unflatteningcover         We look forward with great anticipation to the arrival of Dr. Nick Sousanis, an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University. Nick is the creator of Unflattening, which started as a dissertation in comics form, an experiment in making an argument through images, and went on to become a much-celebrated book published by Harvard University Press. Nick will be a participant in our second Next Gen PhD symposium, one that is focused on the footnote or, more generally, forms of citation, but Nick’s creative practice will also help us talk about the dissertation (the topic of our first symposium), and social media forms like the tweet and the blog post (topics of future symposia). Because Nick’s book argues that words and images are equal partners in meaning-making, he finds ways to cite images that influenced his argument as fundamentally as did the words of philosophers and theorists.

We planned for Dr. Sousanis’s visit through our regular series of planning meetings, but also through an Unflattening reading group composed of faculty, graduate students, and librarians. At all of these gatherings, we tossed around questions that we hope will fuel conversations when Nick hits campus on Friday (October 21, graduate student session in main library from 12:00 to 1:00; a conversation with Dr. Nick Sousanis in BCSB, 101, from 3:30 to 5). Here are some of the questions we posed:

Why did you choose academe? What was the utility of the PhD for you? Did you consider careers outside the academy?

What were the limitations of traditional modes of scholarship that led you to prefer the comics form? What new things did this format allow you to do? Were there kinds of information that exceeded the boundaries of a traditional dissertation?

Please talk about images as sources.

Who were your main artistic influences?

How do you manage your archive?

Are there moments when you rue the word limitations that are placed upon you by the comics form?

What’s the most challenging criticism your work has received?

Who did you see as your audience while you were working on your dissertation? on your book?

What were the most important aspects of the ways you were mentored as a graduate student?

Are there aspects of your graduate education that you would do differently if you were to start over again?

Does it matter whether or not conventional scholarship cites your work?

How would you mentor traditionalists? Do aspects of your creative practice translate to working with students who are writing in more conventional modes?

The role of generosity in best practices for digital humanities advisors


img_0959Dr. 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.

What Amanda Visconti and Infinite Ulysses Get about James Joyce

Tom Keegan

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.

With Professor Amanda Visconti in town this week as part of the University of Iowa’s NEH Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. Planning Grant, I wanted to reflect on the importance of her Infinite Ulysses project for literary study in general and Joyce studies in particular.

Amanda Visconti—then a graduate student at the University of Maryland.
Amanda Visconti—then a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

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.

Heyward Ehrlich's James Joyce Text Machine. Screencap of in-text annotation links with resizeable windows.
Heyward Ehrlich’s James Joyce Text Machine. Screencap of in-text annotation links with resizeable windows.

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.

The welcoming front page of Infinite Ulysses.
The welcoming front page of Infinite Ulysses.

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.

Next Gen Ph.D.: A Conversation with Amanda Visconti was held on Wednesday, October 12th, 2016 at 3:30pm in the E125 Visual Arts Building.


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?

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 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

“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 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.