Blog Post

Documenting the Digital Parts

So I guess technically it has begun... I sent my advisor a writing/making plan for my last year for the hybrid dissertation thing I will be doing (there will be a written part and a digital part, but they will be doing very different things to the same content/topic). Since I'm waiting for feedback to keep moving forward with the written portion, I decided to start the digital portion because, I am stir crazy.

One of the things that I think I need to do is document the digital parts, including what I've done, why, and how, and how different components required. The time investment part feels very weird, but necessary. I see so many people talking about how long they are writing, and often that is evident in the length, but we lose the amount of time it takes to get things working digitally.

For instance, right now I am thinking I will have a wordpress gateway to the bigger project with some basic information that is a non-obvious teaser for things to come. I needed to create a working plugin. I found a plugin that did part of what I needed it to do, but I then spent 5 hours making and breaking the plugin in an attempt to customize it for my needs. The result is a single page of text. To me, that single page of text is glorious, but if anyone were to visit the site, it looks like something that could have been created in one minute by copy and pasting information from on place to another.

So, the current solution to documentation: I think the digital portion will have a blog (which is easy if I have the wordpress first part) where I track my updates, methods, and time spent on the digital portions. I'm not sure if this is the best solution. When I meet with my advisor later in the summer I will, of course, check in, but I'm wondering if there are other ways people have documented this? Does it need to be documented at all? etc. etc.



Congratulations! And thank you for blogging about the process; it's both useful and heartening to others (like me) building digital dissertations. I think it's important that we document the labor that goes into things that look simple on the surface (your single page of text) but had a lot of work, trial-and-error, and thought go into them.

When I meet with my advisor later in the summer I will, of course, check in, but I'm wondering if there are other ways people have documented this? Does it need to be documented at all? etc. etc.

In addition to my blog, my advisor gets weekly emails on what I did during the past week, goals for the following week, and anything he needs to respond to—such as blog posts to read or questions to answer (his suggestion). This lets me keep my blog more about my thinking during the project (useful for people interested in watching the dissertation publically develop), while still creating a log of all the sometimes invisible tasks I've accomplished (e.g. the week I spent trying to get a bunch of things on my local and virtual servers working together). It's also a great motivator to get something significant done every week!


I am not sure yet if I want it to be public development yet, just because there will be so many failures, and breakings, and me killing the server etc (I speak from experience). So, right now it is a members only site... and I'm the only member. It's still early though, so it might be something to consider once I actually get to the building out but... or the little wordpress gateway can be a teaser or something... so many things to consider.


This is so intriguing.   I'm wondering if "getting things working digitally" is the equivalent to drafts of texts or blueprints before building a structure or CAD before fabrication?   It might be useful to you, along with documentation, coming up with metaphors, parallel structures, or analogies that will help you describe and document the process for others (including your dissertation advisor), especially others who may not understand the steps. 


I remember a colleague once, many years ago in my first teaching job in fact,  having us peak in at his four year old who had been given a toy typewriter for Christmas.   The child would put a piece of paper in, plunk away at the keys for about two minutes, yank out the piece of paper and cry "SH**!" in a loud voice and then start again.   His father was in the process of revising his dissertation into a book and apparently it wasn't going all that well because his pre-schooler thought that was what one did at a typewriter all day.  I have never forgotten that story and think of it often when I teach my students that, no, it doesn't get easier, even at book 3 or 20, there are so many frustrations on the way to an acceptable manuscript.

But that is legible to most of us in academe.   What is the relationship to writerly, text-based frustration and getting a new software to work?   Rather than that being a rhetorical or trivial question, I think it is profound and profoundly interesting.   Lab scientists must have an equivalent too--the failed experiment, the instrumentation that simply doesn't work, and so forth.   The "meta" nature of your documentation will be of huge interest to all of us exploring digital dissertations and may in itself be not just documentation of your process but an article you will want to publish as a contribution to a very new field with its own methods, obstacles, and processes.


Thanks so miuch for writing this, Jade.  As always, your writing is so clear it really throws an important light on the new.


I am in love with your colleague's son.

I am wondering what happens if we treat code like a language. I know one of the things that I am still thinking about is all these web languages are based on english. When I was working on it last night, and playing with how it displayed text I wrote this.

We have all been interpolated into western thought. 
We write and code in western languages.

between messing with HTML and PHP, it is truncated English. And I can't remember where but I saw something where people were talking about kids learning English so they could learn on their own. That is something I don't want to lose. The experience of the digital has the potential to be non-textual, but the experience of massaging it into something that can be experienced is highly textual... often even when you're just forking or borrowing something someone else created.


One of the things that has really helped me with my digital work and my dissertation as a whole is keeping track of my time. While writing is difficult, at the end of a writing session there's often the very clear result of words on a screen. With digital work, as you say, there were 5 hours of the thing not working before it worked. As a grad student, sometimes when I looked back on my week of seemingly no results there was a nagging guilt that I hadn't done anything.

Keeping track of my time spent through simple software like Toggl (which is a straightforward timekeeper) or KanbanFlow (which is a project management system that allows very specific tasks, with subtasks and deadlines), helped ameliorate that feeling. It isn't that I didn't do anything on my multiple projects for a month - it is instead that I spent 39.25 hours working on one aspect of a project and so on. For me it helps ease the process/product tension.

Both have free versions that work well, but the paid version of KanbanFlow allows for sharing projects, which might be another way to check in with your advisors.


I think I'm going to stick to general time keeping. I know I work better if there isn't a clock ticking. I tend to do sprints flows, where I start working and it feels like dancing and I lose track of time and it is great. I didn't realize I'd spent 5 hours on the plugin until I checked text messages and saw the time difference between them. 

I'm a little bit jealous of people who can work with clocks and timers though. It seems more organized than my (lack of) method, where i have idea and jump in and get it working.


In your initial post you say, "Since I'm waiting for feedback to keep moving forward with the written portion, I decided to start the digital portion."   I'm wondering if you can say something about why you feel more empowered to start the digital work without feedback than you do the written written work?   Please don' t read an inherent critique of any kind into this question.   I would be very interested in reading/hearing your own meta-thinking on this thought process.

I am not a linear thinker almost at all. I usually start out with a huge draft document with all my thoughts, and the thing that ends up being the final written product is 1/2 or 1/3 of what the original document was after editing, feedback (if available), rethinking, refining, and making it linear.  I chose committee members that will not let me move forward unless my writing makes sense to someone outside of the project or my field, because I know that this is something I need to work on. Part of the reason for this (I think) is my undergradate Major was a foreign language, and my MA was in a dual language program, so my grammar structure and thinking is... frazzled. I did more long form writing in French than English up until my PhD basically.

This is one of the reasons I wanted to do something digital actually. I tend to think through shapes, metaphor, and layers (can't think of a better way to explain my brain), and the digital allows me to create and play with different formats of presentation that we understand differently, or, at the very least, are willing to explore (in linear and nonlinear or counterlinear) ways.

The agreement I have with my advisor, and my committee is the digital part is mine to push, play with, and make relevant. I have a new media artist on my committee though, just to make sure I'm doing that part right too. I find though, that that work is much more forgiving, especially when the central argument of the digital project is about glitches. 


Thank you for your post, Jade, and for everyone who has responded. I’m in the early stages of starting my digital dissertation and this thread is extremely helpful.
As far as time management and documenting your composing process goes, your comments made me think of the Inventio section of the journal Kairos which features “peer-reviewed reflections that focus on the decisions, contexts, and contributions that have constituted a particular webtext. Inventio authors will be able to include, alongside or integrated with their finished webtexts, materials that help them articulate how and why their work came into being.” I wonder if, as Cathy suggests, you might turn your documentation process into a publication for a journal like Kairos.
Also, I published an article this fall where I talk about my notion of “technological authorship,” which I think offers a useful lens for considering the value of digital composing processes. I define the concept this way: 
  • “Technological authorship, unlike print-based authorship, acknowledges the tools and technological composing processes an author engages in during the creation of a text. Technological authorship asks students to articulate and reflect on the production aspects of their composing processes (i.e. technical skills, knowledge, and competencies) as well as to consider how these processes open up or constrict certain composing acts.”

I feel like your practice of reflecting on and documenting your digital composing process in many ways embodies this concept/term. And—just as importantly—I feel there should be a way to recognize and give you credit for this important work. 
Thanks again for sharing; I look forward to learning more from you (and others) in the future!
Lori Beth