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!

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