Embrace and Ambivalence

The digital dissertation has been here for almost a decade, but we still don’t seem to know what to do with it. How should it be presented? How should it be archived?
By Virginia Kuhn

In August 2005, I successfully defended a media-rich digital dissertation in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The next day, I began a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Southern California (where I am now a faculty member in the School of Cinematic Arts and associate director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy). I had negotiated the logistics of archiving my digital manuscript with the UWM graduate school, and the plans were finalized in September.

Or so I thought.

As I awaited the mailing of my actual diploma after the December commencement ceremony, I discovered that a hold had been placed on my doctoral award, one that took several months to remedy.

A subsequent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Digital Dissertation Dustup,” portrayed my story as one of personal struggle, but while I was obviously concerned about my doctorate, I was actually fighting for digital projects more broadly. It was a way to confront larger issues that I, like many others, felt desperately needed attention—namely, how academe would come to terms with digital scholarship and how it would distinguish this work from the print-based scholarship it has overseen for centuries. As scholarship exceeds the bounds of the printed page, the attendant issues such as formatting, archiving, and citation practices must be reconsidered.

The Digital Dissertation

Contemporary culture was already awash in digital media when I was a graduate student in the late 1990s and early 2000s, yet digital scholarship remained a marginalized scholarly mode—and still does. Emergent technologies have expanded the available semiotic resources, opening up new possibilities for sophisticated academic argument across the registers of word, image, sound, and networking. They are forcing us to rethink assumptions about the type of artifact that carries the intellectual weight of traditional scholarship. Yet their place in the academic constellation remains nebulous. What is the digital equivalent of a journal article? An anthology? A monograph? A dissertation?

Answering such questions is vital if the university is to remain a primary locus for the production of knowledge in a digital age. These questions are already crucial when assessing the efforts of contemporary scholars. However, as the Modern Language Association (MLA) Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion revealed in its 2008 report, the vast majority of those serving on tenure and promotion committees at the time of the report’s publication had no experience evaluating digital work. This was true even though the MLA had called for the creation of proper protocols for the evaluation of digital work by tenure and promotion committees eight years earlier (the MLA updated its guidelines in 2012). The MLA’s report urges digital scholars to document and explain their own work. Explicating one’s work is a worthwhile endeavor, but members of review boards still have an ethical imperative to educate themselves about the ways in which digital technologies can contribute to rigorous and groundbreaking scholarship. Their very presence on tenure and promotion committees suggests that they possess expertise, and these scholars have the responsibility to remain experts.

Let me reiterate: in times of sweeping technological change, explicit articulation of how emergent technologies serve intellectual pursuits is vital. Yet the academic bias against digital scholarship remains widespread. All too frequently, official university stances that proclaim institutions to be digital—and, thus, innovative—are disconnected from actual practices. For all the talk, junior scholars often feel they are being discouraged from embarking on digital endeavors. The prominent humanities scholar Steven Nichols argues that there is an “entrenched professional prejudice against digital scholarship” and a corresponding disparity in the faculty reward system at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches, as well as in the wider academic landscape.

Nichols contends that word of mouth operates more powerfully than official rhetoric, dissuading young faculty members from pursuing digital projects. This bias further illustrates the need for digital scholars to explain and document their work; such examples can show the pitfalls as well as the successes of digital efforts, ultimately closing the gap between official policies and actual academic practices.

In my years since graduate school, I have often been contacted with questions regarding the events surrounding my dissertation, and, of course, I have conscientiously told my story and have offered help to would-be authors of digital dissertations in any way I can. I know of at least a few cases in which my dissertation has been cited as a precedent. However, every year I also hear allusions to other digital dissertations, and strangely enough, these are framed as being either radical and unrealized or completely commonplace, though contexts and definitions vary.

My case has explanatory power beyond the purely anecdotal; it is emblematic of larger issues that, given the current state of digital scholarship, are not sufficiently or explicitly linked. Dissertations and the processes by which they are produced are not often discussed, certainly not by their authors, who, trained to be objective and to maintain a critical distance from their subject, are reluctant to engage a topic that is, for each of us, extremely personal. Yet if we apply the same rigor in critiquing our own processes that we apply to other cultural practices and texts, we might begin to see the larger potential of the digital dissertation and how it can extend and enhance scholarship and the production of knowledge. And since evolving forms of communication and expression are both the subject and object of my dissertation, my case is helpful in understanding how academic arguments can be enhanced by the use of extratextual registers. We might even find ways to strengthen our more traditional dissertations; in a digital environment, text-based dissertations can circulate across online networks, linking to other forms of discourse and feeding into the public sphere. Perhaps this, in turn, would help break us out of the ivory tower, keeping us vital, relevant, and connected to the world.

Digital Media and Fair Use

In the twenty-first century, the growing ease with which visual texts are produced and disseminated has created a situation in which English professors generally, and writing scholars in particular, question not only the relationship between word and image but also the primacy of the former over the latter. Given the contemporary era’s “turn to the visual,” image production is every bit as important as consumption: to be visually literate, one must “write” with images as well as “read” them. Moreover, words carry expanded potential because their visual aspects have been rendered so mutable, calling attention to their graphic as well as their ideational level of meaning.

Since the migration of print from page to screen disrupts older conventions, it was crucial to me in my dissertation not only to see where these standards originated but also to enact the differences. The theory had to be actualized in order to make a convincing argument about a shift in literacy, so rather than write about new media, I had to write with and through them. Not surprisingly, the later chapters rely heavily on the language of visuals, both still and moving.

My dissertation included more than two hundred “pages” filled with words as well as still and moving images, hyperlinks, and densely layered annotations. The digital format allowed me to marshal all the available semiotic resources in the service of the scholarship and all the available means of persuasion in the service of the argument.

In order to make the case for an entirely digital dissertation, I had to demonstrate that the media elements were integral to the argument and that the piece achieved goals that I could not have realized on paper. A concept that remains central to my approach is that the digital is not a break with all that has come before but rather lies on a continuum that begins in orality, moves through print literacy, and finally reaches the current state of digital culture. My dissertation thus naturally took a digital form—I was investigating writing in the digital age and identifying the varied approaches to the visual within the fields of composition and film studies. I anchored my work in traditional scholarly practices, expanding them when necessary for a digital format. Two chapters in, my committee was convinced; their support, of course, was vital.

The dissertation’s title, Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age, was a nod to art critic John Berger’s seminal television series and book, Ways of Seeing. The 1972 BBC television series was later translated into book format, making it a unique and innovative source text as well as a harbinger of transmedia— narrative expressed across various textual and visual media. My research also identified Ways of Seeing as an important point of convergence between the fields of writing studies and film studies, anticipating my subsequent work at a school of cinematic arts.

The method of citation of all sources—textual and new-media-based—that I adopted (and made explicit) was an extension of print conventions. One of the thornier issues had to do with (paid) clearance for the images and film clips included in the work. I argued that the doctrine of “fair use” applied. I was using no more of the original than I needed in order to make my point, and I included media as objects of analysis rather than as decoration. Moreover, my dissertation examined citation itself, and what exactly constitutes the reproduction of an image in a digital space: Does a two-inch pixilated screen shot of a large painting really count as duplication? I cited Creative Commons copyright protocols and was scrupulous about source attribution. My point was that if we pay for image citation, then we effectively limit who may speak, and this, in turn, limits critical cultural and political commentary.

Fair use is based on four considerations: the purpose of the use, the transformative nature of the use, the amount of the original used, and the impact on the market. In other words, you cannot use a picture or a film or a song as mere decoration for a website; it must be an object of analysis. And you can use only as much of the original as is necessary to make your point. This transforms the original (rather than providing others with an alternative to purchasing it). By these standards, my dissertation more than qualifies as fair use—I meticulously cited my sources and vigilantly explicated a rationale for all media included. In fact, it provides a case for the exercise of fair use. As noted law professor Peter Jaszi points out in the video Remix Culture, fair use is a right—and, like any other right, if we do not use it, we risk losing it.

Copyright issues also extended to archiving concerns. ProQuest, the company that archives nearly all dissertations in the United States, will accept compact discs but only if they are submitted in a “standard” format. Unfortunately, these formats are limited to corporate products such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat. My dissertation was created in TK3, a platform developed by Bob Stein, then a visiting fellow at the University of Southern California. (Stein, who now directs the Institute for the Future of the Book, is committed to the open-source movement.) But since ProQuest would not accept this format, the graduate school had to decide whether the requirement to file with ProQuest could be separated from the doctoral award. The UWM graduate school representative’s research revealed that filing with ProQuest was only a convention, one based mainly on convenience. It was not meant to serve any validating role. After I staunchly refused to submit a printed version of the full dissertation, since it would have invalidated the core argument, the administration agreed to let me provide a compact disc to the university library and submit only an abstract to ProQuest.

Print Bias

I completed my dissertation years ago, but the academy’s resistance to the digital remains. Only a few digital dissertations have been written in the United States over the past ten years, and tenure review boards have consistently shown themselves to be unprepared to reward or even credit junior faculty who produce digital scholarship.  

An article about the growing importance of nontextual expression in digital environments was posted on the USC website just after the Chronicle of Higher Education’s piece on my dissertation. It makes the following astute point: “The dustup obscures a potential revolution in scholarship that may replace the universal format for composition since the Middle Ages—the book, i.e., a linear sequence of pages containing text and graphic elements—with a whole range of formatting options, the book being only one.” It is precisely this “potential revolution,” the lack of dependence on linear argument through written words alone, that seems to lie at the heart of the more staunch resistance to digital texts in academia, which remains, after all, a logocentric milieu. This print bias has been warranted thus far; print is the most developed semiotic register, and therefore the most amenable to scholarly discourse. But language, both spoken and written, is also the realm of the vernacular.

The slow process by which language evolves creates the illusion of fixed conventions. While no one would suggest that contemporary prose resembles Shakespearean style, for example, it is easy to forget that the evolution of English results from human usage—one might even say the language evolves as a result of the bastardization of its rules. Moreover, while early notions of print literacy included the ability to read only, the ability to write is now seen as essential to literacy, since it allows people to deploy and disseminate texts, shaping the discourse as they participate in it. With the lightning speed by which technologically driven communication evolves, the human impact is accelerated, and creative use of text and image becomes the norm rather than the exception.

The layering of sound, image, text, and linking structures, when used well, results in complex and nuanced digital texts and gives rise to emergent genres that are quite unlike conventional, print-based, linear forms of argument. But as the semiotician Gunther Kress maintains, in a culture informed by the dominance of verbal language, “meaning” is actually identified with “meaning in language,” and this fact constitutes “a major impediment to an understanding of the semiotic potentials of, among other modes, the visual and of its role in cognition, representation, and communication.” One wonders if our ability to see the potential of images is handicapped by our strong faith in the superiority of language. Or perhaps we are simply not used to thinking about the production of image-based texts outside the realm of entertainment. They are the stuff of affect, not reason.

Everything about advanced academic study militates against discussing one’s own work at a “meta” level: the assumption that it lacks objectivity, the shame of washing out, the lack of transparency about processes. But insofar as word of mouth discourages new faculty from engaging with the digital, networked technologies can also allow the amplification of word of mouth. One can document successes and failures, and, in so doing, shed light on the ways in which official stances are out of sync with university practices. Thus, by chronicling my own experience, I hope to influence, in some small way, those coming up in the academic ranks. They simply must confront digital scholarship.

But how will their doctoral committees and tenure and promotion committees be able to gauge the quality and efficacy of digital work in the absence of rubrics and models? The university must uphold its standards: a doctoral degree should never be awarded without demonstration of the appropriate intellectual rigor. Still, a dissertation should represent new scholarship, and, in this light, digital innovation should be rewarded.

We have to create standards for digital scholarship. They should be firm enough to ensure rigor yet flexible enough to allow for continued innovation. Most important, however, the standards should be set by the scholarly community, not by outside entities or by corporate interests. When researchers asked faculty members and graduate students in English departments which entities (beyond the dissertation committee) were influential in shaping dissertations, they were shocked when 17 percent named ProQuest. It is utterly irresponsible to surrender our authority in these matters.

The graduate school representative with whom I worked indicated that her office had anticipated a request to pursue a digital dissertation but never expected it to come from a candidate in an English department. Accepted wisdom says that technology and the humanities are oppositional forces, and, of course, that has often been the case. However, if we recall that writing is itself a technology and that the nature of academic argument is a key subject area in the field of rhetoric and composition, then it makes perfect sense that a digital dissertation would arise in an English department. Moreover, humanists, engaged as they are with the ongoing life of culture, should be on the front lines of the debates about the digital and involved in the creation of policies governing digital scholarship.

Precedents and Protocols

I learned valuable lessons in the process of defending my dissertation. Precedents are useful in establishing protocols, and I hope the following lessons add to the ongoing conversation.

Rehearse your fair-use argument. It is more important to have a thoughtful rationale for your use of media than to adopt a system set by others. While community practices are considered in litigation (this is the main reason that the Center for Social Media puts out best practices guides for different disciplines), digital media are too new to have reified precedents. As experts such as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig contend, copyright law did not anticipate the age of digital reproduction and desperately requires amending. Academics can assume an activist role in this regard, but they cannot do so by blindly accepting outdated rules for “clearing” images. Rather, they should exercise fair use by deploying media in a thoughtful, intentional, and well-articulated way.

Use it or lose it. If academics do not protect fair use, who will? In this age of media conglomeration, we do not have the excuse of innocence; if we fail to take an advocacy role in these matters, free speech is threatened. Period.

Citation, citation, citation. As in the real estate maxim “location, location, location,” context is the most crucial aspect of establishing fair use and academic argument with media because it shows familiarity with one’s source materials. Source attribution explicitly demonstrates that one is not “stealing.” But citation is more than simply establishing fair use; it is a critical academic activity, and it signals that one is joining an ongoing scholarly conversation. The need for citation is obvious in print media, and it should be made equally obvious in new media.

Form and content should align. Disrupting a standard dissertation form should not mean that anything goes. Rather, the form and content must be productively aligned. Formatting regulations, while initially established for uniformity, are not ideologically neutral; their structure dictates, to some extent, what may be said within their confines. By extension, ProQuest or any similar entity should not be dictating the form of a dissertation. The faculty committee, trained to gauge the merit of a dissertation, should be the credentialing entity. This role should not be usurped or trumped by expediency. If we force graduate students and young faculty members into such molds, how will they ever challenge the status quo?

The dissertation is not the doctorate. Writing a dissertation only partially fulfills the requirements of a doctorate. While it is the culmination of doctoral study, the rapid evolution of knowledge technologies will be mirrored by more rapid shifts in the type of work considered to carry the intellectual weight of a dissertation. We should not rule out the possibility of allowing several projects to stand in for a single dissertation, as some European graduate programs have begun doing. Or perhaps a collaborative, networked dissertation might be acceptable if it fulfills the spirit of the dissertation requirement.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the faculty of seeing in every case the available means of persuasion. I would argue that using the available means of persuasion with nuance and sophistication is not optional but the very hallmark of a scholarly artifact. This is especially true in a dissertation, which, after all, is supposed to represent fresh research and scholarship as well as mastery of a subject. Perhaps the best reason to attend to digital dissertations lies in the potential to influence the evolution of technologies for research and the expression of scholarly endeavors. If academics are not fully engaged in technological conversations, we will be forced to live with the choices made by the corporate interests that continue to develop software as well as the very technological infrastructure into which we all are increasingly, persistently plugged. 

Virginia Kuhn is associate director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, an organized research unit in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She was the 2009 recipient of the USC provost’s Award for Teaching with Technology, she co-chairs the Scholarly Interest Group on Media Literacy and Pedagogical Outreach for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and she serves on the editorial boards of several journals of media and technology. Her e-mail address is [email protected]