Five Tips for Getting Started on a Digital Humanities Dissertation

Logo for DHnow Resource Post
As you might have noticed from this blog and my tweets, I’m in the opening act of what promises to be an exciting and non-traditional doctoral literature dissertation [auathor's note: I'm now writing the dissertation; read more here!]. I’ll be blogging the actual content of the dissertation in the months to come, but for now I’d like to share some of the things that have helped me mediate between my digital and humanist goals:

  1. At the beginning of writing the prospectus, identify all roles that have advisory and/or control relationships to the final form of your dissertation, and ask them to acknowledge in writing the conditions under which they will accept the dissertation format you propose. I talked with our library’s digital repository (which ingests dissertations), the graduate school (which has final say in granting my degree), my graduate department (to help them understand how my dissertation format choice is good both for me and for the department), and my dissertation committee (of course!).
  2. Generate a monthly schedule for completing both the digital work (coding, metadata, whatever) and writing for your project. Have options in place in case a) coding takes longer than planned and/or b) you need to make changes from the code you originally planned to create (e.g. it’s too hard to do or someone else does it first).
Photo of last melting snowball bearing a sign quoting the final lines of Shelley's "Ozymandias"

I hope these tips help you get your DH dissertation snowball rolling, rather than melting in Shellyian despair (Photo is CC Zero by Amanda Visconti, from the University of Michigan Law Quad, Winter 2008/9)

  1. With all the members of your dissertation committee, hold a meeting that is focused on practical aspects of your dissertation’s running and marketing (both to non-DH members of your department and the larger community). You’ll likely need to do some extra work over a traditional dissertation’s requirements to justify the format of your dissertation and how it fits into your degree program (in my case, literature); this is actually a really helpful, mindful exercise that I think all students should do whether or not they’re producing digital work.
  2. Plan towards eventual publication of your work, considering both traditional venues and more recent projects that can handle both writing and new media projects. If you’ll be blogging as part of the process, consider how this writing can become part of the finished project, whether it can be republished, and the risks and rewards of early publication. Think about how the nature of what you can publish out of your dissertation will affect your job prospects (e.g. students seeking tenure-track teaching positions need to think carefully if they’re not creating something very book-like).
  3. Be clear on your career goals and what skills you’d like to improve over the coming years of your dissertation, and identify who will be supporting the more technological aspects of your project. How can you use your dissertation to develop and demonstrate these skills? Think not just about improving existing skills or honing one ability, but about diversifying your skills.

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