What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone?

img_0942Auditorium in the beautiful new Visual Arts Building, site of Wednesday (Oct. 12, 3:30) Conversation with Dr. Amanda Visconti. Dr. Visconti’s dissertation InfiniteUlysses.com  will serve as the impetus for a wide-ranging discussion of dissertation and citation practice. The title of this post comes from the white paper report on progress and process that Dr. Visconti wrote as part of her dissertation portfolio.

At the Next Gen planning meeting in advance of Amanda Visconti’s visit, we identified what we collectively see as the most important tasks that a dissertation in the humanities must accomplish.  We found that the assembled historian, librarian, and literary critics agreed that dissertations must:

Present a new argument or intervention in a field. (There was some disagreement about whether this intervention has to be a “major” one.)

Showcase the author’s fluency in the extant scholarship

Other priorities, not necessarily shared by all, included:

Convey a sustained written argument with clarity and style.

Carry a narrative arc through to completion.

Provide a stepping stone to publication, whether print or digital.

In a similar manner, we pondered the many tasks that the humble footnote has traditionally carried out, and our conversation extended to encompass such broad categories as ethics, collaboration, collegiality, etiquette, and community. “It’s a place to show that writing is not a solitary act, that you are not a ‘solitary singer,'” said a Whitman specialist. “It’s a way of showcasing a community of like-minded scholars,” added another participant. Although we are interested in thinking alongside Amanda Visconti about how citation practice is being altered and expanded in digital venues, we were impressed by the varied work the traditional footnote carries out, and by cultural differences in its deployment (in some countries, footnotes convey miniature essays packed with competing views on a given subject, in others, footnotes communicate only the bare details of attribution).  More than one person noted that footnotes, like a trail of bread crumbs, allow scholars to follow a researcher back to his or her origins, and so hold scholars accountable for their claims.

We look forward to talking with Dr. Visconti about research practices old and new, and about how these practices can be marshaled in the service of varied career pursuits.


We’re thrilled to be welcoming Dr. Amanda Visconti to campus to participate in our first Newly Composed PhD symposium, one of seven gatherings focused on rhetorical forms ranging from the dissertation to the tweet.  The first symposium is described in our grant proposal as follows:

     Symposium 1: The Dissertation– Participants will look at traditional   dissertations across humanities disciplines and also examine an array of new digital dissertation projects that take new forms (e.g., online exhibitions, maps, graphic format) and/or take advantage of new publishing platforms.

In Dr. Visconti, creator of InfiniteUlysses, a participatory digital edition of James Joyce’s masterwork, we have the perfect inspiration for such a discussion.

Visconti’s project could just as easily  provide talking points for our second symposium, focused on citational practices, and described below:

   Symposium 2: The Footnote–Participants will look at the many creative roles the lowly footnote serves, both in the documentation of sources and in the expansion of thought. Participants will think about the work accomplished by this most traditional of citation forms, as they consider how new forms of digital scholarship (such as digital mapping and 3-D modeling) inspire new ways of crediting sources and directing readers to ancillary knowledge bases. This symposium will provide an opportunity to think about collaboration and teamwork more generally as participants consider how the skills required for successful scholarly citation (attention to detail, generous acknowledgment of others’ work, comprehensiveness) are transferable to other occupational settings.

Since the work of Dr. Visconti and that of our second symposium guest, Dr. Nick Sousanis (creator of the first comics dissertation), both serve as great test cases for discussing these issues, we’ll be using both symposia to discuss both the dissertation and the footnote (and citation practices more generally).

Some of the questions we’ll take up with Dr. Visconti:

What modes of citational practice did you deploy in InfiniteUlysses? In what ways did your project require new kinds of citation?

Does InfiniteUlysses get cited in scholarly work? Does this matter?

How do you drive traffic to InfiniteUlysses?

Are Digital Humanities projects changing the ways in which scholars in the humanities think about acknowledgment pages and citations?

What visual influence shaped your platform design?

Did you have inspirational DH projects that you sought to emulate?

How would your prefer your work to be cited? Have you experienced problems with people using your work without citation?

Do you have a clear sense of what is expected of you in the promotion process or of what kind of peer review process your work will encounter?

Are you where you thought you would be?

447px-revolutionary_joyce_better_contrastRevolutionary Joyce, Cornell University Joyce Collection

              Our 9/30 planning group (with members of the core planning committee and the Dissertation and Citation working groups) discussed the form and content of the upcoming visit by Dr. Amanda Visconti, creator of InfiniteUlysses, a participatory digital edition of James Joyce’s masterwork. Our symposium format is inspired by the flipped classroom structure (in which lecture and homework are flipped so that in-class time is devoted to projects and discussions). Rather than asking Dr. Visconti to give a lecture, we’ve asked her to talk with us about the implications of her work, and about the extent to which it can serve as a model as we re-imagine graduate education with a focus on writing, DH training, and career flexibility. With these topics in mind, the planning group composed questions for Dr. Visconti. The questions included:

What was exceptional about your experience as a graduate student? What could or could not be translated for a different institution?

What was the relationship between your comprehensive exam and your innovative dissertation?

Are you where you thought you would be when you began graduate school?

What is the harshest criticism your work has received?

Do you have questions you’d like to ask Dr. Visconti? Please ask them during her visit (see event dates and times in our list of upcoming events) or submit them to judith-pascoe@uiowa.edu

Next Gen PhD planners, creators, and friends: check out Dr. Visconti’s research blog, which includes advice on doing digital work as a humanities graduate student, her dissertation defense talk, and a DH job talk.

Future job wanted, ideal credentials not yet known

speech_pathology_test_the_university_of_iowa_1940sSpeech Pathology Test, U of Iowa, 1940s

Over the past few days, I’ve talked to several groups on campus about the NEH Next Gen Humanities PhD planning process and about our upcoming symposia featuring Dr. Amanda Visconti and Dr. Nick Sousanis, dissertation innovators. The groups included the Humanities Advisory Board, a graduate class in the French department, a group of librarians, and several English PhD students who are working on fine-tuning their job application materials.

Here are some of the concerns expressed by faculty:

“My discipline is a book field, and I’m concerned about sending students out without a book.” And (summarized): To what extent are deans at other universities going to be amenable to unconventional research formats at the promotion stage?

“It’s absolutely vital for students in my field to write real, I mean conventional, dissertations.”

“Students in my department have been doing very well in the academic job market.”

Here are some of the career aspirations expressed by graduate students:

“I want to be an archivist.”

“I would like to be an American Literature college professor. More realistically, I would like to work in international relations, specifically at an embassy/consulate.”

“I would like to be a translator.”

“French teacher or professor in language and literature. (Dream job: music composer for films.)”

“Community engagement relating to cultural policy and human rights and working with women for more education/empowerment.”

September 22 planning meeting and how it flew

mock-airplane-mecca-dayMock airplane, University of Iowa, 1919

Our September 21 Core Planning Group meeting—which was attended by a lecturer, a recent English PhD, two librarians (both with recent PhDs), and two faculty members—settled into air traffic control mode. Most of the work we did during this meeting had to do with drafting the basic structure of future grant activities, most pressingly the upcoming visits (hurray!) of Amanda Visconti, creator of the innovative InfiniteUlysses.com dissertation, and Nick Sousanis, creator of the comics dissertation Unflattening.

Although our original grant proposal described separate symposia organized around discussions of (among other topics) the dissertation (e.g., the tasks it performs, the way these tasks might serve as training for careers beyond the academy) and citation (e.g., new citational practices, Orcid IDs, impact metrics, etc.), we could see how the dissertation work of both Visconti and Sousanis would animate discussions in both areas, so we will keep all these topics in the air during both of their visits.

We also made plans to take an incremental approach to the final requested white paper by composing a draft action list after each symposium. This future-looking summary would showcase the most interesting ideas that came out of each symposium’s gatherings, and concretize how they might be turned into specific actions or ways of achieving the planning process goals (most importantly, the empowering of graduate students to pursue a variety of careers).

Finally, we discussed the welcome development that graduate students on campus, hearing about our planning process, are coming forward to talk about their in-process or imagined future dissertations. Thinking about the specific hopes and dreams of individual students who are just starting to imagine innovative dissertation formats, or who, like Erica Damman (see last post) are already enacting them, allowed us to talk about institutional structures that would encourage or impede such work.

Our next two meetings will bring together Core Planning Group members and members of the Dissertation and Citation working groups. As always, all interested parties, whether part of the planning committee or not, will be welcome to join us.

If we think about the PhD as a process . . .


Erica Damman, an artist and researcher in the UI Interdisciplinary PhD program, studies Environmental Humanities. Erica Damman’s work explores artists and creative practices that intersect with environmental questions. Erica was an Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy Fellow, and she also participated in the Humanities Without Walls Program.

Erica Damman: The exciting part of a nontraditional PhD is for me best illustrated by a quick story, told to me some years ago. A woman was finishing her PhD and reflecting on the work she had completed as she began applying for jobs. She had, she surmised, completed over 40 dives in various locations to study a specific coral and fish relationship. With each dive, she began to understand more about the nuanced relationship between the two and the ways in which they were situated in their wider environment. Now, is she extremely knowledgeable about that specific coral and fish? No doubt she might be titled an expert in that topic. But she’s also an experienced diver. One could even say that the skills required for diving are more relevant to her future as a scholar/human inside or outside the academy.

If we think about the PhD as a process, as a project for honing a skill like diving (while also sharpening skills like analysis, observation, critique, etc.), then the nontraditional PhD for me has been an opportunity to more consciously determine what set of skills I want to cultivate. I wanted to maintain a visual arts practice that offers participatory events outside the academy and I wanted such a practice to take up contemporary issues that resonated with me, in this case human and nonhuman vulnerability in the age of climate change. To this end, I am producing three artist games, playing them with various publics, and situating them in art historical, environmental, and game play research. The most exciting aspect of this process has been the ways that my creative practice has informed my writing and vice versa. In studying theories about games and play, what better way to give my writing depth than to actually experience many of the aspects to making games? The back-end processual knowledge I’ve gained changes the way I approach, analyze, and apply theories of play and games to my project and those like mine.

Doing this kind of work is not without its challenges however. Identifying a faculty committee that recognizes different sorts of scholarly output is a first order issue. And even when said committee acknowledges your creative process and attendant products as part of the dissertation, coming to an understanding of how much that process and those products count for – that is, if you research, prototype, test, and create three games, is that worth as much as, or more, or less than a chapter or two in a traditional dissertation? – is an issue that should be zealously patrolled. The continued newness of alternative dissertation projects means that the project is still compared to a 250-page monograph, and the danger is that the graduate student ends up doing an and, and project. For example, it’s great that you want to make this creative, visual work for your project but you’ll do that and you’ll complete the normal amount of written work. Other difficulties include the real work of having to be your own advocate – defending not just your project’s content or conceptual framing but the structure as well, not having a lot of people or examples to look to, and finally, balancing time for creative and written output.

Looking for innovative, consequential dissertations


Dancers, University of Iowa, 1928

At the September 13 core planning group meeting, we celebrated the news that Amanda Visconti, creator of Infinite Ulysses (an award-winning dissertation project which encourages readers from all walks of life to read James Joyce’s masterwork and to participate in the annotation of its elusive twists and turns), will be participating in our symposium on the dissertation. We discussed what will likely become the basic structure for each of our Newly Composed PhD symposia: a lunch discussion at which the guest will talk to graduate students, a larger conversational gathering at which the guest’s innovative contribution will be (swiftly) showcased before we (the entire Next Gen PhD planning committee, along with members of the larger community, especially Directors of Graduate Studies, current graduate students, and members of the Humanities Advisory Committee) zero in on issues related to transforming graduate education so that graduate students are better prepared for future careers both within and beyond the academy. After each of our symposia, a Next Gen working group will create a document in which they list the best strategies broached by the symposium participants, and brainstorm about how they might be implemented, this as a rough draft contribution to the action plan we plan to write at the end of the planning year.

One of our graduate student committee members mentioned that she entered her PhD program knowing that she is not interested in a career as a college professor—she looks forward to working in a library, and is excited about using mapping tools both as means to visualize arguments and to reveal patterns in data. Another graduate student visitor to our planning meeting, a PhD candidate in the University of Iowa’s Interdisciplinary PhD program (a student about which we will say more in a future posting), is developing a game as part of her dissertation work.

We also made tentative plans to curate a list of innovative, consequential dissertations to serve as inspirational models. Nominations? (leave a comment or send suggestions to judith-pascoe@uiowa.edu)

“Faculty who are resistant to change sometimes have a hard time imagining the purpose of the PhD as being anything other than what they’ve done themselves.”

Farmers_at_Constitution_Hall_listening_to_address_by_Secretary_of_Agriculture_Henry_Wallace_Washington_DC_May_14_1935(1)     Farmers listening to address by Henry Wallace (Iowa Digital Library)

The Next Generation Humanities PhD core planning group met, and discussed change implementation-related issues both institutional (the ability of faculty members to imagine varied futures for their students) and practical (the names of people we might want to have participate in our planned symposia (see grant proposal).

To that end, and looking toward our first symposium on the dissertation, we’ve started identifying PhD students (both on our own campus and elsewhere) who are creating non-traditional dissertations. Please let us know (you can email judith-pascoe@uiowa.edu) if you have suggestions.

We also began to brainstorm about the types of people who might best contribute to our second symposium focusing on citation. These might include editors of digital journals and data wranglers outside of academe.

We agreed that we want our gatherings to be discussion/working group-oriented, so, rather than ask visitors to give lectures, we might have a committee member introduce a visitor’s work (with specific mention of the aspects most relevant to our planning process) and then broach the key issues we want to discuss.

We welcome input on the symposia guests and format, the latter of which will be flexible enough for the symposia planning groups to shape in different ways.

If there’s a way we can indoctrinate people not to be indoctrinated . . .


A Medievalist and a Management specialist were both drawn to Sidonie Smith’s phrase “intellectually nimble” during the third preliminary meeting of UI’s NEH Next Generation PhD planning committee. (Committee members, Directors of Graduate Studies, and Humanities Advisory Board members were invited to discuss excerpts from Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities and also Alexandria Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon’s showcasing of innovative dissertations in “What’s the Point: The Dissertation as Process and Not Product.”) “If there’s a way we can indoctrinate people not to be indoctrinated,” that would be optimal, suggested one participant.

day 3 no 2

A Chemist pointed to the way in which graduate students in the sciences sometimes spend their first year doing short stints in a wide variety of labs, a practice that, if it could be adapted for the humanities, might ease the isolation humanities graduate students sometimes feel, as well as introducing them to a wider range of methodologies at an early point in their training. A specialist in graduate development noted that when students feel anxious and depressed they get more rigid and so are less able to see a wide range of paths forward.


Several people were interested in Smith’s suggestion that a dissertation might take the form of a “suite” of writings, possibly of different lengths and/or pitched at different audiences. A Historian, who had had a previous career in a foreign policy think tank, thought that completing a suite of different kinds of writing would beautifully prepare students for this kind of alternate career.  A research center director noted that the UI Rhetoric department has offered a course in which students are asked to write in different modes each week (e.g., spending one week writing cover letters). A participant from the School of Business noted another model could be found in Economics, where students produced a “bundling of meaningful products that could be meaningfully applied.”

day 3

The group circled back several times to talking about Nick Sousanis’s innovative comic book dissertation, published by Harvard University Press. Threaded into this discussion were considerations of teaching (a Rhetoric Lecturer mentioned Cathy Davidson’s advocacy of a radically democratic classroom), of comprehensive exams (a French professor asked whether the ways in which reading lists are composed make the traditional dissertation a foregone conclusion), and of graduate student mentoring (a Librarian/game developer emphasized the importance of having mentors from alternative career paths).


Participants wrote some of their ideas, priorities, and questions on index cards, some of which are included in this post.

People nestle in like ticks to discuss the subjunctive . . .


If this second of three discussion sessions had an organizing concern, it had to do with speed versus slowness in the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. A Classics professor noted the pleasure specialists take in lingering over the fine points of grammar (“people nestle in like ticks to discuss the subjunctive”), while an American Studies specialist noted that the long form of the dissertation is linked to long forms of attention, expressing a worry that the latter might be lost when there is a push to make things more easily digested. A Musicologist, noting time-to-degree pressures, suggested that graduate students are increasingly reluctant to delve into areas of specialization that require facility in a foreign language.


The group, which also included a poet and two historians, saw the value in short-form and swiftly-published modes of writing like the blog and the tweet, recognizing how they can get students writing about their intellectual projects sooner and more regularly (“writing is a muscle; you need to be writing every single day,” noted a scholar/blogger), and how they make work accessible to a broader public (in a “turn toward public history and public writing”). One participant noted how an ability to write for different audiences will serve students interested in careers as diplomats and grants administrators, many if not most of whom have PhDs. Another person noted that a recent history PhD built a large network of people interested in her work by means of blogging and tweeting research in progress.


The group also discussed how university hiring practices might serve students making the transition from graduate school to the job market. Participants speculated about whether the UI could forge relationships with other institutions so that, for example, rather than developing post-docs for our PhDs, we developed post-doc relationships with other universities. In this way, our recent graduates could be exposed to new ideas and ways of doing things at other institutions, and those institutions’ recent PhDs could do the same at the UI. A similar relationship might be imagined for alt-ac internships.


Some of the participants’ personal priorities are communicated on the index cards included in this post.