How to Write Research Differently: Examples from a Comic Poetic Inquiry

This presentation was originally given at the EDST 2023 Research Day.

EDST students and faculty are invited to share their own reflections, presentations, or memories from Research Day (see below for further details).

How to Write Research Differently: Examples from a Comic Poetic Inquiry

A Research Day Workshop by Gabriella Maestrini

Location and Length: The Multipurpose room was configured with tables so that everyone could sit around and face each other. The group of 10 was split into two groups of 5. The activity lasted about 1 hour.

The idea for the workshop on research day came from how I had approached writing my dissertation on humor in life, disaster, and pedagogy. In writing this dissertation I wanted the content reflected in the form which brought me to write in a rather fragmented comic poetic form with cartoons, poetry, reflections, stories, conversations, and analysis.

Taking a comic worldview approach, researching humor needed to be reflected in the voices that I created throughout the dissertation. I provided an example of how I had written a short piece on copyright acknowledgement in the dissertation where I demonstrated that it is possible to step outside of the conventional approaches to writing while maintaining academic rigor.

This comic poetic approach combined with the many voices, was then the basis for this workshop. Academically I drew on Faulkner, Ulysse, Richardson and Prendergast for my theoretical frames, which I briefly introduced through PowerPoint slides. Creating found poetry or stories can come from observations, field notes, interviews, photographs, doodles, books, and articles.

It is paying attention to the unexpected twists and turns in stories and the multiple voices that became the idea of a multitude of comic and poetic voices that I wanted to have the participants of the workshop experience. This led me to create an experimental and collaborative approach. Here is the slide with the workshop instructions:

For a longer piece I’ve published on comic vulnerability, click here.

There were ten people in the workshop that were divided into two groups each armed with flipchart paper, markers, and seated around tables. The instructions were to think of multiple voices while each participant was to write down words randomly on the paper. Above you can see the possible prompts.

Group 1’s first chart paper

After about ten minutes, I asked them to start thinking of patterns within the words, and how they could set up an opening line to their piece. Starting from there, the two groups diverged in their outcomes. The first one setting it up as a concise poem that started out with the one word that had coincidentally appeared twice on the page ‘nostalgia’:

Group 1’s second chart paper

While the second group wrote an opening line to a story where the participants tried to incorporate as many words as they could from their page. On a second piece of flipchart paper, the creative expressions took shape.

Group 2’s first chart paper

Group 2’s second chart paper

At times, I guided asking questions about whose voice they wanted to show, where they wanted their story to go and how they could use the context (the main story) to set up an unexpected comic ‘punchline’. The above pictures show the process and the results.

The two groups came to very different results: one was more poetic in nature, the other more narrative. What both had in common was that everyone had a great time doing the exercise, letting the creative juices flow and not editing or censoring the process. Laughter was a common occurrence.

In the debriefing, after sharing the results with the others reading them out loud, we spoke about the workshop experience. The most common comment was that although they initially did not know where the random words would lead them, the participants were surprised that cohesive stories emerged. Some were going to use this brainstorming/writing approach in their classes or use it in their own dissertation writing as a creative outlet.



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The Courage to Step into Comic Vulnerability

Gabriella Maestrini

Stepping into any kind of comic relationship as teacher, researcher or artist is an act of vulnerability, death and courage. Vulnerability in letting oneself be open to the comic teachings and possibilities which come with a piece of death of oneself to meet an ‘other’ and an act of courage to speak up on unspeakable matters.
The following two pieces are moments of encounter in Mexico City while researching disaster humor at the UNAM, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The first one is called Vulnerability: Entering skin first; the second one Vulnerability, Death and Research. In this last one, Candle stands not only in as alias for the live-in housekeeper but also to illuminate the role she has played for my research. She has been a guiding light in many ways.


© MAGA 2020 Leopard Spots – skin maps and markings

Vulnerability: Entering skin first

I move through the world skin first
I turn increasingly whiter as my spots progress.
As I sit in the scorching Mexican heat and my skin tans,
I show up to my own skin maps and writings
Unable to decipher the hieroglyphic markings.
Maybe they lead to what I seek.
Leopards – Jaguars are revered – are messengers – carry spots within spots marking not only their fur but also their skin. Revered in Mexico, the jaguar of the same family, has been depicted since Meso-American times as messenger between light and darkness.
The leopard spots on my own skin do not camouflage me as I enter the classroom, the research or the conversation; rather, they render me hypervisible.


Jaguars: Tenochtitlan – Teotihuacán – Pyramids

Even from the bus I can hear the call…
Vendors at the pyramids display carved jaguar heads
blowing into them to recreate the eerie rattling call of this elusive animal.
I feel a connection
To the spots,
To the elusiveness
To the eerie calls
That mimic the animal
To scare
To connect
To recall
To …
As I ascent the steep steps up the sun pyramid
Among others who have chosen to be there early on this hot day,
I hear the luring call.
Standing atop, I can feel the echoes of the calls far below in the valley
The space between the sun and the moon
Held together by the plumed serpent.
I let the sheer immensity of the valley,
The closeness to the sun descend
onto my skin and into my being as
I connect with energies that encircle these ancient creations.
My skin tingles to the rhythm of the calls
My own spots burn in the morning sun as
I turn toward the moon
Bringing my presence as a gift.
Why, do you ask, am I speaking of skin when I research humor? La blanca?  The privileged one?
I am thinking with Ahmed (2003), through my own skin as I enter my research/ teaching space in Mexico. White skin, or fair skin, seen as desirable, as superior, as privileged is marked on my own as different, as diseased, as dis-eased since many do not know what or who I carry. Am I diseased? Am I contagious? Am I an insider/outsider to my own skin?
Connecting my skin to humor makes sense as Mexicans pride themselves with a form of teasing toward obvious or prominent mental, physical or other distinctive features. Being at the receiving end of such teasing, makes you stronger, makes you belong or, in the other extreme, makes you an outcast. In my case, it made me both.
‘The spots of the leopard reflect selective advantages for its natural habitat’ Dimmendaal (2015, p. 2) clarifies. Although one might think there is but one adaptive explanation for the rosettes of the leopard, I may attach meaning to why the spots exist through a plethora of others. My strategies are humor.
Bromearse or teasing as a form of humor, brings not only laughter and care but also violence into the relationships that we might perceive as derogative and demeaning. During one of my first encounters with the students when talking about Mexican humor, I indicated that I might be called a ‘leopard’ or a ‘jaguar’ because of the spots on my skin. Self-deprecating humor, in this case, was a way to enter the classroom, to ease the tension of a foreigner coming into the students’ space in vulnerability.
Through my own self-deprecating humor, I helped elucidate two aspects: one, how to break the ice in a foreign research and teaching moment; two, how to acknowledge my own difference through vitiligo. In breaking my skin, in speaking first, I render myself vulnerable, expose myself to teasing and mockery opening the book to my own skin courageously in my own vulnerability.
Can a leopard change its spots? Can we ever change our skin?

Vulnerability, death, and research.

March 20, 2019 – I sur/re/n/der myself vulnerable –
I opened up
guided by this Candle
who treated me like any other gringa at first … it bothered me…
For some reason I wanted her to like me…
We lived in the same house … but it took vulnerability … my own …
my own tears … they changed everything.
On my mother’s birthday I woke up crying
not knowing that the Candle was in the kitchen…
tears streaming down my face as I reached for coffee
Her little frame, long grey hair… haltingly walks over, embraces me
As we stood there in shared grief …  just two women … crying together
She had lost her brother… way too soon… we shared the how, the when and the why … as grieving people do…we shared…we hugged…we embraced across oh so different bodies…
I hugged the dogs … they knew … always…
nothing     mattered
Time stood still
Time stood still
Time               stood             still
Even if for a moment, my mother’s presence and passing transported me back to when I got the news … I couldn’t breathe…
I learned the Mexican word for it: ella falleció… [she was missed, she left, she passed on, she expired, she disappeared, she stopped existing] — yet present…
The Candle, a devout believer in the Virgin, urges me to go to church …. she would even go with me if she could … to see the ‘big one’ dedicated to Guadalupe … the Virgin … the Black One … The one woman we can relinquish our plights to …
She will listen, the Candle says. She will make it easier…
I fight the urge … I resist those Catholic roots … I am reminded by those around me that it might help to relinquish my grief … nothing else …
just abandon myself to a moment of vulnerability … just a moment…
just to have
time      …      stand             …        still       …
I went to church that evening … to a Catholic Mass… something I had not done in years.
The only foreign body among locals … la gringa… I laugh to myself. Whether I want to or not. …. I shake my head … at ease and yet so out of place
The mass starts with the acknowledgement of those that have passed … lent … resurrection … the body of Christ … my mother’s body lying in the sun for a stranger to find….
I shiver, feel sick, feel


Embodied Moments of Recollection


I sit in the most uncomfortable wooden pew… the ancient timber digging into my sacral bones …
…. I have trouble following the familiar yet so foreign prayers in Spanish … I still remember them…[f**k] … so much work to forget, so little needed to evoke…
After Eucharist a tiny woman clad in black moves toward me taking my hand in both of hers … she extends the ritual … she mutters words I do not grasp … I silently accept her gesture…. Do I belong now? A sign of peace – finally?
The ceremony closes … for a while, I rest in the church plaza with soft wind rustling through the trees … I observe the night sky, feel the wind on my wet cheeks …. the evening hustle of people moving through this space with whom I have no connection … only the death of my mother has brought me here.
Finally, something makes me move…. a somnambulist among the awake …  I hesitantly make my way back to the house… tourists and locals alike cross my path as I continue through the plaza de los coyotes with the fountain releasing sprays of multicolored droplets….
Coyotes …. Tricksters …. reminding me in their spirit form that there is humor even in the darkest of times ….
…. their playful presence a reminder of my strength, of my abilities to survive, to conquer, to strive … … to flourish?
Cobblestones await me – the unevenness – the darkness of the unfamiliar streets too… as I turn the corner to Calle Escondida, the secret, the hidden street, …. I hear the tamale vendor in his nightly call:
! tamales! … ricos tamales Oaxaqueños ,
… tamales…
……………….. for ten pesos I give in to his seductive call.