Teacher’s graphic novel inspires launch of comic studies minor

Nick Sousanis has been passionately drawing comics all his life. Although he studied mathematics in college and believed pursuing comics professionally wasn’t a possibility, he overcame those boundaries and turned comic studies into a career.

Sousanis, an assistant professor in the humanities department, won the 2016 Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize for his graphic novel, “Unflattening,” inspiring the creation of a comic studies minor at SF State starting in the spring. The award is sponsored by Penn State University Libraries and honors the best graphic novel by a living U.S. or Canadian citizen or resident.

“Unflattening” is about visual learning in academics, instead of the conventional style of teaching done by reading texts. Written and drawn in the form of a comic strip, Sousanis attempts to empower the readers to explore whether visual learning would be more effective for students.

“It’s an argument that we make sense of the world visually and that teaching and learning ought to reflect that,” Sousanis said.

The graphic novel was written for his philosophy doctoral dissertation, which is traditionally done in a text-based format. Sousanis took a risk and challenged those standards by submitting “Unflattening.”

SF State humanities and liberal studies professor Nick Sousanis, author of the book Unflattening, poses for a portrait in his office on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016
[/media-credit] SF State humanities and liberal studies professor Nick Sousanis, author of the book Unflattening, poses for a portrait in his office on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016

Steven Herb, director of Pennsylvania Center for the Book, said convincing a doctoral committee to accept a graphic novel as a dissertation is something to be admired.

“The creation of it (Unflattening) is in the direction of helping people understand the big picture of what comics are about,” Herb said. “That’s a brave and interesting undertaking. Nick is obviously a brilliant guy, he’s a great educator and he’s a comics genius.”

Sousanis said he uses this technique of channeling creativity in his first semester teaching humanities classes by having his students draw out their thoughts, rather than write them.

“The new comics studies minor will bring several faculty together from across campus to teach courses on various aspects of comics history and culture,” said Cristina Ruotolo, director of the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies.

Two classes Sousanis will be teaching, comics and culture and making comics, will focus on the theory and analysis of comics, the history and culture of comics and the application of comics into other fields of study.

“Studying comics will be like how other classes study film and literature,” Sousanis said. “Getting people to think through drawing changes how you think and changes what you can do.”

Sousanis has been making comics since he was a young child. In high school he created his own comic book character, Locker Man, who is mentioned and featured throughout “Unflattening.” In college, Sousanis studied mathematics, he thought comics would always be a hobby, not something he could do as a job.

“It took me a little while to see that this is the best way I can do my thinking,” Sousanis said. “When I came to doctoral school, I realized I can make comics that are really complex and ask difficult questions but are still readable to people who don’t know as much as I know about the topic.”

Cinema major Schuyler Yager, who has been interested in comics since he was a kid, thinks these classes will be beneficial to students like him who want to learn more about their hobby.

“Comic studies would benefit those of the student body who want to expand their knowledge about comics in both production and history of comic creation,” Yager said.

Sousanis believes that by getting recognition for “Unflattening,” it will break down barriers for other students who want to submit academic work beyond traditional formats. He hopes to expand the boundaries of what scholarly text can be, allowing more people to succeed in learning.

“You look at the first things that are human and that is people drawing on walls and putting handprints on walls. I don’t think we should forget that.” Sousanis said.


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Teacher’s graphic novel inspires launch of comic studies minor