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To Great Comic Effect: Ed.D. Candidate Paul Kuttner

It isn't every day that, when flipping through the latest academic research, you come across comic drawings. That is, unless it's the research of Ed.D. candidate Paul Kuttner, Ed.M.'09.

"It's a very unique combination of skill," Kuttner says of his research work which incorporates comic art. "I think you should speak the language you know in research. I happen to know comics. So why separate it?"

The self-confessed "comic book geek," started drawing comic characters when suffering a bout with mononucleosis as a child. Yet, despite his interest and talent for drawing, Kuttner instead decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in theater and development economics at the University of Michigan. It wasn't long, he says, before he began to think about the ways all types of art could bring isolated individuals together to work toward a common goal. This led to his creation of Communities Creating Change (CCC), a nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering youth and adults to improve their lives and communities by combining writing, history, community dialogue, and the arts into innovative intergenerational programming in Riverdale, Ill.

In an effort to learn more about how to combine his interests in community organizing and the arts, he came to HGSE, lured by the promise of the Arts in Education Program and by Associate Professor Mark Warren's research on community organizing.

It was while taking Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's course, The Art and Science of Portraiture, that Kuttner got the idea to use visual portraiture as part of his own research. "She inspired me to feel like I could do it," he says.

In 2009, with the support of the Council of Alumni for Social Enterprise, he produced a teaching case on Sistas and Brothas United, a youth organizing group based in the Bronx. The case explores arts and organizing and pairs Kuttner's unique comic drawing approach to research. During the interviews and observations, he photographs and videotapes the subjects to later produce accurate comic drawings. He refers to this as "comics-based research" - a derivative of "arts-based research," which uses arts to conduct and present research.

Kuttner says this makes research a little more interesting and memorable, and may bring the reader a new way to experience qualitative research. At the same time, Kuttner says the comics are a way to "engage with my own positionality" or "engage in reflexivity."

Kuttner's dissertation will examine youth cultural organizing, a field that combines arts and cultural work with community organizing to empower young people to create change in their lives and their communities. In particular, he will conduct a case study of an organization that does cultural organizing with youth.

It remains to be seen whether he will incorporate "comics-based research" into his dissertation. "I'm trying to balance the excitement of doing this work and finishing the dissertation," he says.