On the second night of DHSI 2014, as I sat with a colleague discussing my intended dissertation topic, I said something outrageous: “I want to produce a dissertation that cannot be printed out to produce a coherent and linear document.”
For some time, I’ve entertained the idea that my final project, though hosted on the web in a multimedia form, could be submitted in a modified form if my committee or the library required it. But on Tuesday, I forgot why I would want that. And I think that’s a good thing.
Other scholars are thinking the same thing. Kathleen Fitzpatrick says, “Do the risky thing.” I’ve been fortunate that my supervisor is supportive of my ideas so far. Which leaves me room to write the following:
The first wave of pure digital dissertations will have to make arguments that are not about a subject matter, but scholarship itself. If we create digital projects that are easily printed out and made sensible on paper, we are conceding that the core of our project does not require digital methods. We are saying that our project doesn’t need to be digital, but it is anyway. I think that’s silly, and so might other scholars.
I’m not saying that any project that uses digital history or digital humanities methods cannot be described in print. Many projects can and should be described using traditional writing methods. But some shouldn’t. Some will be best presented in a digital, linked, dynamic medium, and we shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to work within confines simply for the sake of tradition.
One obvious reply is that those traditions exist to ensure that our work as scholars can be evaluated to ensure it meets the standards. But in my opinion, if the discipline of history is so focused on the 300-page dissertation that it cannot see good scholarship in other forms, it needs to be challenged.
In some ways, I’m making more work for myself. But I think that’s important work. In my project, I’ll have to make arguments about the past, analyze my sources, contextualize, reference, situate, and all the rest. Then I’ll have to argue convincingly why my research is best (and perhaps only) represented in a digital, multi-linear, spatial, mobile-first format. But if I can do the first task successfully, I’ll have accomplished the second as well.
I plan to blog the process of creating my dissertation. I’m not worried the potential outcomes of that activity. My dissertation, which will be openly published on the web for all to see, will be an experience. It will show rather than tell. It will ask questions and demonstrate some possible answers. It will involve many voices, past and present, to help show readers a glimpse of lives once lived. It will provide a historical experience to which I could never do justice. But I can bring it to the world as best I can, and explore it with them.
And it won’t be a book, because it doesn’t have to be.
Edit: After some further discussion with other grad students in history programs, I need to acknowledge that I’m one of the fortunate few who can afford to take a risk like this. I don’t know whether everyone should, and I can’t recommend it for anyone else. But I think I need to take the risk, for the sake of my own project and for the betterment of historical scholarship. There are other viable paths, equally important, but this is mine.