Shaping the Message, Using the Medium

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Dan Reed

Daniel Reed is Vice President for Research and Economic Development and University Computational Science and Bioinformatics Chair at the University of Iowa, and a frequent government advisor on science and technology policy. He is a former director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Contact him at dan-reed@uiowa.edu or read his other musings at www.hpcdan.org.

Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message,” has taken on new poignancy in a world of tweet storms, Snapchat imagery, cellphone videos, 24-hour cable news, and ubiquitous digital communication. Within this dizzying cacophony, Paul Simon’s prescient lyrics from The Sound of Silence, which found a new audience in Disturbed’s recent cover, ring ever more true:

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

How does one gain mindshare and precipitate reflective analysis when Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame seems so quaint, a Q rating window both languorous and prolix? If you have braved my prose to this point, you have already followed a cognitive causal chain that spans five decades of cultural referents, something increasingly rare as attention spans in our hyperkinetic echo chamber asymptotically approach the de minimis.

Thus, it is no surprise that by today’s standard of truncated discourse, the long-form, reasoned, and buttressed scholarship of a Ph.D. dissertation may seem an anachronism, an obsession that Cap’n Ahab would recognize as his own. All too often the dissertation is an embodied variant of Melville’s classic book, praised but not read. This “write only” attribute is one of the biggest challenges we face in academia. Increasingly, we are writing only to one another, and all too often, to almost no one, using a vernacular and style both learned and discipline-idiosyncratic.

Let’s begin with the fundamental question. As scholars, why do we write? We seek to preserve the insights from our scholarship and add a new tile to the great mosaic of human knowledge, an entirely secular but consecrated goal whose motivations can be traced to the birth of writing itself. Equally importantly, we seek to energize others with the power of our ideas, shaping and reshaping social and intellectual discourse. Simply put, we want to be remembered, and we want to make a difference.

Laid bare, these laudable, twin goals of knowledge preservation and transmission need not be pursued via the same media or mechanisms. In this sense, McLuhan was absolutely right; the medium and the message are inextricably intertwined, mutually shaped by evolving culture and technology. We ignore these shifts at our peril, as the demise of many daily newspapers and news magazines has shown.

Let me be clear; I am not suggesting we abandon the long-form dissertation. (See my comments in an earlier blog post on reflective communication.) Rather, I am positing that we remember our elemental objectives and disaggregate the historically convolved elements of academic scholarship: chronicling and archiving (dissertation writing); provenance and attribution (dissertation committee approval); and dissemination and engagement (publication and communication).

A book-length dissertation has long been the permanent chronicle of the new scholar’s research. However, this is mere tradition, derived from 19th-century German academic practice. Like the man’s legs in Abraham Lincoln’s story, a dissertation needs to be only long enough to reach the ground (i.e., cogently encapsulate the research), and it can—and should—take whatever form and length are most appropriate to the task. Choose a medium appropriate to the message.

Likewise, writing a dissertation should not be a consensual and extended, sadomasochistic partnership between advisor and advisee. The goal is not to solve one of life’s or nature’s most vexing problems nor to include a reference to every possible prior insight. Rather, it is to demonstrate competence to conduct independent scholarship and record sufficient evidence of having done so. It should not be a decade-long, soul-enervating experience.

The key role of a dissertation committee is assuring the originality and sufficient intellectual contribution of an aspiring scholar’s work. This certification of provenance and attribution is the committee’s affirmation of scholarly worthiness, as documented in the dissertation.

Finally, successful scholarship gains currency in the marketplace of ideas. As academics, we teach and prize artful and effective communication, yet all too often we fail to practice what we preach. Yes, plumbing the depths of a novel idea often requires extended and subtle explication, but that is not the place to start. It begins with engagement and meeting others on their literal, intellectual, and emotional territory, not our own. Why might the idea matter to others? How can it advantage them? What is the attraction and the excitement? How to we reach an audience, both in academia and in the broader society?

The Three-Minute Thesis competition captures the essence of this idea, as do public speeches and popular articles. In this light, a tweet isn’t such a bad idea after all. All of these modes of communication serve to spark conversations, rather than to transmit extended colloquies. In the spirit of an aphorism attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Make some noise; use all the available media; rise above the cacophony; make a difference.

1 thought on “Shaping the Message, Using the Medium”

  1. how does this “Finally, successful scholarship gains currency in the marketplace of ideas.” become the standard and what does this say about basic research and the related innovations in thinking/practice which folks like T. Kuhn sketched out for us? seems to me that many vital ideas only found acceptance/applications long after they were first assembled and often have been highly contested if not marginalized.
    As for your prescriptions for dissertations I think this points to a fundamental tension in the US model which is that we want this work to be (as you say) a mark of ability to do independent research and yet also have some of the qualities (as with a European model) of a novel contribution (and in some ways a draft of a first book). Seems to me we would be better served by having separate tests/standards for research (and also for teaching) than one could be a researcher and lecturer and if one’s work over time proves to be of wider/fundamental value to become a doctor in the field.
    And as I’m sure you know when dealing with complex matters clear language/communication often requires technical terminology (and math and the like) and a grounding in related practices/experiences, so the drive to make work more accessible, easier to grasp, while admirable (especially when public funding is involved as is the case in state schools), can lead to creating misinformation as one ends up sharing a different subject than what one started with, and as we often see in politics knowing a little bit of something (while yet feeling informed) can be quite dangerous, so I think there is much work/testing to be done with how such simplifications are being received/used.

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