What is a Dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media
Resources and reflections from the #remixthediss panel
December 30, 2014
An Introduction to #Remixthediss
by Cathy N. Davidson
Making the Dissertation a More Public Medium for Critical Scholarship
by Gregory T. Donovan
Excavating Eportfolios: Digging into a Decade of Student-Driven Data
by Amanda Licastro
Reconsidering Scholarship Through a Dissertation in Comics Form
by Nick Sousanis
An Introduction to #Remixthediss
Cathy N. Davidson
It is a great honor and delight to preface this multimedia volume that derives from an event held on October 10, 2014, in the Lounge of the English Department of The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
More accurately, that was the physical epicenter of the event but there were many other virtual and physical centers for what was the beginning of a fresh, vigorous, and expansive conversation that asked the question “What Is a Dissertation?” and answered by focusing on new methods, models, and media. The event was jointly sponsored by the Futures Initiative at The Graduate Center and by the open, online network Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory or HASTAC (hastac.org). HASTAC’s primary hubs are Duke University, situated in the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, and now, as of July 1, 2014, in the Graduate Center’s Futures Initiative. In addition to this joint sponsorship, the event had other hubs and partners all over the world, from the University of Victoria in British Columbia Canada to CLAEH University in Montevideo, Uruguay, and points in between, and East and West.
This distributed sponsorship and planning signals the heart of the matter for what came to be known, and tweeted some 1200 times, as #remixthediss (see visualization below and a curated Storify of the tweets here). For a brief and shining moment, we were even “trending” on Twitter due to the incredible participation and saturation of tweets, favorites, retweets, and HTs (Hat Tips). Quantity is not quality to be sure—but the energy of this global community certainly suggests there is interest in remixing the forms and content and media of the dissertation. Text alone, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, is not alone—we need visual, auditory, sensory, and interactive multimedia to express the complexity of scholarly ideas, insights, and interactions of the contemporary dissertation. “What Is a Dissertation?” is by no means the first offering in this area but the energy it inspired also ensures that it will be far from the last. Indeed, we hope it is not just a moment but a movement for expanding the parameters of what counts as scholarship for those pursuing the PhD.
You can read biographies of our five extraordinary contributors to this collection in this blog post. They have each addressed not only their own work but an institutional process by which their work was approved. We have also begun an interactive document to which they and others have contributed the details of their own success stories. If this is indeed a movement, it is not so much a movement to “abolish” the currently traditional form of the dissertation but, rather, one that aims to expand definitions throughout the humanities, social sciences, and natural and biological sciences to other forms and formats. Our contributors have presented their research in a way that can serve as models for others to build upon. We have built a website with many supporting documents and links and have also linked to work being done with the Graduate Center’s Digital Fellows who have created a fine resource on this topic as well as with HASTAC’s Digital Dissertation group. We welcome additions. In peer-to-peer collaborative praxis, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The point of focusing on changing the dissertation in form, style, substance, method, and media is that you cannot change a process unless you change the final product. You cannot change a product, unless you change the process. Institutional change must be systemic and continuous. That said, change is always uneven. So to make institutional change, you celebrate victories where you find them. You celebrate the success of any and every institutional transformation, and you use those models for further institutional reflection, introspection, and success.
The original panel would not have been possible without many people and organizations. Materially, it could not have happened without support from HASTAC@Duke University. We extend our thanks to Duke University’s PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge for making the collaboration possible. We cannot thank everyone who has supported today’s event by name, but certainly we extend our thanks to Executive Officer of the English Department Professor Mario di Gangi for hosting us physically and Nancy Silverman of the Department of English for making all of the arrangements necessary for the event. The Futures Initiative Fellows all worked very hard to make this event possible. To that end, our thanks to: Michael Dorsch, Lisa Tagliaferri, Danica Savonick, and Kalle Westerling. Lauren Melendez, Administrative Specialist for the Futures Initiative, and Katina Rogers, FI’s Deputy Director, made invaluable contributions before, during, and after the panel and in the production of this volume. Amanda Licastro, one of the panelists, was responsible for the opportunity that turned a panel and a website into this multimedia publication. An amazing collaborative effort. Thank you all.
This multimedia volume represents some of the boldest, most imaginative, most brilliant, most creative, most courageous scholarship you will find anywhere, in any discipline. These authors will share their work with you so that you can see, not only what brave scholarship looks like, but how it is just wrong to assume that “brave” is the same as “risky.” These are all junior scholars, recently defended or in the process of completing their work. They are pushing their disciplines, pushing their profession, pushing their institution—and they are being celebrated and rewarded with book contracts, doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships, and tenure track jobs. We too often believe that we must be timid to survive in challenging times. It is my experience that, by censoring oneself, one does oneself the most harm—physically and intellectually and, almost inevitably, professionally as well. That does not mean that “risk” guarantees “success.” Nothing does. That does not mean the bold flourish in every instance. That is also not true. It means that by being true to your ambitions, your talents, and your dreams, you nurture your best self and, in challenging times, your best, boldest, and most optimistic self is the greatest asset you can have to get you through and, sometimes, if the gods are smiling, to help you flourish. With admiration for these bold scholars and hopes that their work will be an inspiration to others, I now turn this extraordinary multimedia extravaganza over to them.
“My design was not so much to contribute new facts as to shape the narrative in such a way as to emphasize relations of cause and effect that are often buried in the mass of details.”
― John Fiske, The American Revolution vol. I
My adivsor was on leave my first year. My first year was full of lots of little rejections too. Digital humanities were taking off, but my project is not exactly a digital humanities project. It also isn’t a traditional academic project. It exists in a liminal space of being a digitally born humanities project about social media structures with various digital components. I am a Media and Technology Scholar. I am a Critical Performance Studies scholar. I conceptualize the digital spaces where my dissertation lives as micro-performance that is what author and artist Mark Amerika calls “auto-affective”.
Historical glitch: Understanding digital media through the photographic lens, explores the intersecting media ecologies of social media, digital heritage content, and culture. Specifically, this project focuses closely on what a digital project that takes advantages of the formal changes inherent in the shift from analog to digital media looks like. The project highlights how social media can be used as platforms for change and also looks at their limits and potentials for knowledge and culture when such media are used to construct alternate historical narratives. The case study for this project, Vintage Black Beauty (on the web at http://vintageblackbeauty.tumblr.com), which was digitally born on the social networking site Tumblr, puts digital tools into practice by disseminating historical photographs of black women in their everyday lives from across the black diaspora. The effects of this experiment are theoretically understood through the works of Frantz Fanon, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marshall McLuhan. Additionally, a digital performance piece that analyzes the effects of this practice, informed by Dada art practices, puts the theoretical implications into motion by placing the digitized photographs gathered on Vintage Black Beauty in conversation with media from the same time periods (this part is still under construction). By exploring this ecology, I posit that we can gain a better understanding of some of the differences between digital and analog media, their different potentials for change, as well as the inherent limits they pose. While digital media do allow for greater access and dissemination, they are still tied to a screened experience and held to ethical standards determined by various stakeholders who are often ephemeral or evolving and in contradiction with how we have been trained to conceive of knowledge production.
This has a heightened sense of urgency when we think of some of the current debates happening right now around ownership, information, and what is public, private or in an odd inbetween space. These Tweets are Called My Back brings an important voice to social and digital media users who often find themselves lost in the digital noise, even as they are producing meaningful knowledge and sparking online digital activism. For me, this means as academics who want to engage in social spaces, we need to come up with new practices that are rigorous and ethical. It is for this reason I started my project myself on Tumblr in 2011. To have my academic work be at the cost of someone elses unpaid labor seemed unethical. At the same time, I wanted my project to be digitally “real”, meaning the first audience it was designed for was not academic, but every day users of Tumblr. This meant that the thought labor that went into the project is mostly invisible for someone who encounters it organically. However, if I am presenting the project as part of my work, I am easily able to show and explain how it is a project that attempts to take theory and turn it into digital movement.
The other part of the project, that I think is different than many projects, is that the primary digital part is taking place on a commercial platform. The part of me that thinks like a media ecologist couldn’t imagine this happening in any other way. In addition to the wonderful theoretical journeys this project has taken me on, there is a secondary research narrative that looks at the role of business in digital and social media. This has been a short longitudinal study (but long in our new digital time when we consider the lifespan of many digital platforms). Over the course of four active years, Tumblr has changed as well in ways that are meaningful and important. The purchase by Yahoo! and the failure to monetize it thus far despite the $1.1 Billion sticker price means that there is a risk that it might at some point disappear. One of the drives we have from traditional knowledge production is to create things that can be preserved. This is something I understand too, but not the space I personally want to work in and theorize. When we look at larger social practices in the age of deletions, fake deletions, screencaps, and the right to be forgotten, both the permanence and non-permanence of the digital become a really interesting place to play in our current historical moment. We do not have a solution yet to make sure digital things can be preserved for all of time, but the permanence of information still affects people and projects. And, as I said during the talk, while the permanence of digital projects is still an issue, it isn’t necessarily a bad one, and it isn’t one that is much different from the book. Those deteriorate too.
In terms of how I measure the permanence of my project, I made it the title of my talk. 2000 Followers, 31,000 Readers, 190 Countries. These numbers are all real numbers that represent the people who somehow managed to visit Vintage Black Beauty. I do not know who they are, but I know they were there. This is beyond meaningful to me. If I had created another book to put in a library or an article that was behind a paywalled journal, many of these people might have never seen the work I am doing. Instead, over 31,000 people became part of my dissertation journey, learning and seeing my work along the way. This is really all that I could hope for. The number one reason I started this project is because the photos of black women in history are often not seen. I would go so far as to say, especially in popular culture and scholarship that, it seems as though they never existed. But in digital and social media they can, and do. To take a very brief theoretical turn, to analyze what this project is doing, a phenomenon I am calling “micro-explosive digital movement.” I am defining micro-explosive digital movement as moments where interactions with digital media in social media spaces create multiple chains of signification. These chains of signification are different than previous forms of media because they create a dialectic of both the old and new interpretations, and the new interpretations come from the visible interactions of other social media users as well as the primary viewer. However, these significations are incapable of reaching synthesis. Instead, the dialectic breaks, leaving the viewer to either allow only the past signification to have meaning or to accept the multitude of new significations. This is different than the normal polysemic interpretations of traditional media inasmuch as the viewer in social media consumes user reactions and commentary on media as part of the media object itself. For the photographs in this project this potential is especially apparent because historical photographs (the digital media object) inherently have an orientation towards the past. However, we see the user interactions on Tumblr (the social media space) pull the photos from the past into multiple presents.
We should be experimenting, playing, trying something different, and rethinking what scholarship is in the age of information calculators (smartphones) and Google machines (computers). I’ve gone on record saying it before, but I will say it again, we cannot continue to use the book as the prism for understanding what is and is not scholarship. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for books, there is. Nor is it to say that I am unimpressed and non-pulsed by people’s book projects. I just, on a fundamental level, believe there is a space for more, and part of that more, if we have a goal of equity, is bringing our wonderful thoughts, ideas, and discoveries to people outside of the academy. And it isn’t that we don’t have literacy in this type of knowledge production. We are literate in reading art, social media, photographs, etc. as things that have meaning in and of themselves while at the same time often containing deeper meanings that we might or might not be privy too. Despite this, we still tend to think of scholarship as answers or guided tours through thoughts rather than something that can exist, independently out in the world.
I have a fundamental belief that what scholarship looks like is changing. It has to. The world of information has changed. The secret key to the success I’ve had in my scholarship at large, but especially with the dissertation is that I found people who see how things are changing, and are excited about the possibilities. In terms of media theory, I tend to be bit boring. I’m really into McLuhan. I think he was on to something when he said the media works us over. It does. While we will not completely achieve the global village, I think we’ve reached a fork in the road when it comes to linear (Hu)man, the (Hu)man who was formed by the direction of ABCD → in the west and the structure of the sentence as the smallest unit of linguistic meaning making. The internet doesn’t have to operate that way, even if more often than not that is what we make it do.
Endless Questions: Scalar Experiments with Ethnography
Having recently completed my doctoral studies, this essay looks back at how digital media and participatory methods helped make my dissertation a more public medium for critical scholarship. My dissertation, MyDigitalFootprint.ORG: Young People and the Proprietary Ecology of Everyday Data, involved digital media from its inception. The project’s primary matter of concern was the relationship between proprietary media and youth development. Its participatory methodology involved young people as co-researchers and co-designers in the development of an open source social network. The project’s defense was live-streamed and live-tweeted. Finally, the resulting research products, including the monograph and a defense recording, were archived online under the project’s title: mydigitalfootprint.org. In the context of ‘remixing the diss’—and within the space-time I have here—I offer this brief epilogue on the media and methods that helped remix both my dissertation process as well as its research products and their scholarly communication.
Before getting into the media and methods that inspired and helped carry-out my digital dissertation, I wish to first note the importance of the transdisciplinary academic space in which it took place. Having conducted my doctoral studies in Environmental Psychology I was primed for problem-oriented research that had little disciplinary dogma. When conceptualizing my dissertation I was expected to draw on theories and methods from the discursive domains of academia that would be most useful in understanding and addressing my matters of concern. This also meant that when assembling my dissertation committee I was encouraged to find a diverse set of scholars who could assist a transdisciplinary project’s development and evaluate its results. With four members of my program’s faculty and two external readers, my committee represented scholars of feminist geography, critical psychology, cultural psychology, computer science, communication studies, and information studies. Further, the day-to-day challenge of doing research and media work across disciplines was aided through constant collaboration with a scholarly community loosely represented by the OpenCUNY Academic Medium, CUNY Internet Research Team, Public Science Project, Center for Place, Culture and Politics, as well as the GC Interactive Technology and Pedagogy and Macaulay ITF Programs. It was the creativity and security fostered by this academic space that emboldened me to take chances with my dissertation and re-imagine the boundaries of my scholarship through new methods, models, and media.
THE MEDIUM IS THE METHOD
Although I first adopted the project title and registered the mydigitalfootprint.org domain in 2008, the notion of a ‘digital footprint’ came into sharper focus in 2011 when a visualization tool played a brief but notable role in expanding the public’s environmental consciousness (see Slide 1). Two researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, discovered that the iPhone was locally storing a consildated.db file containing data on all the places the device—and thus presumably its owner—had been. Allen and Warden then designed the iPhone Tracker App to allow iPhone owners to access their locative data from this file and visualize it over time using OpenStreetMaps. Latour’s notion of the black box was partially and briefly opened thru this creative act of research and design. The app exposed and challenged a private method of knowledge production by allowing everyday people to visualize a consolidated database of their own digital footprints across space and over time. With little effort, people could start to make sense of personal information that up until that point had been reserved mainly for corporate and/or governmental interests. To quell the public concerns over privacy that erupted as a result of the app, Apple quickly deleted the local copy of consildated.db in an update to the iPhone’s operating system. The surveillance practice was not curtailed; the exposed practice was simply black boxed again by designing-away the ability of iPhone users to easily visualize the very personal data their own iPhone continued to communicate to others, elsewhere.
It was the way research and design—method and medium—worked hand-in-hand to create, expose, and obscure this kind of mediated research relationship that got me thinking: under informational capitalism, the proprietary medium is not only the message (as McLuhan might argue) but also an increasingly dominant method by which knowing and becoming are made possible. Our daily engagements with proprietary media—like the iPhone, Facebook, or Amazon—enroll us in a set of ongoing relationships with various interests that are often obfuscated by design. These digital relationships, and the information they communicate, now constitute an expanding space of capital accumulation, social reproduction, identify configuration, and even creative resistance and empowerment. Yet, because of the opaque design and distributed geography of proprietary media, these research relationships are both intimately experienced on a daily basis and barely noticed—particularly among young people.
Consent, too, is often designed in this proprietary media ecology. Long jargon-laden and frequently changing Terms of Service policies are crafted to get people to waive their rights within a medium, rather than actually understand them. In the context of qualitative academic inquiry, Wendy Luttrell (2012, 160) argues that “negotiating and representing research relationships—what and how we learn with and about others and ourselves—is the heart of the research journey.” In the context of informationalism, I considered what laid at the heart of society’s proprietary journey. What sort of journey relies on mystified and lopsided research relationships that design consent as a default option? And, how might more participatory negotiations and critical representations of these relationships put society on a more egalitarian and public journey?
(RE)DESIGNING RESEARCH RELATIONSHIPS
The iPhone Tracker serves as a metaphor-of-sorts for my dissertation. I wanted the project to function as both a medium and a method for exposing, understanding, and re-designing research relationships in everyday media ecologies. It was important that I not just study how proprietary media shapes youth development, but actually engage youth in turning these research relationships on their head—and to open up the process of the dissertation from the project’s design, to the IRB, to the final research products. The MyDigitalFootprint.ORG Project was thus initiated to unpack and engage young people’s engagements with/in proprietary ecologies through the design and development of an open source social network. For details on the project’s participatory action design research (PADR) methodology, the youth co-researchers (a.k.a. The Youth Design and Research Collective, or YDRC), and our findings, I direct everyone to the project website, the Project Timeline, and/or Chapter 3: The Medium is the Method from my dissertation (Donovan, 2013). Here, I want to briefly highlight two examples of how involving young people in digital design and social research altered the terrain of my dissertation project.
The first example, deals specifically with the YDRC and the design of our open source social network. I had installed a Wordpress Network with Buddypress on a leased Virtual Private Server (VPS) that provided us with a generic but highly customizable out-of-the-box social network site. Part of my work with the YDRC was to configure this network and design both its user interface as well as the various research relationships we would establish with online participants through interactive features such as social profiles and research pods. Since Buddypress allowed for modifications to its interface’s language file we began the collective work of interrogating the language used in our own interface and modifying it where necessary to more clearly reflect the research taking place. During one of our Research and Planning Workshops, I accessed the network’s .po file (see Slide 4) on my laptop and then connected my laptop to a projector. Via my laptop and a projection on the wall, we edited the file together using the aptly titled program Poedit. When we encountered language referring to instant messaging features as “Private Messaging” the YDRC were well aware that as administrators of the social network they could gain access to these ‘private’ messages. The language was thus changed to “Public Messaging” and the instant messaging possibilities were reconfigured within the Wordpress/Buddypress platform to confine direct messaging to public posts on a participant’s profile.
This first example is one of many that allowed members of the YDRC to transition from social network consumers to social network producers. In doing so, they gained first hand experience on the kinds of personal information that could be obtained through a social media interface. They also confronted and considered the ways interface design could obscure, misrepresent, or more accurately represent and visualize the method by which personal information was obtained. In my second example, I turn to the process of my dissertation’s IRB application and the YDRC’s involvement as youth co-researchers.
The research project was submitted to my university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) in a series of stages. I began with the most traditional aspect: I wanted to recruit and interview 15 young people ages 14-19 about their daily digital engagements. This required consent forms for those over 18, and assent forms for those under 18 with corresponding consent forms for their parent or guardian. At this stage, the mydigitalfootprint.org site was first established for participant recruitment. I then filed an amendment to my application to add five of the interviewees as youth co-researchers to the project. This officially involved them as both ‘research subjects’ and ‘research personnel’ in the project, thus requiring they both sign new consent (or assent/consent) forms and receive CITI Certification for conducting research with human subjects. It was during this stage that the project site transitioned to a private collaborative space for the research group.
The final amendment was filed with the youth co-researchers and involved building the social network that would collect anonymized information from online participants. During this final stage, the project site was re-launched as a publicly-accessible social network with open account registration. Registering an account and filling out a social profile required participants to consent to an IRB approved assent form much as completing and online survey would. This assent form, among other requirements, had to be short, concise, and clearly inform a participant—potentially as young as 14—what the risks and benefits of participating in our research project were.
From the initial proposal to the approval of the final amendment, this turned out to be a year long negotiation with the IRB and a surprisingly valuable object of analysis. Involving the YDRC as institutionally-recognized research personnel created time and space within the project to reflect critically on our own modes of knowledge production within the project. Further, designing our own social network's Terms, or assent form, afforded the YDRC with a meaningful comparison to other research relationships they were/n’t consenting to through their routine social media use. The process of crafting our online assent form (a.k.a our Terms of Participation) began by questing how we could best inform our participants of their rights and role within our research while also meeting IRB standards. Then, once we had created an online assent form that was approved by our IRB, they began to ask 'why can't Facebook do this?’ In this way the IRB became less of an institutional obstacle and more a valuable object of reflexive and comparative analysis within the project (see Slide 5).
REMIXING THE SPATIAL-TEMPORALITY OF DEFENDING AND DEPOSITING
Engaging young people in both media and knowledge production provided fertile grounds for remixing research relationships with/in media ecologies. Similarly, involving digital media as both an object of analysis and a research method in my project challenged my own modes of production and afforded more reflexive and comparative scholarship. As my work with the YDRC came to a close, our IRB application expired, and I finished writing-up ‘The Dissertation,’ I looked for ways to continue pushing the boundaries of the project in its new phase. I wanted to make my dissertation and its defense more of a public medium and less of a formal academic exercise hidden in a windowless room.
Preparing for my defense caused no shortage of stress, yet it was still something I eagerly looked forward to. Here were six brilliant scholars whom I deeply respected that were going to take time to read my dissertation and then engage me in a two hour discussion about it. The defense was a final test on my path to a Ph.D. and it was also the culmination and celebration of years of work—work I really enjoyed doing. As such, I wanted to record and stream my defense to expand who could attend, from where, and when. While the norms of a defense tend to vary by institution and program, within Environmental Psychology it was custom to hold an open defense and (at least) announce it on the program’s internal listserv. So proposing that my defense be live-streamed and recorded was not only inline with the ideals of my research project but also my program’s ‘open’ philosophy regarding defenses. Yet, at that point in time, only a hand-full of groups had used the GC’s new live-streaming services and none for the purposes of a dissertation defense. With the critical institutional support of my committee—special thanks here to Cindi Katz and Michelle Fine—I worked with IT to set up cameras and microphones in the room where the defense was to take place so that the presentation and discussion would be both live-streamed and properly archived for future streaming.
The public defense at the CUNY Graduate Center ended up having about 40 people in attendance and 20 via live-stream. Colleagues in attendance from the academic community I reference in my introduction (namely Desiree Fields, Maggie Galvan, Jen Jack Gieseking, Kiersten Greene, Amanda Licastro, and Collette Sosnowy) adopted the #gtddiss hashtag and began live-tweeting the defense—leading to over 100 #gtddiss tweets. The archived audio of the defense, made available through Soundcloud, has since accrued over 60 listens while a Storify of #gtddiss tweets (graciously and spontaneously created by Amanda Licastro) has received over 90 views.
After the defense it came time to copyright and deposit my dissertation. Following the lead of media scholars such as danah boyd and Alice Marwick, and with the help of GC librarians, I choose to copyright my dissertation with a Creative Commons license so as to make sharing it online an explicitly condoned practice. Both the full license and its “human-readable” version were included in the dissertation’s appendix for easy reference. My university required that my dissertation not only be deposited with the library but also uploaded to ProQuest’s database. I choose not to pay to embargo access and I also choose not to pay $90 to make my dissertation freely available through ProQuest. Thus, if someone found my defense in the ProQuest database, they would have to pay to access it. Or, they would hopefully see that the dissertation’s official title begins with the “mydigitalfootprint.org” URL and follow that link to a freely available copy (see Slide 6). Including the project’s name and URL in the dissertation title and adding a Creative Commons license served as a simple but effective way of hacking any proprietary databases that might restrict access to the document itself.
Finally, a PDF of the dissertation, a methodological timeline (using Timeline JS), info on the YDRC, the defense recording, and my list of references (using ZotPress) among other materials were archived online at the project’s title and made publicly available the day I deposited with my university’s library (see Slide 7). The PDF and corresponding site were both subsequently archived in the GC’s open Institutional Repository this Fall. The MyDigitalfootprint.ORG Project site has, at the time of this panel, accrued over 5,000 unique views while the dissertation PDF has been downloaded over 700 times through the same site and another 28 times since added to the GC’s repository. I do not offer these rough statistics, or those above regarding my defense, as a metric of success. I offer them to highlight how institutional and community support—along with digital media—greatly expand the traditional time, space, and audience of a dissertation.
Instead of studying digital media and youth from a distance, I sought to critically involve both in my process of research and scholarly communication. This left me with a dissertation model I was/am proud of but that I could not have envisioned from the project’s start. In hindsight, I believe this suggests that we in academia should put less emphasis on developing ‘air-tight’ dissertation proposals, and put more effort into building academic spaces and media that better support the unpredictable epistemological and ontological turns a critical dissertation is likely to make once in process. In sum, successfully remixing the diss requires rethinking the time, space, tools, and community necessary for meaningful scholarship in an information age.
Donovan, G.T.(2013). The medium is the method. In MyDigitalFootprint.ORG: Young people and the proprietary ecology of everyday data. City University of New York: 78-105.
Luttrell, W. (2010). Interactive and reflexive models of qualitative research design. In W. Luttrell (Ed.), Qualitative educational research: Readings in reflexive methodology and transformative practice. New York: Routledge. 159-164.
Excavating Eportfolios: Digging into a Decade of Student-Driven Data
Project Link: http://prezi.com/skvk1o59_1hk/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy
I began searching for a Phd program in 2009 after completing a traditional masters program in English Literature and teaching as an adjunct for two years. These experiences gave me a clear sense of what I wanted to accomplish through doctoral study. As a “freeway flyer” I had come to rely on educational technology in order to facilitate teaching six courses a semester across three different campuses. Each institution supported different course management systems, and as I learned to navigate these systems I began to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each tool and wanted to research these issues further. However, during my search for a doctoral program I found that very few institutions had invested in the digital humanities, and, as many critics have noted, digital humanities programs were not particularly interested in pedagogy. I came to the Graduate Center because of the innovative work of individuals working within CUNY – projects that were being supported and given recognition. For example, Matthew K. Gold presented “Looking for Whitman,” his collaborative, cross-campus teaching experiment run on WordPress, at the Modern Language Association conference that year, and at the same time an alumnus I was working with pointed me toward the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate program. What I did not know was that there were groundbreaking projects formulating throughout the 24 campus CUNY system, and that these projects would lay the foundation for my future.
In my four years at the Graduate Center the digital humanities program has grown from budding to burgeoning, with several institutional initiatives in place to support digital work. This trajectory has been built on years of inventive approaches to humanities research, such as those collected through the crowdsourced #remixthediss Google Spreadsheet, which includes examples of non-traditional approaches to the dissertation across the disciplines. In my experience, the support for unconventional scholarship extends beyond the dissertation stage; which represents an essential systemic shift. Through my coursework at the Graduate Center I was encouraged to experiment with digital methods: I TEI encoded an Emily Dickinson poem, I did a distant reading of prefaces in 18th century novels, and I developed an online academic genealogy project with my classmates. In fact, the latter collaborative experiment evolved into full-scale digital project: the Writing Studies Tree (WST). Through the work of Ben Miller, Jill Belli, and myself, along with our faculty advisors Sondra Perl and Matthew K Gold and student consultants, the WST was just awarded its third Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant. At the same time, my coursework and oral exams exposed me to the new media and composition theory I needed to argue for the relevance of this work. This combination of theory and practice not only gave me the tools to formulate my dissertation project, it also helped me secure an Instructional Technology Fellowship at Macaulay Honors College, which was a key turning point in my academic career.
As an Instructional Technology Fellow I work to help professors across the disciplines integrate technology into their courses in pedagogically sound ways. For over a decade, this program has maintained a multiuser Wordpress install to support the creation of course sites and student-run blogs. I am using the archive of over 3000 Macaulay eportfolio sites as my data for my dissertation in order to investigate student writing in online open spaces. This case study challenges the assertions about both the benefits and drawbacks of this practice through a mixed methods approach including surveys and interviews with the students, as well as a distant reading of all 3000 sites, and a close reading of six student-run sites.
Much like Gregory Donovan’s dissertation project, a primary goal of my project is to investigate what Jill Walker Rettberg terms “dataism,” or the collection and use of data by corporations through the mining of personal devices. Course management systems and other educational technology platforms collect student data for a variety of uses, including product development, marketing, and advertising purposes. My objective is to subvert this agenda by mining student data for pedagogical purposes. The driving line of inquiry concerns what we can learn by looking at a large quantity of student writing altogether in a way that was not possible before computational analysis techniques such as the methods I will now describe. Additionally, since these methods are so new, and my intention is to produce a meta-awareness of process in a pedagogical context, I describe in depth the methodology employed in this project step-by-step on my own blog.
In order to embark on this large data project ethically, I first had to strip out any sites or posts that were marked private from the data and I had to create simple consent forms for my surveys and interviews. Again, pointing back toward Gregory Donovan’s influential project, I needed to ensure these consent forms were understandable to a young adult, in comparison to the terms of agreements we regularly encounter through social media sites, but rarely see when adopting education technology. Also, since this is not a typical dissertation project in the humanities, my IRB process was extremely complicated, and took over four months to complete. Although the sites are public, it is important to remember that the data I am using does reveal identifying information about the students. Projects that utilize data generated in online spaces demands the researcher grapple with the many difficult ethical questions that using “public” materials raises. In fact in my discussions with other writing studies scholars engaging with these sensitive questions resulted in a conference panel at CCCC in Indianapolis. Fortunately, the Graduate Center Internet Research Team (IRT) was established by students and faculty dealing with these same issues, and they were a wonderful resource for me as I worked through these questions.
In fact, the IRT led me to use Opinio, which is secure survey software licensed by CUNY. I used this program to conduct my surveys of incoming freshman. This is one of the many ways in which collaborating and consulting with researchers outside my discipline has strengthened my scholarship, and also why it is so important for our institutions to provide access to these digital tools. Rather than relying on a third party provider (such as the popular SurveyMonkey), I relied on a sophisticated program that not only provided a multitude of formats to structure my questions, but also gave me options in graphically displaying the results. Through these surveys I found that only about 30% of Macaulay freshman had composed on a blog before entering college, and those who did blog often did so in an educational setting, specifically through an English course or school newspaper. Very few students maintained a personal site before entering college, and within that subset even fewer purchases their own domain name and hosted their site on their own servers. It is also important to note that almost all of the students are on more than one social networking site, and therefore are actively writing in online, open spaces. The use of WordPress sites in the Macaulay Honors program is new to the vast majority of freshman, but writing in public spaces online is not.
The second phase of research is a distant reading of the 3000 public sites. The process of dealing with this data is new to me, but my ability to deal with these challenging tasks comes from both experience working on my other digital projects, but also largely from the help of my peers, especially Micki Kaufman and Evan Missula who work as Digital Fellows at the Graduate Center. The data from the eportfolio sites is in MySQL maintained in a database system that runs on my server. I process it through a series of sampling, similar to an experiment in the hard sciences. This is perhaps why we call digital humanities centers “labs,” because we form hypotheses, test data, analyze results, and try to replicate those results. First, I select small segments of data as test cases. For example, I can start with the raw data from one “Arts in New York City” seminar, which in its original form is very messy, and requires human intervention to prepare (see figure 1). The first step is to extract the content categories that contain relevant information for my purposes, and transfer it to a text editor in order to strip out unwanted characters - such as leftover HTML code that will distort my results. After that I pair down the data again to create relationship tables in Excel.
In the example below, I use topic modeling to see what words students use in proximity to the word “art”. I have also used this same data set to look at other metrics, such as how often students posted on the site and the average length of their posts, and used this data to compare the relationship between length and frequency of post by students. These experiments usually start with sketchpad and pencil to work through the information before messing with the data itself. This is both fun - I am playing with my data - and frustrating. I end up with dozens of spreadsheets and sample visualizations for each small subset of the data I am testing.
But the results can be pretty beautiful (see Figure 2). I have taken this grammatically incorrect caption from a popular sub-reddit of people who play with data, but in this visualization you see the result of my topic modeling experiment. This cloud contains words that appear in proximity to the word “art” in the student’s posts. This visualization was done in Gephi; the nodes are colored by words that also appear in proximity to each other, the size of the word is how many times it appears, and the thickness of the line denotes how strong the connection is to the central word. There are always unexpected errors despite the tedious cleaning process (as seen here in the “äù”), which is the result of human error in combination with machine reading properties. And typically these visualizations do not provide answers, but rather more questions. In this case, I can see that students are writing experientially about their encounters with art (note the size and proximity of the words experience, walking, public, place, meet, and watched) and that they are interacting with a wide variety of art (see the words performance, gallery, photography, recitals, shows, dance, and opera), but I am also wondering the significance of words like “identity” and “strong” in this visualization. This is one way to see writing in a new way.
The next phase of my dissertation will be to interview the winners of Macaulay’s Eportfolio Expo, a self-nominated competition for the “best” student-produced site judged by educational technology specialists and instructors affiliated with CUNY (see figure 3). I will conduct these interviews and perform close reading their winning submissions in order to identify areas of learning transfer between the faculty-led course sites and the student-directed sites. This is all a learning process, which takes trial and error. I never know what the results will be when I start working on a new data set, but so far, the journey has been as fruitful as the preliminary results.
All three stages of my research include various types of media - videos, data visualizations, infographics, screenshots, and links to live sites. This work is hard to represent on paper. Therefore I am constantly re-imagining what form my final product will take. From the beginning, I have been blogging my way through this process in order to provide an example for other scholars who want to engage in these methods, but also to promote an open, transparent approach to academic work. My philosophy is to - as Kathleen Fitzpatrick famously wrote - “do the risky thing” (Chronicle of Higher Education). Actually, one of my prospectus reviews wrote that he had never seen a dissertation like this before. But thanks to the endless support of my committee, Matthew K. Gold, Sondra Perl, David Greetham, and now Cathy Davidson, I am pursuing the project I dreamed of doing back in 2009. And I see this ethos of risk-taking catching on here at GC as is evident by the amazing work of my fellow grant winners, and especially the dissertations of English students Jesse Merandy, who is working on a Walt Whitman video game; Ben Miller, who is doing a distant reading of dissertations, and Jeff Binder, whose pre-dissertation project the Distance Machine is truly groundbreaking. And this is happening in humanities departments worldwide. I believe if, as Jesse Stommel suggests in the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, we can view the dissertation as a learning opportunity, it will make room for these experimental approaches. Hopefully these experiments will create useful products, rather that just the dusty bound manuscripts that sit on shelves, or worse, behind paywalls.
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 25 Sept. 2011. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.
 TEI stands for Textual Coding Initiative, which has become the standard mark-up language for digital humanities projects. Read more at www.tei-c.org/
 Distant reading, a term coined by Franco Moretti, refers to the process of employing computational textual analysis to a large body or texts, such as concordance or topic modeling, in order to identify patterns and outliers in a body of work. See: Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. 1 edition. London ; New York: Verso, 2013.
 A complete list of our team members can be found at http://writingstudiestree.org/live/about/team
 For a description of this grant and details of the other winning projects visit http://gcdi.commons.gc.cuny.edu/category/provosts-digital-innovation-gra…
 Many articles have been written recently announcing that specific educational technology companies are working towards making this process more transparent – including several that have adopted policies to restrict the use of this data and dispose of it after the student graduates.
In setting out to do this work, the question I started with was not why do it in comics form, but why not do it in comics? Before returning to graduate school, I was doing complex and accessible works in comics, and there were a slew of powerful examples out in the world like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1997) and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993). It seemed to me like the argument was over – case closed. But, academia tends to move slow and as we know can be rather narrow in its thinking. So as I became immersed in that environment again, I recognized the political ramifications of doing this work. This meant that the dissertation needed to be directly about itself and metaphorically about the context it was created in.
For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll skip over examining how comics work and offer a general overview of my broader idea of “Unflattening” (the title of the work). By “flatness”, I want to suggest a narrowing of our sight, a contraction of possibilities. Herbert Marcuse (1991) describes “conforming to a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior,” and I in turn likened this to Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 novel critiquing Victorian society, Flatland. Flatlanders – the geometric inhabitants of this two-dimensional world – are able to move East, West, South, and North, but they have no concept of “upwards.” They don’t know what it is to move off the plane they reside in. It’s simple to see when we look at this abstracted situation, but not so easy in terms of ourselves – what are the dimensions we can’t access? How can we even know such dimensions exist that we can’t put our minds around? I see the BOXES that we place our learning in as contributing to a kind of flatness. Boxes of time – period, space – a classoom, subject of study, etc. We learn in boxes and then we tend to draw boxes within ourselves. Limit the things we can’t see. So a big part of what I’m after is “what are we missing when we see through only narrow channels, and what might we make visible when we introduce other ways of seeing. (For examples of pages directly referencing Flatland see here.)
This brings me to my dog – and a dog’s sense of smell as a way of seeing. A dog’s sense of smell isn’t simply more powerful than yours or mine, it’s vastly more nuanced. That is it can sort of different layers of time – in terms of, say, what visited this tree an hour ago, five hours ago, yesterday, a week ago. The smells reveal dimensions of experience – “upwards” – that we don’t have access to.
As we move beyond the cycloptic and begin to incorporate multiple modes of seeing, of working, we can get past looking at things head on, and see that they have sides, dimension, that we can move around them, turn them over. And in this way, I believe it gives us the means to step out of the flatness of thought we may find ourselves in, and begin to gain perspective and a glimpse at the boundaries that limit us – boundaries that we often construct.
On that note, I wanted to bring up an instance of how institutional rules had an effect on the work. This page [briefly described - it has typical scholarly writing formatting, double-spaced text, 12-point font, regular margins, with an illustration set apart in it] is the only page out of 130 or so drawn comics pages that looks somewhat like a dissertation is supposed to look. It’s got the right font, font size, proper spacing, etc. It’s a discussion of Plato and Descartes and their denial of the senses, and specifically Plato’s calling images “shadows of shadows.” It’s the place I turn to the reader, break the fourth wall sort of, and say, this is what I’ve been doing and why I’ve been doing it. This is what I’m taking on. And so one turns the completed dissertation into the office of doctoral studies and they return it with corrections – citations, margins and such. So of the 130-some pages – I got feedback on exactly one – this one! They pointed out that I had a figure on this page (I do, it’s labeled Fig 1, to look how a figure would look inserted in traditional scholarly texts), and said that I needed to have a list of figures at the beginning of the dissertation and list this figure in it. I’d like to think they were joking. I’m fairly certain they weren’t. But the ridiculousness of having a list of figures for the single page with the least amount of images ended up emphasizing my point here in a way I wouldn’t have thought of. It was brilliant really. (The page in question can be found here.)
So to close here, I want to talk about the things made possible in working this way that I wouldn’t have achieved working solely in text. In some sense this is to set about reversing the mind-body split that Descartes put in motion. When we draw – we take an idea, a movement, out of our heads, and in putting it on a surface, allow our visual system – which is constantly processing enormous amounts of information without our awareness – to go to work on it. It allows for a conversation to be had between drawing and drawer, and make connections, see possibilities not available solely in our heads. I see my drawings as collaborators in generating ideas – a partner that in working with I think my comics are smarter than I am. One specific example – a page about the transformative power of stories in a chapter on imagination. I had in mind a theme of playing on Scheherazade’s stories within stories, and have the page unfold as a backward S of separate images that each connected to the one prior – as in Zoom or the Powers of 10 film. In the midst of this, I wanted to say that by stories, I didn’t just mean the fanciful, but things like science as well – and had I been working in text, I would’ve been done – I just said it. But here, I needed to have something that didn’t just tell, but showed – embodied the idea, and worked with the visual composition I was orchestrating. So I searched the time period and place the 1,001 Nights were collected, and ended up coming across the work of astronomers working in the Arab Golden Age whose works were picked up by Copernicus and (uncredited) were significant in his momentous shift in our view of the solar system. I’d done a page on Copernicus earlier – so this was really feeling just right! On that page, I’d tackled the idea that nothing had changed except our perspective – which changed everything. I studied the mathematics of the “Tusi Couple” and worked on the composition for about three weeks to make sense of it enough for this very small sequence within a single page of the week. (You can see the finished page here)
On the outside kind of a crazy amount of time for something that is really outside of the work itself. But at the same time, this is kind of the point of bringing in multiple ways of working – it opened spaces for me to search, to make discoveries. Discoveries I would’ve been unable to do otherwise. My dissertation and research in general has thus become a journey – it’s a lot of fun even in its arduousness. I had a blast doing the dissertation because it was my work, and because it took me places I didn’t expect. And I think that’s what our work should be.
Abbott, Edwin Abbott. (1884, 1952). Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions. London: Seeley. Reprint, New York: Dover.
Marcuse, Herbert. (1991). One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press.
McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Tundra.
Spiegelman, Art. (1997). Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon Books.