New ways of showing are new ways of knowing

Matt Gilchrist

Matt Gilchrist, a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department, is Director of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning Initiative (IDEAL), which supports students and instructors who use new media in course assignments.

The University of Iowa’s Next Gen PhD planning initiative, The Newly Composed PhD, is an important part of the growing acknowledgement that humanities PhD graduates thrive in diverse career tracks not bounded by academia. The NEH grant program that supports Iowa’s initiative asserts that “Humanities knowledge and methods can make an even more substantial impact on society if students are able to translate what they learn in doctoral programs into a multitude of careers.” How do we prepare PhD students to make such a substantial impact? The NEH wants us to “transform scholarly preparation at the doctoral level.” At Iowa—the institution that proudly calls itself The Writing University—the transformation begins with writing. The Newly Composed PhD asserts that the understanding derived from study in the humanities should be composed in many forms.

The scholars who took part in last year’s symposia hosted by The Newly Composed PhD demonstrate that much can be learned by meaning-making in varied modes. Dr. Amanda Visconti composed her dissertation, titled How can you love a work if you don’t know it?: Critical code and design toward participatory digital editions, as a hybrid of digital edition, white paper, and hypertext. But such a stripped-down description doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the project, the composition of which involved software design, database design, interface design, graphic web design, and more. Along the way, Visconti tweeted, blogged, created data visualizations, and spoke on a variety of digital humanities topics. As her dissertation shows, Visconti has discovered new possibilities for inquiry through the process of composing in many forms.

Like Visconti, Dr. Nick Sousanis composed his thesis in a non-traditional form. Sousanis’s dissertation is the comic Unflattening—a form that allowed him to use image as a primary semiotic resource. Like Visconti, Sousanis told us during the symposium dedicated to discussing his dissertation that he blogged about his work as he was composing it. For a hint about what Sousanis was thinking early in his dissertation process about the power of composing in comic form, see the quote from Susanne K. Langer he offers in a blog post. In his discussion here at the University of Iowa, Sousanis put it this way: “My comics are smarter than I am.”

Our Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Dan Reed, pointed out in a recent blog post on this site that writing a traditional book-length dissertation is commonly understood as the means of documenting and communicating ideas privileged in the humanities PhD, but that this format isn’t very effective at spreading those ideas. Dr. Reed writes that, if the form limits the reach of important ideas, then scholars should look for another medium—one appropriate to the message. This semester, Dr. Reed will visit a course I teach for graduate students in the sciences called “Science Communication in the Digital Age.” Much like the NEH’s support for The Newly Composed PhD, the NIH provided grant funding that helped to launch this course in order to prepare scientists for careers beyond the academy. The funded project at Iowa, directed by Professor Dan Eberl (Biology), focuses on communication skills and rhetorical forms. The course acknowledges the importance of addressing audiences outside of academia as crucial for achieving the NIH’s goal of “broadening training to better prepare students for research careers in a variety of venues, such as industry, government or entrepreneurial enterprises.” The support of both federal grant agencies responds to a long-standing need for pragmatic communication experience in the new media landscape, extending and complementing the efforts of those who seek and offer such training at the graduate level.

If the humanities is to move beyond the “write only” paradigm Dr. Reed calls “one of the biggest challenges we face in academia,” humanities students will need courses—corollaries to Science Communication in the Digital Age—specifically targeted at their needs. The write only paradigm cannot be justified amidst the range of rhetorical forms now readily available to scholars. These new forms—or new media—require a new approach to the fundamentals of composition. No longer can we assume that fluency with the conventions and grammars of alphabetic text represents the fundamental or most significant means of developing and sharing ideas. Instead, communicating ideas now requires awareness of image and visual design, sound and audio design, code and software design, data and database design, and etc. Humanists remain writers, but we are called to write and. Scholars and teachers in the field of composition use the term multimodal composition to describe, analyze and assess texts that incorporate writing and other modes of representation. Thinking in these terms makes clear that writing is one of many overlapping semiotic resources available to a rhetor. Meaning-making is a central goal of the humanities, and ignoring compositional modes other than alphabetic text cuts us off from many kinds of meaning-making and discoveries.

This semester, Professor Judith Pascoe offers a course that allows PhD students in the humanities to practice with digital humanities methods and multimodal composition. Pitched as a “pilot model of a humanities interdisciplinary methods course,” this seminar offers the benefits of such courses extolled by Katie Walden in her recent post on this site. Aligned with the goals of the Next Gen PhD, the course “[a]ssignments will be aimed at helping students showcase their research in a variety of formats that could include the blog post, the grant proposal, the data visualization, the network analysis, the map, the 3-Minute Thesis, the podcast, the PechaKucha, the illustrated narrative, and the tweet.” The course offers practice and training in genres—other than linear, alphabetic text—that are relevant to humanists but too often ignored in humanities education.

As we have seen in the first semester of The Newly Composed PhD, forms other than the manuscript have been crucial to the scholarship and integral to the career success of the scholars who have visited our symposia. Visconti, Sousanis, and others have extolled the benefits of taking ideas from one semiotic mode into another. All agree that new and important ideas emerge from multimodality. So, in addition to the likelihood that scholars who tweet, speak, draw, code, map, record, and design will be more successful in career searches within and beyond the academy, humanists should consider what important insights are lost when we over-emphasize one modality. The humanist endeavor depends on leaving behind the write only paradigm and engaging the possibilities of write and.

Risk, Creativity, and Careers

Jen Teitle

Guest post by Jennifer Teitle, Assistant Dean for Graduate Development and Postdoctoral Affairs, University of Iowa. Dr. Teitle’s 2012 dissertation, completed in the UI Department of Teaching and Learning, focused on the decline in the number of youth “hangout” spaces. Her cartoon blog post juxtaposes Nick Sousanis‘ Next Gen PhD presentation with Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award acceptance speech. Jen’s twitter handle is: @jteitle. (You can click on the image for a larger version.)

The comic below, “3 Talks on Risk, Creativity, and Careers,” uses dialogism—the notion that all statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate responses—to explore narratives about graduate school and careers. The three juxtaposed narratives in the comic happened on the same day, October 19, 2016, here at the University of Iowa. Nick Sousanis came to speak on our campus as part of the NEH funded #nextgenPhD project. His talk was inspiring, full of the same unapologetic creativity that characterizes his comic book dissertation, Unflattening. Sousanis was candid about his job search, which was challenging despite that fact that his award-winning dissertation was being published by Harvard University Press. Kevin Birmingham’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Truman Capote Award must have been astonishing to witness, but I read it later that night after my sleepy children were put in bed. Birmingham’s parrhesia is an icy splash in the face, an important contribution to conversations about PhD “placement,” and it should be shared widely. Finally, I wanted to include a nod to the narratives I hear most frequently: those of graduating PhDs and MFAs. Today’s graduate students are struggling to find their scholarly voices at a moment when if one deviates from the expected scholarly norm, one may put at risk the dream of a tenure-track position.

I wanted these three voices to anticipate, and respond to, each other, as well as to add dimension to the complex decisions at play in graduate education. How are we to be transparent with students about their work and prospects? Do we understand what is at stake when we encourage students to take risks or to play it safe? Where is the line between student ambition and faculty intervention?
by Jen Teitle



The Dissertation as a Tool for Thinking and Knowing

Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown, Associate Professor in the Department of English and the UI Center for the Book, teaches classes on book studies and early American literature. He is the author of the The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), and the editor of the UI Press series Impressions: Studies in the Art, Culture, and Future of Books. Matt’s twitter handle is @mpbrown.

On Friday, October 21, the NEH-funded Next Gen Ph.D. team brought comics artist and historian of ideas Nick Sousanis to campus to discuss his unique dissertation: a meditation through images and words on ways of knowing and seeing, a dissertation using graphic design to enact its very subject. If you have not seen it, hie thee now to Unflattening, available from Harvard University Press. There were a series of wonderful insights in Sousanis’s flipped lecture, wherein a seven-minute positioning of the visitor’s work by host Judith Pascoe was followed by an extended—and extraordinarily generous—hour with Prof. Sousanis answering questions.

I was struck most by a question floated between interlocutor and speaker (there was such good rapport and fertile inquiry, I can’t remember where the answers left off and the questions began): why is the standard dissertation the best tool for thinking and knowing? Sousanis had been making the case for drawing as a way of thinking: it is “a conversation with yourself . . . the mark you make is one you then have a dialogue with.” Here Sousanis observes the close connection between the work of the mind and the work of the hand.

Prof. Sousanis turned the question on us, asking the audience what a representation of their thoughts would look like, what their material image would be. We proffered music, video, a thought balloon (I mean, I thought that last one). Sousanis then showed a flow-chart diagram of his ideas for Unflattening (it is reproduced on the end-pages of the published version), one stage of preparation for his dissertation. In reference to the diagram, he returned to his point about mark-making by saying “this isn’t a picture of my thinking. This is my thinking.” Prof. Sousanis noted that it may sound mystical to put it this way. My reaction, though, was that it was actually very much of the world. This is the labor of thinking, given a material shape. Intellectual projects—standard and non-standard dissertations—emerge from this kind of toil. I recall copying long passages from obscure devotional manuals when writing my conventional dissertation and commenting on them after transcription—two levels of mark-making and a kind of immersive act then seeded connections much as the diagram generates thought for Sousanis.

There are many differences of course, not least his hard-won skills as an artist, between the conventional dissertation and what Sousanis has achieved. But most germane perhaps for a rethinking of the dissertation format is how Sousanis foregrounds the role of tools in activities of thinking and knowing. Pen, sketchpad, lay-out, and the book format: a continuum of tools and platforms announce themselves in tandem with the dissertation’s heady content as we read and view Unflattening.

For the next generation of humanists, one matter that distinguishes their practices from my version of rote copying and critical reflection is the bevy of digital tools and mediating platforms available to scholars. With the dissertation itself a tool for thinking and knowing, how can we nurture digital technologies and new media interfaces as places of critical reflection? How do modes of mark-making with these tools and platforms arrive at the point where we say “this isn’t a picture of my thinking. This is my thinking”? How do mentors sustain new scholars in this work, such that the tools serve a larger project that is the dissertation-as-tool? As someone committed to long-form argument, I would finally hope that graduate training is mindful of criteria from the world of the standard dissertation, the criteria of knowing one’s field and offering a minor or major contribution to its scholarly conversation. Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening is an inspiring model, wherein the tools and platforms result in a powerful new view of viewing itself.



unflatteningcover         We look forward with great anticipation to the arrival of Dr. Nick Sousanis, an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University. Nick is the creator of Unflattening, which started as a dissertation in comics form, an experiment in making an argument through images, and went on to become a much-celebrated book published by Harvard University Press. Nick will be a participant in our second Next Gen PhD symposium, one that is focused on the footnote or, more generally, forms of citation, but Nick’s creative practice will also help us talk about the dissertation (the topic of our first symposium), and social media forms like the tweet and the blog post (topics of future symposia). Because Nick’s book argues that words and images are equal partners in meaning-making, he finds ways to cite images that influenced his argument as fundamentally as did the words of philosophers and theorists.

We planned for Dr. Sousanis’s visit through our regular series of planning meetings, but also through an Unflattening reading group composed of faculty, graduate students, and librarians. At all of these gatherings, we tossed around questions that we hope will fuel conversations when Nick hits campus on Friday (October 21, graduate student session in main library from 12:00 to 1:00; a conversation with Dr. Nick Sousanis in BCSB, 101, from 3:30 to 5). Here are some of the questions we posed:

Why did you choose academe? What was the utility of the PhD for you? Did you consider careers outside the academy?

What were the limitations of traditional modes of scholarship that led you to prefer the comics form? What new things did this format allow you to do? Were there kinds of information that exceeded the boundaries of a traditional dissertation?

Please talk about images as sources.

Who were your main artistic influences?

How do you manage your archive?

Are there moments when you rue the word limitations that are placed upon you by the comics form?

What’s the most challenging criticism your work has received?

Who did you see as your audience while you were working on your dissertation? on your book?

What were the most important aspects of the ways you were mentored as a graduate student?

Are there aspects of your graduate education that you would do differently if you were to start over again?

Does it matter whether or not conventional scholarship cites your work?

How would you mentor traditionalists? Do aspects of your creative practice translate to working with students who are writing in more conventional modes?

If there’s a way we can indoctrinate people not to be indoctrinated . . .


A Medievalist and a Management specialist were both drawn to Sidonie Smith’s phrase “intellectually nimble” during the third preliminary meeting of UI’s NEH Next Generation PhD planning committee. (Committee members, Directors of Graduate Studies, and Humanities Advisory Board members were invited to discuss excerpts from Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities and also Alexandria Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon’s showcasing of innovative dissertations in “What’s the Point: The Dissertation as Process and Not Product.”) “If there’s a way we can indoctrinate people not to be indoctrinated,” that would be optimal, suggested one participant.

day 3 no 2

A Chemist pointed to the way in which graduate students in the sciences sometimes spend their first year doing short stints in a wide variety of labs, a practice that, if it could be adapted for the humanities, might ease the isolation humanities graduate students sometimes feel, as well as introducing them to a wider range of methodologies at an early point in their training. A specialist in graduate development noted that when students feel anxious and depressed they get more rigid and so are less able to see a wide range of paths forward.


Several people were interested in Smith’s suggestion that a dissertation might take the form of a “suite” of writings, possibly of different lengths and/or pitched at different audiences. A Historian, who had had a previous career in a foreign policy think tank, thought that completing a suite of different kinds of writing would beautifully prepare students for this kind of alternate career.  A research center director noted that the UI Rhetoric department has offered a course in which students are asked to write in different modes each week (e.g., spending one week writing cover letters). A participant from the School of Business noted another model could be found in Economics, where students produced a “bundling of meaningful products that could be meaningfully applied.”

day 3

The group circled back several times to talking about Nick Sousanis’s innovative comic book dissertation, published by Harvard University Press. Threaded into this discussion were considerations of teaching (a Rhetoric Lecturer mentioned Cathy Davidson’s advocacy of a radically democratic classroom), of comprehensive exams (a French professor asked whether the ways in which reading lists are composed make the traditional dissertation a foregone conclusion), and of graduate student mentoring (a Librarian/game developer emphasized the importance of having mentors from alternative career paths).


Participants wrote some of their ideas, priorities, and questions on index cards, some of which are included in this post.