Digital Dissertations and Ticking Clocks

Digital Dissertations and Ticking Clocks

Nothing quite embodies the graduate education experience like a dissertation. But Stacey Patton’s 2013 CHE article “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” responds to the job market crisis with an analysis of the dissertation as a natural starting point for rethinking graduate education. She quotes William Pannapacker who calls the dissertation process, “a hazing ritual passed down from another era.”

In contrast, David Perry argues in Chronicle Vita’s “Save the Dissertation!,” that the writing of a book-length text can be transformative to a scholar. While he is not wholly opposed to new dissertation forms, he insists we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the analog project. He also points out that there’s some amount of risk in reimagining an ages-old form of scholarship, particularly for grad students who are on the brink of navigating a tough job market. Perry’s appreciation for the traditional dissertation experience stems in part from having “time to wander and fail.” It’s a principle that, theoretically at least, most DH-ers hold dear as well.

An important issue that Morgan and Perry both touch on is the extent to which students on a time-to-degree clock will be able to navigate while building a digital project alongside (or as a part of) the research. Patton cites work by Sarita I. Alami, a history student at Emory whose dissertation is primarily a book-length text on prison reform. But she is building an additional online repository of multi-media materials to supplement the work. I’ve been navigating similar waters as I build an online catalog of images to accompany an otherwise traditional dissertation. I receive some support from the New Media Lab, but time to degree requirements are always lurking over my shoulder. While a hybrid analog-digital project will reach multiple audiences, the time it takes to build a digital component (particularly solo) is something to be factored in from the beginning of the dissertation plan.

I hope to see an increase in programs and advisors who are willing to work with students on this issue and to factor in a reasonable amount of time for technical building, particularly since structuring data for a website is a powerful way to think through research and how to present it to various audiences. As an exercise in how to look at the big picture in terms of research, thinking through the information architecture of a digital catalog, through metadata and structured information, and looking at broad themes in my work, building an interactive catalog has the potential to recreate the identity-changing process that Perry describes. But the clock is ticking on that time to degree schedule, isn’t it?

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