A Place to Begin: Digital Dissertations as a Form of Digital Publishing

My friend and colleague Doug Eyman opened his post on this topic with the question, “what constitutes ‘digital publishing’” (2013)? To his answer I would add my own: digital dissertations. Although dissertations are not formally peer reviewed and edited, anyone who has written or directed a dissertation knows that this work happens with dissertations as well. Thus, dissertations, specifically born-digital dissertations constitute a form of digital publishing. Given my interests and research it is this type of digital publication that I focus on below. 

Over roughly the past ten years humanities scholars have begun to recognize the growing importance of digital media in knowledge production and distribution. (Andersen, 2004; Purdy & Walker, 2010) However, recognition does not imply embrace. While there are some scholars in traditional disciplines such as history and English who have incorporated digital media and tools into their research and publication practices, they mostly operate in the margins of traditional disciplines. The most valued scholarship is still the book, monograph, and journal article, which not only limits the audience for humanities research to university scholars, but also limits its forms of argumentation to a primarily Western, linearly structured way of thinking. That is, relying on one mode of communication limits what can be said and to whom it can be said making the humanities insular rather than allowing it to take advantage of opportunities to communicate with the broader public. Employment and research opportunities exist in many areas outside academia including digital poetry and fiction, publishing, public relations. However, this forward thinking approach to digital media is not the norm in academic publication and scholarship.

Even my field of rhetoric and composition, which has a longstanding acceptance of computer technology, is still grappling with the implications digital media technologies have for research in the humanities. The reluctance of humanities scholars to fully embrace digital publication and scholarship is not due to its novelty or rapid evolution, but due to a deeply embedded philosophy of knowledge that privileges print-centric ways of knowing and solitary authorship. As Michel Foucault theorizes in “The Orders of Discourse,” disciplines control what is knowable, what counts as disciplinary knowledge, by controlling the methods, procedures, and modes of analysis permissible in conducting research. Anything that falls outside these rules of disciplinary practice cannot count as knowledge, and often is considered nonsensical (1977).

One of the places that this print bias can be clearly seen is the space where new scholars are trained or “disciplined”: doctoral education—specifically the dissertation process. My colleague, Dr. Carrie Lamanna, and I chose to look at doctoral education not as a means to improving or redesigning programs (although that could be an eventual application of our research), but as a way to uncover and analyze the philosophies of knowledge that govern what counts as legitimate scholarship and publication in the humanities. Until we understand this, digital publication and scholarship will never gain full acceptance and be allowed to develop in depth and complexity.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation’s study The Responsive PhD, argues that “scholarship is the heart of the doctorate” and that programs need to ask the question “What encourages adventurous scholarship? What retards and discourages it?” (The Responsive PhD 2005, p. 16). Adventurous scholarship requires “new paradigms,” which requires an examination of the often unarticulated philosophies that govern what qualifies as legitimate publication and scholarship.

In an effort to begin to answer the questions posed in The Responsive Ph.D., Lamanna and I analyzed the training graduate students are receiving not in pedagogy but in conducting digital, multimodal scholarship outside the classroom. We investigated the new digital composing work being done by graduate students with a specific focus on the research opportunities and challenges they face when composing digital media theses and dissertations. We hypothesized that the forms of digital media make visible the ways in which the traditional print-based form, the standard for humanities theses and dissertations, constrain the research and arguments graduate student scholars can make. Our project was designed to answer the following questions:

  1. What textual forms are current graduate students permitted to use for their theses and dissertations, what programs and offices regulate these textual forms, and how do format restrictions constrain the types of research graduate students can undertake?
  2. What theoretical and practical training is necessary for graduate students to be able to make rhetorically sound decisions about using new media forms in their theses and dissertations, and is that training being offered?
  3. How can the print-based model that encloses humanities research be altered in order for graduate student scholars to fully participate in the critical digital media work being done in the field of rhetoric and composition?

These questions grew out of my and Dr. Lamanna’s observations of the dissertation process. As graduate students and then as new faculty we watched as those trained as digital media scholars were not able to enact  their scholarship in their dissertations; they were able to write about digital media, but they were not able to write in digital media. Cheryl Ball (2004) elucidated this paradox in her article “Show, not tell: The value of new media scholarship” when she stated:

In writing this article, I acknowledge with an uncomfortable irony that I have created a paradox—it is my intention for authors to think about and understand new media scholarship as a way to use multiple modes of communication to form persuasive meanings...instead of always relying on written, linear text. Yet, I am not enacting the practice I suggest. Mea culpa: New media scholarship is so new to humanities fields that I wanted the evidence of this linear article to point toward the exploration of new media texts as directly and conventionally as possible. Had I chosen to discuss this issue through new media presentation, the evidence for the necessity of moving toward new media would have had less impact. (p. 404-405)

In order to make her scholarship accessible and acceptable to the field of rhetoric and composition, and to the humanities in general, Ball was constrained to publish it in a linear, print-based form, rather than a digital, multimedia form.

In the eight years since the publication of Ball’s article, opportunities for digital scholarship have increased; however, significant roadblocks to this work still exist including lack of peer-reviewed publication venues and tenure and promotion guidelines that privilege print publications and scholarship over the digital. For doctoral candidates, the roadblocks are significant. The humanities’ slow acceptance of digital publishing and scholarship is a symptom of the dominance of print culture in academia; in addition, graduate programs often want doctoral candidates to prove themselves in traditional print forms before sanctioning digital work. This is evident in the fact that the dissertation is one of the most rigid print forms in the humanities—a format that the author later revises into a monograph for his or her first formal publication. Thus, choosing to compose a digital dissertation means going against a long established tradition that yields the best chances for a successful academic career. The dissertation deposit options also reflect the print-centric philosophy of the humanities.

In addition, the recent NEH-funded project “Building An Open-Source Archive for Born-Digital Dissertations,” found that all the electronic deposit options currently available assume a print-based dissertation (e.g., a word-processing document converted to a PDF) and allow other media forms only as appendices or supplemental material (Gossett & Potts, 2013). Even the Electronic Theses and Dissertations system (ETD) assumes the primary file deposited will be print-based; other media types must be stripped from the main document and deposited as individual files thereby not allowing for complex mixed-media digital work such as integrated websites or database systems. The lack of a robust digital depository system is further evidence of the underlying philosophical importance of print-based publication and scholarship in the humanities. Susan Schreibman, Laura Mandell, and Stephen Olsen make a similar point in their introduction to the digital scholarship section of the 2011 issue of Profession, and they go on to explain that a shift to digital production and publication might well be a paradigm shift in the humanities:

Digital technologies do more than propose new ways of thinking, as did theory; they require new modes of being. To put this in less dramatic terms, the digital revolution requires us as a profession to make conscious the motivations and values inherent in material practices, from putting a manuscript in the mail to a publisher to requiring for tenure “a book between covers.” We must transfer the values informing these activities and practices onto new modes of activity, so that we understand, value, and evaluate theoretical decisions about database modeling, algorithms, and information flows to best support new research and reading practices. (p. 126)

What better place to begin this transformation than in “the space where new scholars are trained or ‘disciplined’... specifically the dissertation process”? By training graduate students in the use of digital publication and research tools and opening the dissertation to digital forms we would prepare the next generation of scholars to see digital publishing as the norm rather than the exception.


Andersen, Daniel. (Ed.) (2004). Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, Inc.

Ball, Cheryl (2004). Show, not tell: The value of new media scholarship. Computers and Composition, 21(4), 403-425.

Eyman, Douglas. (15 October 2013). Toward best practices: The infrastructure of digital publishing. MediaCommons. Retrieved from http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-are-new-insights-d...toward-best-practices-infrastructure-digi

Foucault, Michel (1977). The orders of discourse. Social Science Information, 10(2), 7-30.

Goggin, Peter & Boyd, Patricia Webb (2009). Letter from the guest editors. Computers and Composition, 26(1), 1-3.

Gossett, Kathie. & Potts, Liza. (2013). Final report to the NEH on the digital humanities start-up level 1 grant: Building an open-source archive for born digital dissertations. (White paper). National Endowment for the Humanities, Office of Digital Humanities.

Purdy, James & Walker, Joyce. (2010). Valuing digital scholarship: Exploring the changing realities of intellectual work. Profession, 177-195.

Schreibman, Susan, Mandell, Laura & Olsen, Stephen. (2011). Evaluating Digital Scholarship: Introduction. Profession, 123–201.

Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, (2005). The responsive ph.d: Innovations in u.s. doctoral education. Retrieved from  http://woodrow.org/news/publications/responsive-phd/

Image on front page by chndru and available on Flickr. 


The fact that the NEH Project and ETD privilege text is not shocking, but has me asking questions about the structures of these sites. MediaCommons itself is a completely digital publication that also privileges print. There are several reasons for this, but I think that overall our ability to maintain and structure multimedia sites remains problematic and I think many sites are still trying to figure this out, both in private and academic ventures. I am also considering what a primarily visual/interactive dissertation would resemble.

It has come up several times throughout various surveys, but how do we change the environment? Doing the risky thing as Katleen Fitzpatrick has described it, demands that the PhD have a supportive board, institution, and department to head into. Does the PhD limit his or her job market if he or she publishes in primarily digital formats? Or are we about to hit a point where that won't be the case (We have had several contributors mention that they have counted digital scholarship towards their tenure packets)? Finally, how do we begin to train PhD students in best practices for digital dissertation publication?

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