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[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

Hacking the dissertation, future tense

dissertation logoA few weeks ago, I officially advanced to candidacy in American history at George Mason University, and I took my first trip as an ABD to the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia, for research in the business records of Tredegar Iron Works.

Over one hundred years of ledgers, accounts, patents, letters, advertisements—the paper evidence of corporate structure and process—are housed in 1,345 boxes, 490 volumes, seven oversize boxes (containing 93 oversize folders and 1,000 drawings), six oversize map case drawers, and one rolled tube. The records are not digitized, and a visualization of their sequencing would appear as a dense tangle of obfuscated relationships scattered across eight organizational series. These records are the core primary source material for my dissertation on nineteenth century southern industrial development.

I went to the archives equipped: a Canon digital camera with flip-and-twist LCD screen; a table-top tripod for hands-free stability, image consistency, and document management; spare batteries in a charger; two 4GB memory cards; and a laptop. I photographed hundreds of documents, answered questions from five other researchers about the pluses and minuses of the equipment, and became an exemplary object for a middle school library tour.

It’s not hard to point-and-shoot. But how does the researcher begin to sort through it all, to prioritize primary sources, then to branch out to other archives to shape to a coherent narrative? And what is the shape of that narrative? Digital technologies add the question, “What is the format, the medium of the narrative? What is the delivery system?”

Not if, but how

I’ve come of scholarly age during the digital boom with the opportunity to work with a dissertation advisor and people in George Mason’s Center for History and New Media who don’t ask whether digital projects can happen, but how they can. And so, it hadn’t occurred to me to write a traditional dissertation (or the subsequent book). A digital dissertation just makes more sense as a scaffolded, professional progression. But no longer bound to traditional forms, where can the dissertation go and what can it look like? How do we shape scholarly argument in digital presentation and publication? What are the implications of a digital foundation for research and writing?

Last summer, Modern Language Association president Sidonie Smith set forth An Agenda for the New Dissertation, and this year’s THATCamp at the Center for History and New Media joined a broadening scholarly discussion on new forms of publication—of which Hacking the Academy is instantaneous, visible, practical evidence. Members of the academy are talking about change, and they’re making it happen.

From start to finish

Digital technology has already altered the way we do research, if not the final product. Digital processes mediate history research from start to finish, from data and source collection to methods of organizing and preserving resources. The next step is movement into interaction with technologies such as mapping programs, visualization tools, text mining, and various programming and multimedia options that offer prospects as inquiry and as presentation modalities to re-envision questions we ask of data and how we explain it to others.

The digital dissertation, of course, requires that movement and multi-layered research. We are forewarned about certain perils of the traditional dissertation—isolation, writer’s block, research dead ends, and more; but that said, we are still walking in the well-worn path of the academy. Pitfalls are known; frustrations are documented; methods and outcomes, defined.

But the digital dissertation also requires explorations to discover how to parse the kind of information we’re working with differently and research into the process of working digitally. The former creates the question of how digital tools might help query the evidence, restructure and rearrange information to provoke new questions and relationships among data and resources. It means learning how to create those tools (or at least how to communicate with those who do), and how to use them. And in the nascent field of digital history, the documenting process promotes validity and transparency for a discipline edging toward acceptance in the academy and built on the openness of community and collaboration.

Hacking the dissertation will also raise unanswered questions about the permanence of the final product, questions about assessing scholarship, questions about intellectual ownership.

In the end, my own dissertation may end up less digital and more analog. That’s okay. It’s also possible that documenting the dissertation via this blog may, in fact, become a scholarly publication in its own right. Even better. At this stage of digital scholarship, as it has been in other academic fields, process is also product.