Toward Innovative Dissertations and Public Engagement

Encouraging innovative work at the dissertation stage revitalizes the field and is good for the public.

Contributed by Katina Rogers Deputy Director, Futures Initiative and HASTAC@CUNY at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)
April 16, 2015
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The two collaborative articles in this cluster represent the second installment of a new section of #Alt-Academy, Graduate Training in the 21st Century. They are part of a two-part cluster, Beyond the Dissertation as Proto-Monograph (part onepart two), curated and edited by Melissa Dalgleish and Daniel Powell. Their introduction to part one offers much more background on how the collection came to be and why the topic is such a crucial one. While #Alt-Academy has, to date, focused on the paths that scholars take after exiting graduate school, we are excited to expand our attention to the training and opportunities available to graduate students during the course of their studies. 

As Dalgleish and Powell have articulated, Graduate Training in the 21st Century takes a step back from the question of career paths to think about the ways our graduate programs currently equip students for the careers they pursue, and what opportunities there might be to explore new methods. It’s not only a question of education and professionalization, but also the models available to students and the implicit and explicit messages they hear as they consider their own options. I’ve thought a lot about these issues and it’s clear that while there is groundbreaking work being done in many places, it’s not always easy for students to find good models, see how others have approached administrative questions, and assess whether a risk is worth taking. That’s one reason I’m particularly excited about this cluster, which offers many examples of creative research work that students can use as ballast for their own innovative projects. On a more foundational level, it’s so inspiring to see the ways that new forms of scholarly work can really push a field and lead to unexpected breakthroughs.  

The other thing that excites me about this cluster is each author’s emphasis on the importance of making their research and their project public. The students who share their experiences here are doing incredible work that reaches far beyond the usual audience of a dissertation. The goal of bringing new insight into the body of human knowledge—making knowledge public—is at the heart of research and publication. (Though what is meant by “public” varies widely depending on context, and inevitably includes assumptions about access, among other things.) Public engagement is a crucial underpinning to many of the essays published on #Alt-Academy over the years, and to begin cultivating a network of peers through a dissertation project creates a web of feedback and support that can not only help someone to improve their work, but can also offer meaningful connections and windows into other circumstances.

The first essay in part two of this cluster, “What’s the Point? The Dissertation as a Process and Not a Product,” authors and doctoral candidates Alexandrina Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon begin by offering a “Choose Your Own Adventure” scenario that nicely outlines some of the key reasons for pursuing a PhD, possible and likely outcomes, and creative dissertation projects that break the proto-monograph mold. The authors are three of nine co-directors of PAGE, or Publicly Active Graduate Education, a fellowship program through Imagining America. In the essay, structured as an interview, they describe their dissertation projects (including games, maps, comics, documentaries, and websites), the publics they hope to reach, the challenges they have faced, and more. For them, the dissertation is a capstone and portfolio that captures the very best of their work thus far, while also serving as a jumping-off point for what is to come.

The second essay, “What Is a Dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media” builds on an event that took place at The Graduate Center, CUNY, in October 2014, shortly after I began working at the GC as Deputy Director of a new program called the Futures Initiative. (I’m in a dual role for this cluster, as I was deeply involved in the event that gave rise to the paper included here.) You’ll find a video of the panel, as well as reflections from each speaker—all doctoral candidates or recent graduates working on innovative dissertation projects—on their many victories, challenges, and learning moments along the way. There’s a thirst for more of these stories; the livestream and recorded video have had hundreds of views, and many more joined the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #remixthediss. We’ve also created a collection on HASTAC that pulls together posts about innovative dissertations from across the network.

The professionalism of Dalgleish and Powell as cluster editors, and the creative and brilliant projects of the authors in this cluster, are second to none and give me immense optimism about the future of graduate study. I hope you enjoy learning about their work as much as I have.

Image: “Falling Down from Stage” by Flickr user raphaelstrada