GSC President, Zachary J.A. Rondinelli, Talks Winning the 2020 CSS Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship

In this feature interview, GSC Secretary-Treasurer, Maite Urcaregui, talks with GSC President, Zachary J.A. Rondinelli, about his 2020 CSS Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship winning project, #WelcomeToSlumberland, a social media research project. 

MU: Can you tell us a bit about #WelcomeToSlumberland? In particular, I’m curious to learn more about how you developed your methodology for a project of this scale and why you chose to examine Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo comics?

ZR: Absolutely! In a nutshell, the #WelcomeToSlumberland (@LittleNemo1905) project saw me tweeting, for 549 days, one of the strips that belong to Winsor McCay’s early 20th-century Little Nemo comics (including Little Nemo in Slumberland, In the Land of Wonderful Dreams, and the Little Nemo in Slumberland revival). Since the comics exist within the public domain, I was able to tweet an image of the strip for participants to read and engage with. Each strip was also accompanied by my personal reading and an invitation for others to a) share their personal readings, and b) comment on mine! It was a lot of fun to talk with people over Twitter! 

#WelcomeToSlumberland is a social media research project and that was always one of its defining features. I began the project right at the outset of the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and really wanted to demonstrate that, even though we couldn’t work face-to-face with participants anymore, there were still ways to engage with qualitative research. Social media was perfect because it provided an asynchronous sharing method and bridged divides created by the pandemic (that it also made it possible to include participants from around the world was an added bonus). So, the project’s existence as a pandemic-era project has become really important to me and what I believe to be one of its most important elements. 

Now, initially, I hadn’t even intended for this to be a research project! I had received the gorgeous two-volume Taschen collection of McCay’s Little Nemo strips as a gift and had become enamoured by them. Sure, I’d read some of them before, but I’d never really considered how important they were or where they fit into the history of comics. I remember running over to Twitter to see if there were any accounts dedicated to McCay’s little dreamer (something like a “Let’s Talk” account) and, when there wasn’t, my initial idea was to just start one of those. Thankfully, I went a different route.

My reason for codifying it into an ethics-approved qualitative research project was largely a result of my engagement with the “1001 Comix” project, a education-focused twitter project that my friend and K-12 education colleague, Don Liebold (@patientpyramid), was working on. His model involved tweeting analyses of 1001 comics pages on Twitter and receiving feedback from other community members. I immediately saw the value in this method and decided that I wanted to do something similar. 

From there, it was mostly just about ethics approval and away we went. I received clearance from my University’s research ethics board on May 22, 2020 and completed the project some 600 days later (I missed a day or two here and there for various reasons) on January 27, 2022.

MU: Thanks for sharing a bit about your process. I love that you really embrace it as a pandemic-era project! Why was it important for you that this project be public, and what does public scholarship open up for you, for this project, and for the field more generally?

ZR: I have always been drawn to public scholarship more than traditional academic publishing. I started writing about comics for an upstart comics review website back in 2018 called, POP! Culture & Comics. I used to write a cool feature called “Pages that POP!” where I would choose a page from a new comic that I thought was particularly cool and analyzed/broke it down. I often get excited about cool communication using the comics form and wanted to share that excitement with others! Working on the feature really made me think about how to share what I thought was really special about the page (sometimes involving complicated comics theory) in accessible ways for a general audience. I heard a lot, from people who read the feature, that being introduced to these more theoretical ideas was exciting for them because it gave them terms and language to talk about the things they loved about comics. 

So, for me, public scholarship has sort of become something I’m dedicated to and passionate about. As a simple review of my CV would tell you, much of my publishing has been within the realm of public scholarship and, while that is not unusual for us comics scholars, it is a bit unusual for those within the field of education. As you might expect, educational research in particular tends to be pretty isolated to academic publishing, which can sometimes be open access, but still pretty inaccessible for the general public who will be using the information most readily. That was why I wanted to make sure that #WelcomeToSlumberland was a public scholarship project; I wanted educators and practitioners to see what the project was accomplishing for comics literacy and get excited about either contributing to the work by participating themselves or by thinking about ways that comics could be used in their own classrooms!

MU: Building on this sense of accessibility, part of what I think is most powerful about #WelcomeToSlumberland is the way that it has really fostered a digital community that challenges traditional scholarly hierarchies and divisions. Your followers are also your co-researchers in a sense. What have you learned from this community and from your participants?

ZR: Oh, without question, I view my participants and followers as co-researchers. Though #WelcomeToSlumberland isn’t exactly Participatory Action Research (PAR), I’ve modeled much of the project around the idea of participants as leading the work that we’re doing. Since #WelcomeToSlumberland takes its primary theoretical framework from the transactional theory of Louise Rosenblatt (1978), it was really important for me to acknowledge, incorporate, and privilege the readings of others. Each participant/co-researcher brought their own experiences to the work and those experiences shaped (in many different ways) the interpretations, understandings, and knowledges that we created in collaboration with the strip. I frequently found my perspectives challenged or extended through conversation with participants and often contributed to the same feeling for other participants. 

One of the first stumbling blocks, though, was getting participants talking and sharing their thoughts. This is where my personal thread came in handy (especially at the beginning) as a way of giving people permission to really stretch their interpretive muscles. That said, I really tried to move away from my thread as the starter (admittedly with mixed success) and focus on the participants most directly. One approach that I used throughout the project was to invite “Guest Contributors” to post their readings to start off the conversation instead of always having my own act as the kickstarter. We got a handful of these throughout the project and it was really amazing to get different perspectives to kick off the conversation! Other times, I would do “threadless” posts that were completely open-ended without any personal reading accompanying them. These worked well for some strips and less so for others.

MU: #WelcomeToSlumberland has examined every page of McCay’s Little Nemo strip. What has it been like to study this incredible work in its entirety, and do you have any favorite moments?

ZR: It was really awesome to read these strips chronologically. Again, I’ve read lots of them randomly but to see them all in their original order was really neat. I don’t want to suggest that we experienced the strip the way that McCay’s contemporary young readers did, but we did experience this work in a similar(ish) way. This really plays into the transactional nature of the project because, with each passing day, I never knew what was coming next. For those of us who were reading the series through for the first time, it let us make inferences, and guesses about what was coming next and how the (loose) continuity would play out from week to week/day to day. Even those who had read the series in its entirety often remarked that they had forgotten about a certain strip/event or created some new meaning from their transactions. I always loved when that happened!

I have so many favourites, most of which are pretty commonly loved by many in the comics community! I tend to find myself drawn to the strips that do innovative and experimental things with the comics form. That said, I also have a favourite series that, I think, generally receives less attention than the rest of the Little Nemo strips. At the end of McCay’s tenure with the New York Herald (before relocating and taking Nemo to the New York American) in 1911, there was a series of fifteen strips that were printed in a much different way than the ones that came before it. We took to calling this the “tri-tone series” (Day 288-302) because the strips were black, white, and only one other colour. This is strange since it is a well-known fact that the New York Herald had one of the best colour printing processes of the time. The prevailing thought (I believe from John Canemaker, McCay’s biographer) is that since the paper was losing McCay to William Randolphe Hearst and the New York American newspaper anyway, they no longer cared to spend the time or money printing McCay’s work in full colour. 

I have become somewhat infatuated with these strips and intend to write something on them in the near future, so I won’t give away too much about why I’m interested in them, but I’ll just say that I find these strips a really cool look at McCay’s use of subtlety and allegory. It’s also connected to #WelcomeToSlumberland in a fun way because, had I not done the project and thought so deeply about the strips/collaborated with all my participants, I never would’ve come to the conclusions that I did about the series! More on that in the near future, but if you’re interested, you can check the “tri-tone series” out at the link above.

Finally, I also have a favourite panel! I think this really sums up the project for me (though I was a bad academic and forgot to write down which of the 549 strips it comes from)!

MU: The CSS has recognized some incredible public scholarship with this award. How does it feel to be recognized by this award, and what does it mean to you? 

ZR: I was beyond honoured to receive the Seldes Prize last year. At the time of its nomination, I really believed winning the award to be a long-shot because the project was a bit less-traditional than any that had previously been awarded. That said, I truly believed that the blend of academic research with public, open access scholarship was both innovative and meaningful. I was also really privileged to have the support of CSS colleague, Shawn Gilmore, who published our #WalkingBedWeek Roundtable (which celebrated the most famous strip in Little Nemo’s history by presenting 5 different readings by 5 different scholars) to his edited, semi-scholarly website, The Vault of Culture. This gave #WelcomeToSlumberland a simultaneous existence within the social media and more traditional public scholarship spaces. Seeing the work that I had really poured all of myself into rewarded by an organization that I am deeply committed to was such a meaningful thing for me.

Beyond that though, I am really excited that my project’s acknowledgement has opened up the possibility of other non-traditional public scholarship projects being recognized! My project is not unique or special in the sense that many amazing examples of non-traditional public scholarship have existed before it in spaces that haven’t always been recognized for semi-academic work. This includes other social media projects, YouTube video essays, and a plethora of podcasts that add so much to the conversation surrounding comics and comics studies! That the Gilbert Seldes Prize now considers these amazing types of projects as recipients of the award is incredible. I am not so full of hubris to think that this outcome is a direct result of my efforts with #WelcomeToSlumberland, but I hope that it played a small role in making it possible. 

MU: Do you have any advice for fellow graduate students who are interested in pursuing public scholarship?

ZR: People often ask me why I would publish public scholarship when I could hold onto my paper or my idea and publish in a more “highly-regarded”, academic journal format. The truth is that some of the most meaningful work that I’ve read (and produced) has been public scholarship, aimed not at the ivory towers but at the people. So, the first piece of advice? Don’t hold back; dive right in! You’ll be shocked at how much fun you have and how many people you meet!

I’ve been very lucky to have found a lot of connections through my public scholarship. Shawn Gilmore has become a good friend over the years and a constant supporter at the Vault of Culture (if you have an idea, pitch him; I guarantee that he would love to hear from you) and, while I’ve never published with her amazing Eisner-Award winning website, my friend, Kate Tanski (Women Write About Comics) has been so supportive of my interest and passion for public scholarship. I’m always floored by the incredible work of my friend and fellow Brock University colleague, Anna Peppard (who’s amazing essay (Behold) The Vision’s Penis: The Presence of Absence in Mutant Romance Tales received an honourable mention for the Seldes Prize last year), and she is someone whose public scholarship (both her written and podcast work) has been a massive inspiration to me. There are so many people that I could list here, but the most important takeaway is that public scholarship has really been a positive force for my feeling of belonging within the comics community!

So, if you have an idea to pitch? Check out one of the amazing edited, semi-scholarly websites that exist out there and share your idea! Are you interested in recording video essays? Take that step and put together that first video! Been a long-time listener to one of the incredibly amazing comics studies podcasts? Download that app and start recording! I think you’ll find that the supportive community of comics scholars that we have will support you!

You can find more about #WelcomeToSlumberland on Twitter (@LittleNemo1905) or the project website, which features a digital table of contents collecting all 549 days worth of conversation!  You can learn more about the Comics Studies Society’s annual prizes on their website.

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