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.

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Digital humanities is a spectrum; or, we’re all digital humanists now

Digital humanities is a spectrum. To put it another way, all humanities scholars use digital practices and concepts to one degree or another, even those who do not identify as digital humanists. Working as a digital humanist is not one side of a binary, the other side of which is working as a traditional scholar.

Consider a few examples: one historian keeps notes and transcribed documents in MS Word documents so that they can be searched. A literary scholar uses a print-on-demand machine to get a physical copy of a book or newspaper scanned by Google. A medievalist uses a library or archive website to read a document that would otherwise require a trip to Europe. A professor making assignments for a class posts readings to Blackboard. A graduate student in a hurry uses Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to verify a footnote. A history department circulates papers for a workshop via e-mail.

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