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The Digital Dissertation: raising questions

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A 2012 survey of students in the doctoral program at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, revealed that 60 percent of respondents were committed to or considering adding a digital component to …

A 2012 survey of students in the doctoral program at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, revealed that 60 percent of respondents were committed to or considering adding a digital component to their dissertations. What are the ramifications of this change of dissertation modality?

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  • 1. Raising Questions abouttheDigital Dissertation Lee Ann Ghajar ABD, American History Department of History and Art History George Mason University
  • 2. It started with Xena, Warrior Princess In 1998, Chris Boese, doctoral candidate in the Department of Rhetoric and Communications at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, published a path-breaking, on-line, interactive dissertation, Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Zenaverse
  • 3. Along came Virginia Kuhn In 2005, Virginia Kuhn defended a media-rich digital dissertation, Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age in the Department of English at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.Two hundred pages of text, hyperlinks, moving images, still images, and intensely layered annotations comprise her work.
  • 4. Examples in history scholarship?Sorry, your search returned 0 results.
  • 5. Present statusAt the time I write this, it has been quite a few years since I completed my dissertation and yet there has been little movement toward expanding the typical form. My dissertation represents progressive research and it preserves the tenets of academic scholarship. …the academy’s resistance to the digital is deep-seated…While print is still absolutely crucial to advanced literacy, it is simply not the exclusive mode any longer, or for very much longer. Virginia Kuhn, August 2012
  • 6. A holding pattern Why is the digital dissertation in a holding pattern? Becausenobody’s quite sure what constitutes a digital dissertationthe digital dissertation is not yet widely recognized as a critical methodology for presenting and defending scholarly argument.
  • 7. The student perspectiveResponses to a recent survey of history doctoral students at George Mason University raised the following questions: What is a digital dissertation? What are standards for a digital dissertation? how is it evaluated? What changes to the graduate curriculum are vital to support academic work in digital history? What institutional changes in dissertation submission and preservation are requisite to support digital formats? What changes in the academy are requisite to validate the digital dissertation as a viable milestone in career development?
  • 8. Who’s writing one?At George Mason University, 60 percent of the students in the PhD program in history responded to a questionnaire about digital dissertations.Two-thirds of respondents are either fully committed to or seriously considering including a digital component in the dissertation.
  • 9. Comparative responsesStudents who have not yet advanced to candidacyindicated a greater likelihood of including a digitalcomponent in a dissertation than ABDs.Students who have not yet advanced to candidacyhave generally enrolled more recently in the doctoralprogram than those who are ABD.The academic experience of more recently enrolledstudents reflects increased availability of courses,research assistantships, and other academic andfinancial support for digital scholarship in theinstitution as well as universal expansion of the digitalhumanities field.
  • 10. ABD and non-ABD
  • 11. Why did 33 percent say “No!”?Respondents who stated they did not intend toinclude a digital component in their dissertationswere asked, “Why not?”They could select several responses from amultiple-choice list or write their ownexplanations.Their answers reflected personal concerns andintellectual considerations, but also emphasizedthe nebulous status of the digital dissertation inhistory scholarship.
  • 12. Why stick to the traditional dissertation? Two-thirds said digital work would not add to the exposition of their thesis One-half believe that a traditional dissertation is more advantageous for career advancement Two-thirds believe a digital dissertation is too much work because it requires learning technical skills in addition to research and writing.
  • 13. What they saidI want to finish as soon as possible, and if adigital component slows me down, it may have tobe a post-PhD project.Too time consuming even though I have thetechnical skills.My first goal is to finish the dissertation, so timeand the number of additional skills I would needto learn to accomplish this is critical
  • 14. What they said, part IIMy dissertation committee will be hard to convince.My technical skills aren’t adequate. Don’t know where Icould learn the technical skills I might need.There are few examples for students to use other than bigdata collection/visualization projects.With the rapid growth of technology the skills that I learnthis year to create a component may be outdated by thetime my dissertation is ready to present whereas a writtenproject doesn’t have the rapid change in formatting.
  • 15. Why some said, “Yes!”Those who said “Yes!” described the following plans: Mapping location of events Possibly creating a website as a supplement to the dissertation rather than a replacement Interactive mapping Presenting multiple images for analysis and comparison Searchable catalog of images accompanying items discussed within the written component
  • 16. Why some said, “Yes!”, part IIVisualizing changes in a nineteenth-centuryindustrial site over timeMuch of the data for my dissertation will beorganized in a database which I have built, butthe final product will probably be a traditionalmanuscript.Digital archive of images at the core of my study,interactive maps for the people in my study, anda digital presentation of the overall dissertation.
  • 17. Why some said “Yes!”, part III Planning to link dissertation footnotes to primary sources in an on-line archive in Omeka. An Omeka archive with analysis in an accompanying exhibit Text-mining a corpus of newspaper articles to which I will apply ngram analysis and topic modeling. Study of residential segregation patterns using Omeka and Neatline to display data and research text
  • 18. Technical skills?Asked what technical skills they needed to build digital components into the dissertation, respondents answered
  • 19. What do doctoral students need? Define the concept of digital dissertation? Institutionalized standards for evaluating the digital dissertation commensurate with academic standards for the traditional text-based dissertation. Revamped the graduate history curriculum to incorporate theory and practice of digital history, including courses in technology. Validation of the digital dissertation as a viable milestone on professional career paths.
  • 20. ConclusionsThe digital dissertation presents unique challenges to students and to universities to redefine what a dissertation is and to explore and institutionalize revised standards for dissertation evaluation, publication, and preservation.As the culmination of doctoral study, the dissertation exemplifies that the author is able to construct, present, and defend an historical argument adding to an existing body of knowledge.It seems counter-intuitive to suppose that these new arguments must live in old bottles, that new exposition modalities possible through the expansion of publishing formats and research technologies would not also enable–perhaps even mandate–alternative dissertation formats.

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