Choosing the best format for your scholarship: digital dissertation edition

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.

2. 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 there1: 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.

Why my format?

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:

  • Textual studies: How can we create digital archives and editions that are not just public, but invite and assist participation from both trained academics and the lay person in our love for the nuances of a text’s materiality, history, and meaning?
  • Information science: How can we borrow successful social mechanics from existing online communities (e.g. upvoting, tagging) to create reading and research experiences that adeptly handle not only issues of contextual annotation quantity but also quality, customizing the displayed annotations to the interests and experience of each reader?
  • Literary studies: What happens to complex texts—especially those Modernist novels purposefully authored to be hypertextual, chaotic, and encyclopedic—under heavy and thorough annotation and conversation?

You can read more about Infinite Ulysses here, starting with this post about my overall dissertational agenda and this post outlining what Infinite Ulysses will actually look like and do.

My dissertation’s format

The deliverables I’m preparing:

  1. The Infinite Ulysses participatory digital edition (Drupal 7 site: theme design, module coding, interface behavior and incorporated user feedback)
  2. Public code repository and documentation on using my code to build a similar digital edition
  3. Formal usability study
  4. Regular blogging on the technical and theorizing processes (on this site!)
  5. Scholarly digital article built from the blog posts and the usability study (the article will exist as an interactive website that also serves as a gathering point for links to the other pieces of the dissertation; see this post for more on the argument-through-visual-design format of the planned article)

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.

How to do something similar

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.

Benefits of a well-chosen dissertation format and/or a non-monograph format

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.)

  • What format best supports what you’re arguing?
  • What format best reaches the most people who can use and build on your work? (other students, scholars, interested public)
  • If you used a different format, what would be possible? What would you lose and gain? What would you learn?

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:

  • Consider learning a new skill(s) as part of the process (but see the caveat below): a technical skill (PHP), delivery (develop an informal blogging voice that helps you think through scholarly questions more quickly), etc.
  • Use the dissertation to develop polished examples of your existing skills to highlight when on the job market
  • Think about practicing job-skills that the degree doesn’t otherwise guarantee you (e.g. collaboration)

Challenges of non-monograph/digital dissertations

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.

  • What do you want in your peer teachers? For example, if you’d want your department to hire fellow teachers who are good and generous collaborators, how is your dissertation supporting that same quality in you?
  • If you can’t do the type of project you really want to do now, consider that you may never be able to: as an adjunct, junior faculty member, up for tenure review are not more friendly or safe times for innovation.

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.

Tweets and Quotations for Thought

Monographs have a circulation problem

  • “By year +10 a monograph that has never circulated has less than a 1% chance of ever circulating. http://t.co/5gZuWeGedT” – Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) February 13, 2014
  • “Nearly half of monographs in research libraries haven’t circulated, ten years after purchase: http://t.co/kOcbsNQ2ir” – Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) February 13, 2014
  • A 2010 report from Cornell non-anomalously noted that  “55% of the monographs published since 1990 in Cornell’s library have never circulated, not even once”.

Chronicle of Higher Education interview (me + several other students doing digital dissertations):

The forms of scholarship

“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

“Maps, graphs, models, charts, diagrams, simulations, games, videos, photos, audio, remixes, code. All can support evidentiary reasoning.

“Uncouple form from content in student work. If what we value most is evidentiary reasoning, writing is but one way to proceed.”

— Mark Sample (@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

Some examples of critical thought during digital work

“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.”

- Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. 10-11. New York: Routledge, 2013. (HT Whitney Trettien)

“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.[9] 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).

  1. Also, from Wordles. Wordles! []

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