Reframing the Discussion — a brief reflection on Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production

In addition to my great excitement for the discussion theme and those convening, it was the shakeup of the conference format and unique presentation possibilities HUMlab is exploring that compelled me to travel 48 hours for 48 hours in Umeå despite having moved with my wife and 7-month old daughter from NYC to Calgary only a week prior. And it is that disruption of presentation format as usual that I’d like to take up in this brief reflection. By writing and drawing my dissertation entirely in comics form, I posed a challenge to the tradition of text-only scholarship. Just as the emergence of new scholarly forms suggests we reexamine our assumptions about what scholarly thinking can look like, there is an equal need to explore and reinvent the way we publicly share ideas with colleagues (as Shannon Mattern elucidated beautifully here). I feel a great affinity for HUMlab’s attention to the spaces that learning takes place and physical architecture’s effect on knowledge production (as our host and curator Patrik Svensson writes here). While this may seem far afield from working in comics, I think in fact they dovetail rather neatly.

I titled my dissertation (and subsequent book version) “Unflattening,” a term I initially employed to talk about the way in which comics present information in layered and multi-modal fashion. As I developed the work, I merged this literal meaning with the metaphorical, drawing on concepts of parallax, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, and Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland to discuss education. It is a deep understanding for the essential intersection of form and content that lies at the heart of this gathering. Read both sequentially — unfolding like text, but also viewed simultaneously — all-at-once like visual art, comics hold these dual reading modes in a single form. This gives comics a multiplicity of reading approaches and a spatial nature — in my view, quite well-suited for the dimensions in which our thinking transpires. That is, we can narrowly focus on linear sequences of activity, but at the same time we can’t help but maintain an awareness for what’s going on around us, attending to tangential crosscurrents of thought simultaneously.

A page from Unflattening with images removed

Returning to architecture, the composing of a comics page can be seen as akin to drafting an architectural walkthrough, in the way that the author is greatly concerned with how the reader moves through the page — from tightly controlled sequencing to allowing for more non-linear flow. Rather than simply being a series of illustrations about ideas, I want the form itself to embody the ideas. The reader’s movements are inextricable from the experiencing of the ideas. I saw the opportunity to present on multiple screens simultaneously as resonant with how I make comics — with the added bonus being that here I could in a way stand in that space. How could I miss out on that?!

Virtual mockups made from over 7,000 km away

At this formative stage, the screen sizes, aspect ratios, location, and number of screens of HUMlab-X’s presentation stage are fixed once set upon at the outset. (In retrospect, this was a relief as it limited my choices to something reasonable.) Decoupling from the standard powerpoint: slide, slide, slide… the multi-screen format mirrors the way in which a comic is significantly different than storyboarding, to which comics are frequently compared (and row upon row of text for that matter). In comics we are concerned with not just what is in each frame (panel), but the size, shape, and orientation of the panel, as well as its relationship to the others around it. This spatialization opens up possibilities for making unexpected connections — we bring together elements with different partners and forge new arrangements. HUMlab-X’s unique staging area let me play with the presentation in a similar manner. Even though I tend to do extremely complex drawings, the majority of my time is always consumed with designing the page. Planning out the composition of images on the screens similarly turned out to be an enormous but rather fun challenge. Quite unlike stringing together a series of images, here I had to anticipate how I’d move and direct the viewer’s attention as the presentation progressed. HUMlab’s custom-built 3D modeling interface for testing out the presentation was a great help in envisioning the experience beforehand. And not something I’ve done before. I thought out when to leave screens blank, how I could make the impact of a flying figure greater by only keeping on a single wall screen, Flatlanders necessarily had to be on the floor as did a figure drawn as if emerging from the flat page, and for the finale made of a field of footprints, I blew them up on the floor upon which I could stand and add my own feet to the rest. I worried right up until I was doing my presentation that no one would be able to see the floor screen and all the arrangements I’d laid out that flowed from wall to floor. But something I didn’t anticipate happened. People not in the front row around the floor screen got to their feet and stayed on them. To feel that engagement and activation from the audience, left me with all sorts of ideas of how to be more inventive in my use of the space for future occasions.

Standing on the “field of feet” during Q&A

While HUMlab-X kept its multiple screens in front of viewers, HUMlab itself surrounded attendees with screens. To be sure, from the perspective of audience member, this opened up what we attended to, where we sat (this sleepy traveler found the bean bags on the floor irresistible) and where we stood. I found it at times, dizzying and perhaps a bit disorienting to follow motion on different screens all around. The control of the viewer’s eye that I emphasized above was absent here. As the ring of screens de-privileges the front and center, a whole host of new options arise for viewers — where do I look, where don’t I look? — we could choose to move our attention, move ourselves, focus in a single place, keep our back to the speaker and settle on a screen. To keep up, the audience had to come alive and metaphorically, at least, be on our toes. One of the most notable instances of this activity for me came during archaeologist Nicolò Dell´Unto’s presentation, when he spiritedly ran around the room from screen to screen. The ideas he’d laid out weren’t in a row, instead they were spread throughout — the connections only becoming illuminated as he ping-ponged across the room. It prompted me at least, to engage with his movement as a kind of portal into his thinking.

And I think that the generative conversation this conference fostered helps us stray from the image of the stationary, disembodied thinker as our standard for what thinking looks like. We are spatially embodied beings, and thinking emerges from the way that we move through and engage with the world. It’s a dynamic and inherently spatial activity. I found the conference experience invigorating in a way that is perhaps … less common at such gatherings. Now I know that before too long I’ll be traveling again for presentations, and I’ll be looking for those screens, for the audience to be on their toes — and I hope explorations as important as this one start to take root. Thanks to all the organizers and presenters for a thought-provoking and stimulating gathering. — Nick

Nick Sousanis completed his doctoral dissertation in comics form 2014 at Teachers College, Columbia University. Titled “Unflattening,” a book version of the dissertation will be published by Harvard University Press in March of 2015. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Comics Studies at the University of Calgary. You can see excerpts from Unflattening and his other comics at