Drawing your PhD: another way of doing research?

Labo des Savoirs met Nick Sousanis, “comic professor” at San Fransisco State University. He quite logically got this position after the publication of his PhD memoir, Unflattening (Harvard University Press), as a graphic novel. His goal is not only to reach a wider audience: Nick explains us how his thinking is shaped by both his drawing and writing activities. He is also giving us some keys to better use our ability to organize things in space.

French version available here

Jérémy Freixas, Labo des savoirs’s volunteer : Thanks again to be here, can you first introduce yourself in a few words ?

N: Hi, I’m Nick Sousanis, I am now a professor at San Francisco State University, working in Liberal Studies and Humanities, and starting a comic studies program here. A few years ago, I did my doctoral dissertation entirely in comics form : it is now this book Unflattening, which is also out in French. It is an argument for visual thinking, teaching and learning. I’m happy to talk with you.

J: Good! I have a first question: there is a famous sentence from Saint Thomas, in French it is: “Je ne crois que ce que je vois”. I may translate it by “I believe only what I see”. As a visual scientists, are you like St Thomas, do you only believe what you see ?

N: I like that! I guess no. I probably don’t believe only what I see. But I do think direct observation of the world really helps us figuring out what is going on in the world, even if what we see is actually not what is happening. I think it gives us a glimpse into what is happening. We have to use our rational side along with our perceptual side, if that makes any sense.

J: Sure, that leads me to another question: from a general point of view, how does your drawing activity change the way you are doing research? is it changing the way you are applying scientific method? as you said, you are trying to mix different information from different ways of thinking, how do you do this mix?

N: I think that is a really important thing. I set out to do this work in comics because of the potential to make work that is more accessible: it can be read by more audiences. Not because it is simple, but because people can read things through the visual and not get stuck in the language. I started my work in comics because I saw the potential for it to reach a much wider audience and not having the same barriers that academic texts tend to have. But it’s not like I wrote a script and then added pictures to it. Those sketches really taught me where to go, and took me in directions in terms of what more I brought into the research.

I was able to articulate things that are quite different than had I worked in text and then stuck pictures into it. So I think that for me, but I see it in my students and I tend to work with students who described themselves as non drawers, I see that it’s a different way of thinking. It opens possibilities for our understanding about our work and about ourselves, that we would not have working in text alone.

J: What cannot be said only with words? Why do you need to use both words and pictures?

N: It is obviously the core of the book. It took me a while to say this better and I do not know that I have still figured it out. It is not that text is a bad thing. This is not an anti-text book at all. It is only to say: look, words do things a certain way, there is a certain structure for you to arrange your thinking. It is very powerful and efficient, it has a lot of strengths but there are also things that do not fit into word’s structure.

I want to give you a really simple example.

This is not really even pictures but if I ask you how to tie your shoe, I think describing that in words is not impossible, but it is a really difficult thing and you probably will struggle at it.

With the act of putting your hand on my hand, or on your three-year-old’s hand, and taking the physical movements of that, we understand without necessarily having the words for that.

On a slightly deeper level, there are all kinds of ways of expressing ideas that do not really fit. I cite Susanne Langer’s work that talks about irrational, that do not fit in language’s linear structure.

It is not necessarily that they are irrational, it’s just that they do not have a way of being articulated that we understand very well. This is a very hard thing to say in words, the question is hard to talk about.

Images give you this ability. Especially the interplay of image with text gives you this opportunity to sort of play between meanings. The text is pointing towards one thing and images pointing towards something maybe related, maybe slightly at odds with it. That tension between the two that allows a play on the author’s part but also on the readers’ part, to maybe open up more questions than then when it’s just in one or the other.

J: That is very interesting, but for me, this format, mixing images and words, may be tougher to understand. When you worked on your book, did you fear that the message you are trying to give was not clear for the reader due to this format a bit unusual?

N: I don’t know about fear. But I certainly expected it. And I definitely see it where people take it to mean something different than I meant, which I think is really interesting.

I’ll back up a little bit.

I did a short piece before working on Unflattening. I did a chapter on a book on narrative research as a comic. I did this comic that, depending on who read it, was either a comic about doing research or, about drawing or, about seeing.

What you thought I was talking depended on your background, because it had all those metaphors in it and it never really named anything. I really liked that idea that I could make something that you understood the deeper significance behind it, but maybe you didn’t understand the field that I was in, because you applied it to your own field.

With Unflattening, I really tried to do the same thing. I have very strong concerns about the institution of Education and the importance of interdisciplinary thinking. But if somebody else reads it, and applied it to the institution they are a part of, or the kinds of ways that they feel, sort of trapped in their experience, that was great with me.

I don’t know how that translates, because I think it’s a pretty difficult thing to translate, even though there is not a lot of words, I think it’s very difficult to find the same kind of specific word that that means exactly what I want but also he’s ambiguous enough for somebody who does not have my background to read it and still have meaning. I think that comes back to what I said about access. Coming back for my doctorate, I really liked the discussion of ideas that happens in the academy, but I was always disappointed or discouraged that it tends to stay in the academy. I thought that with comics, I could bring that out. And not by making it simpler: my comics are far from being simple. The strength in them is that they can help people ask their own questions. I have taken them on a journey, maybe different for the person next to them. It is a journey that lets them formulate their own questions and and read their own things into it.

To go back to your question, I think it certainly does give up some kind of control: this is precisely what I mean. There are some dangers: I’ve seen a few interpretations I would strongly disagree with, but for the most part, I feel people are taking it in the ways that they can apply to their own situation and that, I’m really excited about.

J: This is very complete! I was not expected such answer. So by drawing scientific stuff, people are more engaged? Is this it?

N: I do not know about more engaged. People are drawn to images.

They take them, look at them, they can absorb them pretty quickly. I think in terms of that, yes, you can engage people very quickly. But that may be a turn-off for some people who do not take them very seriously and and think this is just for kids or whatever.

To your question, my particular way of making comics is to make them more difficult, with that sort of ambiguity of meaning, whereas the majority of educational comics tend to be a little more didactic. The text explains a lot and the pictures serve as an illustration.

There is a little more like: “this is exactly what I mean, and here is a picture of what I mean”.

I think that’s a more direct approach.

Images allow you to play in a lot of different ways. You can be more direct, but can also you leave this gap between image and text and let that dialogue between them create something.

You can go either way: you can make something that’s simpler, the sort of the “dummies guide to whatever”, but you can also make something, and this was my intent, that makes it more complicated. But also still, I hope, accessible, because people can read it through their understanding of the images and the the relatively small amount of text and lack of scientific terms. There is not a lot of specific terms in my work at all.

J: Okay, that made me think about a lecture I attended a few days ago about scientific edition and how people are trying to make it more open. It is one of your problematic: to be sure that your work we will be read by other parts then only academics.

So by drawing you are trying to to add some shades of understanding, and so different types of messages in one support, so you can have something quite simple for wider public for instance and something more, maybe, sophisticated for scientists. Is it that?

N: I think yes. There is a big need for the sciences to explain themselves so that people understand the impact of it. Whether it is storytelling, whether it is comics, whether it is whatever, how do you make it accessible and engaging is really important. Comics are a powerful way to do that.

I think the flip side of it is that comics do not have to be the simple version. They can they can still be complex: that is my claim.

You can obviously say how an atom works. If you use the very way that images work to do something that really gets at that idea, in the way that a physicist understands, but does not certainly get trapped in the language that somebody who is not a physicist wouldn’t have.

Can I give you one example? I got hired after the book to do a comic book [link: http://www.nature.com/news/the-fragile-framework-1.18861] for the journal Nature for the Paris climate talks in 2015. It is a little less poetic than Unflattening. I worked with a climate journalist. We took the 25 years of climate conferences, we took the history of the science, we took the effects, and tried to talk about what’s possible in the future. We condensed this massive amount of data. If you wrote it in text, it would have been a huge article that probably people would not all get through.

We condensed it into a very dense eight page comic, but not a simple comic at all.

Thanks to that ability to layer images next to each other, on top of each other, and that ability to say a lot with images, you don’t need a lot of text.

And the ability for text and image to speak together allows you to put a ton more information in a small space but still make it readable. A young reader can handle it even though there is a high density of information.

Just to go back to “unflattening” as a word. It came to have a lot more meanings as I developed the work, but the initial meaning was the way that comics could actually hold more information than it seems possible on a flat sheet of paper. Somehow, that layering of images, the layering of text and images could create a density beyond what you could do.

J: That is very impressive, thanks for the link. To go back to the previous answer you gave, you said that with Unflattening you want to to make the reader to have is own journey. Is this a the experience of the unflattening for the reader? Indeed, the core idea of your book is the need to have a sort of break in the way one is looking at the word. Trying to have other points of view to see different things. If you take the reader on his own journey, are we a bit like the square, and are you like the sphere? Is a goal of your book: to provide a different experience than a just a text?

N: I do not know how much I would have said that.

To your question about comics from before, I think that there is something very visceral about responding to an image in a way that is quite different than responding to text. It is not the same as having the experiment, but I think there is something slightly closer to it.

The book does not answer a lot of questions right.

Sometimes people ask me, especially teachers: “so now, what should I do in my classroom?”. And I am like: “I don’t know, it is your classroom!”.

Like you have been saying, I am taking you on this journey and the end goal of the journey is for you to understand that you can ask your own questions.

Maybe, you have made those ruptures that made you say “oh I haven’t thought from this perspective before, and so now I am challenging the way I do my own thinking”. Not because I am claiming, not because I am giving you any answers to say: “this is the place you should be thinking from”. So when you take it back to a classroom it’s not to say “Nick Sousanis has not given you anything that you are supposed to do in your classroom, but maybe he’s given you something that’s let you look at your own classroom in a different way. And let you think of what could I bring into my own classroom? what are some other vantage points that are of interest to me and I think could change the way I’m teaching? or the way I’m studying? or the way I’m making things?”. I think that is my goal and and I think you said it better than I did.

That is very important to me.

J: Nice, just to go back a moment about scientific method: your book is an ode to imaginary, to fantasy and to things unexpected. It seems quite opposite to scientific method: do you think it is a contradiction, to make science with things which are opposite to it?

N: Well, I do not know why it seems a contradiction. The book itself is a philosophical essay so it is not as scientific in the way, let’s say, the Nature piece I mentioned. It is not that kind of piece: it deals with a lot of science, but its overall goal is a little different than that.  What do you mean by contradiction?

J: In your book, you are presenting a kind of argumentation: it is pretty similar to all the texts I can read in a formal science with, for instance, chapters, each chapter is related to a topic, you have some references, you are manipulating some concepts: so I think it is not so far from a science book.

N: I agree, I do not think it is that far at all, it just has pictures.

J: Yes! the fact is you are saying that to you need to put some fantasy, you need to use your imagination, you need to try not to control everything and finally, when I compare to my work in my lab when I am trying to make some experiments, it is pretty different. Because I am trying to to control everything, I am trying to measure each parameter and trying to foresee what will happen. So it is two different way of experiencing the reality. Is it compatible?

N: I still do not see why it would not be. Obviously I am not doing an experiment, this is philosophical research. Drawing helped me push some of the things that I explored in mathematics. I feel like that ability to come from multiple perspectives allowed me to think a little bit differently than I might otherwise have done.

There are tons of books on scientists who also played music, or also drew, or all that were able to make the kind of connections that they supposedly would not have made otherwise.

I do not see that as incompatible. Obviously lab work is a different thing than writing an essay, so I guess I do not disagree or agree. I just do not have an useful response, sorry.

J: No, I think that maybe the question is not that good!

N: I do not think it is a bad question. The fact that I use pictures does not have much bearing. How does philosophy compare to research procedure? Is that incompatible in the same way?

J: I think there are common points: you want to have a kind of argumentation. I think it is the same when you are working in the lab: you have some hypothesis in mind and you want to test them by doing some experiments. I think that we have just different playgrounds. I am working on physics, so I am manipulating chemicals and so on. When you are philosopher, you are mainly working with abstract concepts in your mind. But the way you are trying to treat them and to articulate them is pretty similar.

I will try to answer my own question, what you have already done it in a certain way. I think it is not the contradiction.

I am teaching a bit physics in the University, and when we are trying, with the students, to solve a problem, the first step for me is to draw a schematic of the situation. On your book you are also giving some examples of scientists or physicists who think that drawing is important. For instance Feynman, I think he is now very popular thanks to his way of presenting some quantic phenomenons thanks to these waves and sticks.

I think so that the two are very important because you need to have precision and to write everything to have a kind of rigorous actions.

But you need also to to be open: if you just want to to find out what you want to find, you mainly find things which are not very interesting because you can foresee them. I think that you need to make your imagination work even, if you are a physicist, to be sure that you will understand things in their way, and not on the way you want they want to be.

I think it is very related to your work, the fact that you need different points of view and not to be focused only on one thing.

N: I like that!

J: Good! Do you think that drawing is an important activity for all researchers?

N: I do. I really do.

J: Why? What will they get from drawing?

N: We are visual creatures, right. We are always making sense of our world through visual things. We are spatial, we move through space, we know things are next to each other or far from each other. We know all these things about organizing things in space. I do not think thinking is this like a line of code, we are not like computers at all. That metaphor is a terrible one. We are bodies that makes sense of things because we are living the world in a certain way and where our fingers are organized a certain way, etc. If we were octopuses I think we would think things very differently. The ways we would organize our thoughts would be quite different.

In both workshops and in public talks, what I see is that primarily, people say they do not draw. Everybody can do it! And I think everybody who does start to do it starts to see something a little different about their thinking. About how they might articulate an idea, or how they might look at some situation in their lives in a way that they had not previously thought.

Here is an even simpler example: you go out for a run, and you have all these ideas. You are like “I get it, I get all these things” and then you go try to put it down on a piece of paper. It can be very difficult because those thoughts do not fit quite as neatly as in the way you were making all these connections spatially, when your body was moving. It is not to say that a physicist is suddenly gonna end up drawing but it is to say: how using that thing, that fundamental human thing to make marks with your body and to move your body through space? how can you leverage that to be part of how you do your thinking?

Maybe in the end, you will get the exact same written document that you might have done.

Hopefully this way of using this literacy allows you to see in a different way. If I ask a hundred people to raise their hand if they can write, everybody is gonna do it. If you ask that same question to who says they can draw, you are gonna get a fraction of, maybe ten hands out of a hundred. That is ignoring some very fundamental way that humans make sense of the world. We are always arranging things spatially and so. If we at least reintegrate that practice, the benefits are can be profound.  

J: Do you have some advice for scientists want to start drawing, mostly if they don’t know how to draw?

N: Do I have some advice? I am a big fan of Lynda Barry. She is a sort of alternative cartoonist for a long long time. In more recent years she started teaching at the University of Wisconsin. She did these creativity books on drawing for non drawers.

One of the reasons people quit drawing, or think they cannot draw, is because we have a very narrow view of what drawing is. If I say “I want to draw like Hergé”, that is a very particular skill in a very particular way of drawing, that was attained over a lot of practice and a lot of refinement over his lifetime. That is a very difficult thing to do. If you can say that drawing is organizing marks, shapes and color in a spatial plane: everybody can do that!

I made up this sort of non representational comics making exercise that originally comes from for my classes [link: http://spinweaveandcut.com/grids-gestures/]. Now, I have done it a lot in my talks, and I did it as a Twitter challenge last year. It is called “Grids and gestures”. I say a few setup things about how comics work and how time can be rendered in space. And I ask them to structure the shape of their day on a single sheet of paper like. They sort of carve it up into boxes, in the ways that comics organized in a page. Have them inhabit that with lines, marks and gestures, that represent how they felt or what they were up to.

I give them like between five and ten minutes to do it, and I see this explosion of energy, and creativity, and thought. If I asked them to write a diary entry about their day, it would be a very different thing.

You get a room of 30 people or doing that, and those 30 people will all organize what their day look like in dramatically different ways. They will have their own strategies, their own symbols. I think those are really important pieces of thinking.

I did this with a group of professors a couple of weeks ago. This woman said “I really do not like artsy craftsy things”. But, she had made this, she had turned the thing I said into a three dimensional. I had not asked them to do it three dimensional, but she made her three dimensional. It was all these complicated things with color that she had thought. That is not a piece of art, that is a piece of thinking. I think if we can challenge that notion that drawing is not necessarily just the thing that you put up on walls, but as a legitimate way that you do your thinking, that changes what it can be and changes who can participate in it.

J: That is very nice, thanks again. So just to try to sum up this conversation: why do you think drawing is an important thing for scientific method?

N: It is not any different than what I said with the last question. It has the potential to open you to finding new ways of looking at problems. New ways of understanding your own thinking. I do not think I understand very well how to articulate, it but there is something different going on when you are moving, when you are responding to marks, when you are organizing something in space.

You are accessing ways of thinking that are different than what you are doing with words.

It is not better or worse: it is not saying words are not good. It is only to say that you can access your ability to think in ways that you could not otherwise.

If we had never made marks and turn marks into words, we would not be who we were.

We could not do it all just in our heads.

The act of taking thoughts and putting them onto a surface, to interact with them, has changed our ability to think. We think a lot through symbols and through compositions that we make up. To the scientific method, there is no reason to limit ourselves to a narrow band of what humans can do. Why not bring in this slightly more fundamental thing about organizing things in space? I think that is up to everyone, and if everyone is exposed to the fact that they can think through their drawings, then they will figure it out.

J: Sure, thank you. Many people feel restricted with their drawing skills, but as you said is because they want to do something very beautiful and kind of artistic. Maybe the fact that  drawing is just a way of articulating our thinking in a different way could be very useful for them.

I have one last question. Do you have any offer from Marvel or DC Comics for the character of Lockerman?

N: (laughs) I wish! No one has asked me, you were the first even bring it up! Perhaps the French comics! I miss that guy! I was glad to sneak him into the book. I have not drawn him since I was 18 or something. It was fun to get him back but maybe, now that you have said it, it is now out in the world, and eventually it will happen !