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.

On Winning the 3-Minute Thesis Competition

 

Miele~Benjamin
Miele~Benjamin

Ben Miele, Assistant Professor of English at University of the Incarnate Word, won the University of Iowa 3-Minute Thesis competition in 2015. Ben will be a guest participant in the UI Next Gen PhD Elevator Pitch/3-Minute Thesis symposium (Nov. 18, 12-1, Main Library 2032).  He allowed us to republish a blog post he wrote just after he completed his PhD in English last year. Ben’s twitter handle is @HarpocratesJr.

I am using this opportunity not only to brag about finishing grad school but also to brag about winning the University of Iowa’s inaugural 3MT®Competition. What is it? According to Iowa’s website for the competition, 3MT is “an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland, Australia. In this competition students share their dissertation research with a general audience in an oral presentation lasting at most … three minutes. Begun in 2008, the competition has grown to include more than 125 universities worldwide, including 45 in the United States.”

Distilling a dissertation down to three minutes is challenging but doable—and valuable. The emphasis is on clarity and concision, cornerstones of those ever-important communication skills, and so it helps students in any discipline, primarily because they can practice explaining an involved and arcane research project to an audience that is not in the field. But even those “in the field” are not experts on the particular topic of each and every dissertation. My dissertation was about surveillance and reading, and few researchers of early modern English literature are experts on Renaissance surveillance practices. So the 3MT can help with the thesis defense, the elevator pitch, and the job interview—as well as with the justification of the English PhD to inquisitorial relatives at Thanksgiving.

If students start planning to do it early enough, the 3MT can even help them hone their arguments at the prospectus stage. The 3MT asks students to explain how they arrived at their research, what new discoveries they made, and why it matters—all in just three minutes. Prospectuses, ideally, also aim to situate one’s research in a larger conversation, explain one’s unique contribution, and show why a research finding is important. I think the 3MT model could even help in the creation of a prospectus.

Going through the 3MT process can make one more competitive when applying for scholarships, fellowships, and grants. It encourages students to think about how to appeal to a broader audience—something that, unfortunately, is often not considered until late in the writing process. if preparation for the competition is started early enough, the 3MT can make the thesis better. In any event, or as in my case, it can make the explanation of the thesis better. And if the competition takes place at an amazing place like the University of Iowa, one can get a short, user-friendly video about one’s research, great for showcasing on one’s web site.

Check out my three-minute presentation, which garnered me a first-place prize and a People’s Choice award—not thePeople’s Choice©, ®, , etc. award, but an award nonetheless.

How Laura Kuhlman Got to the Three-Minute Thesis Finals

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Laura Kuhlman, English PhD Candidate

A guest post by Laura Kuhlman, PhD Candidate, Department of English

The Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) finals are this Friday, and I am beyond excited to be part of this event. I was asked to share my experience in going through the preliminary round of the competition, so that other students might know what to expect if they sign up in the coming years. Essentially, 3MT gathers graduate students from all over campus to share their research with a larger community and to highlight some of the awesome work taking place at the University of Iowa. The challenge set out for competitors is to cogently describe their research to folks who might not be familiar with their subjects, making it clear why this research is important, and describing their work in a compelling, interesting way—all in three minutes or less.

I had heard that the 3MT was great practice for future job interviews, so when I got the email from the Graduate College advertising the preliminaries, I signed right up. This year, 43 graduate students participated in the first round, sharing projects from many disciplines. My favorite part of the competition has been hearing about some of the other projects, from researchers striving to cure blindness and cancer to researchers involved in getting more people to vote. It is exciting to be able to learn something new from an expert on his or her subject in such a small burst of time.

So, what is it like to shrink your thesis down to the bite-size version and give the three-minute pitch? It’s a challenge, but a fun one. I had a few weeks to prepare, so I started by drafting a script and reading it out loud with a stopwatch. To talk about the women writers of the Beat Generation, I had to think about what someone would need to know to understand what I’m doing if they aren’t familiar with this time period in literary history. (Who are the Beats? What did they do? Why do we need to talk about the women writers? Why does this project matter?) I did my best to cut out as much jargon as possible, and to shape my explanation around a story that would keep people interested. Then, it was time to practice, practice, practice!

On the day of the preliminary speeches, we were called up one at a time to present our work. Everyone was allowed to have one static PowerPoint slide projected onto the auditorium widescreen behind them, and a time clock in the corner ticked down from three minutes to the end. Presenting to a panel of judges and a small audience (I’d say there were about fifteen people watching my group), we delivered our speeches, each of us keeping one eye on the clock as we spoke. Presenters were evaluated based on the accessibility of the content, the clarity of the speech, and the style of the presentation.

Although I was a bit nervous as I went through my speech, it was great practice for presenting my work, and I’d recommend taking part in the competition to anyone in the later years of their graduate research, especially those preparing for prospectus defenses or the job market. If you want to check out the 3MT finals, they’ll be held this Friday, November 4th, from 3:00-5:00 in the Art Building West, room 240. Come and hear about some really cool projects, and come cheer us on—it should be a lot of fun!