otherwise than print dissertations

The print dissertation is still the standard of the humanities PhD. Yet, many schools are exploring assessment and advancement criteria related to digital scholarship in the humanities. I love Nicholas Bauch's suggestion of "experimental humanities" as more fitting category than "digital humanities" for approaches to humanities research and writing that explore modes beyond print.


Interestingly, in all of the University of Denver handbook materials about disserations, there are no expicit criteria specified to evaluate the dissertation, other than the role of the committee in supervising the dissertation "with regard for the individual nature of the student's objectives." The generic dissertation guidelines in the Graduate Student Bulletin suggest that the dissertation ought be "quality original scholarship that contributes to the theoretical/research knowledgebase of the candidate's field of study." In the vein of Michel De Certeau's suggestion that "there's never a blank page," I think the demand for "original" scholarship is misleading. We are always building on what we have encountered, and the discernment of originality is most often determined simply by the constraints of one's exposure, so perhaps innovative is more palatable than original? Nonetheless, at DU and many other academic institutions, this so called "original" scholarship is defacto media bound to print by the proQuest formatting requirements. If we take seriously Marshall McLuhan's prescient claim from the early 1960s that "the medium is the message," musn't we allow for media exploration alongside and deeply entangled with meaningful intellectual innovation?

In the post tweeted above, Lee Ann Cafferata offers some excellent reflections on why acceptance of otherwise than print work remains slow in dissertations. Her questions focus a great deal on the lack of standards for evaluation and assessment. Having just defended my otherwise than print dissertation proposal, I experienced my wonderfully generous, invested, and creative committee members struggling to find procedures, criteria, and guidelines to help them evaluate the quality, progress, and completion of my project. It became increasingly clear during the defense discussions that medium itself is playing a significant role in these challenges. Both my performance of the dissertation and my committee's participation demand new media sensibilities. I am asking my committee to evaluate the quality of my work in a medium unfamiliar to their academic habits (and habitus) and to practice this advisory role in the medium of the project. This is no small ask, because as it turns out, the identity and practice of a dissertation advisor are deeply shaped by the technologies used to engage a dissertation.

Before we discuss some available guidelines for evaluating otherwise than print scholarship and dissertations, what might these medium challenges demand of the student pursuing an otherwise than print dissertation? At smaller institutions without major infrastructure to support faculty and student awareness and capacity building in experimental technologies, the students working on otherwise than print dissertations need to invest in providing theoretical and practical media translations for committee members. The unfamiliar can discourage participation and the last thing we want from introducing experimental approaches to humanities research is to allienate a committee member or to disincentivize their participation in the project. So, in addition to setting clear guidelines for how a committee will evaluate and participate in the project, spend time translating the new technologies into more familiar academic paradigms.

Most people discussing guidelines and standards for evaluating digital scholarship point toward the MLA Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media. These guidelines were created for faculty hiring and promotion, but certainly offer some insights into general approaches to engaging scholarship in media otherwise than print. For a more recent reflection on these MLA guidelines with particular focus on the third guideline, review work in the medium in which it was produced, see Geoffrey Rockwell's "On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship" in the 2011 edition of Profession. For a helpful introduction to some potential typologies for digital scholarship, peruse "What is Digital Scholarship? A Typology." by William G. Thomas III.