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Writing and Defending Your Digital Dissertation: Join the Conversation!

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.

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! 




In addition to the links Cathy posted (which are focused on my particular digital dissertation), I also do a lot of writing aimed at other students hoping to do something similar. Here are some places to get started:

I think the three tasks you want to start off with, if you're thinking about doing a digital or otherwise non-mongraph-only dissertation, are:

1. Create a paragraph on why your research question is best advanced by the format you've chosen, and another paragraph explaining the technologies you'll be using and what the actual dissertation deliverables will look like. Both of these should be geared toward a public audience and not require any specialized knowldege of a field to understand.

2. Share these two paragraphs with everyone who has a stake in the dissertation: your advisor, committee, department, college, graduate school, and whoever's responsible for ultimately ingesting your dissertation for university records/posterity (probably a department in the library). Make sure that everyone's on board early on in the project, that they understand what the final deliverable will look like, and that all institutional requirements a re met (e.g. does the graduate school require you submit a "bound copy of the dissertation"?).

3. Meet with your full dissertation committee from early on in the project, and regularly throughout the dissertation process. This is a great way to keep everyone on board with the size and scope of your final deliverables—don't get to what you think is the end of the process and find out you need to double your labor by writing a monograph as well.


The whole point of publishing this exchange is so that others can learn from it and help to change institutional policy.   We publish a lot about digital dissertations and multimedia publishing--but less about what is required to make the institutional changes to accept these new media and modalities of scholarly communication.  


Diana Taylor and Dwaye Dixon have given me permission to publish this exchange that Prof Taylor had today, in the wake of the first exchange, with her NYU Dean.   Go forth and do the same, everyone! That's the point:

From Diana Taylor to Cathy Davidson, Dwayne Dixon:

Hi all--
Inspired by this conversation we're having I asked the Dean of the Graduate School at NYU about if/when NYU would accept dissertations in digital formats. We've had this conversation before. She replied that 'GSAS deposits all dissertations with Proquest, and so we shadow their formatting requirements. (to see the formatting guidelines, go to and scroll to bottom of the page for links).'

This means we need to engage Proquest and other similar sites where dissertations are deposited.
I'm not clear who in fact leads and who follows in this format discussion (I'm sure it's a dance where there are push pulls from all involved) but we do need to look into it.
Bye for now,

Diana Taylor


Dwayne Dixon's Response to Taylor and Davidson:

Right, and this is why that peculiar hybrid/transitional form for my diss submission was necessary: it served as the formal textual linkage to the "real" project hosted elsewhere, outside of ProQuests purview/control (which from an autonomous perspective is good, but not so helpful perhaps from an archiving standpoint).




ProQuest was something I ran into when starting my dissertation. I met with the librarian in charge of ingesting dissertations, and it came down to whether what I was making fit into one of the categories in the dropdown menu on the ProQuest ingest page. (University of Maryland's repository, DRUM, just takes what ProQuest sends it.)

I remember that the dropdown included "code/script" and "website", so what I was making was good (I also got a verification of this in writing—a good idea especially if someone else is in this position a few years later when you're ready to submit your dissertation). It would be nice to get the full list of items on that dropdown; I'll see whether the librarian I spoke with is willing to share (or someone else on this forum with access to that ingest page).


UMD Libraries' Digital Scholarship Librarian Terry Owen provided me with this list from the ProQuest dissertation ingest drop-down menu:

  • Audio
  • Code/Script
  • Data
  • Image
  • PDF
  • Presentation
  • Spreadsheet
  • Text
  • Video
  • Webpage
  • Other

I have no idea what file types can be ingested under "other" or "data"—so I guess the next step is figuring out specific file formats ingestable under these categories.


Amanda, thanks again for all you do.  You are really a model of generosity, participation, and innovation.  


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I maintained an ad hoc directory of electronic dissertations in thehumanities, mainly ~1996-1999. Not all of these were finished (as is the way of such things), but some were, including my own. The listings are still available via the Internet Archive:

Amanda, Dwayne, and others are now doing things we couldn't have imagined.



Thanks for this interesting discussion. I want to give a shout-out to Liza Potts and Katherine Gossett who co-directed an NEH-funded project called "Building an Open-Source Archive for Born-Digital Dissertations," a three-day workshop to explore relevant issues and identify requirements for the development of an archive for the preservation of dissertations that incorporate interactive or dynamic digital media.

To learn more about this workshop, see their white paper on the NEH website.


Matthew, I used that archive of yours *all the time* when I was in grad school... and somehow was always too uncertain to post my project. But it was such a fantastic resource - and so great it's still up.

A few years back at HASTAC I wrote a piece reflecting on my born-digital dissertation, defended in 2000.  You can find it here:

This is such a great conversation - I'm on the road but will revisit it more carefully. I was just at a think tank in March organized by Natalie Loveless around research-creation dissertations, including some really interesting conversations on born-digital ones, and we're hoping to put something together.  I supervise a number of students working in this area... defending this month: an augmented reality book and prototypes (with a print companion) and, later this year, an ipad dissertation.


thank you so much for all of this. I will be speaking with my advisor tomorrow about my plans for my last year and the digital portion of my diss. It will be hybrid, but I'm going to push to make the traditional part shorter than normal so I can spend a year experimenting with different ways of displaying.

I'm hoping we'll see more and more of this happening. I'm so happy to have an advisor and mentors that are supportive. Once I am actively working on it I will start documenting here more.


thank you so much for this post! I had him read it before our meeting today. I went discuss what my dissertation might look like and what the limits would be per the graduate school. He is very open and willing to work with me and always has been. This is a wonderful thing. I am to spend the summer working on getting specs, outlines, etc together, and then I will defend everything at once including the format and have a year to make it work.  I made sure not to go in empty handed so last night before meeting with him I made I turned a blog post into what a potential part of my dissertation might look like since it is so visually based (photographic archives primarily, but if I can do the digital thing there will be some interesting things pulled in). This is what i showed him:

It isn't much, like I said, just a blog post, and an editted video, but it is playing with layers and time, and the digital interface in a way that I am very much looking forward to working with and writing about. Obviously what I hope to do will be more elaborate, but... my existence between media + technology and performance studies gives me a bit more flexibility on what the final product is, meaning it doesn't necssarily have to look like something that already exists. I am excited to have that freedom and hope that I can take advantage of it properly. I think what we will push for is the suggestion above, where we look at how the sciences do their dissertations with a shorter written part (I suggested 60-100 pages or however many it takes me to write the justification, methods, and theoretical parts that won't be in the digital project). 

The one thing that I think is most limiting with all of this is the need to archive. That is one of my own hangups though. I am okay with my work disappearing over time, and that is sort of what the digital does (and in many ways does not) do. But we will see, and, as I start making headway I will post more about it.

As always, to those of you who have done and are doing your dissertations digitally before I can finish mine, thank you for leading the way.


Hi Everyone,
I’m enjoying following this thread, especially since I’m thinking about doing a hybrid dissertation. I’m looking into programs like Scalar (which Michelle Moravec, among others, has used successfully), as I think it would be good for adding annotations, links, and images. My diss research is on digital literacies and online natural birthing communities, so it makes sense to integrate web resources and images into my analysis. 
Jade: Thank you for updating us on your project. If you don’t mind, can you let us know how you navigate grad school requirements as you move through the process?
Also, thanks for the archival links, Matthew! 
Lori Beth

Thanks so much for this, Steve.   This is very exciting.


I've been asked to host an event on this topic at the Graduate Center and we're expanding it a bit to "What's a Dissertation?" and tentatively Dwayne Dixon will come talk about his Scalar dissertation and Nick Sousanis, from Columbia Teachers, will talk about defending his dissertation--the first dissertation about comics written as a comic.   Jade Davis, working on a PhD in communications at the University of North Carolina, and HASTAC's new Program Coordinator, will either come up too or be hosting the NC based workshop as part of the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge and our contribution to the Praxis Network.  That's all the details we have now except we hope to live stream it, live tweet it, and discuss it all together, with students who have succeeded in defending non-text based dissertations showing us their work, talking about it, and telling tales from the front.   October 10 at 4 pm is the tentative date.  Stay tuned!


II just found out Nick is giving a talk on his dissertation at the UC Berkeley Library, May 29, at Noon.  Don't miss it if you re in the area!


I am so glad to see these cases and links put together in one place since there are so many people working on these things in relative vaccuums. I offer a few more: last January I wrote an article for Academe about my 2005 born-digital, media-rich dissertation which was very controversial at the time and I was also invited to contribute a blog post where I could show screen shots and link to the others that came before and after mine (at least in the US and those I knew of that were similarly media-rich, etc). 





Thanks, Cathy, for getting this important thread launched (and sorry I'm so late to the party). I have been involved over the last several years at the CUNY Graduate Center in my role as Senior Academic Technology Officer in supporting doctoral student efforts to incorporate digital technologies into their dissertations. A number of students who have worked or are currently working at the GC's New Media Lab on digital research projects are hoping to incorporate various digital fromats into their final, filed dissertations. We have the active support of our fine library staff, which has made itself available to expand the digital formats that can be included in filed dissertations (and, as indicated above in this thread, ProQuest seems quite willing to incorporate a range of digital formats into the dissertations it ingests into its system).

And to encourage increased use of digital technologies in students' doctoral reserach work, the New Media Lab offers competitive awards (decided on by faculty members from a range of academic disciplines) which are granted at various stages of doctoral dissertation work to students whose dissertation projects include digitial components. We haven't gotten to the point of having a fully digital dissertation of the type that Dwayne Dixon submitted at Duke, but we hope we're not too far away from that point.

As Cathy correctly notes, this will take a lot of educating of faculty colleagues as to why digital dissertations are something more than just added bells and whistles to standard written dissertations. This kind of discussion among similarly inclined colleagues can only help to move that process forward.


  1. Once I actually get to the Graduate Center, we'll start working on a plan to have several virtual "hubs" for a workshop on "What is a Dissertation?"   Former HASTAC Scholar and now HASTAC Steering Committee member and all around terrific human being, Jentery Sayers, tweeted that he learned from writing a dissertation even if his graduate school wouldn't file the digital component.  He now is a prof at U Victoria in Canada so I have asked if he might be a virtual presence.   When we have done distributed workshops before, we hold face to face gatherings in different locations, have a twitter feed and live blog going, stream one event, and turn it into a massive online discussion group---often with an open Google Doc where hub participants can write up notes, take photos and insert them, and keep a log of the events.   After the main event, this can be a spring board for talking about local institutional variations and contingencies.  Welcome on board, Jentery!   Anyone else want to sign up to host a hub and participate in a virtual workshop?   No details yet, just a date:  October 10, 4pm. 

    Thanks for this! Even if my grad school wouldn't file the digital component of my diss, I learned a lot from making it.


  2. How would you like to be part of virtual event Oct10? We're still planning what that would be like, love to include you


    Sure! Sounds wonderful. Thanks for including me. Just keep me in the loop as things unfold.