Dissertations, Theses, and Other Pedagogical Monstrosities: a #digped Discussion

The dissertation is a curious beast. It has eyeballed me for years. Even now, having tucked it safely in a drawer since 2010, I still catch it looking at me. The word alone, “dissertation,” evokes a certain awe — a kind of fear coupled with an almost giddy excitement. When I was writing mine, I would wake in the middle of the night with my heart racing, thoughts of the thing scuttling about my brain. There’s nothing like scrambling out of bed to write at 3:30 in the morning as though your life depends on it.

I’ve wondered frequently about the value of the dissertation — about the various expectations of the form — about the compromises I made — about what the writing of one awoke in me. Recently, as I’ve begun to turn the raw matter of my dissertation into articles and book chapters, I’ve realized how little the dissertation actually prepared me for the work I’d ultimately do. And as I’ve found myself serving as a mentor for other dissertators, I’ve wondered increasingly about its pedagogical value. For me, the dissertation is a container that seems most useful and pedagogical at its breaking point. At its worst, a dissertation is a mere exercise, designed to prove the merits of a student to a committee. The ideal response to a dissertation, though, instead of “this meets expectation,” might be “what am I even looking at?” At its best, then, a dissertation is a genuine surprise, an encounter with something a committee couldn’t anticipate, which is why I find recent experiments with the form, like Nick Sousanis’s comic dissertation, so compelling.

Since its inception, Hybrid Pedagogy has investigated new-form scholarship, insistently exploring how academic work, both in teaching and research, is changing in the digital age. In “A Scholarship of Generosity: New-form Publishing and Hybrid Pedagogy,” I write that one of the goals of Hybrid Pedagogy is to “push on the boundaries of what, when, and how academic work gets published.” Our discussions, then, have been less about the nuances of specific disciplinary content and more about critically examining the containers in which that content lives. When we think about academic work, including the dissertation, we think about it pedagogically, not as a mere delivery device but as the start to a conversation. Increasingly, our scholarship and our pedagogies are co-intentional, constructed collaboratively by students, teachers, and peers.

On October 10, Cathy N. Davidson will host a hybrid conversation about remixing the dissertation. A panel discussion will be livestreamed from CUNY, and will feature Jade E. Davis, Dwayne Dixon, Gregory T. Donovan, Amanda Licastro, and Nick Sousanis. There will be a Twitter backchannel at #remixthediss, and there is a burgeoning crowd-sourced Google Doc with examples of non-traditional dissertations. We’ve rescheduled our monthly #digped chat to create a conversation that coincides with this event. We hope in this conversation to bring together educators and students, dissertators and dissertation mentors, into a rowdy discussion of the form.

Our #digped chat, beginning at 3:00pm EST on October 10, will serve as the opening act to the livestream of the #remixthediss event, which will begin immediately after. The goal: to turn the dissertation (and scholarship more broadly) on its head — to discover and uncover what is and is not pedagogical in the form — to imagine and inspire new shapes for academic work.

Here are a few questions to think about in advance of the chat:

  1. How is the dissertation pedagogical? What are the intrinsic and instrumental values of the form?

  2. What shapes can (or should) a dissertation take? What institutional structures must change in order to make way for a proliferation of unique forms? How can we collectively manage anxieties about the dissertation that often get in the way of the kind of experimentation that pedagogy demands?

  3. How is technology changing the shape of dissertations? Increasingly, dissertations are published openly on the web (sometimes even during their completion). Are all dissertations, to some extent, digital? Or is the digital dissertation its own unique form?

  4. What intersections do we see between PhD dissertations, creative MFA theses, and the products of non-traditional students? When and how do graduate students enter the scholarly conversation in their disciplines?

  5. How can we make way for more collaborative dissertations, especially in fields where dissertation-writing is traditionally a very isolated endeavor? What are the benefits of making this work increasingly collaborative?

Enter the fray on Twitter under #digped on Friday, October 10 at 3:00pm ET. Check out worldtimebuddy.com to see when to join us in your time zone. If you have suggestions for future topics, tweet them to @adamheid or @hybridped. And kick the discussion off (or continue it after the chat) in the comments below.

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