space as thesis

It is no secret that humanities research is undergoing a major media reimagining as the scholarly dominance of print wanes. In the last few years, the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and the College Art Association/Society of Architechtural Historians have released guidelines for the evaluation of 'digital' scholarship for promotion and tenure.

'Digital' can mean a lot of things, but in this case it has a simple function to identify academic work that is governed more by internet sensibilities than those of print. Relatedly, internet sensibilities could encompass a lot of different values, but here I use Internet sensibilities to signal a focus on process more than product, collaboration more than independent scholarly activity, and interface design as a critical part of content production.

As I have worked on a dissertation that questions this media translation related to the communities of reading that constitute bible, I have struggled with how a project not governed by print sensibilities (comprehensive finished product, individual expertise, and content driven) might be evaluated. It seems that the currency of the dissertation is a clearly articulated thesis argued in a way that allows committee members to evaluate whether the thesis has been demonstrated as viable or not. I have reflected on thesis other places, so I will not bore us with a regurgitation of those questions. Yet, As his been a regular occurance with this project, some conversations with colleagues generated a question for me related to thesis and space. Elizabeth Coody, who works with countless writers in her role as director of the writing lab at Iliff, shared her notion of thesis as a promise a writer makes to an audience to set the limits of a relationship in a way. The relational framing of this promise struck me as significant, even though I still have many questions and concerns about the typical dominance of writerly intent in the conceptions of meaning making through reading. Is it possible that the limits of a particular space of dialog, with a regular rhythm of offerings to stimulate interaction and ongoing discussion, could constitute a promise kind of thesis? Let's say, for example, I promised to offer annotated artifacts every other week for a year to facilitate dialog in this very space, bound by the limits of these interfaces. Could this commitment to a space and a regular process of inquiry operate as a thesis, even if the content of these offerings varied in focus and theme?

I wanted to demonstrate sustained and rigorous attention to the relationship between the design of interfaces, the curation and annotation of artifacts, and the facilitation of conversation within the space of a proximate bible could provide a placing (thesis) that foregrounds process over product, while the ongoing construction of the space itself could still offer a kind of tangible outcome for those who must evaluate. The promise here could be both a careful and sustained process along with a limited space/time for engagement, rather than a single content based argument articulated from beginning to end. Based on my pedagogical values of increased surface area, annotation of artifacts, and extending conversation, this thesis/space could be evaluated in the following ways:

These criteria come from a longer entry I wrote, called translating thesis, in response to my committee's request for a thesis.

  1. Does the technical design of the constellation of interfaces of a proximate bible shape and support the values articulated in the curation and conversation within the space? (e.g. Does an embedded comment engine or a search function that combines post and comments support the values of the space?). This criteria takes seriously the entanglement of form and content, medium and message. New media approaches have a tendency to over emphasize form and print projects can take form for granted and focus exclusively on content.
  2. Is the design of the space responsive to user needs and audience feedback? (e.g. building translation from postachio to quip for committee and adding zoomability and an email subscription option to the theme.)
  3. Do the smaller bits of writing and interaction provide useful surfaces for engagement and contact with the conversations of the space (increased surface area)? Is there an appropriate balance between connective tissue and fragments? (e.g. does the selection of a given artifact, such as a particular video clip, encourage more engagement or lead to unproductive confusion?)
  4. Do the curation and annotation of artifacts demonstrate careful attention to each artifact including suitable and substantial engagement with the theoretical conversation partners introduced? (e.g. I need more work to demonstrate the value of Benjamin’s Arcades Project as a model for the value fragments and artifact annotation. I need to give more sustained attention to the relationship between revealing in Heidegger and anarchy in Levinas.)
  5. Does the space encourage interaction that extends the conversation toward greater attention to the nuance of an artifact and the ideas it generates through struggling with language, asking new questions, and sharing related artifacts?
  6. Do the sustained processes of design, curation, annotation, and conversation offer suggestions for ways in which bible might be performed in a media culture not dominated by print? Does the ongoing and collaborative construction of a space like a proximate bible encourage a set of dispositions that can challenge the perceived tendencies of internet media toward shallowness and distraction?
  7. Is the writing throughout the space of high quality, combining both accessibility and artistry? Are the exchanges between community members respectful and constructive?

Many of these criteria are specific to my particular project and these suggestions for evaluation principles are only a place to begin. Could this list be generalized in ways to be useful for others? Perhaps there are other criteria that would be fitting for a project like this or ways to clarify the values and mechanisms of these articulated principles? With a set of agreed upon evaluation metrics, could this notion of a sustained and careful attention to the construction of a space function as a thesis? Could these criteria for evaluation offer us a place to begin imagining structures that would support different kinds of dissertations, with various modes of scholarship to offer the academy? Could this list be augmented, translated, and adjusted to fit the needs of several different promises between student and committee? Are others using criteria for evaluation that have proven useful for negotiating dissertation projects that do not conform to the typical processes of print production? Could criteria like these be used to evaluate even print dissertations, since print is simply another means of constructing space?