Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Writing the Doctoral Dissertation

At the beginning of any dissertation journey, both the journey and its destination seem hazy and amorphous. As the years of coursework rolled by, I had felt as if the diss was a huge, distant thing on the horizon that was painfully, slowly coming into view. It started to take a shape, and it became more and more real as I could see it looming there. But when I found myself close up, at the end of coursework, at the top of the field exam climb, I realized it wasn't a thing at the top of that mountain. I looked out across another chasm instead, with no clearer image of what the diss really was than before all my hard work.

Enough of that! I won't deny that this poetic sort of thinking about dissertating can be helpful, and is my usual mode as an English major. But especially as a disorganized English major, and as anyone in any discipline who has ever had trouble seeing the clear shape and scope of a project, I needed help thinking practically. I needed help making a plan. There are so many good books on the market, but many of them are titled in metaphorical language, some inspiring, some terrifying: Survival Guide! One of the books in our office has a cover image of a stormy sea with a flimsy lifesaver floating on it.  No thanks.  My dissertation is not the Titanic.

In Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach, the dissertation is not characterized as a "quest" or a "trial by fire" or anything other than what it is. It's a writing project! The book turns the diss into a procedure, like any other.  A procedure with linear steps (some cyclical ones too), with deadlines, and with clear goals. Gone are the musings about "demystifying" the "journey" or some other useless crap that a person in the throes of drafting could have thought of themselves.  If what you need is a clear, disinterested voice, untinged by commiseration or by condescension, to say to you "DO EXACTLY THIS"... then this is the book you should read.

Also, this book is fairly new, like of-this-decade new.  Its authors know about current trends in scholarship in various fields, alternative sorts of dissertations, and contemporary expectations for research in an age of globally accessible information and project collaborations.

In my youth I was always the straight-through writer, never an outliner. In grad school I began to see the purpose of having a structure and some goal-points in mind before beginning a project. But I never put that to use beyond the twenty or so pages required for my term papers.  Assorted piles of papers with color coded post-it notes were enough semi-organization to get me through. But now, as I face this new ~200 page project (journey, chasm, abyss, whatever you want to call it), this book has me obsessed with the checklist, the calendar, the breakdown, and even the "budget" of the dissertation.  In a very good way.

Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach (by Gordon B. Davis, Clyde A. Parker, and Detmar W. StraubBarron's, 2012) is available online and in the NIU bookstore.  Here is a summary from one of the contributors:

At $12.99 it will be one of your best grad school investments (or maybe a close second to the coffee pot).

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Nontraditional Dissertation and You

Opening panels of Nick Sousanis's dissertation.

By tradition, the dissertation is a text-centered project rooted in conventions established long, long ago during the early days of print. Perhaps you agree it's high time to overturn the old ways. Perhaps you're ready to see academia break free from the shackles of tradition and embrace dissertations that depart from the monograph or that combine text with images and other media.        

The Nontraditional Dissertation

Actually, contemporary dissertators have already started clearing such nontraditional paths, and coverage of these developments makes for some interesting reading. In an entry last June, our blog touched on stories of pioneers of various sorts who have approached the dissertation in novel ways; the first story is amusing but also alarming (detailing how politicians and other officials in Russia have been buying dissertations on the black market!), whereas the second is intriguing and rather inspiring (documenting dissertations that take the form of interactive digital texts or even comic books). The advent of the comic-book dissertation was further detailed (with plenty of eye-catching graphics) in this 2014 article by Sydni Dunn at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Dunn devotes much of her piece to Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, a dissertation in comic form that Sousanis produced at Columbia University and subsequently turned into a book, published in 2015 by Harvard University Press. Sousanis is now a professor at San Francisco State; you can read more about his work on comics as educational tools on his detailed website. Finally, you can find an abundance of relevant articles and media clips on the website of the #Alt-Academy, a place for humanities scholars to share their experiences at producing unorthodox dissertations and embarking on nontraditional academic careers.

Where Do You Fit In? 

Regardless of your field, you may wish to pursue a nontraditional dissertation. When I initially heard that term, the first thing that came to my mind was some kind of creative piece that involves more than just written text, something like Sousanis’s comic-book dissertation or a performance-based project one might produce in fields such as dance, theater, or film. But there is certainly room for nontraditional approaches in other fields such as education, engineering, or health and human sciences. In fields like these, research and post-degree goals may fit in nicely with a project comprised of stand-alone articles, reports, or digital materials (instead of a unified set of dissertation chapters).

If you're contemplating a nontraditional route for your dissertation (or thesis), here are three main points to consider as you make your plans.

1. Acceptability. How enthusiastically will your committee members accept the idea? You obviously need to get approval from your director and other readers as you prepare your project's proposal. At this stage, you'll most certainly need to inform them of any plans you may have for out-of-the ordinary methods or innovative presentations of results.

2. Marketability. How will a nontraditional project enhance your short-term and long-range career prospects? 

3. Flexibility. How willing and able are you to make changes to your nontraditional document, your methods of displaying it, or to the way it mixes textual innovations with conventional formatting requirements? Note that certain features in complex multimodal files may not display effectively on platforms like ProQuest (or the file may exceed the size limit).   

And, by the way, if you're already working on a nontraditional project (or if you've completed one), we'd be thrilled if you told us a little about your experiences in the comments section below!

Nontraditional in Form: Your ETD 

Of course, compared to a traditional dissertation or thesis from the distant or even more recent past, the document you eventually complete will be inherently nontraditional: no matter how conventional or non-digital it is in execution (whether you develop it from handwritten drafts, lab experiments, fieldwork, studio sessions, or performances), you must convert the report of your defended piece (conventional, innovative, or somewhere in between) into a PDF file that can be read and distributed electronically. Remember that we provide step-by-step guidelines for submitting your file as an electronic thesis/dissertation (ETD) on our webpage. Good luck with all your work as you progress to that final stage!