A Multimodal Dissertation as an Alt-Ac Launching Pad

Contributed by Justin Schell Digital Arts Sciences + Humanities Coordinator at University of Minnesota Libraries
October 27, 2014
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While every dissertation nowadays is digital in some form, some are "more digital" than others in their form and content, incorporating media, different narrative structures that make use of web-based navigation, and more. For my own dissertation, what started as a conventional essay about a musical community turned into a combined project of a full-length documentary film and a multimodal, fully online thesis.   

We Rock Long Distance (WRLD) started with an essay about the hip-hop music scenes in the Twin Cities. I interviewed more than sixty MCs, DJs, radio personnel, record store managers, and other community figures. The majority of them, including the three artists who would eventually become part of WRLD, I contacted through MySpace to set up initial meetings and interviews. Over the course of the year-long research and writing process, I started working with video and soon realized that I wanted to create a multifaceted digital project, which included both a dissertation and a documentary film.

The title for this project came from a quote by Fela Kuti,which I read in Michael Veal's biography. A journalist asked Fela about the length of his songs, which would often fill up both sides of a single LP. "We dance long distance here," Fela responded. In the margins I scribbled, "We Rock Long Distance?" and it became the title, invoking two meanings of rock, that being "rock a chain," "rock a mic," etc., as well as the futuristic global party of Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock."

As the project developed, it became clear that it would need a more well-defined scope. I chose to focus on three particular artists from the Twin Cities who have roots elsewhere in the world. The first was M.anifest, who was originally born in Ghana and came to Minnesota to study at Macalester College. The second was Maria Isa, a "Sota Rican" (Minnesota Puerto Rican) who was born on the West Side of St. Paul (a historically Latino section of the city), but whose parents were from the NuYorican Lower East Side and whose grandparents came to New York from Puerto Rico. The third artist was Tou SaiKo Lee, who was born in Thailand in a Hmong refugee camp after his parents fled the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Part of the Hmong diaspora, his parents first came to Providence when Tou was two months old, then to Syracuse, and finally to St. Paul, Minnesota when he was twelve.

Tou SaiKo Lee, Maria Isa, and M.anifest. Photo by Rebecca "B Fresh" McDonald.

From left: Lee, Isa, and M.anifest. 

After settling on the three artists in the film, the four of us soon realized that part of the project needed to involve going back to their "original" homes of Ghana, Thailand, and Puerto Rico. I put "original" in quotes because when talking about diasporas, musical or otherwise, exploring the various means by which home is shaped results in a much more complicated view of what home actually means. I had originally planned to write my dissertation about all three WRLD artists, interweaving their stories of diasporic musical lives simultaneously where they're from and where they're at. Soon after returning from Ghana, however, it was clear that such a project would be three dissertations' worth of work and that I had more than enough material to write about from my first trip to Accra alone. With nearly two hundred pages of typed notes and fifty hours of footage from shows and interviews in both Minnesota and Accra, I began the process of logging footage and reviewing notes and transcriptions.

Filming M.anifest in Madina from Justin Schell | 612 to 651 on Vimeo.

As I started conceptualizing what sort of object I wanted to make for the dissertation piece of WRLD, I soon realized that it would have to be a hybrid document. Combining the best aspects of media and text would allow me to create a representation of my research that better reflected my engagement with these artists and the multifaceted media presence in which their lives and music operated. Moreover, I wanted the text and the media to mutually strengthen each other. At times, the text expounds upon something in a piece of media, while at other times, the video more evocatively represents a moment in the text (such as M.anifest's grandfather listening to his grandson's music), moments that are not only more easily captured in video, but done so in a way that text cannot possibly match. Further, in chapter 3 of the dissertation, I explicitly discuss the relationship between video and text, the place of the camera within ethnographic film generally, as well as my own ethnographic experiences in Ghana, making the connection between text and media not just part of the dissertation's form, but also its content. 

When it comes to the media content of a project like mine, there is a long tradition within ethnomusicology of conceiving of media as supplemental, placing them on records, cassettes, CDs and, most recently, websites. Scholars would be instructed to play a certain media file at a certain point in the text. However, these are not enmeshed with the text. For many years this was purely for practical reasons. While there are still practical challenges to creating a scholarly document that embeds various types of media within the text itself (which I will discuss below), the choice to make a text-only dissertation says more about academic and publishing conventions, rather than technological possibility. 

Two factors made my path to a multimodal dissertation easier. The first was that I was not going on the tenure-track job market after I completed my degree. Conceiving of the dissertation as a first step into the "alt-ac" world meant that I had much greater flexibility with the form of my dissertation, since I didn't need to worry about transforming it into a publishable monograph immediately. Secondly, my advisor in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society department, Robin Brown, and the rest of my committee were fully supportive of a multimodal dissertation. The challenges for creating my dissertation, then, were more technological, rather than political: determining which online platform could easily combine text and media and what kind of repository could ensure long-term access for this online dissertation in the same way as a printed dissertation. 

By the time it came time to create the dissertation, I had over 100 pieces of media, half of which were video, the other half of which were composed of audio recordings (either songs of M.anifest's or audio recordings I had made) and images. There are obviously multiple web platforms out there that could have hosted the dissertation text and media. I chose a very basic Google site as the platform for my dissertation for a number of reasons. The first was that it was already part of my University of Minnesota internet account, which required no additional domain hosting or server space. Secondly, I only had a relatively short amount of time to design and build the site before graduating in May of 2013 (and in addition I was working full time in media production for two different departments at Minnesota), which meant I couldn't spend a lot of time on the front end or back end of my project. I was already familiar with the Google Sites interface, having worked on a number of other smaller-scale projects as part of my graduate work and through various positions held during my PhD program. Each chapter became its own page on the site, with all of the media embedded within the text. An incredibly convenient feature of Google Sites is that it will automatically convert footnotes from a Microsoft Word doc into linked endnotes. This answered one of my main questions at the time, though I have since learned of other ways to do this, whether through Scalar or a variety of Wordpress plugins that will either create footnotes beside the text or endnotes below an article. 

With the platform chosen, I had to contend with the challenge of stable preservation and access for the media files that make up WRLD. The University of Minnesota Libraries operates the University Digital Conservancy (UDC), Minnesota's institutional repository for long-term preservation and access of research materials produced at the University (including media and dissertations). Materials deposited with UDC are made available through platforms such as Digital Dissertations and ProQuest. At the time of writing my own dissertation, however, the UDC did not have the capacity to embed files into websites. A video file placed in the UDC could be downloaded by a user, but not embedded. Furthermore, there was no capacity for the UDC to capture and preserve a website, especially one with linked or embedded media. The solution was to utilize a different digital repository on campus, the Digital Content Library (DCL), where I also worked as a graduate student fellow. Although it has "Library" in its name, the DCL is actually part of the College of Liberal Arts' IT department. It began as the Art History department's slide library and has evolved into a repository for images, audio, and video that instructors will show in classroom that the Libraries might not already have in their collections. However, it is increasingly being used by College of Liberal Arts faculty and students as a way to preserve and maintain access to their research materials. Given its status as a long-term repository and its capacity to embed media files, the DCL became my choice for the long-term preservation and access for the media of WRLD

The online version, however, could not be the "official" dissertation document, because neither the UDC nor ProQuest could handle a multimodal document on this scale, both because of the size of the document and because it contained embedded media. My solution was to create two documents, a PDF version without any type of media beyond photos, and an online version that added embedded audio and video to the photos. The first was a PDF with the text as normal, only with the audio and video files replaced by inert play triangles, signaling that there is a video or audio clip there. There was a possibility of creating an embedded-media PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro, but I chose not to go this route for a number of reasons. One, the amount of media I had would have resulted in a massive file, since these PDFs save all of the media directly in the file, rather than as embedded from a server. The institutional repository has a 2GB limit for PDFs, and with so much media, the resultant file would have easily eclipsed that limit. Secondly, the video files would be encoded only with Flash, instead of HTML5, and at a very low resolution, which would have defeated the purpose of including the media in the first place. I placed a link to the online version at the beginning of the dissertation, in the hopes that people would read it online so they could view and listen to the media. This became the "official" PDF that was submitted to the University of Minnesota and placed in UDC. Of course, this is another example of the "double the work" downside so common to digital humanities projects. 

As a strong believer in fair use and Creative Commons licensing, I chose to make use of both for my dissertation. I crafted a statement at the beginning of my dissertation that reflected how I used materials for my dissertation, as well as how the material I created in the dissertation could be used by others: 

All original material created for the purposes of this dissertation (text, photos, audio, and video) are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) License. Other materials are under copyright by their original owners, and though they are used here within the guidelines of Fair Use, they fall outside of the Creative Commons license. 

Again, my decision to not seek a conventional "publication" out of this dissertation (e.g., the proto-monograph), meant I could be much less protective about the materials I created in the dissertation, while still having the artists whose work I utilized (especially the music of M.anifest) retain all of their own copyrights. Furthermore, I utilized many of the pieces of video from the dissertation in the full-length documentary version of WRLD, which I completed in February of 2015.

We Rock Long Distance - Teaser from Justin Schell | 612 to 651 on Vimeo.

Doing a multimodal dissertation taught me a host of skills unrelated to diasporic hip-hop in the Twin Cities and, moreover, skills that I would not have learned as part of a conventional graduate training program. This experience was a strong factor in the success of my search for a first position out of graduate school. Two months after I finished the online version of the dissertation and graduated in May of 2013, I started my position as the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Academic Libraries, where I became the Digital Humanities Specialist for the University of Minnesota Libraries. My choice to do a multimedia dissertation was key not just to landing this position, but also in advocating for current graduate students to embark on their own multimodal dissertation projects. 

As part of the work on the Libraries' Digital Arts Sciences + Humanities, or DASH program, one of the Libraries' emphases is to increase graduate training in these kinds of emerging digital skills, not just in the Humanities, but in any program where students could bring different dimensions to their projects through tools like visualization, crowdsourcing, 3D modeling and printing, and more. Having a multimodal dissertation gives me a number of avenues to discuss with graduate students. First, I can talk about the technical side and, moreover, demonstrate a lower-barrier way of making a multimodal dissertation through something as relatively simple as Google Sites. Moreover, I now can provide them the tools to build more custom documents, utilizing platforms like Omeka, Scalar, and others. In addition, I can advise students about the challenges and opportunities of multimodal dissertations, ways to navigate departmental and committee politics about multimodal projects, options for embargoes if they feel it necessary, and connections to journals and publishers interested in producing more than the standard monograph from dissertations. Hopefully, then, I can stop using my own project as an example of a multimodal dissertation and point to other Minnesota graduate students' work for examples.