Friday, August 26, 2016

The History of the Dissertation in Academia

Since I am in the beginning stages of writing a dissertation, I began to wonder... WHY???  And I'm sure you all wonder this at some point.  I looked into the history of the dissertation and didn't find much of interest, until I came upon an old, stale article (does anybody remember 1998?) by Gary Olson and Julie Drew.  It's an interesting read, despite its staleness -- because of its mission.  The authors' need to go into the history of the dissertation is driven by their urge to protect the scholarly and professional status of the dissertation -- to keep universities and faculty alike from downgrading these documents, which are no longer necessarily published or even publishable, to grey literature, second-rate student exercises in a discipline. If that's all it is, then why do it, right?  Academia is so bad we might as well all go ABD!

The History

But wait -- we are working in an enterprise with a short but significant life.  Here is a brief look:

The dissertation is a relatively new rite of passage in the history of academia. When medieval and Renaissance scholars took academic titles, they didn't dissertate to get there. And when some of the most highly educated scholars and writers of the Early Modern Period finished their schooling, they didn't take the title "Doctor". (Unless maybe they were a Doctor of Physick and liked attaching leeches to people!)

The dissertation has its origins in 18th and 19th century Europe, particularly in Germany. Herr Doktors were the first scholars to have to not only write but publish a dissertation in order to have their degree conferred. This guaranteed that the junior scholars, in whom the senior scholars had invested so much time, would produce new knowledge, a contribution. The first American University to grant PhD's followed this format, and by 1861 our own Yale had produced the first three American Doctors of Philosophy, who had all published short but sweet dissertations (Olson 57). (One was six pages long!)

James Morris Whiton,
first American Ph.D.
It was this migration of the dissertation to America, combined with what one of my professors calls "the reading machine" (i.e. capitalism-fueled publishing and the consumption of such), that led to the establishment of the university press (Olson 58).  We had to find a way to print all those books!

Then, with PhDs increasing every year, it eventually became impractical to publish the "diss," (that's what we call it in the biz...), and the requirement to publish fell off by the 1930s (Olson 58).  Since then, we have moved to microfilm, a single bound copy in the library, and eventually, all electronic dissertations that have probably never been printed on paper in their final form. (Unless the proud new Doctor pays about fifty bucks to get a vanity-bound personal copy).  So, what was once a scholar's first real book, a first real contribution to the field, became more like a hoop to jump through.  A big, flaming hoop.

What do we do?

So how do we reclaim our diss? How do we make the diss a scholarly foray into a real academic conversation, rather than a closed-course driving test? Is it about attitude?  Maybe it's about our advisors and their attitude toward the project (Olson suggests as much). Maybe the answer is to think of the diss as something in between a first solo flight and a final flight simulation test. But the difference between those things is huge. The difference between those things can cost us a job. How do we describe our flying to a potential employer, if we don't even believe that we've ever really left the ground?

Well, I don't really know yet. I'll tell you when I figure it out. But no matter how I feel about the result, you can bet I'm going to order one of those fifty dollar cloth-bound copies for my tiny office.

Work Cited

Olson, Gary A., and Julie Drew. "(Re) Reeinvisioning Dissertation in English Studies." College English, 61.1 (1998): 56-66.


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  5. Nice share i always like to write a dissertation paper. but i never thought about reading the history nor did i ever knew that is has such an extensive history thanks for sharing..

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