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Drawing Conclusions

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"We don't think of drawing as something that you learn by imitation, because we have this conception in our culture, based on art, that you shouldn’t imitate other people," says Cohn. "I think that actually inhibits the capacity to draw. The studies all seem to show that, when you imitate in drawing, you learn to draw faster and you have a higher capacity for it. Plus, there are a lot of studies showing that, despite people saying that they don’t imitate, they actually do."

Speaking His Language

Even before arriving at Tufts, Cohn was making waves in the world of comic theory through publications, speaking engagements and writings published on his website, emaki.net. (The name of his website comes from the Japanese word emaki, or "picture roll," referring to the scrolls produced in Japan between the 10th and 16th centuries to tell stories through a sequence of images.)

This spring, besides teaching courses in tai chi and soo bahk do on campus, Cohn is teaching a psychology class called "The Visual Linguistics of Comics," an endeavor that will be aided by his experience in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' Graduate Institute for Teaching (GIFT) program. ("My graphic stylings are on all of the shirts for the GIFT program," he adds.) The course has attracted the notice of not only Tufts students but other comic scholars in the Boston. Cohn is exploring options for podcasting portions of the course to accommodate their interest.

Ultimately, Cohn sees his theories as redefining traditional perceptions of drawing and graphic communication.

"If it's language, there should be the capacity to use it in any of the same capacities that language appears in. That means that anything that you write could be written in this form, given that the user has the graphic fluency to do so."

"If it's language, what does that mean for the way we use it? If it's language, there should be the capacity to use it in any of the same capacities that language appears in. That means that anything that you write could be written in this form, given that the user has the graphic fluency to do so."

In that vein, Cohn sees potential in textbooks and other nonfiction works. He has worked with the Center for Applied Special Technology, creating graphic works detailing the photosynthesis process, and in co-authoring a nonfiction political comic book with Air America radio host Thom Hartmann. In fact, he used a cartoon guide to statistics to help him when taking statistics courses here at Tufts.

"Those kind of things are very accessible and make learning easier for a lot of people," he says. Cohn envisions bookstores where books in text and graphic books would not be segregated, but rather get equal billing within each genre.

Neil Cohn

Cohn understands there is a long way to go in the field of visual language, and he looks forward to seeing it expand and finding more opportunities for debate and discussion.

"I don't want to be the only one doing this research," he says. "It's a fertile ground for very good research on the whole, and I'm hoping that that can grow."

Understanding visual language, says Cohn, is key to gaining a better understanding of how the brain works, and thus how we understand the world.

"Figuring out what is driving those things is an incredibly fascinating question, because it's in essence asking, why do humans do the things that they do?" says Cohn. "What makes us human, in a lot of cases, is what is happening in our brains."

Thus, it was in keeping with his interest in Asian studies that Cohn's first fortune cookie at Tufts affirmed why he was here. It was the fall of 2006, and he and a friend had just driven from Chicago to Somerville to move Cohn into his new apartment. Afterwards, they got some Chinese food. And as is often the case, the fortune cookie yielded great wisdom for Cohn as he embarked on his studies.

"If the brain was so easy that we could understand it," read the tiny slip of paper, now hanging above Cohn's desk at Tufts, "we would be so simple that we could not."

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography. Top image courtesy of Neil Cohn.

This story originally ran on Jan. 26, 2009.