What’s Diss?, or how do we remake the capstone of the humanities Ph.D.?

Ph.D. students are often told that, aside from their committees, “No one will ever read your dissertation.” What if that didn’t have to be true? What if its form, content, publication, or all three could be changed to give the dissertation a renewed vitality and relevance to both graduate education and the public good?

In his recent talk as part of the Chancellor’s Colloquium series here at UC Davis, former MLA President Russell Berman discussed a number of the changes he would like to see in graduate training in the humanities. Among these was his call for revising the form and importance of the dissertation, the culminating experience of the doctoral degree.

According to Berman, graduate programs should expand how they think about the dissertation to include “a spectrum of forms” and, similarly, that departments making decisions about tenure should consider metrics other than book publication.

As another former MLA president remarked in 2010, “Reinventing the humanities dissertation is an urgent challenge for us, not a retreat from the crises we confront.” Critically examining the capstone project of the doctoral degree is part and parcel of the large-scale rethinking of the Ph.D. more broadly. After all, the dissertation in its current form comes specifically as the result of a number of historical and cultural influences, such as the glut of Ph.D.s in the 1960s and 70s causing a “buyers market,” in which employers could demand evidence of the dissertation as a proto-book.

Of course, that job market that gave the dissertation its current shape hasn’t improved – it’s only gotten worse since the 1970s. For some institutions and departments, that has meant increased pressure on the dissertation to show potential in the academic publishing market.

However, for other institutions, this has also impelled a push in the opposite direction: a recognition that a revised dissertation might offer opportunities and parallels with a revamped vision of what Ph.D.s can offer the academic and non-academic job markets.

The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) and the Futures Initiative at CUNY Graduate Center collaborated this fall to host a panel discussion on “What is the Dissertation?”, which was accompanied by a lively conversation on Twitter under #remixthediss. Curious about just what a re-imagined dissertation might look like? They offer another helpful resource – a Google document called “What Is a Dissertation? Template for New Models, Methods, and Media.” Users can add descriptions of their own dissertations, whether already completed or still in progress, giving readers a sense of how people are already testing the boundaries of the dissertation form.

One contributor described her project, completed in 1998, as one of the first hypertextual, “born digital” dissertations in the U.S. Using rhetorical and cultural analysis, she used a nonlinear format to discuss the nonlinear forms of fan culture around the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess. Another contributor, whose dissertation is being published by Harvard University Press, wrote and drew the entire project in comics in order to comment and think through the effects of form and metaphor on instructional methods. A number of the most recent dissertations on the list use Scalar, an open-source online publishing platform that was made for just these kinds of multimedia-rich projects.

The process of dissertation writing is changing along with the final product. Some Ph.D. students are making the decision of whether or not to blog their dissertation research as they write. The advantages include practicing your argument to an unknown public rather than to your committee, keeping yourself to a schedule of writing, even in short blog post form, networking with others who are interested in collaborating or learning from each other. Of course, there are disadvantages as well – the fear of committing to ideas that are in-progress to the public eye, getting overwhelmed by a self-inflicted writing schedule, or even getting your research ideas “scooped” by another academic reader.

Jenae Cohn, a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at UC Davis, has considered blogging her dissertation. She writes on her blog, “Choosing which topics to blog about may help me see which ideas for my dissertation are actually useful and interesting.” She is also considering how this process might inform the eventual form of her dissertation.

“Personally, I’m attracted to the idea of formulating a non-linear argument, being able to illustrate connections between ideas that a book-bound project might not necessarily be able to do. My hesitation, of course, is primarily that I’ve never really been trained to think of arguments in spatial or quantitative terms, as a digital dissertation may frequently demand. This doesn’t mean I can’t do it, but I would need to think about writing through a new perspective than I ever have before as a humanities student.”

With PhD Unlimited, the UC Davis Humanities Institute has committed itself to investing in the future of the humanities Ph.D. and whatever changes are coming this way. We would love to hear from you, either via email or on our Twitter page – is your dissertation looking a little less like a book and a little more like…something else? What kind of programming from PhD Unlimited would you like to see regarding the dissertation and its future?

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English