Digital Dissertations: 3 issues

Digital Dissertations: 3 issues

Recently a group of GC faculty and students from the New Media Lab and Digital Fellows group got together to brainstorm about digital dissertations. The idea of a digital dissertation (or a digital component to an otherwise ‘traditional,’ written one) isn’t entirely new, but it’s garnering fresh enthusiasm from grad students in a variety of fields. To extend that conversation, we now have a Digital Dissertations group on the CUNY Commons. Below are some of my own reflections about digital dissertations that I’m sharing here with the hope of sparking a conversation beyond the GC on three issues being addressed in universities and labs: defining, assessing, and archiving digital projects.

It’s early in the game of digital works becoming an accepted vehicle for publishing dissertation content, particularly in the humanities. We’re long past the point when digital publication was achieved by uploading a pdf of the text. But when defining digital dissertations, my intuitive response is that we should be as inclusive as possible in what is considered fair game. Just as the various definitions of  ‘digital humanities’ are imprecise and far-reaching, examples digital dissertations should include a wide variety of projects: databases, websites, interactive maps, recordings of sound and video. (And by “we,” I mean any interested scholar, student, or researcher).

To facilitate the acceptance of digital projects in academic departments and executive committees, we should collectively and publicly develop standards for grading or assessing digital projects. We do this in grant proposals anyway, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Doing this takes the burden away from dissertation committee members and departments who might not have much experience with digital scholarship. One good example is the “Website Reviews” page on the Children & Youth in History site.

We should continue to develop best practices for archiving and hosting digital content that is specific to dissertation writing. This is where cooperation with librarians and/or archivists is essential. Could there (should there) be an additional dissertation committee member or consultant representing the library? Again, this might alleviate the pressure from traditional scholars whose advising expertise does not extend to the digital realm.

In the same vein, dissertation writers should know from the onset whether their project will be hosted by their home institution or whether they will be responsible for server space and upkeep. Who is in charge if the project gets hacked? Scientists have been flocking to Figshare for this kind of data sharing; does it hold potential for humanists as well?

In formulating feasible expectations for the future of scholarship, we should collect examples of successful models of digital dissertations to use as case studies. Please use the comments section to chime in with your own thoughts, or use #digidiss to keep the conversation going on Twitter.


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