Like every grad student out there, I frequently hear the question, “What’s your dissertation about?” At this point, I have a pretty good 30-second answer, which goes something like this:
I’m working on children’s cartoons in twentieth-century China. I’m especially interested in the Sanmao comic strips, which ran off and on from 1935 to the 1980s and followed the adventures of a young boy in Shanghai. My dissertation is sort of a biography of the Sanmao character, since he changed a lot over the decades, according to what was going on politically in China.
That’s the simplest version of it, suitable for all audiences (China specialists, non-China academics, people I wind up sitting next to on airplanes). Usually, there are a few follow-up questions concerning what the comic strip was like, who the audience was, or about Zhang Leping, the artist who drew Sanmao. If I’m in a setting where I have my laptop and can bring it out without disrupting things too much, sometimes I’ll go into my image database and show the person(s) I’m speaking with a few of the Sanmao comics I’ve scanned.
Last week I was in New York meeting a new editor for the first time and he asked about my dissertation, with several more questions about the cartoons themselves. I didn’t have my laptop with me, so I described the comics as best I could, but I worried that I wasn’t doing it very well. On the train ride home, I suddenly realized (and perhaps this is obvious to others, but it came to me rather unexpectedly) that my iPad could help me be better prepared for these sorts of situations.
If I put a small slideshow of Sanmao images on my tablet, I thought, I could quickly, easily, and smoothly show the comics to people (if they’re interested), without pulling out my laptop and rummaging through my image files looking for the best ones. I would have instant access to a few selected images that would sum up the trajectory of Sanmao’s cartoon life. Due to the visual nature of my topic, it seems logical that I should have a few examples at my fingertips. And handling an iPad, particularly when standing and talking, is much less awkward than juggling a laptop.
So, one of my tasks this weekend was to create my Sanmao show. I looked through all my scans and carefully picked out a selection of six from different decades. I wanted to make the slideshow very, very short—just enough to illustrate what I’m working on, not so long that it would result in a bored listener zoning out while I flipped through cartoons, saying “And in this one … And here …” I tried to pick the images that I consider most representative of each iteration of the Sanmao comics, hoping to convey in one slide the tone of an entire collection. After synching the files to the Photos app on my iPad, I ran through the slides once and was pleased with the results, especially since the tablet displays images at much higher quality than my increasingly battered MacBook. Next time someone asks about my dissertation, I’ll be prepared to give them a taste of the Sanmao comics and, I hope, enhance the brief explanation of my work that I’ve honed over the past few years.