Dr. Amanda Visconti reflects on her dissertation experience at Next Gen Humanities PhD Symposium
Post by Amy Chen, Special Collections Instruction Librarian, U of Iowa
What struck me as I listened to Amanda Visconti’s question and answer session last Wednesday is that the generosity of Visconti’s mentors helped enable her success in academia as an Assistant Professor in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Education and Business division of Purdue University Libraries. I focus on the word “generosity” because it indicates that the mentorship Visconti received went beyond what traditionally is given in an academic setting. The exceptional support her committee provided highlights two examples of best practices that could be adapted by future digital humanities advisors to make Visconti’s experience more universal.
First, Visconti’s committee members prepared her to answer negative feedback that would misinterpret the value of her digital humanities work. In so doing, they viewed themselves as advocates of their unconventional student rather than as traditional certifiers of disciplinary expertise. As the author of the first fully digital dissertation, Visconti needed to anticipate how textual studies scholars would perceive Infinite Ulysses. Although her committee—Matthew Kirschenbaum, Neil Fraistat, Melanie Kill, Kari Kraus, and Brian Richardson—was fully supportive of her approach, they recognized Infinite Ulysses could be perceived as just an edited digital edition of Joyce’s masterwork. Then, the question would be if editorial work was sufficient for obtaining a doctorate. But Visconti did not shy away from this critique because she was able to engage with it early in her project’s development. Therefore, doctoral committees need to view their role as not only grounding graduate students in the extant scholarship, but also helping them anticipate how these modes of scholarship will view digital approaches.
Second, Visconti’s entire committee met every semester. In contrast, many graduate students only are able to get their committees in one room in person at critical moments in their graduate careers, such as at their exam or defense meetings. The collective approach taken by Visconti’s committee did not replace individual relationships; rather it bolstered those one-on-one meetings by helping Visconti to discuss Infinite Ulysses in both settings. However, to make biannual committee meetings possible for graduate students, faculty may need to formally revise their expectations for mentoring. Otherwise, as Visconti’s use of the word “generosity” recognizes, the majority of faculty will not find the time for these additional recommended meetings.
Tom Keegan, Head of the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, is an Iowa English PhD whose dissertation focused on pub phenomenology in the works of James Joyce. Tom’s twitter handle is @tmkeegan.
In 2015, Amanda Visconti did something that many Joyceans had often considered but never fully realized: she invited the public to annotate a public, web-based, and full-text version of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). For decades, scholars had struggled with the notoriously irascible Joyce estate and its policing of copyright, access, and articulation where Joyce’s writings were concerned. The past thirty-plus years are littered with wonderful projects—some digital, some not—that bear the strain and scars of policy and litigation.
By 2012, however, Joyce’s novel could now circulate in ways that its author (arguably) had hoped it would. That year, Ulysses exited copyright and returned anew to the welcoming embrace of the public—a public that is its subject; a public for whom it was written; a public that can now in turns, be informed by and inform the text.
When Amanda Visconti, as a graduate student, began work on her project, she entered into a long line of digital projects that sought to remediate aspects of Joyce’s work. Some of these projects were annotative in nature; others sought to echo the experimental aspects of Joyce’s writings. In her excellent whitepaper submitted as part of her doctoral dissertation, Professor Visconti maps out a number of digital treatments of Joyce’s work. So, I won’t rehash those here.
Instead, I want to call attention to her project for its public, digital focus on collaboration and community-building.
There is arguably no work of literature more devoted to the idea and the practice of community than James Joyce’s Ulysses. As early as Dubliners (1914), Joyce was remarking on his own “scrupulous meanness” with respect to that collection’s careful articulation of seeming banality. Joyce’s talent for translating the everyday into prose informs all of his works. And Ulysses, the story of a day in Dublin, so elegantly, so experimentally, so thoroughly captures the pulse and verve of life hiding in plain site, that Joyce boasted to his friend Frank Budgen, “I want…to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” The line is, of course, not literally true—and today, with Dublin having undergone so many transformations, too much physical difference lies between the Dublin of Ulysses and its 21st century iteration. But I don’t think that was Joyce’s point. Joyce is, for me, our most human writer. The picture of Dublin he gives us is one informed by our pettiness, insecurities, and fears just as fully as it is our empathy, charity, and loves. Where we fail to give things a second thought—opening a door, crossing the street, pouring a drink—Joyce follows behind us, gathers up the neglected details of our everyday lives, and relocates them in this human narrative. And by virtue of reading Ulysses, we re-encounter ourselves in the text.
Now, that’s a point I had to make in order to best articulate the value of what Amanda Visconti has done. For years, people have created reading groups around Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Those texts nearly necessitate and certainly support a multiplicity of perspectives. Joyce’s work both turn upon and turn towards the public. We read them to better know ourselves and in reading them we create or are brought into new communities addressing those texts. Infinite Ulysses stands as one of the most successful public digital projects that attends to the work of literary criticism via annotation while at the same time creating a community around the text.
This summer, J.D. Biersdorfer, writing for the New York Times, mentioned the site in a piece about the rise of digital assistance in reading Joyce’s tome. Biersdorfer referred to the site as “a global community of readers and scholars discussing an online copy of the text together in a mash-up of literary analysis and group therapy.” I have no issue with that assessment. The creation of a vibrant community in which ideas circulate, questions are posed, debates had, and the odd or idiosyncratic view conveyed seems like precisely the picture of humanity Joyce sought to give us.
A dissertation that advances both a critical apparatus for approaching (literary) works while also enacting public use of them marks, to my mind, a turning point in what we can expect from a dissertation. For me, Infinite Ulysses illustrates just how much of Joyce’s work Professor Visconti came to understand while pursuing her degree. The fact that her dissertation reaches beyond the page and into the broader public captures the essence of Joyce’s work in a way few do.
Auditorium 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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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 email@example.com)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Our first (of three) Next Gen Humanities PhD planning meetings brought together two department chairs, a PhD student, a librarian/English PhD, a university administrator/humanities prof, and a lecturer/teaching initiative innovator. We began by discussing an excerpt 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.”
One participant raised the issue of whether we want to encourage students to take a “both/and” approach—that is, to write a traditional dissertation and create more innovation manifestations of research findings. This contributor went on to note that her department had success in placing students in academic jobs at places that required a traditional dissertation. Another person expressed concern about a possible “thinning” of traditional disciplinary training, even as she conveyed enthusiasm for students developing facility with new digital tools and platforms.
Another person broached the question of whether we are open to NOT requiring a “both/and” approach, which led to several people inquiring about the purpose of the PhD. “What do you need it to be a record of?” one person asked, going on to say, “A thesis is not a record of everything someone has done—there are other ways to assess students’ abilities as teachers, organizers, et al.” We should be thinking about what creates the most successful intellectual project, another suggested, going on to say that choosing the right platform should be part of the intellectual project.
One participant noted the inflationary tendencies in dissertation requirements—humanities dissertations were no always as long as they are today. Another noted that it would be possible to highlight the abilities one develops while writing a dissertation: e.g. developing an argument, making connections to others’ arguments.
Several people were intrigued by Sidonie Smith’s suggestion that students might complete a “suite” of essays, perhaps pitched to different audiences. One person wondered if the comps level would be the place to start something like this; another expressed an interest in getting students to write for different audiences (and at different lengths) from the first year of grad school. One person suggested a seminar “paper” that could have linked references and outlinks to digital artifacts.
Another participant, noting that employers request project management skills, expressed the view that a graduate student who had developed a large-scale instructional project, requiring her undergraduate students to work together and publish an online project, would be able to demonstrate the project management skills she used as she designed and orchestrated a complicated classroom effort with many moving parts.
As the discussion went on, structural and systemic issues arose, for example, issues related to graduate student funding (now based almost entirely on teaching assistantships), and to a rise in the number of contingent faculty. “Who is going to teach the new skills we think our graduate students will need?” one person queried. Another expressed this concern: “Will students who want to pursue alternate careers feel they have the support of their faculty mentors?”
Touching back on our grant proposal’s attention to social media platforms, such as Twitter, we talked about how communities of scholars living in far-flung places have new opportunities to talk about their common interests. We discussed how graduate students, even as they begin their training might tap into diverse online communities, and begin to develop scholarly identities.
Before we dispersed, participants wrote down some preliminary concerns and priorities on index cards.