Dissertation Futures: New Forms for New Times?

Written by
Deborah Philip and Emily Tobey

Jan 11, 2021

Jan 11, 2021 • by Deborah Philip and Emily Tobey

The protomonograph dissertation, the conventional format by which PhD candidates in the humanities submit their research in pursuit of their degree, is being reimagined in new and exciting ways. Faced with unprecedented changes inside and outside the academy, doctoral students are experimenting with dissertations that take the form of websites, films, YouTube videos, podcasts, and blogs. They and their advisers recognize the need to reconsider the purpose of the PhD and to make the dissertation more responsive to the needs of twenty-first-century learning and careers. The Sage Handbook for Digital Dissertations and Theses (2012) and Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities (2015) are two of many interventions that explore a reimagined doctoral education and dissertation process that embraces new forms for new times. 

If you are a graduate student questioning the boundaries and assumptions of the conventional dissertation, here are some questions to consider, along with examples of successfully produced and submitted multimodal dissertations. 

1.    Does the Conventional Mode of Protomonograph Dissertation Help Represent Your Research Ideas?

If you are reading this blog post, the most obvious answer may be a resounding no, but even if you are simply toying with the idea of presenting your research in an unconventional format, this is the first question to consider. The traditional dissertation, a bound document with a strict word count, is not a mode that adequately represents every student’s research concerns. For example, Rebecca Zak, cofounder of ArtResin, produced a PhD dissertation using a five-part series of YouTube videos and a blog, because she thought it best communicated her commitment to teaching art in public school using new technologies. In other words, her scholarship was better represented and more widely accessible through new and alternative modes of communication. 

2.    Can You Get Support from Your Adviser and Dissertation Committee? 

Faculty and collegial support are integral when stepping into the world of multimodal dissertations. Consider how you will negotiate and secure that support. Nick Sousanis, author of the graphic novel Unflattening (2015), submitted his doctoral dissertation in comic form to Teachers College in 2014. He received significant support from faculty members who, although not well versed in comics, were receptive to his work and were able to draw on their academic experience to support a thesis that in content and form questioned how humans construct knowledge. If you are just beginning your multimodal dissertation process, consider implementing the following strategies to ensure the support of faculty members and advisers: 

    Discuss the best dissertation format (or formats) for the purpose and results of your research. This will help you assess how comfortable and open your potential committee is to a nontraditional dissertation.

●    Ask questions about how alternative practices and evaluation criteria will ensure the rigor and quality of your multimodal dissertation. Most scholars are only familiar with evaluating written dissertations, and it is here that you can have an open and honest conversation about their willingness to evaluate podcasts, videos, or comic strips. 

●    Explore the possibility of including a committee member from outside the university who is trained in one or two of the modes you plan to use to produce your dissertation. This strengthens your project by giving you access to the necessary expertise that may be unavailable within the academy. 

3.    What Transferable Skills Do Multimodal Dissertations Afford You? 

Multimodal dissertations often require more work than a written paper. The thought of an increased workload may induce some graduate students to run for the hills! While perhaps not a project for the fainthearted, the nontraditional dissertation is an opportunity to learn new technical, communication, and collaboration skills, all integral to the diverse settings in today’s job market. Examples of the practical skills obtained through multimodal dissertations abound:

●    For Justin Schell’s dissertation, a full-length documentary film, We Rock Long Distance, combined with an online thesis, he learned to design and build a website to host his work. 

●    To integrate a digital component into her dissertation, Natalie Berkman learned to program using the coding language Python and became more competent in the field of digital humanities.

●    Amanda Visconti’s interactive digital dissertation on Ulysses, conducted through public tweeting and blogging, brought her a wider public audience, more opportunities for collaborating on panels and invitations to speak, as well as exposure on the job market.   

●    Multimodal dissertations signify a valuable turn toward more collaborative research. When producing a dissertation that requires technical skills in, for example, filmmaking, editing, and sound, students rely on collaboration to address problems, a skill that is highly regarded in all job markets. 

4.    How Do Multimodal Dissertations Align with the Mission of the Humanities?

Rethinking the traditional dissertation format is also an opportunity to rethink the accessibility of academic scholarship. Academic work is generally produced for insular and limited audiences. This defeats the broader purpose of sharing knowledge in the humanities, a point made by Anna Williams, who produced her dissertation as a podcast. Speaking in Profession, she emphasizes the impact of alternative dissertations in sharing research creatively and analytically with nonspecialist audiences. At the 2020 MLA Virtual Summit for the Future of Doctoral Education, Katina L. Rogers reminded us that how we conceptualize scholarly work and scholarly success reveals and reinforces the values of graduate education. Creating a dissertation that is accessible and equitable becomes a means by which to share our ideas and knowledge across a wide spectrum of people. 

As increasing numbers of graduates pursue careers outside academia, doctoral programs must prepare and train students to address new knowledge environments, to present and communicate their scholarship to different audiences, and to become adept at a wide range of approaches to solving problems. Theses that utilize media such as websites, films, YouTube videos, podcasts, and blog posts stand witness to graduate students who have successfully experimented with multimodal dissertations and lived to tell the tale! Their opportunities and successes attest to the value of reconceptualizing the humanities dissertation.