January 11, 2016 by Amanda Visconti

Digital Dissertations in an Increasingly Welcoming Landscape

This audio+slides presentation describes my recent, uniquely non-monograph digital humanities dissertation, which consisted of design, code, blogging, user-testing, and a whitepaper written during just the final month before the defense, *without* accompanying written chapters of proto-monograph. See below the video for a transcript.

I survey the increasingly welcoming landscape for doing digital dissertations (especially in the humanities) and look at the practices (and privileges) that help or hinder digital dissertation success. See Dr.AmandaVisconti.com for the dissertation discussed (includes links to all pieces of the dissertation, such as the InfiniteUlysses.com participatory digital edition and LiteratureGeek.com blogging) and TinyURL.com/DHevaluation for a Zotero bibliography of articles related to digital humanities dissertations, promotion, and tenure.

This talk was originally presented at the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) Fall 2015 meeting in Washington, D.C. (any extra commas are the result of it being a talk transcript!). If you're a potential or current digital dissertator (or advising one), you may wish to check out my complete series of dissertation blogging from throughout my dissertation experience; it includes practical advice on aspects like arguing for your methodology and dealing with IP and copyright issues.

Digital Dissertations in an Increasingly Welcoming Landscape from LiteratureGeek on Vimeo.

Digital Dissertations in an Increasingly Welcoming Landscape

In April this year, I defended a literature dissertation that was unusual in its methodology and form: design, code, user testing, blogging, and a whitepaper written during the final few weeks before the defense. On top of using some digital humanities methods that are becoming more and more recognized and allowed as *some* part of a dissertation and as part of *any* non-dissertational scholarship, though, my dissertation was possibly unique in its format, in that these digital pieces were completely recognized as the full scholarship they were; and you can tell this was the case because there was no proto-monograph: there were zero written chapters. This really wasn't a case of someone being allowed to do some extra digital scholarship, as long as they did it in addition to a traditionally recognizable set of written chapters.

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I was lucky to have an incredibly positive digital dissertational experience, which I’ll tell you about more in a moment. First, though, I want to rewind to three years earlier, when I had a very brief roadblock to getting the dissertation off the ground.

Digital dissertations: not actually that special?

I knew that I wanted to design a dissertation this unusual way, and so it made sense to talk to all the parties involved in deciding if I'd receive my doctorate, before starting the work, to make sure we were all on board and on the same page about the project. I had the academic experience of writing my dissertation prospectus under my belt, and the habit of summarizing my research thinking into 140 characters for Twitter, so academic or concise writing weren’t quite the problems.

But for whatever reason, I got stuck trying to write just two little paragraphs to share with people like the librarian in charge of ingesting dissertations: two short paragraphs on the methods I wanted to use for my dissertation, why these were the best ways to pursue my research, and what the final deliverables would look like. I was just having a tough time and getting too up in my head about producing this explanation. I couldn't get my two paragraphs cut down small enough: How did I use two paragraphs to explain not only these whats and whys of my project, and not just the critical thinking behind my use of content management systems, PHP, Javascript, and other technical terms, but what each of those terms meant to the lay person, as well?

So I was overthinking this a bit and finally my advisor, Matthew Kirschenbaum—who I'll be introducing a bit later— gently pointed out that trying to explain PHP and Javascript to, for example, my graduate school dean, wasn't actually an unusual activity or one that was an unfair extra burden of doing digital scholarship. One of the core purposes of the Ph.D., is to bring junior scholars past the pool of shared community knowledge for their first time, to refine your specialization, and otherwise embark on a path where you'll have a lot of shorthand, and a lot of terms of art, that you'll always need to be able to explain to all but a handful of other people in the world, if you want them to understand you.

This was a useful moment for me as a scholar, to cut off right there, any sense of special solitude or extra burden caused by doing digital scholarship. The privilege of working with mentors like Matt is that I had a safe space to learn to be pedagogical about my work, rather than defensive; to expect curious listeners instead of defensiveness and lack of understanding, and to sometimes create curiosity about digital methods, if it wasn’t already there, through this pedagogical approach.

I share this anecdote because I'm hoping to do more today, than just offer my dissertation as a model for student digital scholarship. Although there's an interesting conversation to be had around some of the particular, special benefits of doing various types of digital dissertation work, I hope that our conversation during this session can start from, perhaps surprisingly, the many ways doing a digital dissertation is not special.

Chapters ≠ Dissertation

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That is, I’d like to see the conversation tend less toward comparing newer types of student research (especially digital methods) to written chapters…

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…and I’d like to see us moving the conversation more toward the reasons behind doing a dissertation in the first place. Every dissertating scholar, regardless of the methods and format they use, needs to think through the best methods and format for their scholarly argument. I’d like to see us be pedagogical about how the way we each choose to advance knowledge works, and instead of starting the conversation by focusing on written chapters, start talking instead around what we want the dissertation to do for a student and show about that student, and how *in this moment* we can use many different methods and forms, in critical and scholarly ways, to realize those goals.

Next, I'm going to describe my recent dissertation, and some thoughts about the current environment for digital dissertations. Then, I'll hand the mic over to Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum to talk a bit about digital dissertations from the perspective of advising them.

Digital dissertation case study (successfully defended April 2015!)

Since I’m both a web developer and a literature Ph.D., I’m interested in how we can use interface design, to encourage not just public consumption of, but active participation in humanities reading and interpretation, especially with digital editions of literary texts. Scholarly editors—those researchers who create scholarly editions of texts—are integral to the continuum that keeps the stories of the past, available to and understood by the present—but there's also a less-served public of readers beyond the academy, whose interest keeps the humanities alive and relevant.

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I'm especially interested in work that takes digitized and publicly available humanities resources, and makes these truly accessible, beyond just those people who are experts at formulating research questions, and at using online resources to answer these questions. An example of this is the Library of Congress' online hosting of photographs, taken across the U.S. during the Depression as part of a federal work program; this is a fantastic research offering that is theoretically public, but…

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it took the Photogrammar project creating an interface, for intuitively exploring these photographs, to truly open this piece of our cultural heritage to everyone. I’m interested in crafting humanities interfaces, that help everyone get interested in our cultural heritage, and that make getting involved and following up on curiosity intuitive, through interfaces that make it obvious how to use them and that care about public participation in research thinking.

What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone?

Therefore, my dissertation asked this question: What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone, including first-time readers, students, and others outside the academy, to participate in its use? I considered this question by creating and testing the InfiniteUlysses.com participatory digital edition, of James Joyce's challenging novel Ulysses. As a brief tour of what that site looked like: This is the current front page, and those three big images give a high level tour of the edition's features: you can highlight parts of the book as you read it and annotate those highlights—that is: leave comments and questions. You can read the annotations left by others; and you can personalize what annotations you see to your background, interests, and needs.

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On the screen is the reading interface on Infinite Ulysses. My field of textual scholarship has a long history of building editions and experimenting with textual interfaces, in order to critically explore and perform scholarly arguments, a tradition that helped me argue for design and code as scholarship because of how closely this building and design tied into my research questions. The most productive and efficacious way to learn about and advance public participation in digital editions, was to actually build an experimental digital edition with some new interactive features, this InfiniteUlysses.com site, and then analyze the edition’s use.

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And so, my dissertation consisted of the design work and web development that created the Infinite Ulysses digital edition. Part of my argument for the form of dissertation, was that scholars were theorizing how social digital editions might work, more often than building these theories and actually assessing them; with Ulysses in particular, scholars argued about whether hyperannotation would “diminish” or “break” the text, but hadn’t tried to assess this through testing it out.

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Therefore, various forms of user testing, as well as quantitative and qualitative analyses of the results of these tests, and of site use statistics, were another deliverable of the dissertation. I used my research blog LiteratureGeek.com, to write twice a month through the three years of the dissertation, with posts that examined my research questions as well as metadissertational issues like questions of IP and copyright involved in my project. And finally, I wrote a whitepaper *just* during the final month before my defense, to act as a debriefing and analytical discussion of the dissertation experience, a place to analyze the results of my user testing, and a public accounting of the new knowledge created by my research.

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Dr.AmandaVisconti.com served as the single representative website gathering all the pieces of the dissertation, including archival recordings of the digital edition website, and exports of websites, code, and blogs. This website was ingested into my university repository as a ZIP of its web files, plus a one-page PDF abstract for the entire project.

Challenge: evaluating the dissertation

A big question with unusual dissertational methodologies is: how will your work be understood and evaluated? The thing being evaluated with my project was the digital edition interface I created, and how I addressed various theoretical questions both through this end product, and through the regular blogging and final whitepaper debriefing I wrote. My committee members weren’t web developers, but they are digital humanists, textual scholars with significant digital edition experience, user interface researchers, and a Joycean; a perfect set of expertise for evaluating an experimental Ulysses digital edition not on the level of critical code studies, but of user interface.

Another question is: how will technical or specialized work be communicated to the research’s audience? To address this question, my advisor suggested I create a manifest documenting all the pieces of the dissertation in one place. This document explained each piece of work in lay terms, gave a sense of the depth of the work and the critical thought that went into it, and linked to where to look at the work. This was also a perfect place to acknowledge and credit the collaborations in my research, such as opensource code like Drupal, or the improvements to the Annotator Javascript tool Stanford’s Michael Widner generously shared with me.

Challenge: administrative time & effort

A third challenge is: how do we reduce the extra administrative time/effort that stems from unusual dissertational design? There was extra work involved not just for me, but also for my dissertation committee: my advisor Matthew Kirschenbaum and committee members Neil Fraistat, Kari Kraus, Melanie Kill, and Brian Richardson were all incredibly generous with their time and mentorship, and met with me as a team multiple times throughout the three years of the project. Meeting as a team meant that we made better use of the dissertation committee than just drawing them in at the end: it turned feedback on my project into a conversation among several areas of expertise.

Meetings also let us reaffirm a mutual understanding of what the deliverables at the time of the defense would look like, and that the committee still found that this outcome satisfies the requirements of a dissertation in my department. I hope we can discuss today how we might provide the same degree of support and time commitment for both busy advisors and advisees. Are there ways we can change our departments forms and templates to offload some of the work of checking in on the progress for dissertations, when it can’t be measured in chapters and drafts? Or to make sure faculty receive special credit or things like course and committee releases, when they commit to this extra level of support for a student’s dissertation? My current university, Purdue, just officially made mentoring undergraduates a written piece of how it judges tenure and promotion cases, and I’m hoping to see this extended to graduate mentorship as well.

The increasingly welcoming landscape for digital dissertations

I'm going to focus on one particular event in the recent environment for digital dissertations now, but I encourage you to check out the Zotero bibliography I've built at tinyurl.com/DHevaluation, if you're interested in more examples of supporting digital dissertations and other digital scholarship. This includes discussions of recent events like CUNY's livestreamed “Remix the Dissertation” symposium, and relevant dissertations outside the humanities, namely Nick Sousanis' recent dissertation entirely in comics form for an Education Ph.D. at Columbia Teachers College.

The guidelines for both partially and fully digital dissertations published by George Mason University’s History and Art History Department this fall are hopefully a sign other universities and departments will start to give student scholars the freedom to choose the best form and methods of their contribution to academic knowledge. GMU’s guidelines state: "Developments in digital publication platforms and digital history methods have increasingly made it possible for graduate students to produce a culminating work of historical scholarship, that does not take the form of a narrative dissertation. [They] welcome dissertation projects that take a range of digital forms, *while also upholding* the standards of the profession for good scholarly work."

I like that the GMU guidelines are presented as porous guidelines, that don't assume we know every form or method a scholar might judge appropriate to their research. The GMU guidelines are also fantastic in pointing back to the values behind a dissertation's design. Rather than asking "is it written chapters, or if not how like chapters can it be?", this department has thought carefully about what the dissertation should do, using in part the guidelines for scholarship of the American Historical Association. For example, the guidelines state that any dissertation should perform longstanding values of historical research, like showing the significance of the research, and justifying all methodological choices.

Justifying your research methods & form: a task for every dissertator

Dissertators using forms or methods for which their scholarly community does not yet widely understand the nature of the critical process or deliverables, should be responsible for educating others about these. My only quibble with the GMU guidelines is that they put the extra burden on digital dissertators to argue for the aptness of their methods and forms. I disagree: *all* dissertators should argue for the aptness of their methods to their research questions, regardless of if they're using a form or method that time has shown is generally a good way of pursuing research questions in that field.

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What matters is the appropriateness of method and form to your particular research questions. You want to choose how you best think through ideas and convey your critical thinking, so that you end up with the best possible support for your scholarly argument. Digital or not, dissertating scholars should ask themselves questions like:

  • What format best supports what you’re arguing, and best reaches the most people who can use and build on your work?
  • If you used a different format, what would be possible? What would you lose and gain?
  • And on the practical side of things, what skills do you want to learn? Do your form and methods support your career plans? How will you deal with job applications that require longform writing samples, and otherwise present your work to an audience unfamiliar with digital scholarship?

Pros of using my digital dissertation as a model...

I’m glad my dissertation experience counters some of the common objections to student work that innovates in form and method. It is not written in stone, for example, that you will not get any job, or the kind of job you want (including if that happens to be the troubled tenure-track position); or that you won't be able to finish the Ph.D. in five years. Using social media and eschewing an embargo can result in more people knowing about your work and more opportunities for collaboration and publication, not less.

And perhaps most importantly, it is possible, given the right circumstances, to do a digital dissertation that fully recognizes your digital scholarship and doesn't require you to double your labor by producing anything digital as extra effort alongside the traditional multiple written chapters.

But don't forget the privileges & risks of doing a digital dissertation!

I'd be remiss to not address those “right circumstances”, though.

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Dissertators need permission from ourselves, and permission for our departments that this path can lead to success, and I think as dissertations like mine and guidelines like GMU's proliferate, more students will find this permission.

Dissertators also need more environments that let them take risks and that recognize that these risks are not just intellectual ones, but personal risks involving being able to provide for yourself and your family, pay down student loans, and find a job that will let you be happy.

As departments begin to support more diverse forms of doctoral scholarship, I hope we can use sessions like this one to discuss how the greater scholarly ecosystem of universities, libraries, publishers, and others can contribute to supporting these innovators once they’ve graduated.

Q&A

My talk was followed by remarks from my dissertation advisor, Matthew Kirschenbaum, who himself defended one of the very first digital literature dissertations; we also had lots of time for audience discussion, as well as time for me to note some of the specific privileges I alluded to in the main talk (e.g. my working at a major, on-campus DH center since halfway through my master's degree; experience teaching myself technical skills; active interest in an alternative academic career). Unfortunately the microphone wasn't working, but I captured the following notes:

  • Matt emphasized that (despite what might be most entertaining to hear), there was no "backroom drama" to my dissertation: administration throughout my university was welcoming to our approach of presenting a succinct, clear explanation of the necessity of my methods and form.
  • Matt noted that language and expectations at the department level still expect written chapters (e.g. a departmental award asks that the any dissertations nominated for the prize be submitted as "an electronic copy of the whole dissertation in PDF form").
  • Audience question: My (Amanda's) dissertation was collaborative in terms of building on and recognizing others' code, but what about truly networked dissertations—dissertations that succeed as members of a group of dissertating researchers? One answer: The UVa Scholars' Lab Praxis Program (which supports a team of fellows through real collaborative work on a DH project) might be a place to look for such connected dissertation in the near future, especially since the program realistically allows team members to each focus on different DH roles that fit their interests and background.
  • Audience question: What is the responsibility of scholars who create public/participatory projects (like InfiniteUlysses.com) as their dissertation—should they be expected to maintain and build on this work through to the time of their tenure case? Should a failure to do so be a mark against their scholarship? One answer: Responsibility and care for the audience of your research should be marks in favor of your evaluated scholarship, especially for scholarship that is consciously public-serving. While keeping in mind that the emotional labor and capacity to support such projects can be difficult and requires certain privileges, having a plan in place for the longterm existence of your scholarship is an aspect of good research (even if that's "I'm being very public about this site only lasting online for one year and I'll post clear directions for users to export their work/data"...)
  • Audience question: How can libraries/university repositories help preserve digital humanities dissertations? (Some answers: Be aware that ProQuest will let you ingest things like web sites, code, and audio. But this is really the same problem that DH centers face with everyone project, and there's no one-size-fits-all answer with such experimental websites.)
  • Audience question: What can librarians do to support digital dissertations before and during the dissertation? One answer: serve as advocates and translators for students seeking to innovate, e.g. accompany students when they meet with their department to discuss their format, and help the student establish historical scholarly precedents for their work.

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