Grad students take stock at mid-year

Sara Hales, Katie Walden, and Mary Wise (with friend)

History PhD candidate Mary Wise, American Studies PhD candidate Katie Walden, and Classics PhD candidate Sara Hales contributed to this post. Katie and Sara’s Twitter handles are @kwaldenPhD and @saralynnhales.

In this final mid-year assessment of Next Gen activities accomplished thus far (the first two are here and here), three participating graduate students, after polling their peers, list priorities and future goals.

Some discoveries made through planning process:

Interest in discovering new ways to make research more accessible

Discovery that Next Gen is not only about Alt-Ac careers

Interest in priority given to transferrable skills

Appreciation for model (provided by Amanda Visconti) of making research more public

Interest in possibility of adopting more collaborative research model, perhaps drawing on strategies used in the sciences

Enthusiasm expressed for working outside of the academy—appreciate diversity of topics that Next Gen PhD planning process has covered

Some concerns identified through the planning process:

 Risk factors in making research public at an early stage

Need to offer options to graduate students earlier

Importance of preventing Digital Humanities training from becoming one more thing, supplement to existing structures

Need to make sure graduate students have the resources they need in order to accomplish alt-ac work and alt-diss work

Would welcome more attention to divisions between scholarly writing and public writing

Need more discussion of interdisciplinary research and creation of actual collaborative processes within the university

Rebecca Schuman and Sarah Bond: Question Time

The Next Gen PhD planning committee met this week to prepare questions for our upcoming Blog Symposium, at which our expert guest panelists, Rebecca Schuman and Sarah Bond, will talk about writing for a variety of audiences.

Rebecca Schuman

Dr. Schuman, who received her PhD in German from the University of California-Irvine, has written for for Slate, Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Awl. She is the author of Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism (Northwestern University Press) and Schadenfreude, A Love Story (Flatiron Books), in which she vividly chronicles her engagement with the German language, her pursuit of the PhD, and her dispiriting academic job search. Schuman left academia in 2013 to become a freelance writer; she casts a critical gaze on PhD training in “Thesis Hatement” and “The Academic Book as Expensive Nihilistic Hobby,” among other writings. Her Twitter handle is @pankisseskafka.

Dr. Bond, who received her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina, writes on late Roman history, epigraphy, late antique law, Roman topography and the socio-legal experience of ancient marginal peoples. She has published Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (University of Michigan Press). She writes the History from Below blog and a column for Forbes. She has published pieces as varied as “Unlocking the Dark Ages: A Short History of Chastity Belts” and “Torture Has Never Been an Effective Means of Information Gathering–Just Ask the Romans.” Her Hwitter handle is @sarahebond.

Here are some of the questions we’ll be asking Rebecca and Sarah at our Thursday (March 2, 3:30-5:00, BCSB 101) symposium:

1) Could you tell us about differences in your writing process as you write for different audiences, or about how your prose style changes as you write for different audiences?

2) At what point in your graduate career (or after) did you first think about blogging?

3) What opportunities has your blogging afforded you?

4) How has your blogging influenced your more traditional scholarly writing? How has your traditional scholarly work influenced your blogging?

5)  How have you built an audience for your work? Do you deliberately court controversy?

6) How did you break into being a columnist for a national journal?

7) Would it be fair to suggest that blogs are emotive, while academic writing is emotionally withholding?  In what other ways would you contrast the difference between the blog and the scholarly article?

8) How do you choose to engage with (or cordone off) comment writers?

9) What is the relationship between your blog or column writing and your other social media engagement?

10) How/why do certain of your posts or columns break out or become viral?

11) If you could redo your graduate education, what would you change? What changes to grad training might be suggested by your experiences?

New ways of showing are new ways of knowing

Matt Gilchrist

Matt Gilchrist, a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department, is Director of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning Initiative (IDEAL), which supports students and instructors who use new media in course assignments.

The University of Iowa’s Next Gen PhD planning initiative, The Newly Composed PhD, is an important part of the growing acknowledgement that humanities PhD graduates thrive in diverse career tracks not bounded by academia. The NEH grant program that supports Iowa’s initiative asserts that “Humanities knowledge and methods can make an even more substantial impact on society if students are able to translate what they learn in doctoral programs into a multitude of careers.” How do we prepare PhD students to make such a substantial impact? The NEH wants us to “transform scholarly preparation at the doctoral level.” At Iowa—the institution that proudly calls itself The Writing University—the transformation begins with writing. The Newly Composed PhD asserts that the understanding derived from study in the humanities should be composed in many forms.

The scholars who took part in last year’s symposia hosted by The Newly Composed PhD demonstrate that much can be learned by meaning-making in varied modes. Dr. Amanda Visconti composed her dissertation, titled How can you love a work if you don’t know it?: Critical code and design toward participatory digital editions, as a hybrid of digital edition, white paper, and hypertext. But such a stripped-down description doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the project, the composition of which involved software design, database design, interface design, graphic web design, and more. Along the way, Visconti tweeted, blogged, created data visualizations, and spoke on a variety of digital humanities topics. As her dissertation shows, Visconti has discovered new possibilities for inquiry through the process of composing in many forms.

Like Visconti, Dr. Nick Sousanis composed his thesis in a non-traditional form. Sousanis’s dissertation is the comic Unflattening—a form that allowed him to use image as a primary semiotic resource. Like Visconti, Sousanis told us during the symposium dedicated to discussing his dissertation that he blogged about his work as he was composing it. For a hint about what Sousanis was thinking early in his dissertation process about the power of composing in comic form, see the quote from Susanne K. Langer he offers in a blog post. In his discussion here at the University of Iowa, Sousanis put it this way: “My comics are smarter than I am.”

Our Vice President for Research and Economic Development, Dan Reed, pointed out in a recent blog post on this site that writing a traditional book-length dissertation is commonly understood as the means of documenting and communicating ideas privileged in the humanities PhD, but that this format isn’t very effective at spreading those ideas. Dr. Reed writes that, if the form limits the reach of important ideas, then scholars should look for another medium—one appropriate to the message. This semester, Dr. Reed will visit a course I teach for graduate students in the sciences called “Science Communication in the Digital Age.” Much like the NEH’s support for The Newly Composed PhD, the NIH provided grant funding that helped to launch this course in order to prepare scientists for careers beyond the academy. The funded project at Iowa, directed by Professor Dan Eberl (Biology), focuses on communication skills and rhetorical forms. The course acknowledges the importance of addressing audiences outside of academia as crucial for achieving the NIH’s goal of “broadening training to better prepare students for research careers in a variety of venues, such as industry, government or entrepreneurial enterprises.” The support of both federal grant agencies responds to a long-standing need for pragmatic communication experience in the new media landscape, extending and complementing the efforts of those who seek and offer such training at the graduate level.

If the humanities is to move beyond the “write only” paradigm Dr. Reed calls “one of the biggest challenges we face in academia,” humanities students will need courses—corollaries to Science Communication in the Digital Age—specifically targeted at their needs. The write only paradigm cannot be justified amidst the range of rhetorical forms now readily available to scholars. These new forms—or new media—require a new approach to the fundamentals of composition. No longer can we assume that fluency with the conventions and grammars of alphabetic text represents the fundamental or most significant means of developing and sharing ideas. Instead, communicating ideas now requires awareness of image and visual design, sound and audio design, code and software design, data and database design, and etc. Humanists remain writers, but we are called to write and. Scholars and teachers in the field of composition use the term multimodal composition to describe, analyze and assess texts that incorporate writing and other modes of representation. Thinking in these terms makes clear that writing is one of many overlapping semiotic resources available to a rhetor. Meaning-making is a central goal of the humanities, and ignoring compositional modes other than alphabetic text cuts us off from many kinds of meaning-making and discoveries.

This semester, Professor Judith Pascoe offers a course that allows PhD students in the humanities to practice with digital humanities methods and multimodal composition. Pitched as a “pilot model of a humanities interdisciplinary methods course,” this seminar offers the benefits of such courses extolled by Katie Walden in her recent post on this site. Aligned with the goals of the Next Gen PhD, the course “[a]ssignments will be aimed at helping students showcase their research in a variety of formats that could include the blog post, the grant proposal, the data visualization, the network analysis, the map, the 3-Minute Thesis, the podcast, the PechaKucha, the illustrated narrative, and the tweet.” The course offers practice and training in genres—other than linear, alphabetic text—that are relevant to humanists but too often ignored in humanities education.

As we have seen in the first semester of The Newly Composed PhD, forms other than the manuscript have been crucial to the scholarship and integral to the career success of the scholars who have visited our symposia. Visconti, Sousanis, and others have extolled the benefits of taking ideas from one semiotic mode into another. All agree that new and important ideas emerge from multimodality. So, in addition to the likelihood that scholars who tweet, speak, draw, code, map, record, and design will be more successful in career searches within and beyond the academy, humanists should consider what important insights are lost when we over-emphasize one modality. The humanist endeavor depends on leaving behind the write only paradigm and engaging the possibilities of write and.

The Next Steps for A New Generation Of PhDs

Sarah Bond

Sarah Bond, Assistant Professor in Classics, reports on the Next Gen PhD planning meeting. Participants were making plans and identifying challenges in advance of the January 30 Next Gen Directors meeting in Washington, D.C. Sarah, whose twitter handle is @SarahEBond, writes the History From Below blog and also writes for Forbes.

Mention the term “alt-ac” in a room full of graduate students, and you are likely to get a few interested looks, a number of quizzical expressions, and perhaps a grimace or two. For many graduate students driven toward traditional positions as professors in institutions of higher learning, the idea of taking an “alternative academic” position is often viewed as a route that is not only alternative to their aims, but also one that is ambiguous. However, this meeting of the Next Generation PhD committee came together over lunch in order to address how we have begun to recast “alt-ac” over the past year and to focus on the redefinition of the term not as an alternative path, but as a set of methodologies that provide a means to strengthen the research, pedagogy, and writing capabilities of any PhD candidate.

Tom Keegan, Judith Pascoe, Stephen Voyce, and Russ Ganim discuss the future steps for the Next Generation PhD Program at the University of Iowa on January 27, 2017.
  1. Incorporating More People: Encouraging the involvement of alumni, professionals, and non-faculty in the process of reforming and recasting the PhD is pivotal to its success. Involving individuals with experience within positions beyond the walls of the university setting (e.g. in public radio or at local museums) is a key way of illustrating the application of digital humanities skillsets outside of faculty positions. It is also a means for creating networks on a local, regional, and national level that can be of service to our students.
  1. Not An Alternative, But An Enhancement: Visualizing the reformation of PhD training as a means of galvanizing, strengthening, and ultimately enhancing the degree is integral to removing the stigma currently attached to the word “alt-ac” and the mystery that often shrouds the digital humanities. The group discussed the necessity of reaching out to graduate councils in each academic department in order to encourage participation not only through fliers and posted information, but particularly through word of mouth. This has the effect of making the Next Gen lectures, workshops, and panels more socially acceptable, known, and interacted with on an interpersonal level. Within these events, graduate students should then be encouraged to think about the benefits to their research, their teaching, and their writing that comes from acquiring digital skills such as GIS or network analysis. Understanding of these methods can diversify their portfolio in terms of employment abilities, no doubt, but they are also a way of elevating their teaching approaches and ability to communicate an argument effectively.
Mary Wise, Stephanie Blalock, Christine Getz, Katie Walden, Ann Ricketts, Sarah Larsen, John Keller, Sarah Bond, and Tom Keegan identify challenges for the Next Gen planning process.
  1. Looking To Other Models And Mentors: A pivotal part of this meeting was the consideration of alternative academic models, particularly within the sciences. It means asking what the humanities can learn from other disciplines in respect to the sharing and overseeing of research. What can scientific models of lab mentorship and the sharing of experimental data in weekly gatherings teach us about how humanities PhDs should be mentored in the future? What can they teach us about the import of sharing our findings more frequently within large groups that can perhaps provide feedback and alternative approaches? In addition to encouraging more group feedback, members noted that while having an internal, departmental mentor is certainly integral to the success of all PhD candidates, so is having a digital mentor that helps oversee any multi-modal dissertation project. A structure of support, guidance, and mentorship will be an integral part of implementing the next generation PhD plan in the future.
  1. Vertical Support Networks: Promoting graduate student participation in workshops, lectures, and classes focused on digital approaches will be most successful with the support of not only faculty, but also DGSs, DEOs, and academic administrators. Supporting students that engage in digital work will allow for broader success of the program, but the broader acceptance of digital work in tenure and promotion cases will, in turn, similarly demonstrate to our graduate students that such approaches are accepted as valid forms of academic work.

As the meeting illustrated to all participants, a key product of this grant has been to lay a sturdy foundation for the creation of social and administrative networks at the University of Iowa that will function within the institution and outside of it. These networks have allowed for the freer flow of information about digital methods—to students, to departments, to the administration, and to the local community—and will provide an easier transition for those who wish to pursue employment outside of the academy. As the meeting stressed, transparency and accountability must still be maintained in the process of implementing and growing these new networks. However, it is already apparent that we are not building an altogether different “alt-ac” route for the Next Generation of UI PhDs to travel upon, so much as repaving the current road system so that our students can better communicate with their students and with the public.

The Next Gen PhD from a Faculty Perspective

 

Russ Ganim

In this second of three posts in which members of the UI Next Gen Core Planning Committee take stock at mid-year, Russell Ganim, Director of the Division of World Languages, weighs in. Russ is also the Co-Director of the UI Humanities Advisory Board.

The most exciting part of the grant is the high level of communication and collaboration between groups who previously had little to no interaction. Graduate students from various disciplines in the humanities—English, History, Classics, World Languages, and others—are going to presentations, attending workshops, and talking to each other. Many of these discussions focus on how graduate students can take a more entrepreneurial approach both to planning their individual programs of study and their professional futures.

The grant has brought students and departmental directors of graduate studies in closer contact with career initiatives sponsored by the Graduate College, as well as with resources offered by the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio. Conversations about creativity and partnerships are now—finally—starting to command equal time with those concerning distribution requirements, exam schedules, and time-to-degree pressures.

This grant generates a buzz that has helped unite a number of graduate students, faculty, and administrators around a common purpose grounded in the humanities. Challenges remain—writing across different forms and across different audiences needs more emphasis, and new courses related to the objectives of the grant need to be developed. Still, the grant has piqued strong interest in influential circles and has shown that the humanities are a hot topic on campus.

Survival Bias

Amy Chen

The first of a series of three posts in which Next Gen Committee members assess our work at mid-year.

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Serving as a member of the Steering Committee for the University of Iowa’s “The Newly Composed PhD” Next Gen planning project under the direction of Judith Pascoe has been a welcome opportunity. As a recent graduate—I received my PhD in English in 2013—I am deeply invested in the future of doctoral education. My memories of graduate school and the difficulties of the job market are fresh, which helps me sympathize with those still in the middle of the process. The provocation I present here  emerges from these memories. I feel that we unintentionally perpetuate survival bias by focusing on people who survived the academic job market, and I propose that we correct for this tendency in the spring.

Over the past semester, our planning group brought in three speakers to discuss different rhetorical forms that graduate students must master: the dissertation, the footnote, and the tweet. In previous blog posts, I wrote about our first speaker, Amanda Visconti, mentioning the significance of her master’s degree in Information and her generous advisors. My purpose in those posts was not to diminish Visconti’s strength as a digital humanities practitioner: her vision, aptitude, and success are an important case study for our students at Iowa.

But what I outlined in those posts is how Visconti is exceptional. She learned technical skills which are usually taught outside the framework of humanities departments, and then applied those skills to her literary studies. Furthermore, she benefited from mentors who took extra time to help her navigate the often steep learning curves presented by interdisciplinary doctoral research.

Most graduate students are not thinking about how their work could be enhanced by the acquisition of additional degrees, nor should they be.  Universities are organized by discipline and hierarchy. Once one has committed to a field, it can take a long time to realize how one might learn from other fields. Interdisciplinary methods are only beginning to be accepted at traditional humanities journals and presses. As our speakers this past semester have attested, the shift is taking place, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a long way to go. And if students do not have mentors who will take the extra time necessary to help them (perhaps because that extra time commitment is not rewarded in tenure evaluations), they will suffer. It is hard for students to feel empowered enough to demand extra time and effort from those on whom they depend for recommendations.

In the absence of critical attention, survival bias can come to seem “normal” or “just the way things are.” Our Next Generation PhD guests thus far have been people who succeeded by conventional standards. They have had uplifting stories to tell: unconventional methods met with conventional (read: tenure-track) success. That’s the story we want to hear. The stories that haven’t so far been showcased—which, I might add, is not a failure of the grant or of Pascoe’s leadership, but of a cognitive bias we all share—are ones that don’t end so well. We need to hear more from people who attempted new methodologies or approaches, but were not rewarded with Harvard publishing contracts. We need to highlight PhD recipients who attained jobs that were not professorships.

Getting hired in alternative positions counts as success, particularly if these positions satisfy the objectives of the PhDs who seek them. You define your own success. After all, I’m very happy at Iowa in my non-tenure-track job as a Special Collections Instruction Librarian and the interim English and American Literature Librarian. But the way we have presented success this fall has tended to fit a particular narrative, one that hasn’t extended even to my genre of success. In the future, I would like us to think more broadly. Graduate students who master the different rhetorical forms we have discussed during Next Generation PhD events are powerful. Doing so will help these doctoral candidates achieve success. However, we must do a better job of emphasizing that success can take a variety of forms, with exciting outcomes possible both within and beyond the academy.

I suggest we take some time to address failure. Success makes a nice story. Success is inspirational. But I learn more from my failures. I learn when to change my methodology, when to change how I approach problems, when even to change my career. We can’t entirely avoid survival bias because we will continue to invite speakers who can suggest how students might emulate their successes. What we can do, however, is compensate for survival bias by being careful about how we frame exceptional stories, by discussing how (or if) we can duplicate particular features of success narratives here at Iowa, and by emphasizing, over and over, how failure is a critical part of what it means to survive.

A Method to the Method

Katie Walden

Katherine Walden is a PhD Candidate in the American Studies-Sport Studies program and is also enrolled in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate. Her research explores race/ethnicity and gender in representations of baseball in American popular culture, with a particular focus on baseball and music intersections. She also teaches a self-designed Rhetoric of Sport curriculum in UIowa’s Rhetoric Department. Her Twitter handle is @KWaldenPhD, and she has an online presence at www.kwaldenpond.wordpress.com.

In most humanities PhD programs, at some point in the first year of graduate coursework, students take a theory and methods course. At the University of Iowa, graduate students in English take “Introduction to Graduate Study” in the first year, and the History Department offers the “First Year Graduate Colloquium” and a class entitled “History Research Methods.” Students pursuing the Public Digital Humanities Certificate take “Digital Humanities Theory and Practice,” in which a mix of Library Science and humanities PhD students were enrolled when I took it in Fall 2015. In my home department of American Studies, we take two iterations of “Interdisciplinary Research in American Studies” (formerly “Theory and Practice of American Studies”), taught each fall by rotating faculty. I’ve also spent this fall semester taking Journalism and Mass Communication’s (JMC) “Approaches to Media Communication,” a required course for incoming JMC masters and doctoral students.

Having been through now four versions of a humanities-oriented theory and methods course, I offer a few observations:

#1. Theory and methods courses make a whole lot more sense in Year 3 of a PhD than they do in Year 1. I appreciate the American Studies Department’s model of having conversations about theory, method, and practice be ongoing and embedded throughout the curriculum. Discussions that began during my first semester in the program have threaded through many of the other courses I’ve taken in the Department. The same kind of ongoing conversation has enriched my Digital Humanities (DH) Certificate coursework.

#2. Conversations about method and modes of scholarly production aren’t typical in graduate student training. With the exception of my DH coursework and this semester’s “Approaches” course, few foundational courses challenged me to think about the relationship between method and form, or to envision alternate modes of scholarly production. I don’t want to be overly-critical of traditional theory and methods courses—they exist to familiarize and ground scholars-in-training with a discipline’s history, contours, and debates. Within graduate education’s highly-disciplinary structure, these courses serve a vital and significant purpose. [Disclaimer: While doing research for this post, I found out that the Spring 2017 “History Research Methods” course has a digital history focus. Three cheers for Public Humanities in a Digital World cluster hires!]

#3. We can all learn from triathletes. My experience suggests that foundational courses rarely push graduate students to explore “big picture” questions about what type of career they want to approach by means of PhD training. Triathletes who swim in open water races have to balance making forward progress with checking to be sure they’re going in the right direction. It’s a technique called “sighting”—as the swimmer continues to move forward in the water, she also looks up periodically to “sight” a buoy, shore, boat, or some type of visual marker in the distance, and course corrects if needed. Sighting isn’t easy—it requires seeing beyond the choppy water conditions, the relentless drive to keep making forward progress, and all the other swimmers in the water. However, taking the time and energy to see a horizon beyond the immediate situation and proactively move toward it is a vital way to successfully manage a race.

The semester I spent in “DH Theory and Practice” was a crash course in all the different forms scholarship can take, a semester-long experiment in “sighting” that revealed multiple paths through the course of graduate school, a range of skill sets I wanted to develop, and multiple horizons I could pursue with a PhD. On an individual level, it was the Next Gen PhD project before there was a Next Gen PhD project.

#4. Graduate students should be prepared to ask questions and push boundaries. Emboldened by my growing DH facility, I’ve walked into PhD seminars unafraid to ask the Amanda Visconti-esque question “Can I do this?” (the “this” being something that bears little resemblance to a standard seminar paper). I’ve found the answer most often is yes. I’m curious to see how this kind of conversation changes as I move toward proposing a born-digital dissertation. One-off projects can be a useful way to build a portfolio of work, but building robust, scalable projects (particularly in DH) requires early collaboration, technical expertise, and institutional support. My prediction is that alternative dissertations will also likely be highly collaborative dissertations.

#5. All hail the interdisciplinary methods course! I’ve spent the fall semester in Meenakshi Gigi Durham’s “Approaches to Media Communication” course. The description, from the University Catalog:

“In this graduate seminar, students will explore the range of theoretical and methodological perspectives and techniques that allow us to study, interpret, and criticize various forms of media. We will examine the ways the media intersect with political, economic, and social shifts through analyzing key scholarly works in media communication research. The goal of the class will be to provide students with an understanding of how to pose original, exciting, and clear research questions that lead to rigorous and useful research in media communication.”

I might rewrite the description to read “Some of the things I wish someone had talked about when I started graduate school” (see observation #1). The course delved into everything from critical theory, method frameworks, and research design to journal publishing, academic writing, and the job market. Never underestimate the power of dissecting and evaluating academic writing at the sentence level. [Graduate students, if you haven’t checked out Booth’s The Craft of Research, do so now.]

As I started to brainstorm a topic for the final proposal, I was also in an Archives & Media course, working on a DH project much larger than what I could accomplish in one semester. I started to envision my Archives & Media prototype as a digital dissertation, and Professor Durham was fully supportive when I asked if a proposal that talked about databases, maps, and visualizations would be acceptable. Articulating a dissertation project a full year before I actually defend a prospectus has forced me to grapple early on with the challenges, logistics, and justifications for a non-traditional project, much in the same way that Ben Miele’s 3MT experience shaped his dissertation’s developmental arc. My range of methods courses have grounded me in critical theory and American Studies frameworks, and have also provided a space for me to explore what my path through a Next Gen PhD might look like.

Graduate students! Like the idea of a methods course that incorporates alternate scholarly approaches, multi-modal projects, and digital humanities? Check out Judith Pascoe’s spring 2017 course on alternative scholarly approaches.

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.

Risk, Creativity, and Careers

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Jen Teitle

Guest post by Jennifer Teitle, Assistant Dean for Graduate Development and Postdoctoral Affairs, University of Iowa. Dr. Teitle’s 2012 dissertation, completed in the UI Department of Teaching and Learning, focused on the decline in the number of youth “hangout” spaces. Her cartoon blog post juxtaposes Nick Sousanis‘ Next Gen PhD presentation with Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award acceptance speech. Jen’s twitter handle is: @jteitle. (You can click on the image for a larger version.)

The comic below, “3 Talks on Risk, Creativity, and Careers,” uses dialogism—the notion that all statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate responses—to explore narratives about graduate school and careers. The three juxtaposed narratives in the comic happened on the same day, October 19, 2016, here at the University of Iowa. Nick Sousanis came to speak on our campus as part of the NEH funded #nextgenPhD project. His talk was inspiring, full of the same unapologetic creativity that characterizes his comic book dissertation, Unflattening. Sousanis was candid about his job search, which was challenging despite that fact that his award-winning dissertation was being published by Harvard University Press. Kevin Birmingham’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Truman Capote Award must have been astonishing to witness, but I read it later that night after my sleepy children were put in bed. Birmingham’s parrhesia is an icy splash in the face, an important contribution to conversations about PhD “placement,” and it should be shared widely. Finally, I wanted to include a nod to the narratives I hear most frequently: those of graduating PhDs and MFAs. Today’s graduate students are struggling to find their scholarly voices at a moment when if one deviates from the expected scholarly norm, one may put at risk the dream of a tenure-track position.

I wanted these three voices to anticipate, and respond to, each other, as well as to add dimension to the complex decisions at play in graduate education. How are we to be transparent with students about their work and prospects? Do we understand what is at stake when we encourage students to take risks or to play it safe? Where is the line between student ambition and faculty intervention?
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by Jen Teitle

 

 

The Dissertation as a Tool for Thinking and Knowing

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Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown, Associate Professor in the Department of English and the UI Center for the Book, teaches classes on book studies and early American literature. He is the author of the The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), and the editor of the UI Press series Impressions: Studies in the Art, Culture, and Future of Books. Matt’s twitter handle is @mpbrown.

On Friday, October 21, the NEH-funded Next Gen Ph.D. team brought comics artist and historian of ideas Nick Sousanis to campus to discuss his unique dissertation: a meditation through images and words on ways of knowing and seeing, a dissertation using graphic design to enact its very subject. If you have not seen it, hie thee now to Unflattening, available from Harvard University Press. There were a series of wonderful insights in Sousanis’s flipped lecture, wherein a seven-minute positioning of the visitor’s work by host Judith Pascoe was followed by an extended—and extraordinarily generous—hour with Prof. Sousanis answering questions.

I was struck most by a question floated between interlocutor and speaker (there was such good rapport and fertile inquiry, I can’t remember where the answers left off and the questions began): why is the standard dissertation the best tool for thinking and knowing? Sousanis had been making the case for drawing as a way of thinking: it is “a conversation with yourself . . . the mark you make is one you then have a dialogue with.” Here Sousanis observes the close connection between the work of the mind and the work of the hand.

Prof. Sousanis turned the question on us, asking the audience what a representation of their thoughts would look like, what their material image would be. We proffered music, video, a thought balloon (I mean, I thought that last one). Sousanis then showed a flow-chart diagram of his ideas for Unflattening (it is reproduced on the end-pages of the published version), one stage of preparation for his dissertation. In reference to the diagram, he returned to his point about mark-making by saying “this isn’t a picture of my thinking. This is my thinking.” Prof. Sousanis noted that it may sound mystical to put it this way. My reaction, though, was that it was actually very much of the world. This is the labor of thinking, given a material shape. Intellectual projects—standard and non-standard dissertations—emerge from this kind of toil. I recall copying long passages from obscure devotional manuals when writing my conventional dissertation and commenting on them after transcription—two levels of mark-making and a kind of immersive act then seeded connections much as the diagram generates thought for Sousanis.

There are many differences of course, not least his hard-won skills as an artist, between the conventional dissertation and what Sousanis has achieved. But most germane perhaps for a rethinking of the dissertation format is how Sousanis foregrounds the role of tools in activities of thinking and knowing. Pen, sketchpad, lay-out, and the book format: a continuum of tools and platforms announce themselves in tandem with the dissertation’s heady content as we read and view Unflattening.

For the next generation of humanists, one matter that distinguishes their practices from my version of rote copying and critical reflection is the bevy of digital tools and mediating platforms available to scholars. With the dissertation itself a tool for thinking and knowing, how can we nurture digital technologies and new media interfaces as places of critical reflection? How do modes of mark-making with these tools and platforms arrive at the point where we say “this isn’t a picture of my thinking. This is my thinking”? How do mentors sustain new scholars in this work, such that the tools serve a larger project that is the dissertation-as-tool? As someone committed to long-form argument, I would finally hope that graduate training is mindful of criteria from the world of the standard dissertation, the criteria of knowing one’s field and offering a minor or major contribution to its scholarly conversation. Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening is an inspiring model, wherein the tools and platforms result in a powerful new view of viewing itself.