The accidental cartoonist: learning the craft of the graphic essay

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas

My current research investigates gendered experiences of work and career within higher education (HE) and implications for normative linear career metaphors (pipeline, trajectory, ladder). This research has its particular challenges. I am conducting it within my own university, so grappling with the dilemmas of insider research, participant concerns over confidentiality and the potential for institutional censorship. The research topic hit a nerve. The response to my call for participants was startling in both volume and speed, resulting in over fifty narrative interviews with staff participants occupying academic and professional services roles across the organisational hierarchy – an unusually large amount of qualitative data for a sole researcher to analyse and report on.

Clearly not satisfied with these challenges, I added another. Increasingly interested in the practice of and potential for graphic social sciences to transform attitudes, awareness and behaviour around social issues, I decided to use a graphic essay as the canvas on which to present selected research findings. A graphic essay uses text and image to explore a specific topic. Graphic essays often look like graphic novels, magazines, or artist books but … generally convey non-fictional histories, cases and/or arguments. This graphic essay, entitled My Brilliant Career? An investigation, explores the research findings through Doreen Massey’s lens of space as social relations shaped by power.

On reflection, I can trace the origins of my interest in the craft of the graphic essay to a growing fascination with different forms of spatial storytelling sparked off during my doctoral study. My PhD thesis sought to critique and re-imagine the dominant, universal narrative of ‘belonging in HE’, drawing on spatial and psychosocial concepts to map a wider and more nuanced understanding of belonging as relational, complex and negotiated. In the process, I became inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s argument that you can explore territory in any number of ways. It continues to change and you can continue to explore it – space is open to discussion and infinite. The final chapter of my thesis drew on Solnit’s reinterpretation of the atlas as a visual, textual and literary form: a collection of versions of a place, a compendium of perspectives to present an atlas of belongings, using textual and visual mapping to imagine territory between constructed binaries of belonging/not-belonging.

As post-doctoral research I continued to experiment with graphic forms, using cartooning to reflect on academic identities and experiencesand the tropes of the glass ceiling, the glass escalator and the glass cliff. My solitary practice has been nourished by participation in a Faculty Learning Group for Performative Practice, convened by Dr Geof Hill at Birmingham City University. This is essentially a community of practice of academics interested in moving beyond conventional means of reporting research and engaging with art, design, music, poetry and installation.

In the process of creating My Brilliant Career? I am both re-learning how to draw and learning the craft of graphic storytelling from scratch. It is still with a sense of surprise that I put pencil to paper! I barely remember my school Art lessons and my father, himself a prolific and versatile artist, was too stern a critic for comfort. I took the path of least resistance and turned my attention to creative writing, which came far more naturally! Now however, despite my ineptitude, I find drawing enjoyable and deeply satisfying.

Learning the craft of the graphic essay involves learning to structure and manipulate content within individual frames and across pages; judging the combination of textual and visual to communicate meaning to the reader/viewer; gaining confidence to know when to let the visual ‘speak’ for itself – through caricature, metaphor, broadbrush or detail. My laborious progress provides unexpected opportunity to reflect on participant narratives and make connections across them. Perhaps this is my most satisfying discovering, that the meticulous practice of creating a graphic essay enriches the process of data analysis, indeed that comics creation is a way of thinking. It is also particularly satisfying, in a project focusing on gendered experience, to have the ability to make female theorists literally visible and to place myself, as researcher, narrator, interpreter, in the research.

I don’t doubt that the increasing visibility of graphic novels and graphic social sciences have encouraged my intellectual and creative explorations with this unfamiliar craft. Using a performative practice as a means of publishing academic research, also allows for synergy between academic and creative aspects of my identity, which previously I considered separate.

My Brilliant Career? An investigation is exhibited at the Sociological Review Foundation’s conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges at the Baltic, Gateshead, UK, June 2018.

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

Originally posted 28th April 2018.

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