Fellows in Focus: Kay Sohini F’21 Draws A New Approach to Dissertations
Published: May 11, 2022
“I wanted to pursue a PhD in English, because I believed in the ability of stories to effect social change and foster empathy amongst people from different backgrounds. But, as a first gen student, much of academic discourse and language felt alienating to me. I could not figure out the point of writing about social issues in a way that was too obscure for the general audience.”
This drive to create accessible scholarship ledKay Sohini, a 2021 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow, to explore using comics as a method. Inspired by other unconventional scholarly works such as Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (the first prominent graphic dissertation, published in 2015) and Ebony Flowers’ Drawbridge, she saw how the use of graphic art makes room for stories by and about people who have been historically pushed to the margins. Encouraged by her dissertation co-directors at Stony Brook University, she decided to create her doctoral dissertation in the form of a comic.
“‘Drawing Unbelonging’” uses comics as a medium of inquiry to engage the sociopolitical through the lens of the personal, to critically look at pressing issues of our time, and draw attention to systemic and interconnected issues pertaining to race, gender, disability, and environmental inequality,” Sohini explained.
“Drawing Unbelonging” uses comics as a medium of inquiry to engage the sociopolitical through the lens of the personal, to critically look at pressing issues of our time, and draw attention to systemic and interconnected issues pertaining to race, gender, disability, and environmental inequality.
Kay Sohini F’21
Left: Image from Sohini’s graphic dissertation, “Drawing Unbelonging”
In her dissertation, she uses her personal experiences to understand and explore wider cultural, political, and social issues. For instance, in a chapter entitled “The Year of the Pandemic,” she analyzes the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of socioeconomic and racial inequity.
“Approaching the topic from the intersection of New York and Calcutta, India, I utilize my position as a South Asian immigrant in the United States to draw parallels between the unfolding of the pandemic on either side of the Pacific, in ways that increasingly deepened existing socioeconomic inequities and disenfranchised minorities in both countries,” she explained.
The Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship program, which announced its final cohort of awardees in April 2022, supports advanced graduate students in the last year of PhD dissertation writing in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. Fellows also participate in professional development seminars, which was especially beneficial for Sohini as she navigated the job market.
This fellowship allowed me to take time off teaching and allowed me to focus on just the dissertation for a whole year and that really helped me upgrade my skills, expand the scope of my dissertation, and finish on time.
“The fellowship gave me the gift of time,” Sohini said. “The kind of work I pursued required me to learn a lot of new skills pertaining to digital design and data visualization…This fellowship allowed me to take time off teaching and allowed me to focus on just the dissertation for a whole year and that really helped me upgrade my skills, expand the scope of my dissertation, and finish on time.”
In April 2022, Sohini successfully defended her graphic dissertation, and will start as a Presidential Postdoctoral Associate at Stony Brook University in May 2022. She also recently signed a contract with Penn State University Press, a pioneer in publishing research and literature in the field of graphic medicine, for her debut book Unbelonging.
Image from Sohini’s graphic dissertation, “Drawing Unbelonging”
She credits her dissertation co-directors, Lisa Diedrich and Jeffrey Santa Ana, as well as her mentor Nick Sousanis, for supporting an innovative approach to humanistic scholarship and providing vital feedback. Diedrich, Professor and Chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stony Brook, pushed her to explore visual analysis, and said Sohini’s work transformed once she started “thinking in comics.”
“Kay found herself increasingly drawn to comics and graphic narratives to demonstrate formally the experiences and events of marginalization she was grappling with, including pandemic precarities, migration and displacement, sexuality and shame, and mental illness and neurodiversity,” Diedrich explained.
Sohini hopes her work can help more established scholars recognize the importance of scholarship beyond the academic monograph. She encourages those in academe to consider how different mediums can make their work appeal to larger audiences, and how combining humanistic inquiry with art can dispel disinformation in the current sociopolitical climate.
“Use your networks to make sure that non-traditional approaches to scholarship are seen as legitimate, ensure that they are funded in the same way traditional approaches are, and help create jobs in the academy for those doing innovative research,” Sohini said.
Left: Kay Sohini self portrait, water color, June 2020
In April 2022, ACLS announced the launch of the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowships, a new program designed to support bold and innovative dissertation projects in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.