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Shaping the Digital Dissertation: Knowledge Production in the Arts and Humanities

Shaping the Digital Dissertation: Knowledge Production in the Arts and Humanities Virginia Kuhn and Anke Finger (eds)


This volume is a timely intervention that not only helps demystify the idea of a digital dissertation for students and their advisors, but will be broadly applicable to the work of librarians, administrators, and anyone else concerned with the future of graduate study in the humanities and digital scholarly publishing.
Roxanne Shirazi, The City University of New York

Digital dissertations have been a part of academic research for years now, yet there are still many questions surrounding their processes. Are interactive dissertations significantly different from their paper-based counterparts? What are the effects of digital projects on doctoral education? How does one choose and defend a digital dissertation? This book explores the wider implications of digital scholarship across institutional, geographic, and disciplinary divides.

The volume is arranged in two sections: the first, written by senior scholars, addresses conceptual concerns regarding the direction and assessment of digital dissertations in the broader context of doctoral education. The second section consists of case studies by PhD students whose research resulted in a natively digital dissertation that they have successfully defended. These early-career researchers have been selected to represent a range of disciplines and institutions.

Despite the profound effect of incorporated digital tools on dissertations, the literature concerning them is limited. This volume aims to provide a fresh, up-to-date view on the digital dissertation, considering the newest technological advances. It is especially relevant in the European context where digital dissertations, mostly in arts-based research, are more popular.

Shaping the Digital Dissertation aims to provide insights, precedents and best practices to graduate students, doctoral advisors, institutional agents, and dissertation committees. As digital dissertations have a potential impact on the state of research as a whole, this edited collection will be a useful resource for the wider academic community and anyone interested in the future of doctoral studies.



Shaping the Digital Dissertation: Knowledge Production in the Arts and Humanities
Virginia Kuhn and Anke Finger (eds) | Forthcoming in 2021
ISBN Paperback: 9781800640986
ISBN Hardback: 9781800640993
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800641006
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781800641013
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781800641020
ISBN Digital ebook (XML): 9781800641037
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0239
BIC subject codes: JNT (Teaching skills and techniques), H (humanities),JNV (Educational equipment and technology), CAL (computer-aided learning), U (Computing and information technology); BISAC: EDU037000 (EDUCATION / Research), TEC000000 (TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING / General).


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Dr. Nicky Agate is the Snyder-Granader Assistant University Librarian for Research Data & Digital Scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-PI on the HuMetricsHSS initiative, which promotes a values-based, process-oriented approach to evaluative decision making in the academy. She serves on the steering committee of the Force Scholarly Communication Institute and the editorial board of the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication.

Cécile Armand is currently a Postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, Department of History and Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) in the Mellon Foundation/DHAsia program. She completed her PhD in History at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon (ENS Lyon, France) in June 2017. Her dissertation dealt with a spatial history of advertising in modern Shanghai (1905-49). She also led an interdisciplinary junior research lab devoted to digital humanities at ENS Lyon.

Cheryl E. Ball directs the Digital Publishing Collaborative and the Vega publishing project at Wayne State University. She is executive director for the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, serves as the Editor-in-Chief for the Library Publishing Curriculum, and is editor of Kairos, the longest continuously running scholarly multimedia journal in the world. See https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://ceball.com__;!!LIr3w8kk_Xxm!_jhG5UEjvsIWFIH2_S693nPn5t1JozH86C-baDZxeijqdn-7gMCL4vceTaxtqw$ for her full CV.

Allison C. Belan is the Director for Strategic Innovation at Duke University Press. Allison leads critical strategic initiatives and drives the development and execution of the organization's strategic plan. She manages the Press's IT, business systems and digital content teams. Prior to assuming this role, Allison worked at Duke University Press in a variety of roles, including Journal Production Manager and Director for Digital Publishing.

Sarah-Mai Dang is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Media Studies at Philipps University of Marburg, Germany. Previously, she worked at the Department for Media Studies of Bayreuth University, at the Collaborative Research Center ‘Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits’, and the Department for Film Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research and teaching focus on media practices in scholarship, historiography, feminist theory, audiovisual aesthetics, film history, film genres and spectatorship.

Anke Finger is Professor of German and Media Studies and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Connecticut. She has published widely in Modernism, Media Studies, and Intercultural Communication. She is the co-founder and co-editor (2005-2015) of the multilingual, peer reviewed, open access journal Flusser Studies. From 2016 to 2019 Anke Finger served as the inaugural director of the Digital Humanities and Media Studies Initiative at the Humanities Institute; she also co-founded the German Studies Association’s Network on Digital Humanities and served as co-director from 2017-19. She founded the NEHC-DH network, affiliated with the New England Humanities Consortium; and she co-founded the CTDH network.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University. Prior to assuming this role in 2017, she served as Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association, where she was Managing Editor of PMLA and other MLA publications, as well as overseeing the development of the MLA Handbook. She is project director of Humanities Commons, and co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons. She currently serves as the chair of the board of directors of the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Erin Rose Glass is a researcher and consultant whose works focuses on education and ethics in digital environments. She is co-founder of the online learning community Ethical EdTech, co-founder of Social Paper, a networked platform for student writing and feedback, and founder of KNIT, a non-commercial digital commons for higher education in San Diego. She currently works as a Senior Developer Educator at Digital Ocean. 

Kathie Gossett received her PhD from the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. She is currently a member of the faculty in the University Writing Program and an affiliate member of the Digital Humanities Institute at the University of California, Davis. Kathie has published in journals such as Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, Computers and Composition Online and MediaCommons. She has also contributed multiple book chapters to edited collections, and has led several digital development projects. Before returning to graduate school, she worked in the information technology sector as a project manager, systems designer, user experience specialist, web designer/architect and technical communicator.

Virginia Kuhn is Professor of Cinema and Associate Director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy in the Division of Media Arts + Practice at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.  In 2005, she successfully defended one of the first born-digital dissertations in the United States, challenging archiving and copyright conventions. Kuhn recently published (with Vicki Callahan) an anthology titled Future Texts: Subversive Performance and Feminist Bodies (Parlor Press, 2016) and has edited three peer-reviewed digital anthologies:  ‘The Video Essay: An Emergent Taxonomy of Cinematic Writing’, (The Cine-Files, 2017) with Vicki Callahan; MoMLA: From Panel to Gallery (Kairos, 2013) with Victor Vitanza; and From Gallery to Webtext: A Multimodal Anthology (Kairos, 2008) with Victor Vitanza.

Anthony Masure is a teaching fellow in applied arts and a graduate of the École Nationale Superieure (ENS) of Paris-Saclay, where he studied design. He is an Associate Professor of Design at the University Toulouse – Jean Jaurès (France). He cofounded the research journals Réel-Virtuel and Back Office. He defended his PhD thesis about the design of programs at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. His book Design and Digital Humanities was published in 2017 by the Éditions B42 (Paris). His website is http://www.anthonymasure.com 

Monica McCormick is Associate University Librarian for Publishing, Preservation, Research and Digital Access at the University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press, where she leads IT, Digital Scholarship & Publishing, Digital Collections & Preservation, and the University of Delaware Press. The first half of her career was in university press publishing, mostly as acquiring editor for history and ethnic studies at the University of California Press. She received her MSLS at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Joshua Neds-Fox is Coordinator for Digital Publishing at Wayne State University Libraries. He helps guide the development and direction of the Libraries’ digital collections infrastructure and institutional repository, and collaborates with Wayne State UP to house their online journals. He co-edited the Library Publishing Coalition's Ethical Framework for Library Publishing, and serves on the Editorial Board of the Library Publishing Curriculum.

Thomas Oates is an Associate Professor of American Studies with a joint appointment with the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. His interdisciplinary scholarship has appeared in journals spanning communication, sport studies and cultural studies. He is the author of Football and Manliness and the co-editor of The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives, and Playing to Win: Sports, Video Games, and the Culture of Play.

Lena Redman (aka Elena Petrov) completed her PhD at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. During her doctoral study, she developed the methodology of multimodal cinematic bricolage as an approach for knowledge construction. Redman generated a pedagogical model of Ripples, which integrates the agentic values of the individual with the concept of privatized tools of knowing. She is the author of Knowing with New Media: A Multimodal Approach For Learning. Detailed information for the Ripples pedagogy can be found at http://www.ripplespedagogy.com 

Liza Potts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University where she is the Director of WIDE Research and the Co-Founder of the Experience Architecture program. Her research interests include networked participatory culture, social user experience, and digital rhetoric. She has published over sixty-five works of scholarship, including three books on participation and user experience. Her professional experience includes working for startups, Microsoft and design consultancies as a director, user experience architect, content strategist, usability specialist, information architect and program manager.

Celeste Sharpe is faculty in the History and Political Science department at Normandale Community College. She earned her PhD in History from George Mason University in Fall 2016 and successfully defended the department's first born-digital dissertation. Previously, she was Interim Director for Academic Technology at Carleton College, a Penn Predoctoral Fellow for Excellence Through Diversity at the University of Pennsylvania. Additionally, she worked at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media on a number of history education and public history projects.

Lisa Tagliaferri is an interdisciplinary scholar in literature and the computer sciences. Currently, she is the Kress Digital Humanities Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. Previously, she was a postdoctoral researcher at MIT in the Digital Humanities program. Her widely downloaded programming book, How to Code in Python, has been adopted in classrooms as an open educational resource. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Renaissance Studies from the City University of New York and an MSc in Computer Science from the University of London.

Katherine Walden is an Assistant Teaching Professor of American Studies at University of Notre Dame She is finishing a PhD in American Studies-Sport Studies at the University of Iowa, where she also earned an MA in American Studies-Sport Studies and an MA in Library and Information Science, with a Certificate in Public Digital Humanities. Katherine has previously worked at the Iowa Women’s Archives, Library of Congress, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Christopher Williams is a wayfarer on the body-mind continuum. His medium is music. He holds a BA from the University of California San Diego (Charles Curtis, Chaya Czernowin and Bertram Turetzky); and a PhD from the University of Leiden (Marcel Cobussen and Richard Barrett). His native digital dissertation Tactile Paths: on and through Notation for Improvisers is at www.tactilepaths.net. Williams is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Music and the Performing Arts Graz, Doctoral School for Artistic Research.

Part 1: Issues in Digital Scholarship and Doctoral Theses

1. Dissertating in Public (Kathleen Fitzpatrick)

Kathleen Fitzpatrick analyses the sudden isolation graduate students find themselves in during the dissertation process. In the humanities, she observes, graduate students are regularly habituated into an anxiety of intellectual independence whereby sharing ideas, collaboration and publishing work in progress is to be considered suspect and potentially diminishing scholarly value. Digital scholarship, she argues, can eliminate or at least sideline such anxieties (and their untimeliness) by creating a participating public, testing ideas, interesting possible publishers early and creating a community of scholarship that, together with the support of PhD-granting institutions, endorses ‘new kinds of open work’.

2. Publication Models and Open Access (Cheryl Ball)

Cheryl Ball emphasizes the need for open work in the form of open access facilitation. Adding a historical view towards digital scholarship formats and highlighting the library’s role in archival practices, she suggests that digital dissertations play a significant role in embodying the possibility of sharing scholarship publicly and that librarians are pivotal collaborators for any digital scholarship endeavor. Significantly, Ball also emphasizes the need for openness when evaluating digital dissertation forms: why not approach digital work ‘on its own terms’ in order to allow for ‘radical scholarship’?

3. The Digital Monograph? Key Issues in Evaluation (Virginia Kuhn)

Since defending her own digital dissertation in 2005, Virginia Kuhn has honed a loosely established rubric, refined in collaboration with a group of students, with which to assess digital theses. Three areas, ‘Conceptual Core, Research Component, Form + Content’, each feature three additional foci that leave ample room for epistemological play and space beyond a traditionally alphabetized, linear text-only dissertation. For example, digital scholarship need not be ‘thesis-driven prose’, it can establish a ‘controlling idea’ presented in media other than text. Any kind of rubric or assessment measure, Kuhn warns, also requires a rethinking of review formats, however: annotation and feedback, too, will necessitate multimodal features such that radical scholarship and deep collaboration, echoing Ball’s and Fitzpatrick’s terms, become part of evaluative considerations, and feedback formats allow for non-linear, creative interruptions.

4. #DigiDiss: A Project Exploring Digital Dissertation Policies, Practices, and Archiving (Kathie Gossett and Liza Potts)

Outlining the trials and tribulations of archiving born-digital dissertations, Kathie Gossett and Liza Potts detail a study they have conducted over more than a decade, the ultimate goal being the formation of a persistent, searchable database of these projects. The results of a National Endowment for the Humanities funded workshop conducted with stakeholders from several academic institutions, Gossett and Potts note their current focus as they partner with the Humanities Commons framework and also work on establishing a network of like-minded scholars for support when working in non-traditional formats.

5. The Gutenberg Galaxy Will Be Pixelated or How to Think of Digital Scholarship as the Present (Anke Finger)

Anke Finger presents an incisive argument about the shifting nature of the book as both a ‘medium and artifact’, and one which offers exciting possibilities with the affordances of the digital. However, academic institutions, Finger notes, have not kept pace with these new forms and this is due, in large part, to a lack of evaluative measures and experience in applying them, making it risky at best to embark upon a large-scale digital project. Using her experience as a PhD advisor and founding director of the Digital Humanities and Media Studies initiative at the University of Connecticut, Finger argues for support for digital literacy in humanities-based graduate education. Specifically, students need ‘access to scholarly inquiry and research innovation beyond print’, and this should come early in graduate education in order to provide the type of scaffolding needed if universities are seriously committed to digital scholarship.

6. FICUS? Findable, Impactful, Citable, Usable, Sustainable (FICUS): A Heuristic for Digital Publishing (Nicky Agate, Cheryl Ball, Allison Belan, Monica McCormick and Joshua Neds-Fox)

This is a collaboratively authored chapter by digital librarians, publishers and archivists, who have established a heuristic dubbed FICUS which stands for findable, impactful, citable, usable and sustainable. These will be widely applicable across disciplines, formats and topics.

Part 2: Shaping the Digital Dissertation in Action

7. Navigating Institutions and Fully Embracing the Interdisciplinary Humanities: American Studies and the Digital Dissertation (Katherine Walden and Thomas Oates)

Katherine Walden and her advisor, Thomas Oates, describe the questions they contended with and the steps taken to create and defend Walden’s interdisciplinary digital thesis project in the field of American Studies. While there are signs of the field’s recent support for and of digital scholarship, they note, many questions remain. And since many of the obstacles to Walden’s dissertation were logistical and administrative in nature, her dissertation became a springboard to a larger conversation among faculty at the University of Iowa. Walden and Oates argue for the power of a precedent, and their chapter joins the expanding catalogue of models, offering both conceptual and instrumental advice to future doctoral students as well as their advisors.

8. MADSpace: A Janus-faced Digital Companion to a PhD Dissertation in Chinese History (Cécile Armand)

Cécile Armand extends the call for rethinking the nature of the dissertation and academic argument in general. In 'MADSpace: A Janus-faced Digital Companion to a PhD Dissertation in Chinese History', Armand describes a digital database she created as a companion to her dissertation in Chinese history. This companion allowed her to make use of primary source materials that are not typically considered in scholarly work; these include newspaper advertisements as well as ‘professional handbooks, business materials, municipal archives (including correspondence, regulations and technical sketches), street photographs, and to a lesser extent, original maps and videos’. Although Armand’s first concern was the creation of a permanent home for these materials, this database actually impacted the written portion of her dissertation project since it allowed her a spatial view of her subject, for instance, which opened up new insights.

9. Publish Less, Communicate More! Reflecting the Potentials and Challenges of a Hybrid Project (Sarah-Mai Dang)

Sarah-Mai Dang, working from within the context of German academic parameters, questions a publication process that relies on economic structures often beyond the reach of the graduate and maintaining the ‘symbolic capital of the book’. Instead, she chose to publish her research in four different formats, trying to undo a staid and costly convention that not only prevented affordable (for both author and reader) public dissemination, but also a speedy delivery of scholarship and access to an international audience. Simultaneously, as a media studies scholar, she turned this process into a research project, taking stock of data to measure impact.

10. #SocialDiss: Transforming the Dissertation into Networked Knowledge Production (Erin Rose Glass)

The desire for and influence of a larger audience for academic work is the focus of Erin Rose Glass as she describes the background and process of #SocialDiss, a project in which she posted drafts of her dissertation to a variety of online platforms for public review. Gauging the reviews and the many types of public and community engagement produced, Glass argues that academic writing, especially at the student level, would benefit from digital infrastructure, practices, and incentives that emphasize collaboration and community building.

11. Highly Available Dissertations: Open Sourcing Humanities Scholarship (Lisa Tagliaferri)

Lisa Tagliaferri reinforces the need for academic work to reach a wider audience using her own dissertation as a case study.  In ‘Highly Available Dissertations: Open Sourcing Humanities Scholarship’, not only does Tagliaferri advocate for open source, hers was also the first chapter offered as a preprint to this collection, via MIT’s database. Her chapter describes open source, open access, and Creative Commons before offering suggestions for stakeholders to consider when navigating various levels of access.

12. Digital Thesis as a Website: SoftPhD.com, from Graphic Design to Online Tools (Anthony Masure)

Anthony Masure’s approach deepens the notion of his dissertation work’s readability, working from inside France’s academic system. Noting the technical hurdles of constantly updating a webpage, for example, he designs his PhD-thesis website by cleaning HTML code and without using a CMS, thus aiming for a ‘true’ version of his dissertation that, in fact, supersedes the version he submitted to obtain his degree. Ultimately, Masure leads us back to Tim Berners-Lee by advocating for sharing knowledge without borders and critically engaging with the potentially limiting affordances of specific media prescribed for knowledge production.

13. Writing with Images, Sounds, and Movements (Lena Redman)

Dismissing the epistemological confines of traditional thesis composition software such as MS Word, Lena Redman (aka Elena Petrov) devises her own theory of multimodal creativity by analyzing what she calls ‘deep remixability’ and its interdependence with ‘cinematic bricolage’ as a research methodology. Her thesis, composed with InDesign and the Adobe Cloud, employs mnemonic material and autobiographical information to enhance what Redman calls feedback loops. These loops deepen the researcher’s individualization of knowledge as her intellectual work merges with memory-work to allow for unique meaning-making processes and what Søren Brier has called ‘cybernetics of human knowing.’

14. Precarity and Promise: Negotiating Research Ethics and Copyright in a History Dissertation (Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe)

If the digitally networked world provides the ability to author with images as well as a more open form of academic scholarship, it also raises concomitant ethical considerations around areas such as privacy and copyright. Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe confronted these issues in her own dissertation project completed in a department of History in the United States. Sharpe’s research included extensive archival research of sensitive materials in her exploration of visual culture and disability. Given the topic, Sharpe found herself weighing the need for visual evidence with the ethics of exposing images culled from the March of Dimes.

15. Lessons from the Sandbox: Linking Readership, Representation, and Reflection in Tactile Paths (Christopher A. Williams)

Christopher A. Williams explores the deeper layers of web design to discover the communicative potential of ‘sticky web galleries’ for the multimodal and broad public dissemination of improvisation in music. He describes in great detail the collaborative process necessary to design his thesis, complete with paths and multimedia files that align with musical knowledge, beyond linear text. As a team, he and his collaborator arrive at a site that ‘as a whole functions as a sort of meta-score for improvisers’. At the same time, the thesis becomes not only a milestone within a research path, it also turns into a resource for practitioners outside of the usually closed publication loop as a ‘living meta-work.’