Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations at Mason

The Department of History and Art History at George Mason University has recently approved guidelines for digital dissertations. While PhD students at several universities have already produced digital dissertations in the humanities, to my knowledge these are the first guidelines for born-digital dissertations created at the departmental level. The guidelines take a broad view of what producing a digital dissertation might entail. The primary author of the guidelines was my colleague Sharon Leon, who has written a post about how she put the guidelines together. These guidelines open a lot of room for graduate students to determine the form of their dissertations, while also providing some concrete guidance about the essential elements. I hope the guidelines clear the way for graduate students in our department to create the kinds of dissertations that they want. Graduate students should have room to be intellectual pioneers without having to always be institutional pioneers as well.

There are three things that I want to say about these guidelines.

First, the guidelines take seriously the fact that graduate students come to our PhD program with many aims besides or in addition to the search for a professorial position, and so they may wish to create a dissertation other than the proto-monograph. While I think that any student who wants to should be able to do a monographic dissertation (that has never been in doubt), PhD students can decide for themselves what type of dissertation might best suit their aims while being held to the profession’s standards for research and emerging standards for digital work.

Second, the guidelines permit experimentation with form. A decade ago digital history was much more concerned than it is now about how the digital would create new forms of scholarship beyond the monograph and the journal article. Outside of digital public history, questions of form seem to have mostly dropped out of the discussion, or at least taken a back seat to other concerns. I don’t have a convincing explanation for why that is the case, but it seems to me that a crucial point is that experimentation has been mostly closed off in the context of dissertation research. For all the ways that a dissertator is beholden to a committee, there is a certain freedom to writing a dissertation. Unlike a journal article or book, whose form is fixed, a dissertation can be whatever a committee and department is willing to accept, and a candidate and a committee can negotiate about the form. We insist that graduate students push the boundaries of the field in terms of the content of their dissertations, and it seems to me that dissertations might be the place to also push the boundaries of forms. I have no particular agenda when it comes to the form of scholarship, but I think that our graduate students do.

Third, the guidelines permit hybrid dissertations. Unless a graduate student has a compelling reason to do otherwise, this is the kind of dissertation that I would steer someone who wants to a digital dissertation towards. Such a dissertation would likely take the shape of a primarily monographic dissertation in which a chapter or two is replaced by, for example, an interactive visualization, a set of maps, or perhaps a generalized software package. I think that many dissertation topics in history can be more clearly framed as part digital and part proto-monograph than they can be as fully digital. Such an approach would let PhD students demonstrate competence in both digital research and more traditional research. And it would let the dissertator fit the methods to problem rather than be beholden to either a monographic or an all-digital form. The crucial point is that in a hybrid dissertation students will not be asked to do all the work of a dissertation plus the digital, but can have their digital work count towards their degree.

But those are just my thoughts about what might come from these digital dissertation guidelines. I’m much more interested in seeing the scholarship that the PhD students in our department will come up with.