeah.
0:30:12.7 NS: I don't know. It's a 50/50. Those get cut. Even my daughter happens to go... She got into a public charter school here that's a more art spaced, and we liked it, and she got in the art pottery. And it's a good school. They do things that are a little bit more artsy, but on their test weeks or conference weeks, the classes that get cut those weeks, they're art are classes. It's like, "Ah, we didn't have art music this week, 'cause we had these thing." Those are the things that get cut. They only got once a week to begin with, and it's a school that's got arts in the name. And I'm not disparaging any of the other things, but I think we learn to make connections when you're studying painting, or thinking about. You learn to do things that are good for you just as a human, but they're also good for you in the sort of the productive way that we seem to need to think about things they help you.
0:31:10.6 NS: And I think that's what the point of their study was, the Root-Bernstein study, is that scientists with these kind of trainings could really do make leaps that... So, I don't know, it's a sort of long answer to an impossible problem. [chuckle] But I think these things are important, and they shouldn't be an afterthought. It shouldn't be like, "Well... " And also, I guess this would be one other thing I speak about myself. So when I studied mathematics, you tell people, "Oh, what do you do?" I said, "Oh, I'm in math classes and stuff." And they'd say, "Oh, you're so smart. You're so smart."
0:31:53.4 NS: And it's sort of annoying 'cause it's not nice... I don't know. I'm not a big fan of people telling you you're smart. But then if you make art, they say, "Oh, you're so talented." And so there's this wall, there's this big wall between those two things. And in my case, I think I was really a talented mathematician, I was really clever at figuring things out. How smart or not? I don't know, but I was talented, I could do stuff. I could do stuff. And in my art, I mean, I'm pretty skilled, but there's people that are way more skilled, I watch students that crank out things, I mean, I'm stubborn, so I make things work eventually.
0:32:32.6 NS: But I think making my art has made me so much smarter because I can think in ways that I couldn't otherwise. So, I say this a lot now, that I think this barrier between smart and talented has been really, really unhealthy. And it affects both, right? You get science people think, "Oh, I don't draw." And you get art people who are like terrified of mathematics. And there's reasons for that. And maybe... I'm not saying people are all the same. Some people are more comfortable with things, but their upbringing makes a difference. The teachers they have make... There's a lot of things that make a difference. So for me, one of the most fun things I have is working with drawers, working with adults, like non-drawers, self-described non drawers.
0:33:15.6 NS: Because then I can help them rediscover things and they're so excited. And they do amazing things because they all can. They gotta navigate the world, which means they know... If I have people make marks in a quick exercise, like, if you make a smooth curve, like we all know what that means. We all know what that means. You don't need anybody to train drawer to know that that's something comfortable or calm. And we know a jagged line. We know the kind of line, your face starts to squinched up when you make a jagged line. You don't need art training to know that. You just need to have a body. So, how do we bring that back in? I think we need to cultivate it. And I don't think that means cultivating it in a way that says, let's train everyone to be a professional artist.
0:34:03.0 NS: That means, let's give everyone these experiences and see what they do with them, see how they can apply them to their own experience. And to me, this is an argument for comics now, like comics... Because some people make comics where they draw these really beautiful illustrative things, and some people make comics where that's really not part of it. They're stick figures or they're almost picture lists, because they allow all these different range of skills. I think comics is a really nice bridge for that. And ultimately, people tend to tell stories or, or some kinds of... They're communicating with them. So I think it's a way they can latch onto that's maybe a little less than abstract art, which I'm not remotely disparaging here. I'm only saying that I can... People can find their way in before they've got skills. They can find their ways out and do all kinds of things. So, long answer, again. You asked me a short question. I give you a long answer.
0:35:01.1 NC: What you're speaking to is, from an educational systems lens has to be like a paradigm shift in the way that we view expertise or success in those ventures, right? The reason why people would, say, apply some value towards not just mathematical thinking, but the process of maybe answering math problems or however we tend to view those particular things or art as being viewed in a particular way instead of being viewed in that interdisciplinary way to see how they can compliment each other and how they can support and strengthen each other instead of being nonoverlapping magisteria where someone specializes early in math and they don't touch those other domains and not seeing how those things can reinforce each other. And what struck out to me, to bring it back to that word seer, is less about like a sighted person, being someone who has foresight or insight into those issues.
0:35:57.9 NC: To prepare good thinkers, we need to cultivate good seers again, brings it to like, how do we... So much of our school, our education system is not geared around training kids to be insightful. It's to find correct answers to questions that we already know the answers to, or to do those things instead of come up with clever, creative, interdisciplinary ways of thinking. And maybe it's a lapse in the research on my part, but not realizing your own personal emphasis on interdisciplinary studies really becomes obvious now in that work how you so literally bring those strands together. Like that's... The visual metaphor of your whole work is of strands coming together, seeing those different perspectives in contrast to earlier in the work where you show people on the on the conveyor belt all in line being molded in these particular ways.
0:36:44.8 NC: So there is a paradigm shift in unflattening perhaps school structures and systems to help support insightful ways of making connections, instead of putting people down a particular path towards math or towards English or towards any of these other things. So to bring things around, you had mentioned the the blind accessibility part of that, and that struck out to me, not just because it's the first part of your website. So it's the first thing that you see when you get on there. And immediately that concept just just jumped out to me. But at Human Restoration Project, we're designing this interdisciplinary curriculum for our partners in Poland right now. And even though each lesson has primarily an interdisciplinary lens, we're including including disciplinary extensions, so that way, you might teach an interdisciplinary lesson in a particular context, but then go into a disciplinary context, say, in math or science or social studies or language arts or physical education.
0:37:47.5 NC: And as one of the art extensions for a lesson called From empathy to action, I included some directions to using the link to your blind accessible comics as a resource, redesign, or remix existing art pieces to improve accessibility to art and culture for a range of impairments and disabilities. To really think, have people think about the access to either physical art spaces or visual art spaces, et cetera, in different ways. And as an example on your website, you've linked to a completely transcribed box-for-box version of Watchmen that is intended for screen readers. And it is awesome. I never knew such a thing existed, so I didn't know if you could discuss how did you arrive at that work? What is motivation or the inspiration to make comics in particular more accessible, and what progress has been made in that area?
0:38:39.0 NS: It's only first on my website because I don't blog much these days. But it's been a big thing we've been working on for a while. So I didn't say this in my secret origin part, but a big part of why I made comics was, I love them obviously, but it was all the sort of big ideas that I like to wrestle with, I felt like I really liked what went on in academia in this sort of thinking way, but I really didn't like how exclusive it tended to feel, like you had have the specialized language to be in it. And I didn't think it was that people weren't smart enough, it was that they just didn't have that vocabulary, and it's hard if you don't have the vocabulary. You can't be part of the conversation.
0:39:21.5 NS: So I thought comics allowed me to sort of transcend that and make complicated things accessible and bring people in. And my particular way of doing it is I never really tell you what I'm doing, it's all metaphors, I strip out. You think this is a book about education, and I agree with you, but the word in "school" or "education" or "teaching," they don't appear at all. The word "interdisciplinary" doesn't appear, none of those terms that you would use are in here. So people interpret it in all kinds of ways, which is, occasionally it's scary, but mostly that's what I wanted.
0:40:00.8 NS: So, to summarize that my goal in making comics is, my work was to make it accessible. And I think it's been quite successful in that, except it's left out one audience in which it's completely inaccessible, not even a little bit accessible. And I certainly in my work is even worse in that it's all about the visual, too, so not only is it difficult to translate. It's also... 'Cause no story either, there's no simple way to summarize it. It's also all about visual metaphors, which I know are metaphors and I know... But they're drawn, so then they become more concrete, so it's a tricky thing. So I was aware of much of this when I was doing it, but you can only figure out so many things at once, you can't... You can't master it all.
0:40:55.6 NS: So it was on my mind and I would periodically... There was a comic for blind readers called Shape reader, it's a tactile thing, it's on... It listed on my list of resources that came out, I think while I was still in the dissertation thing. And I would collect these things. Originally, that's part of the education part of my website started as a wiki for my classes, and then I just put it on my site, it just grew so much, there's too many things to maintain. And then it got big enough that are sort of its own page. There was a number of things, and when I got hired here at San Francisco State, I happened to get hired at the same time as another Professor, Ting, who's in... She's in special education, but working with blind access, that's her field.
0:41:51.1 NS: And we just got to talking. That first week, we were in orientation about comics and making them accessible, and her then boyfriend now husband was doing some research on special education in comics. So she had some interest in it, so we just kept talking, and any time I would see some project about adapting comics for blind readers, I would send it over to her and say, "Hey, does this sound like somebody who's actually consulting in the blind community or does it sound like somebody who doesn't have a good idea of what they are doing?" Most of them have been in the latter.
0:42:31.8 NS: So anyway, a few years passed, and then I have a student who offended her master's thesis as a comic. And so the library had some questions like, "How can we make sure this accessible?" Some people saw that as an opportunity to get really worried, and I thought this was, "Wow, that's awesome. This is an opportunity to think about how we could do it better. How can we make this better?" And we met with the library people, and that's how I left that conversation. You can do the minimum, you can describe the page, say what the text is, and do a best summary in the page, or maybe you can do better things. And that student did a really thorough job of doing the description. But I talked to Ting about this, and then we applied for some internal grant to have a small project, and so we teamed up also, we have Longmore Institute for Disability on campus.
0:43:24.8 NS: So the three of us, Emily, Ting, and myself, started working on this and we had this first thing that was just... We got Scott McCloud, and I knew Scott's dad was blind, he was a rocket scientist, and then Scott's daughter, who's a filmmaker, his older daughter, also developed the same... She got this same gene that causes this blindness. And so we got the two of them, a couple of blind accessibility people, and the week before, I said, "Let's... Should we just see if the public wants to come? This is gonna be so a small internal thing."
0:44:01.7 NS: And I put it out on Twitter, and 800 people signed up a few days later. So, it was a great conversation, but it prompted us to hold a second thing, we got a symposium that summer, more amount of people, but it was an all-day... We had a panel on tactile comics panel, on audio, a panel on new media, and then one about depictions of blind and comics. And that was a big thing, and then we thought the next step should be to put some of this into practice, so a design competition to make accessible comics. And each team has to include at least one blind low-vision member, and that we launched late spring of this year, sometime, and the submissions have come in. So we're about to judge them to see which ones... We got some funding to fund the projects, and then we'll exhibit them when they're finished, so we have proposals for the project now and then...
0:44:56.9 NS: So to me, I believe in comics is a accessible form, but obviously it leaves out people, and I'm not gonna stop making comics because of that. But how can we? I think about my pages and they're so difficult. They're so difficult. And that's the strength of them. To me, the strength of them is the way I use the visual does all these things. How can you make that... It's one thing to say, "Alright, Batman punches the Joker and he jumps down, and the Joker doesn't get up." That's pretty simple, but how do you get the feeling of like, this black mass crosses the page and it's in this wide panel and this... Whatever. How do you do that? It's really hard. And there's all kind of... There's tactile approaches, those haptic approaches, there's audio. Even too descriptive ones could be dramatically different. Somebody might choose to really focus on all the little details, and somebody else might do it and say, "I just wanna know what happened."
0:46:04.9 NS: And anyway, so that... It's sort of an accidental thing. I just was curious about it and thought, "I should be better at it from own work and my own teaching," and then teaming up with these other professors at university, it just kind of snowballed on it, so... No, I'd like to see the industry... You can't... If you're interested in Spider-Man and you are blind, you've gotta have a friend who's willing to read it to you and tell you what happened. There is nothing, there's no screen reader, maybe there are some things, but the Marvel Comics doesn't do this. DC Comics doesn't do this. And it's hard. It is a hard thing, like book publishers have whole teams that are devoted to this, they don't... They just gotta read the book, maybe they get good voice actors and stuff, but at the end of the day, there's not a lot of extra stuff they gotta do, maybe they do a fancy one where they put sounds and stuff in. But comics is a whole other level and I... Yeah, I don't know.
0:47:00.8 NS: I don't have a lot of expertise in this at all. I mean, the stuff I collect on my website, it's there for people to look at and to learn from, but I think it's important, and I don't know where we'll get to it, to see the industry change. I'd love to see some accessible versions in my own work. I realize that's gonna be extremely difficult. You said something about words and pictures at the beginning. It's one thing to translate the words, but particularly, I don't write dialogue, so the words in my comics are often very particular... I use the word "lightning," to make lighter, and English speakers often spell it wrong. They butcher that work. But I was making a pun with "lightning" and the act of lighting, and so that's confusing to native English speakers 'cause they spell it wrong all the time.
0:47:57.0 NS: But then when it got translated, and I only caught it in the third translation, 'cause then I started looking up some words, 'cause I don't speak any of the language it's translated into. They translated the word incorrect... Understandably, they got the word wrong. And so, I realize that... Translating poetry, because the words are so specific to how they interplay with the image. It's not enough to get the word a correct synonym for the word, it's gotta be the word that connotes the same meaning as the word you use. So, it's a challenge. It's a real challenge, and accessible comics is a bigger challenge than translation is.
0:48:41.4 NC: And I think, too, just providing the space for collaboration and innovation in there, just to highlight the scope of the problem and then get smart creative people to bring to bear their ideas on it. And no solution is gonna be perfect right out the gate, but then just have folks iterating on that, and at least trying to improve the experience for people and make that stuff accessible. It's with any issue with accessibility. One of the things that I think about, a corollary perhaps in the Twitter alt-text, as anybody has to share resources now in thinking, "How do I... How would a screen read to read this image," or "How do I get the right meaning across in this thing?" Hopefully, it just helps prompt more people to think about how they can make those intellectual spaces, more accessible for not just for visually impaired folks, but also for people with other disabilities or issues with accessibility, too.
0:49:38.7 NS: Since we first had these conversations about the project, I've done the alt-Text for all my posts and it's work. I'm like, "Ooh, this is cool, I just wanna share it." And then I'm like, "Oh, shoot, I gotta... " But I always do it now. And I signed up for alt-text reminders, so the three or four times in the last year and a half that I forgot, and I get this note that says, "You forgot," I'm like, "Oh, crud, I don't believe it." I don't see a lot of it yet, and maybe at least not in comics, may be in other spaces. NASA just rocked it last week with the description to amazing.
0:50:12.0 NC: Yeah, with the James Webb images they released?
0:50:13.6 NS: Yeah.
0:50:14.2 NC: Oh, yeah. You gotta get the... You gotta get the intern or whoever, the social media person, to do... To transcribe Unflattening for you. [chuckle]
0:50:22.3 NS: Yeah, I'd love to see it. I love to... I'll just say one more thing about the project. When we had that first or second symposium, I can't remember, I kind of thought I would walk away from it saying, "Oh, I know what I wanna do with my work. Here's how I'll make it accessible," but what I left with is like, "No. There's a lot of weight. People are in this community, they already know this. One size-fits-all is not the right... " Because there's people who are born blind at birth, there's people who are blind much later in life, and they may want different things, there's people who are comfortable with tactile, people who don't do any of it. So, there is no, like, "I'm gonna just make this thing and it's gonna work for everyone," 'cause it's more complicated than that, so it's a big issue, but we got smart people. We can do things. Yeah.
0:51:23.6 NC: And do I understand right, that... I think I saw videos of the symposium on YouTube. Is that correct?
0:51:31.1 NS: It's all up. Yeah. Everything we've done is... So through my website, there's links to it, it's on the education tab on my site.
0:51:38.4 NC: Just wrapping up here. What's your next big project? What are you working on? How can listeners learn more about you and your work? Where can they find you in online spaces?
0:51:47.2 NS: Well, I've been very slowly working on the follow-up to Unflattening, which is... I don't know that you can have a sequel to a philosophical comic book that was a dissertation, but I think if you did, it's this. But it pushes on... Some of the stuff we've talked... Some of the things that, when I give talks about my work or I teach about it, about drawing as a kind of thinking in the body, and especially having small children, as you know as well, watching them learn through their bodies. They also learn through words, but they're learning through how big their shoulders are when they're weaving through chairs, or something, right? So this one, it took me a long time to sort of... I knew what I wanted to do pretty early on, but it took me a while to figure out the thing that made it my work and not just sort of an academic look at these things. And the goal of it is to really look back at what we are, what made us what we are, what we are both in growing but as a species, and then look at what thinking is from that perspective. And then in the metaphorical way that I do things, think about the implications of that on education. Which, again, I won't offer any answers or tell you what I'm talking about.
0:53:18.3 NS: But I'll know it. So, right now, it's technically titled Nostos, N-O-S-T-O-S, which is the Greek word for "return." A delight in return. My editor actually suggested it, and this is sort of what The Odyssey and other things are Nostos told. "Nostalgia" comes from the same root. And it's not about nostalgia, but it's delight in return, and I think there is delight in reminding how you made marks or you sang or you moved your body when you were three or five. So, I'm not 100% sure that'll stay the title at the end, but the idea will be there the whole time. That, how do we remind of what it's like to be that, even as we're not that? And that doesn't mean you forget how to tie your shoes and things like that; it means, how do you keep that way of being in the world alive? And again, that doesn't sound maybe that different than how I talk about Unflattening, but it goes further, and it uses The Odyssey as sort of a framing metaphor. Doesn't really have anything to do with it, but it uses it. And I've been drawing five years. [chuckle] I've drawn about...
0:54:45.7 NS: I've got three chapters in five years. I've had very small children and a pandemic, so, my time to work is... It's hard, it's a much harder book, research-wise. I spent two years drawing what a not-yet-born baby in the first year or so of their lives would be like. Which, drawing babies is... I probably drew several hundred pictures of babies, and that's hard and just... I had to teach myself all these fields that I don't know. I mean, I had children, but I don't know all the things about pendulum walking, like how you learn. I might have witnessed it, but I don't... I now do, right? I now know how your lungs switch on when you're born. I'll forget it soon, but I spent a lot of time learning those things. So it's a lot of fun to teach myself all this stuff, but each page has dozens to possibly hundred sources to wrestle with before I can draw anything. And then I gotta wrestle with all the visual sources. So, very slowly, I am making my way through it, but I'm thrilled with it. And I often show my sketches and working things, if you happen to follow me on Twitter, often late at night, so if you stay up late at night you'll see them.
0:56:10.4 NS: And I hashtag them with Nostos and Unflattering 2 so that I can keep track of them when I need them for my... Remembering what I did in all that 10 years after I've done it. And then my website, occasionally I post bits of it, but that's a more permanent record of it, so somehow I feel like I don't share it on my website as much as things I could, because people see it or they don't, and I don't care.
0:56:37.2 NC: No, that's awesome. Well, Nick, honestly, it's a delight. Your work is wonderful. I'd encourage all the listeners to check out both your Twitter handle, your website, I'll reference those things, as well as your working in Unflattening.
0:56:51.9 NS: Thanks.
0:56:52.7 NC: Just incredible perspective, changing... A consciousness-raising work. If there's still some time in the summer for listeners to get that and read it before school starts, it could really just help blend those perspectives and bring the interdisciplinary mindset to the work ahead of all of us in the fall. So, Nick, thanks for...
0:57:12.6 NS: Yeah, can I add one thing?
0:57:14.3 NC: Yeah, of course.
0:57:15.4 NS: The education part of my website, I have all my drawn syllabi and everything I do in my classes, including all the activities, including my opening exercise. So I've documented... Not all of it 'cause I can't keep up with it, but I've documented a lot of what I do, and it's there for people to use. So I throw that out there to say, if you wanna see what it looks like in my classroom, it's all there, and people are free to... It's there, I put it out publicly so you can have it. Yeah, that's it.
0:57:50.7 NC: Yeah, I've seen those syllabi and they're incredible, so yes, definitely check those out.
0:57:55.7 NS: It's fun, and it's interesting thing. I get students to do things like sketch note, that is to draw notes. But I think when I do it myself, that impresses... Not impresses in a, like, "Wow that's impressive," but it makes it clear that this is important from the first thing. It's a better way for me to see what the class is gonna be, and for them to see, and then for them to find their own way. So I'd like to do even more of that kind of drawing my classwork. But anyway, it's all there for people to have.
0:58:31.9 NC: Well, Nick, thank you very much.
0:58:33.5 NS: Yeah, thanks so much.
On Graphic Scholarship: A Conversation with Nick Sousanis (The Comics Grid)