The Early Days of the Digital Dissertation

This is a guest post by Virginia Kuhn, associate director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy in the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. Her article, “Embrace and Ambivalence,” appears in the newest issue of Academe.

Digital dissertations are sometimes said to be commonplace; however such talk usually refers to an artifact that is digital but is not dependent on being digital. In other words, it could also have been published on paper without losing anything in the translation.  My research uncovered only one previous dissertation that was media-rich and born-digital: Christine Boese’s The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Xenaverse which she defended at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 1998. Unsurprisingly, Chris earned her doctorate in rhetoric, as I did. Also unsurprisingly, her rationale for this approach was quite similar: for a project to be justifiably digital, it must achieve goals that could not be realized otherwise.

Chris created and maintains her dissertation online. Likewise, using Chris and my projects as precedents, Bulbul Tiwari created a digital dissertation at the University of Chicago (in East Asian studies), which she has since revised during a fellowship at Stanford and made publicly available.

My dissertation, by contrast, is not Internet-based, unlike my 1999 hypertextual Master’s thesis which focused on words alone, cordoning off other semiotic registers.  I chose not to create my doctoral dissertation in HTML for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the relative control over the project’s appearance and functionality. For example, the type of “thickness” I was after was nearly impossible to achieve with any type of consistency among varying browsers (see figures 1, 2, and 3).  Online platforms that allow nuance and control over all media types as well as architectural elements such as pop-ups are becoming more numerous, though all have their own potentials and limitations. In 2004 and 2005 when I was working, they were far more limited, particularly with regard to images and video.  Indeed, YouTube was just emerging, as were the many social networking sites which today dot the media landscape.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Aside from these three—Chris Boese’s, mine, and Bulbul Tiwari’s—I know of no other dissertations that meet this criteria (born digital and media-rich), even as many have created a portion of their project digitally. Or, in an extreme case, Justin Hodgson was forced to create two separate versions of his dissertation (as described in the opening of the more traditional one). Digital scholars often need to work harder and do more in order to prove our worth, but I guess this is the trade-off for pursuing work about which we are passionate.

Still, it is wonderful to see advances such as the recently established working group devoted to problematizing the issues surrounding digital dissertations for this type of cross-institutional advocacy will be crucial to any advances in this area if the experiences of myself and my colleagues are any indication. For while we need precedents, no real change will occur without collective action.

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