Today, I’m participating in a panel on “What Does a 21st Century Dissertation Look Like?” in the University of Maryland English Department; we’ll explore various ways of conceiving a humanities dissertation other than the traditional monograph format. I’ve captured some notes from my talk here, as well as some related tweets and reading on the subject of non-monograph dissertations.
My focus is on digital dissertations that aren’t auxiliary to or duplicated by a monograph, especially those where design and building are the main scholarly methodologies. Note that there are other examples out there of non-digital yet non-monograph humanities dissertations, such as Nick Sousanis’ comic-form dissertation, and a number of dissertations that combine a monograph with a digital component (such as Tanya Clement's digital editing and visualizations, or Lisa Rhody’s topic modeling).
A digital dissertation like mine is one of many equally valid options for dissertations; it’s a useful thought exercise for any dissertator to argue for the rightness of their chosen dissertational platform, regardless of which format they choose. I'm going to talk about the format that was right for my scholarly project, but my specific format is right for a specific intellectual query.
I’ve met surprisingly little resistance to choosing a unique format, more curiosity and willingness to understand. Most people are happy to support a project where you’ve obviously thought hard about how best to make your dissertation a contribution to scholarship. I think a lot of the misunderstanding around "whether" digital work can be scholarly stems from the different types of digital work out there (Also, from Wordles. Wordles!): sometimes you build a digital tool that requires further (often written) analysis to produce the intended knowledge, and sometimes, as when the intended knowledge deals with the use and effects of digital interfaces, the digital object itself can embody the argument. One study requires a written narrative; the other embeds its narrative.
My primary field of interest is textual studies, a sub-field within literary studies that concerns itself with the scholarly acts of editing and edition-making, as well as preserving literary texts; more specifically, I’m interested in digital editing, which migrates these traditional scholarly practices to the online world, opening up possibilities for new ways of reading and studying literary texts. Much of the recent activity in textual studies as a discipline has followed this path, as an examination of the program for the annual Society for Textual Scholarship conference would confirm.
The most productive and efficacious (in terms of scholarly impact) way to push the current research, reading, and teaching capabilities of the digital edition further is to actually demonstrate them in practice, through the hands-on work of designing, building, and testing a digital platform for new editing practices. In many respects, my project is not much different from the previously accepted practice of producing a scholarly edition, complete with commentary and editorial apparatus, as a dissertation.
My Infinite Ulysses participatory digital edition pursues a speculative experiment: what if we build an edition and everyone shows up and adds their annotations (interpretations, questions, contextualizations) to the text? Combining an unusually complex text (James Joyce’s Ulysses) with an approach imagining thousands of site users and annotations allows for the exploration of questions from overlapping fields:
The deliverables I'm preparing:
The article will include a scholarly introduction and conclusion to the entire body of dissertation research, a log of critical questions and challenges that arose during the design and coding processes, quantitative and qualitative analysis of user testing of the digital edition, and a theoretical discussion situating my work as developing a long tradition of editing and literary theory.
I’ve written posts on getting started on a digital dissertation (e.g. what should you do before submitting your prospectus?) and keeping up with your digital dissertation work. Once you're convinced the format you've chosen is the best way to convey your dissertational argument, you'll want to draft short explanations (about a paragraph each) of what the format you wish to use is (defining any technical terms) and why you need to use it. Then, identify the parties from whom you need buy-in to make the dissertation work (both in terms of getting it officially accepted by the school, and to make sure your advisers are fully behind your decision) and share these drafts with them.
At my university, I spoke with my advisor, dissertation committee, and department before submitting my prospectus; I also met with the person in charge of ingesting dissertations at the university library and the dean of the humanities school. Whenever possible, keep a written record of your statement of what your dissertation will consist of as well as these interested parties' agreements to that vision. I'm lucky in encountering thorough support from the people I spoke to, but I've heard of other students having trouble late in the process when different parties expected different amounts of work to be produced for the degree.
1. Justifying the format of your work is a useful thought exercise. Choose how you best think through and convey your critical thinking so that you end up with the best possible support for your scholarly argument (e.g. I’ve always left seminar discussions with ideas for small digital tools that could answer a question I'm wondering about, so exploring a digital dissertation was obvious for me.)
2. Your dissertation isn't just a piece of scholarly work; it's also a representation to your future coworkers and collaborators of who you are and what you can do. Use the dissertation to prepare for the job you want:
1. You could end up doubling your labor and time to degree, if any of the various parties in the path to a degree (committee, department, grad school...) will only let you pursue a digital component in addition to a monograph, or if you don't clearly set (in writing if possible) the size and scope of your deliverables early in the dissertation process.
2. If you're going to learn new skills as part of the dissertation, make sure your goals are reachable without much outside support. The best skills to work on are self-teachable and proximal to current abilities; for example, I'm already a professional web developer with PHP experience, but I'm using the dissertation to try some advanced things with the language.
3. Mentors might not be able to assist or review different forms as they can with a written chapter; it's more likely your advisors will be able to evaluate your end product, but not comment on the cleanliness, security, or critical thinking behind the lines of code (or comparable facets of other dissertational approaches).
4. Does the job you want/places you’re interested in working value the methodologies/forms you’re using if you aren't working on the traditional monograph? Some won’t, and the economic reality is that you're probably okay with taking a job at one of these places.
5. Dissertating can be lonely: you've reached the point of expertise where there are few people to talk to on your specific topic, and you're done with regular classes. Not sharing a common format with other students amplifies that loneliness and makes benefiting from the assistance that is available (such as writing groups) difficult.
"DH [digital humanities] arguments are encoded in code. I disagree with the notion that those arguments must be translated / re-encoded in text."
— Tom Scheinfeldt (@foundhistory) November 10, 2011
Uncouple form from content in student work. If what we value most is evidentiary reasoning, writing is but one way to proceed.— Your Friend Mark (@samplereality) December 14, 2013
@samplereality Not to mention that other forms of knowledge beyond evidentiary reasoning are valuable but underserved by academia.— Jason Mittell (@jmittell) December 14, 2013
"Those outside DH often underestimate the theoretical sophistication of many in computing, who deal every day, for example, with gaps between complex datamining algorithms and the practical sources of those data, or with the production of multiple, sometimes contradictory, visualizations from the same dataset. They know better than many of their humanist critics that their science is provisional and contingent, and that the results of research require interpretive acts."
“Once I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully thought-provoking, response a longtime digital humanist called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her. When we create these systems we bring our theoretical understandings to bear on our digital projects including (but not limited to) decisions about: controlled vocabulary (or the lack thereof), search algorithms, interface design, color palettes, and data structure. Is every digital humanities project a perfect gem of theoretically rigorous investigation? Of course not. Is every monograph? Don’t make me laugh.”
- Bauer, Jean. "Who You Calling Untheoretical?" Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (Winter 2011).