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[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

Raising questions about the digital dissertation (part one)

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Digital Dissertation is a tricky phrase. Google-search it and you’ll note that the first quadrillion responses refer to the ProQuest Digital Dissertation Database or to standards for formatting and submitting the dissertation electronically to university depositories and archives.

But look further: search for born digital examples of dissertations in the humanities, dissertations in which digital technologies are core elements of analysis, intrinsic to the thesis. You’ll eventually stumble across the pioneering dissertations of Chris Boese, Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Zenaverse (Department of Rhetoric and Communications, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1998).

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Or that of Virginia Kuhn, Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age (Department of English, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 2005).

Seek prototypes in history scholarship and you’re likely to enter a black hole.

Digital technologies, we are told again and again, are redefining the practice of history in academia and in public history, “yielding transformations so profound that their nearest parallel is to Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type more than half a millennium ago.”

The dissertation is an ignored product in this redefinition. Not even a proverbial elephant in the room, the dissertation is an unacknowledged step in scaffolded progression of digital scholarship from its role as a pedagogical tool in the earliest grades to the its impact on professional advancement and tenure. As a result, graduate students in history, whose own autobiographical memories are often too brief to extend to a pre-computer era, launch into the dissertation process armed with laptops, e-readers, cameras, scanners, on-line archives, vast communication resources, and an arsenal of digital tools to create what? THE TRADITIONAL, TEXT-BASED DISSERTATION MONOGRAPH!

Irony abounds.

Dilemma of the Digital Dissertation

As the culmination of doctoral study, the history dissertation exemplifies that the author is able to construct, present, and defend an historical argument adding to an existing body of knowledge. The concept of a digital dissertation presents unique challenges to students and to universities to re-explore how the dissertation achieves these scholarly goals and to qualify, quantify, and institutionalize revised standards for dissertation evaluation, publication, and preservation.

To suppose that the traditional format of the humanities dissertation is immutable or that new concepts must live in old bottles seems counter-intuitive. The exposition modalities possible through the expansion of publishing formats and research technologies enable–perhaps even mandate–alternative dissertation formats.

Yet, as Virginia Kuhn pointed out in August, 2012,

…it has been quite a few years since I completed my dissertation and yet there has been little movement toward expanding the typical form. My dissertation represents progressive research and it preserves the tenets of academic scholarship. And yet the academy’s resistance to the digital is deep-seated: there have been only two or three digital dissertations (including mine), in the US over the last ten years…

Why has the discussion stalled? Because important questions remain largely unanswered.

  • What is a digital dissertation?
  • What are standards for a digital dissertation? how is it evaluated?
  • What changes to the graduate curriculum are necessary in order to support academic work in digital history?
  • What institutional changes in dissertation submission and preservation are requisite to support digital formats?
  • What changes in the academy are requisite to validate the digital dissertation as a viable milestone in career development?

Currently, the graduate student in history faces a dilemma: whether to create a dissertation in which digital tools are intrinsic to its presentation or whether to stick with the tried-and-true text-based exposition. 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. (see Raising questions about the digital dissertation, (part two) Their work and the George Mason’s institutional response will represent giant strides toward the recognition of the value of digital scholarship.