What is This Thing We Call a Dissertation?

We treat it like its always been here, but where did this thing we call the dissertation come from, and where is it going?

Contributed by Melissa Dalgleish and Daniel Powell Research Officer, PhD Candidate at York University, University of Victoria
March 16, 2015
Editors of Graduate Training in the 21st Century's picture

This group of articles, the first of two clusters in the new #Alt-Academy project Graduate Training in the 21st Century, represents the culmination of a number of years of effort on the part of the editors. At least as early as 2011, we committed to finding and creating venues in which to foster ongoing conversations about how graduate training happens in the (digital) humanities, the role of mentorship in professionalization, the state of the job market, and so on. Individually, we had been having these discussions with our respective and overlapping scholarly communities for some time. A graduate student roundtable at the Canadian Society for Digital Humanities conference in which we both participated in 2012 gave rise to a publication about these same issues in Digital Studies. This article in turn prompted discussions with the leadership team behind #Alt-Academy, which in turn led to the cluster—and the ongoing Graduate Training in the 21st Century project—you see before you. Our informal discussion group convened and fostered discussion online, at our respective universities, and at conferences like the MLA, where the first iterations of many of these contributions were first aired. Members of that group have come and gone. For the authors represented in these clusters, these contributions represent a significant investment of time, energy, and intellectual effort devoted to exploring and understanding a topic and a project at the heart of graduate studies today, and at the end of every PhD—the dissertation.

Despite their origins in other conversations and spaces, these pieces represent a new beginning for the consideration and interrogation of graduate training today. We take seriously Bethany Nowviskie’s assertion that #altac as a term and a concept is still and was always meant to embody a new gestalt within and alongside in the academy. Much like the “new” in New Faculty Majority of contract academic faculty (which are not newly the majority, just newly recognized as such), the “alt” in #altac is misleading, for some new studies show that more than 80% of PhDs end up in a career other than that of tenured or tenure-track faculty member. Along with interrogating the appropriateness of “alternate” as a label for non-professorial careers and the ways in which the academy supports (or doesn’t) multiple career paths, we are working to create a space within which to explore alternative academies, which together comprise what we falsely refer to as the monolithic “academy,” rather than simply alternative career trajectories or how best to professionalize in any given context. Perhaps most importantly, we are committed to creating and nurturing a space for graduate student voices, ones that often get lost in discussions of the present and future of graduate training in the humanities. This space is a locus for thinking through what Nowviskie’s articulation of #altac means to diverse communities of students, chiefly by members of those very communities.

Beyond the Protomonograph: New Models for the Dissertation

A key part of the acculturation, accreditation, and professionalization that occurs within the academy is the capstone project for the doctoral degree: the dissertation. Whether consisting of a “big book” thesis, a collected group of article-length publications, or a compilation of research results, the contours of the genre are easily outlined: it is thought of as text, it must be original, and it should be comprehensive. As with all of the various aspects of academic practice and program structure, however, the dissertation is a knowledge project that emerged out of specific historical circumstances—in this case the German universities of the 19th century. The dissertation exists as the primary qualification for the highest degree in the humanities and social sciences, if not all areas of academia, and its place as the culminating product of the PhD seems eternal and absolute. But it nevertheless emerged from the world of print, the galaxy of the scholarly monograph, and a universe of scholarly communication that remained largely unchanged from the advent of European printing in the 15th century well into the 21st century.

With the advent of projects like #Alt-Academy, however, as well as the digital humanities and digital scholarly publishing venues more generally, the dissertation status quo is being challenged and the dissertation as protomonograph actively reinvented and rethought. In a world where scholarly publication is changing rapidly, how should we approach the work of the dissertation, and of scholarly qualifications? What systems of credentialing and certification are most appropriate for a digital, networked world where the traditional career path is increasingly unviable and the tools of the trade ever changing? How do, and how should, changing patterns of scholarly communication and publication affect the dissertation?

This cluster is an attempt to answer these questions, and raise new ones, by showcasing the work of early career scholars actively reimagining the dissertation as protomonograph. These new approaches include calling upon the potentials of the digital, but they are by no means all digital projects. Neither is this collection devoted exclusively to #altac and professionalization issues, although the questions are very much intertwined and capstone projects that serve multiple uses and audiences are more necessary than ever.

We have divided the contributions in this section into two clusters. The first is “Beyond the Proto-Monograph: New Models for the Dissertation (Examples and Reflections).” The second is “Beyond the Proto-Monograph: New Models for the Dissertation (Process and Experimentation).” Pieces in the first cluster showcase specific projects undertaken as or in place of the dissertation, as well as authors' reflections on the experiences. The second emphasizes roundtable-style discussion of issues emerging from the shifting norms and expectations around dissertations.

In his introduction to the cluster “Looking for Signposts,” Brian Croxall writes that the cluster is “not the help you’re looking for.” Instead, “the signs in this cluster point not to established tracks but to the possibility of difference.” The editors would suggest that the same point holds here: the projects, stories, and experimentations discussed by our contributors are unlikely to be exactly replicable at your institution, in your contexts, or in your career development trajectory. Instead, we hope that these two clusters point to the possibility of a different sort of dissertation, one that pushes boundaries and opens up avenues of exploration.