Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rethinking the Humanities Dissertation

(or, hacking the dissertation product)

A few days before I attended THATCamp for the first time, I defended my dissertation. Immediately after my defense, I was feeling pretty good about my incorporation of new media. I was in an interdisciplinary program that let me build my research around fan custodianship and production and the social communities that are trying to force redefinition of copyright law. I used Google Docs for drafts and got feedback through the virtual critique groups that the Internet has made possible. I immersed myself in reading the online social media of those communities, kept up with research through mostly digital sources, and even built my prezi for the defense. One early chapter is already out there in an online journal experimenting with open access publishing. As Tanya Roth has discussed, these processes are all part of the transformation of methodology that characterize graduate work in our changing digital environment--a way to "hack the dissertation process."

I thought I’d made the best use of technology I could have throughout my process. I might have even claimed that I’d hacked the dissertation. But now I'm pretty sure I had not even begun. My dissertation might have been created with attention to an increasingly social digital world, but the work itself was anti-social.

When I teach, I’m constantly asking my students to work in open and collaborative spaces. I prefer student work that face outward: wikis, twitter, blogs, game projects, etc. Like Mark Sample has blogged, I believe that the student essay is flawed—“a compressed outpouring of energy…that means nothing to no one.”

Can’t the same be said of my dissertation? To a large extent, that's even expected. The dissertation is the large work that stands as a bridge to future research. Writing it is more the process of induction: a launching point rather than an end product. It exists, it goes in front of a committee, and mostly it is of vast significance only to the person writing it.

There are several traditional venues for feedback during the dissertation-writing process: the most common is the conference presentation, a strictly-scheduled event in which a portion of the work that has presumably been tailored into a stand-alone paper. From there, draft exchanges are possible, and social media certainly has eased the exchange of these types of documents. This type of limited collaboration is a sidenote to the bulk of the writing process, which was recently satirized by PhD Comics as a trip down the rabbit hole that amounts to a personal struggle with one’s research.

That still hard-to-dismiss picture of the humanist surrounded by papers and not people and networks stands in contrast to online communities where peer feedback can enhance a lonely process. The desire to share progress is seen even in tongue-in-cheek experiments like Is My Thesis Hot or Not?, a site where only the thesis statement is in play and subject to user votes on the binary of “hot” or “not” with an open comment system that can be an outlet for snark, or, more rarely, helpful criticism.

This is one of the realities of putting work in open-access environments: it can be mocked and torn apart. More likely, it will be ignored completely. The most commonly used database for academic dissertations encourages work to be put into stasis: the ProQuest UMI Dissertation database now has an open-access model for digital publication, but the work once archived sits in PDF and cannot evolve dynamically.

There are already many projects that have experimented with open peer review and collaboration. Of those, the most successful tend to be launched by an already established academic, as with Lessig's collective revision of his work via wiki Code 2.0. Humanities dissertations have occasionally embraced dynamic digital forms: Vika Zafrin’s RolandHT was designed for the web and is conscious of that form in every aspect of the data and methodology. Zach Whalen’s The Videogame Text is a working example of the dissertation text brought into an interactive space, though the stated final goal remains a traditional book proposal.  

In these and other cases of experimental publishing, the exclusivity of the book is being overthrown. Many grad students I've spoken with are hesitant to place their work in open-access for fear of decreasing its value down the road: they dream--and, yes, I myself will admit to having daydreamed--of making the leap from dissertation to monograph. The reality of such leaps, of course, is that they demand transformation: take Noah Wardrip-Fruin's recent MIT Press release Expressive Processing and compare it to his earlier dissertation of the same name.

The traditional dissertation as product reflects the dominance of the book: it creates a monograph that sits in a database. The processes of the humanities are to some extent self-perpetuating: write essays as an undergraduate, conference papers as a graduate student, a dissertation as a doctoral student, and books and journal article as a professor. Making a work open-access doesn't give it an audience, just as engaging in a dynamic project and seeking community input doesn't make a work inherently valuable--but it does more seriously reflect the purposing of the dissertation as a launching point.

Perhaps as all these stages of academic production are "hacked" we'll see more dissertations embracing the models that are now experimental. I'd like to see a community form online that resembles the collaborative social networks I've made an object of study. For instance, a community like brings value to its many users not only by offering a place to share one's story but by offering a community of collaborators--other creators of content who are enthusiastic about sharing their own knowledge and opinions because they are engaged in the same processes for themselves. These types of communities go a step beyond the social networks we now have as graduate students (like Gradshare and the PhD Forums) and become spaces that encourage continual revision, collaboration and extension. Embracing these models might bring some of the same challenges we see in the classroom, like sorting out the different values of individual authorship and dealing with the ever-present risks of plagiarism, but the results might bring dissertation work that can move more easily to relevance in a larger discourse. A dissertation written (and blogged, and revised, and remixed) in networked space need not be condemned to stasis. 
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