Risk, Creativity, and Careers

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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?
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by Jen Teitle

 

 

The Dissertation as a Tool for Thinking and Knowing

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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.

NICK SOUSANIS IS COMING!!!

 

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?