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What Is a Dissertation? New Models, New Methods, New Media (CUNY Graduate Center, October 10, 2014)

The Futures Initiative at CUNY Graduate Center, HASTAC@CUNY, CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative, along with distance partners that included the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University, HASTAC Scholars, Hybrid Pedagogy, held a forum titled What Is a Dissertation? New Models, New Methods, New Media last Friday, October 10, 2014. The forum was held at CUNY Graduate Center and showcased five dissertations from recent and current doctoral students that exemplified innovative and experimental formats, including websites, interactive multimedia, and comics. Each panelist discussed their dissertation and explained the process of working with an alternative model. The event was webcast and live tweeted by the Futures Initiative and CUNY DHI fellows, and audience members were encouraged to contribute to a live Google Doc where they could pose questions and discuss ideas.

Cathy N. Davidson, co-founder of HASTAC and director of The Futures Initiative, chaired the forum, and each panelist was given time to talk the audience through their dissertation project and speak about the insights that arose and the challenges they faced. The first panelist to speak was Jade E. Davis, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication Studies. Davis used Tumblr as a platform to create her born digital dissertation, Historical Glitch, which examines the way digitization affects cultural narratives through an archive of digital photographs. She referred to her site as an “archive remixing project” where she posted information to the site and linked back to the source archive. Davis discussed applying web analytics to her dissertation and learned that she had reached 2000 Tumblr followers, who came to the site organically. Davis emphasized that the digital format allowed her to reach a wider audience than more traditional dissertation formats. This is an example of a more inclusive, “populist” humanism, discussed by Cathy Davidson in her essay “Humanities 2.0: Promises, Perils, Predictions” (2008.)

Next, Dwayne Dixon, a recent PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, discussed his ethnography of young people in contemporary Japan. He created this project using Scalar, an open-source, digital humanities publishing platform developed at USC. The platform allowed Dixon to combine a traditional ethnographic approach with archival video footage to create new links in his dissertation. Dixon described Scalar as user friendly, intuitive, and requiring low-level technology skills. It is a platform he has been able to incorporate into the classes he teaches to undergraduate students. Humanities disciplines traditionally do not require learning advanced technology skills, and scholars may be opposed to working on non-traditional dissertations or other digital humanities projects because they are intimidated by technology. It could be encouraging for scholars to see that Davis’ and Dixon’s projects successfully utilized platforms that required low level technology skills.

The third panelist, Gregory T. Donovan, a recent PhD in Environmental Psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center, discussed his dissertation titled MyDigitalFootprint.ORG: Young People and the Proprietary Ecology of Everyday Data. Donovan’s project embodied many of the values of the digital humanities community, such as working with people who are not necessarily professors, PhD candidates, or even from academia, and making information freely available (Burdick, et al., 2012.) Donovan brought young people, who were initially the subjects of his research, on as researchers. In addition, the title of Donovan’s dissertation allows it to be easily found on the web, and it is freely available for all to see.

Next, Amanda Licastro, a current PhD student in the English Program at the CUNY Graduate Center focusing on the relationship between technology and writing, discussed the ways she found a program that would allow her to examine humanities questions in new and innovative ways and discussed experimenting with new tools and the necessity of learning new technology skills while getting her PhD in a discipline that has not traditionally required those types of skills. It was interesting to see scholars using a range of technology that required different skill levels.

Lastly, Nick Sousanis, a recent PhD in education from Teachers College, Columbia University, discussed his dissertation, written in comic book format, on the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning. Sousanis’ dissertation was not in a digital format; however, it was a thought provoking alternative examination of a research question.

At the end of the panel, audience members were given 90 seconds to write down three questions on their mind and were encouraged to discuss them with fellow audience members. Questions were asked about the instability of digital objects, and the preservation issues surrounding these types of dissertations, which can be more challenging to preserve than more traditional formats.


Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp (2012). “The Social Life of Digital Humanities” and “Provocations” in Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 88.

Davidson, Cathy N. (2008). “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions” PMLA 123(3): 707–17

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