[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

Raising questions about the digital dissertation (part two)

[Recap, part one]The results of a survey of students in the doctoral program in history at George Mason University demonstrated that two-thirds of respondents were either fully committed to or seriously considering including a digital component in their dissertations.

Looking at hard questions

Before we can create it, evaluate it, defend it, and submit it, we need to know just what IT is. The seminal logical inquiry becomes Just what is a digital dissertation? The digital dissertation may fall in a vast middle ground between the totally text-based traditional dissertation and the funded digital project realized over numbers of years by large staffs and collaborative teamwork. It is also differentiated from the work published digitally in open-source scholarly journals such as the Journal of Digital Humanities.

Certain qualities seem integral to any proposed definition, however. The dissertation is likely to remain an individual work, the exemplification of one person’s creative intellectual processes. The dissertation is terminal; that is, unlike many digital projects where sustainability is a consideration, the dissertation has an end point, a situational determination that the work is done. As a result, the technology(ies) upon which a digital dissertation is built is/are part of that dissertation and indicative the status of digital work at the time of authorship, just as the content of the dissertation represents a status of scholarly inquiry at a point in time.

In terms of content (saving questions of publication and preservation until a later blog post), what, then, distinguishes a digital dissertation from the traditional dissertation? Participants in the National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored workshop Digital Dissertation Depository: Building an Open-Source Archive for Born Digital Dissertations (summer, 2012) tweeted partial definitions to the workshop feed #digidiss:

#digidiss examples could be a song, a documentary, a youtube trailer, a speech, a conference presentation, a monologue performance . . .

The problem with defining a #digidiss is that by the time you define it, a new tech will make the definition problematic, if not obsolete.

…a project whose intellectual significance depends on digital access and therefore, preservation.

…A #digidiss may incorporate executable code to embody a theory, demonstrate an analytic procedure, or permit alternative analyses of data.

talking through the distinction between “scholarly work” (the study) and the “account” of that work (the dissertation) #digidiss

…defining “digital dissertation” is tough. We need a system that can accommodate a *huge* variety of work

These posited definitions and survey responses of George Mason doctoral students (paraphrased in the slideshare above) demonstrate that the range of content for the digital dissertation is extraordinarily diverse. Workshop participants recognized this diversity and George Mason students identified dissertation components from coding to archiving, from mapping to image-based exposition, from various database presentations to text-mining, from a website to a museum exhibition. By inference, questionnaire responses also demonstrate that, at least at this point in digital work and in the minds of doctoral students, the term digital dissertation appears to signify incorporating digital components in varying degrees as part of text-based thesis exposition, perhaps not unlike the examples of Chris Boese and Virginia Kuhn. (In fact, the survey asked for information about digital components to a dissertation.)

Two points seem evident. First, the term digital dissertation requires broad definition. Too narrow a concept is self-defeating whether the proscription relates to methodology or technology. Second, given the range of possibilities, the formats of digital dissertations require justification, just as the topic of a dissertation itself requires a rationale and bibliographic and historiographic support to demonstrate scholarly substance.

Proposing another definition

I’ll posit a consolidated, tentative and minimalist definition of the digital dissertation:

A digital dissertation is one in which digital methodology is intrinsic to the presentation and exposition of scholarly argument. The form and scope of the digital presentation may vary; therefore, the digital dissertation requires a process paper justifying and explaining the technology used as an expository tool in demonstration of relevance and academic competency.

Is it a complete definition? Not even close. But it’s easier to start with the forest than with the trees, and such definition needs to occur collaboratively and with wide agreement for the benefit and guidance of both faculty dissertation advisors and dissertators themselves. Equally importantly, collaborative discussion needs to cross departmental borders to include librarians and archivists in order to analyze issues of digitization or research resources, issues of copyright and fair use, and issues of submission formats and preservation.

Defining the digital dissertation, too, is only an initial step in institutionalizing and validating digital scholarship on the doctoral level. Establishing departmental standards for evaluating the digital dissertation is critical in order to promote a graduate curriculum that supports digital work and to ensure that the work of the graduate student not only meets scholarly criteria, but that this work provides a solid and recognized foundation for professional development.