Posts Tagged ‘science communication’

Panel by Manuel Joao Ramos. See? Not the only person to be influenced by the tropes and styles of Tintin!

Panel by Manuel Joao Ramos. See? Not the only person to be influenced by the tropes and styles of Tintin!

Thanks to Juliet McMullin, who drew my attention to a fascinating article by Manuel João Ramos in the online, open edition of the journal Cadernos de Arte e Antropologica. The article is a fierce defence of the use of sketching as a part of ethnographic observational practice, and is accompanied by a gallery of comic-panel sketches. Why?

Ramos is an Associate Professor of Anthropology based at the Center for International Studies, at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE), with a curious and fascinating list of professional (and, I assume, ethnographic?) interests – travel literature, “NGO militancy” (I’m not even really sure what that might be), and road traffic victims and road safety.

His article – Stop the Academic World, I Wanna get off in the Quai de Branly: Of sketchbooks, museums and anthropology – uses some fascinating language with regard to the use of visual media in anthropology:

… un-genreing and re-genreing anthropological production may help free it from its boring academic format, shake up its stiff argumentation forms and sapped styles – all too reliant [o]n the game of referencing, quoting, paraphrasing and bowing.

Ramos argues that using visual media as an integral part of academic writing is a step towards this “re-genreing” of anthropological production. His language is the language of revolution – “shake up”, “boring”, “free it”. He champions the act of drawing anthropology as countering “the peculiar “game of writing” where the anthropologist imaginarily dissolves his/her self in the voice of orality in the very process of affirming his/her authorship of the text”.

Sound familiar?

I’ve been talking a lot recently about the value of introducing personal politics into archaeological writing through the use of visual media – most recently in a paper I gave at Comics Forum this year. I have long suspected that I am not the only person in the anthropological sciences thinking this way – and Ramos’ article proves me right. I have a feeling that there is a growing community within the anthropological sciences unhappy with traditional modes of publication, and interested in the way in which visual media offer powerful alternatives.

Ramos refers to his drawings as a “sketchbook”, but their combination of text and image, their use of visuality to create narrative, make them, in fact, a comic. And as I did in my article for Advances in Archaeological Practice, he’s arguing for their use as a stand-alone form of professional publication, not simply as a supplement to it.

The use of comics in science is not simply about reshaping scientific knowledge in a more accessible format for a public or non-specialist audience. The use of comics in science can – as Ramos and I have both argued – represent new ways of thinking about science in the first place. What Manuel Ramos and I (and others) are experimenting with represents a step towards a general “re-genreing” not just of science communication, but of science practice.

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Teaching comics and archaeology.

Teaching comics and archaeology.

One of the great things about working on archaeological field schools is getting the opportunity to talk to the students about my somewhat specialist niche and interests.

When I teach archaeology and comics, I frame it within a broader discussion of the concerns of science communication. The problems and questions that first prompted me to explore the use of comics in archaeology are the same ones that underpin science communication, and my use of narrative visualisation to address an over-reliance on specialist visual languages in archaeology parallels the addressing of similar concerns in other areas of science by other science communicators.

One of the key points I try to make to the students is this:

As archaeologists or anthropologists, or as anyone working in any of the related sciences, you will end up talking to far more people outside your specialist discipline than inside it. And as many of the people you will be talking to will control access to archives and material on which your research depends, and will control the funding that makes your research possible, an inability to communicate effectively will ultimately undermine your ability to do science effectively – to do archaeology effectively. Comics – like many other effective communication tools – offer you the chance to fundamentally reshape the way your work is perceived, received, supported and funded.

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Identity, Graphic Narrative and the Past - my poster for the American Anthropological Association session on graphic medicine. Click for larger version (warning: it's a big file)

Identity, Graphic Narrative and the Past – my poster for the American Anthropological Association session on graphic medicine. Click for larger version (warning: it’s a big file)

Thanks to everyone who came by the AAA Graphic Medicine poster session this morning. Some really interesting discussion and comments on all the posters. Nice to hear from some people that the session has inspired them to think of applications for comics in their own areas of expertise! There’s more on the One of Those People project here, and more blog posts on comics and archaeology generally here.

There were a number of times during the conference that the subject of comics came up. First, they came up in conversations about accessibility of information; second, they came up in conversations about representations of anthropology (and anthropologists) in the media and the public arena more generally; and third, they came up in specific conversations about ways to capture and present narratives of experience to a peer audience.

I couldn’t help thinking that the same arguments I have been making over the past four years about the use of comics in archaeology are entirely applicable to anthropology. Indeed, one of the points I have made consistently is that my arguments for using comics in archaeology are derived from the same arguments being made in medicine and, indeed, in science communication as a whole.

As graphic communication – including comics and graphic novels – becomes more mainstream, scientists and researchers who embrace the medium now will find themselves at the leading edge of a what could be described as a paradigm shift in communication habits. The written word alone – as beautiful as that might be – is not going to be the dominant information medium of the rest of the 21st century. Science – in all its aspects – needs to understand that and make graphic formats part of its core communication toolset.

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The theme of this year’s Comics Forum Conference is “Small Press and Undergrounds”, and there are a host of great-sounding papers in the lineup: Breton comics, British comics in the ’70s and ’80s, alternative cat-women, comix art, and Donald Parsnips: the Doctor-Johnson-tweets of contemporary small-press comix.

My own paper focuses on underground as alternative in comics done by archaeologists. It seems to me that because of the academic/scientific/scholarly context of so much archaeological publication, comics done by archaeologists offer an immediately alternative viewpoint. I’m not talking Von Daniken/Chariots of the Gods – I’m talking enabling mainstream archaeologists to talk about stuff that doesn’t always (ever, in some cases) make it into mainstream archaeological publication. I can’t help thinking that archaeology – science in general – could benefit more from hearing from the people on the shopfront, at the coal-face (as it were).

I can’t help feel that one of the important things comics offer science communication in general is an opportunity not just to allow the work to be presented in a new way, but allow the people doing the work to present themselves and the reality of what they do in a new way, too.

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