In April 2015, Harvard University Press published Unflattening — a graphic novel that researcher Nick Sousanis created as part of his PhD program at Columbia University. The book was an instant success. It is entirely drawn and written in the comics format, but it provokes a serious process of contemplation for the reader. Sousanis proved that comics are powerful tools for expression and teaching.

Admirers from all over the world started wondering: who is Sousanis and how did he manage to write an entire dissertation in a comics format? The author entitled the project Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry into Learning in Many Dimensions. He defended the paper in May 2014 and got his PhD degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.

What Makes Unflattening Important for PhD Candidates?

In most cases, PhD papers follow a rigid outline that consists of a few chapters:

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Research Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Summary

In addition, the authors are advised to include a title page, copyright page, dedication page, table of contents, list of tables and figures, bibliography, and appendix. This dry, uninspiring form is exactly why so many students pay someone to get the dissertation. They are not inspired to get into the process of creative writing within such limitations. The good news is that universities only provide recommendations on assignment format. Although they have official style guides for MA and PhD papers, they are flexible to accept creative students projects when they meet the main standards: the papers have to be unique, and provide value for the scientific and academic community.

Nick Sousanis took a risk with the format he chose for his dissertation. The author abandoned the traditional outline and created a dissertation that’s focused not only on text, but on visuals as well. He chose to go against conventional scholarly expression, and he offered an impressive work of art combined with serious research findings.

Unflattening serves as a great example that academic writing is not necessarily boring. The project not only deserved a PhD degree, but also won the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize in 2015. In 2018, the Brazilian edition won the Trofeu HQ Mix award in the category of best theoretical book.

This brings us to the main point: if you’re working on your PhD paper, you don’t have to stay within the limitations of conventional academic writing. Regardless of the niche you’re focused on, you can push the project’s creative limits.

Why the Comics Format Works for Dissertations

Sousanis has a word for the rigid, narrow approach to studying, thinking, and writing: flatness. With his project, the author counteracted the traditional forms of writing in the categories of teaching, literature, art, philosophy, and science. The text is still there; and it’s magnificently written. It conveys the main research ideas without too much fuss. The comics format adds to the impressions with vibrant representations of the main ideas that the author expresses.

This experiment worked on many levels:

  • The uniqueness is definitely there. Mentors and PhD committees always emphasize the importance of originality, which many candidates aren’t able to achieve. This is a genre-defying dissertation that attracts not only academics, but casual readers as well. Can you say that for many other dissertations?
  • Unflattening is not just an experimental piece; it’s theoretically grounded as well. The author offers a visual, linguistic, and theoretical reflection of discourse, knowledge, and thinking processes. It’s a valuable piece that contributes to the teaching community.
  • This was the first dissertation that was ever written in the comics format. It contained that shock It was a risk, but the quality of the piece was enough to earn the author tons of praise.
  • The project doesn’t entirely dismiss words. It expands the standards of academic writing, but it doesn’t completely defy them. It still meets PhD committee members’ requirements; but it adds a new dimension to the dissertation format.

We’re not saying that everyone should start creating comics as their PhD projects. Universities offer guidelines that are safe and still work. But if you’re looking for ways to get outside the box and offer something different, you should consider exploring styles beyond plain textual expression.

It’s Not Just the Format

Creativity is only one of the aspects that make a great dissertation. Sousanis wrote a fascinating project in that aspect. He completed a dissertation that’s fun to read, asks questions, and provokes the readers to explore their own answers. Through the comics format, the author takes the reader’s perspective into consideration, and fully engages them in the reading process.

However, Sousanis also wrote a dissertation that contributes in the areas of culture, semiotics, multimodal composing, comics, and more. That’s the part that earned him the PhD degree. Without it, this would only be a fun book to read. But this author completed an impressive dissertation paper that sets a great example to other students.

Did this example get you inspired to think outside your limits? Unflattening is a great book to read before you start working on your doctoral paper.

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