Writing and Defending Your Digital Dissertation: Join the Conversation!
At the #HASTAC2014 meeting in Lima, Peru, I had a great conversation on digital publishing with Diana Taylor, University Professor of Performance Studies and Spanish and Director, Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, at New York University. Among her many interhemispheric projects is a Digital Books project that is both multimedia and multilingual--English, Spanish, and Portuguese. In the course of our conversation about institutional and technological obstacles to digital multimedia and multilingual publishing, I mentioned that a Duke Department of Cultural Anthropology doctoral student, Dwayne Dixon, had just defended a dissertation primarily using the Scalar platform. Diana asked to be in touch with him.
What follows is an edited version of our exchange. Dwayne responded immediately to the query Diana and I put to him with a thoughtful, ruminative, realistic, and quite brilliant assessment of the product and process of writing, preparing, collaborating on, and seeking approval for a digital dissertation. He has generously agreed to let us publish his response and we invite others to contribute their own observations, experiences, models, successes, failures, and ideas so we can help developing in this area.
Screenshot of Dwayne Dixon's dissertation, Endless Question
We are publishing this exchange because we hope to inspire further conversation about the different processes that others have been using to (a) do digital work and digital publishing and (b) have it accepted by their institutions. Between "do" and "defend" there can be a gulf and that is where we are focusing this conversation and asking for your contribution: What had to change to make a digital dissertation possible at your institution? We need to hear these kinds of stories because the technology and the creativity of dissertation students is often outpacing the institutional acceptance of the new platforms and the assumptions about “scholarship” and “research” that digital dissertations embody and encode.
And let me throw out my own pet assumption to see if we might encourage some discussion here: It is my suspicion/contention that there is no one, universal “digital dissertation.” Rather, there are many different kinds of productions we can make and many different accommodations and transformations to existing institutional systems that allow multimedia and multi-platformed work to go forward. In my experience, an answer that works in one situation, may not suffice in others. We need to be sensitive to institution-specific as well as discipline-specific requirements, traditions, obstacles and possibilities.
And yet--and this is an important addition--while acknowledging those particularities, we also need our professional associations and institutions and credentialing bodies to support pioneering work within these flexible parameters. A digital dissertation is not one-size-fits-all. The crucial part is finding the solution that works best within the setting you inhabit, and then working to build on that, make alliances with others who have found other successful platforms, and push the fields and the institutions forward together. By being specific and realistic rather than polemical, we might be able to get further in this conversation.
For another superb example of a digital dissertation, one based in literary texts and social reading, check out the array of brilliant and very useful, generous blog posts by Amanda Visconti.
- Scholarly Values for a Digital Humanities Dissertation
- A useful overview of her project: My Digital Dissertation: Public Humanities, Participatory Design and Infinite Ulysses
- Digital Dissertating: A 3-Minute Video on My Code+Design+Testing Literature Dissertation
Here is an early wireframe from her dissertation, Infinite Ulysses.
Amanda has kindly agreed to respond and we hope others will as well. There is also a Digital Dissertations Group on HASTAC.
Special thanks to Diana Taylor and Dwayne Dixon for getting this conversation started. Please add your own real world experiences and examples in the Comments section below.
From Dwayne Dixon, PhD, author of Endless Questions: Youth Becomings and the Anti-Crisis of Kids in Global Japan, Digital Dissertation submitted to the Department of Cultural Antrhopology at Duke University
This blog post was originally written as a response to an email request from Cathy Davidson and Diana Taylor about writing my dissertation on the Scalar platform. On April 7th, I defended my dissertation, "Endless Question: Youth Becomings and the Anti-Crisis of Kids in Global Japan," in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. What follows is an account of what I did, what I learned, and what I am thinking, retrospectively, about the digital dissertation---Dwayne Dixon, PhD.
First, the project is public, but not searchable at the moment. This means the link can be circulated among the knowing, known, and invited, but just isn't out for mass consumption yet. This gives me more time to refine the flow and structure.
Second, the diss was accepted in a hybrid format, one akin to the hard science model where a truncated "paper" diss summarizes the digital/digitized sections and embedded ethnographic videos (part of the larger inter-textual project). Crucially, this (very) abbreviated dissertation skeleton includes a vital appendix in which a url is provided, pointing to the main content of the dissertation--the project proper built and hosted on Scalar, an innovative digital publishing platform developed at USC.
This traditional diss resembles only a slender ghost of the typical version. It was stripped down while retaining all the conventional features and signs of structure: abstract, acknowledgements, index, bibliography. This diss intended for submission to the Grad School itself (and crafted for them and not my committee) included video stills from the videos I made in the field and which live in the Scalar version along with a minimum of text (relative to the full project). This shadow diss is an elaborate but static teaser for the multimedia event alive on the digital platform, one that is deposited into ProQuest and structurally satisfactory to the Grad School.
This form (minimized pdf diss with url in the appendix) was the best way the Grad School at Duke could accommodate my project at the moment. They are pondering how to incorporate non-pdf electronic dissertations. I think in terms of archiving, Scalar and other platforms are still risky, both from their perspective and of course, that of all of us who have terabytes of random data scattered around our offices and virtual cubbies and lockers. This is an issue I will be talking about with librarians and digital archivists soon. In addition, I've been asked to meet with the Deans at the Grad School and their staff to discuss the various issues involved in this kind of project.
As we know, the structural flexibility and temporal pace of change is enormous in the platforms and languages of digital media. There are several key issues that are germane to a discussion of a digital future for research, publication, collaboration, and pedagogy. First is the ability to find the stuff itself. Second is to retrieve it and play it back. For something like Scalar where media files are hosted elsewhere, maintaining the health of those separate and discrete files can be critical but burdensome (and the dark horror of librarians, digital editors, and site maintenance crews). Third is the migration of information/content across platforms. I believe Scalar is coded to allow this, but I need to consult with their engineers to learn more; there is nothing in the front-facing literature I've read that discusses this. From a coder's perspective, this is delightful. From a librarian's, not so much (see issues regarding about retrieval and playback). Finally, we approach the fundamental issues of form we constantly grapple with.
My project is intentionally non-linear and transversally-cut: exactly where digital sworls spin us loose to work in dynamic collage and generate arguments through assemblage. I take surrealist cut-up time as a technique to analyze contemporary experience in the lives of Japanese young people who exist across planes, spectra, and tangled lines of affection, affiliation, and allure where the physical fades into and out of the globally de-materialized. The project I made requires new practices of reading and more, new tactics of making and strategies in thinking. What is required by grad committees is an ability to discern the enlivening of older forms within newer mutations and new questions woven through antecedent knowledge. How will faculty understand these experiments with knowledge-making, reading, and transfer? What to do with projects that not only invite but require outside input, alteration, comment, and appropriation?
I realize I am asking something of the fantastical and utopic, perhaps. But here we are, in the midst of the shifts and shudder. Old ways of reading and writing are still pleasurable. My project is most awkward where I work within the old, long-form model. So how to incorporate (preserve even) this kind of writing and have it live along with newer modes of organization and access such as elaborate tagging coda?
I confess much of this is all a solitary rumination. I've been so immersed in this project I haven't been part of many big conversations on the subjects we are all interested in, but I hope this informal Forum might open the discussion to all those who have been working seriously and thoughtfully in this area.
One thing I’ve come to see: this project needs a producer and I imagine a time when collaborative scholarly projects will appear like a vibrant cross between the coolest in interactive web design, animation, smart, broken-style writing, discrete media nodes, and experimental art practices. Having projects conceptualized as porous and fluid opens them to addition, revision, incorporation, and exceptionalization.
All that said: here's the link! Be sure to scroll down on the first page. Navigate at will. Like House of Pain say, "Jump around!" And remember it's still very primitive--I've hardly begun to harness the incredible complexity of the platform.
We would love to know more about other digital dissertations! Are you writing one in your department? What are the issues facing you writing one in your own department? Please chime in here!