Getting Graphic…Ways of Thinking.

Image: Kelly Sikkema

Monday 3rd December, 2018

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas

In June 2018, I exhibited the graphic essay: My Brilliant Career? An Investigation at the Sociological Review Foundation’s conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges at BALTIC, Gateshead. Undisciplining aimed to challenge the presumed mainstream of sociological thought, its geographical assumptions and disciplinary hierarchies.

My Brilliant Career? An Investigation experiments with performative practice as a means of publishing academic research. It uses a large scale comic format to present findings from my interdisciplinary research into how careers play out in the space of higher education, shaped by gendered ‘geographies of power’, framing the research material through archetypal metaphors of career: glass ceiling, glass cliff and glass escalator.

Both research and graphic design/illustration involve collecting, analysing, distilling and presenting data and My Brilliant Career? brings these practices together in an example of the emerging practice of graphic social science as a means to ‘transform attitudes, awareness and behaviour around social issues’.

My Brilliant Career? was on display throughout the three-day conference. The organisers were generous with space, meaning I was able to exhibit not only the finished piece (on four A2 posterboards) but also snapshots of the process: sketchbooks, key texts and photographs of work in progress. As a seasoned presenter of strictly time-limited conference papers, this was a very different way of being ‘at a conference’ and – I reflected later, of being ‘an academic’. The extended space for delegates to view, return and discuss the research and the medium felt luxurious, definitely a richer opportunity than our accelerated academic conference routines usually allow. In addition, the work existed in its own right when I was not present, allowing delegates to engage in their own way, without fear of offending artistic/academic sentiments.

I particularly enjoyed observing delegates’ varied interactions. Text is still privileged in our broad sociological church and some regarded the exhibit warily at first. Perhaps from a distance, the cartoon format implied superficiality? Some skimmed the boards and left the room after a matter of moments. Others however, were drawn by its novelty or its links to their own research to view/read the essay ‘cover to cover’ and to ask questions. Several returned again and again.

No self-respecting academic would be able present their research without thinking about evaluation and impact! At Undisciplining, I piloted paper and online evaluation methods which yielded useful data but this is still very much a work in progress. I also realised that delegates were as interested in the process as in the finished piece and how this might be applied to their own and their students’ work. The accompanying contextual material provided them with some insights but I was inspired by delegates’ questions to think further about how to develop aspects of ‘process’ more clearly in combination with the exhibit. As I wrote in a guest blog for the Sociological Craft Project: ‘Perhaps this is my most satisfying discovery: that the meticulous practice of creating a graphic essay enriches the process of data analysis, indeed, that comics creation is a way of thinking (Sousanis 2015)’. Undisciplining marked the start of my thinking how to communicate this discovery more clearly and more widely.

Six months on from Undisciplining, I am about to take My Brilliant Career? and the research it is based on, on tour! Two linked presentation/workshop programmes: Gender(s) At Work and Getting Graphic, offer innovative ways of communicating research findings to a variety of HE audiences and exploring the use of simple visual methods of working with research process, data and theoretical ideas. Bookings are brisk! There have been other developments too. Discussions with an Undisciplining delegate, Dr Victoria Allen, resulted in a commission for the front cover of the forthcoming issue of CLOSURE, the Kiel University e-Journal for Comics Studies. I have also submitted a condensed version of My Brilliant Career as a poster proposal for the forthcoming SRHE International Conference on Research into Higher Education.

I entitled my guest blog for the Sociological Craft Project The accidental cartoonist: learning the craft of the graphic essay. Untrained, self-taught and most definitely a novice, I thought it was an appropriate description. I no longer consider myself an accidental cartoonist. In an emerging and stimulating field of graphic social science I am increasingly gaining confidence to ‘own’ my version of graphic social science and working to better understand how its power and practice can be shared with others.

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is a Senior Research Fellow and Project Manager for the Athena SWAN programme at Birmingham City University. Kate tweets @drkcarrutherst.

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