A Field and Its Forms

What is an Open Dissertation?

The concept of an “open dissertation”—like the concept of a “nontraditional,” “reimagined,” or “alternative dissertation”—means many different things to different people.[1] In later sections of this project, I will illustrate what it means to me by describing the values that inspired this dissertation’s form. It’s my hope that this description will help others see the worth of exploring alternatives to traditional literary studies dissertations as well as to conventional teaching editions of texts.

But at this moment, you are reading a text in medias res: this project has already begun to deviate from the typical literary studies dissertation format in significant ways. Thus, some early explanation about this project’s nontraditional form is warranted.

What, then, is an open dissertation—at least, as this project conceives it?

An Open Dissertation Is Publicly Iterative

All dissertations change as their authors draft and redraft them in consultation with their advisors. In many academic fields, the dissertation defense includes a discussion of the writer’s past revisions and future adaptations of their project. Sometimes, committees permit (or universities require) these dissertation defense conversations to be open to the public. However, regardless of whether a public defense occurs, such conversations predominantly involve people in the writer’s existing academic circle.

In this take on an open dissertation, my goal is to make my project’s evolution visible to those outside of my immediate advising community. As I finish drafts of sections, I am sharing them online. As my thinking develops through my writing and interactions with others, I will reflect on this process in updates to my work, providing attributions to those who have influenced my thought in formal and informal contexts.

Maha Bali’s discussion of the values that open dissertations can enact has had an important role in shaping my thoughts on this process. In her work, Bali highlights the role of ‘opening’ the PhD in both the closed structures of the university and the life of the researcher. She writes:

Making parts of a PhD public (culminating into a public thesis defense) is a value-laden choice. It means making yourself vulnerable early on in your process, in ways that can be professionally beneficial to you, and to others. It also resists academic elitism which often gatekeeps and hides the knowledge-making process behind the walls of peer-reviewed subscription-based journals. It means an open attitude towards learning and critique, and a belief that the knowledge you are making should have value beyond the pages of a thesis and walls of a university. — (“The Open Dissertation.”)

My hope is that by sharing and revising my work in a web text and through social media, I will forge connections with others who may want to think with me outside the context of my institution. This process is still imperfect, of course. In his work about open scholarship, George Veletsianos reminds us that social media platforms like Twitter are “walled gardens,” spaces that typically address and admit only a small subset of potential participants. Yet while these platforms may not be fully open, they do make space for connections and forms of communication that conference presentations and formal academic articles do not, and I see this as a strength.[2] In keeping with the values of open scholarship, I seek to be someone who, in the words of Doug Burton, “make[s] their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it—at any stage of its development” (Burton). To the extent that even the in-progress versions of this dissertation may provide ideas or references of use to others, I want my work to be available for these secondary uses.

Sharing drafts of my writing and publicly reflecting on my revision process also taps into values I have developed as a composition teacher and writing center instructor. As readers, and especially as early-career scholars, most of the writing we see is at a late stage of completion. Literary studies graduate programs (among many other disciplines) often assume that students have already developed the composition skills needed to analyze and understand the genre of a dissertation and thus don’t structure graduate-level writing pedagogy into their curricula.[3] However, writing is a process, and my teaching has taught me that sometimes the best way to understand how to approach a genre is to see others’ works in progress. I hope that grappling with this project in public will help normalize the untidy process of writing a dissertation for other writers.

An Open Dissertation Questions Its Own Form and Context

Composing a dissertation that deviates from common forms of academic authorship can serve as a kind of critical praxis, a process of examination that leads to a clearer understanding of our motivating values. Self-reflexive acts of creation provide theoretical insights in their own right—especially where experimental forms of communication such as interactive web texts are involved. Designing an “interface” for communication outside of established structures of academic production allows writers to make large and small decisions about what kind of interactions we want to invite with our work (Drucker 215-218). This design process also allows us to recognize when the tools and conventions we’re drawing from may be working against our goals for them. As Tiziana Terranova, Janneke Adema, and many other scholars warn, nothing about new media promotes access or justice in a vacuum. Indeed, Adema explains, despite the fact that digital media may smooth the path to sharing resources and collaborating across great distances, “the digital also has the potential to reproduce social inequalities and to promote capitalist exploitation” (Adema 493, emphasis mine). For writers invested in destabilizing the unjust systems of stratification that extend throughout our educational institutions, critically examining how our own communication modes and media platforms fit into these systems is a perennial responsibility (Adema 493-496).

An Open Dissertation Invites (Your!) Participation

Know that if you’re reading this, I welcome your engagement with this project in the annotation layer or in an email or Twitter dialogue. I see such interactions as an important part of this text’s evolution and of my own development as an educator and scholar.

Sharing writing is terrifying for many people, and I’ll frankly acknowledge that I’m one of them. On the one hand, I may be calling out into a void: perhaps no one will want to engage in the first place. In their work on what they call “networked participatory scholarship,” George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons caution that our current systems don’t always make space for desired forms of engagement. Scholars in academia are often too overwhelmed by their professional responsibilities to engage with open scholarship outside of traditional advancement avenues, so it’s entirely possible that this text’s openness will be more theoretical than practical (771). A different anxiety that I have is that any comments I do receive will resemble an unholy cross between the comments on a YouTube video and Reviewer Two’s most scathing rejection letters. And if we’re honest, there’s some reason to fear this latter possibility as well. It’s true that the authors I turn to in the following pages outline some difficult criticisms of the contexts in which scholars write and teach. This has the potential to elicit some defensive reactions from people who feel invested in the current system or cast adrift at the thought of its flaws. It’s true, too, that I’m writing as a learner as much as—indeed, more so than—I’m attempting to lay claim to infallible expertise in this text. Openness, institutional critique, acknowledgment of shortcomings, and an invitation to engage don’t always produce the most generous readings.

What I ask, then, is that if you do choose to engage, you do so with this project’s development and our productive collaboration in mind.

Having put these cards on the table, I’d like to outline my commitments to you as a potential respondent. I see critique as an act of generosity, and I will do all that I can to receive it in that spirit. Regardless of your institutional role, affiliation, or educational history, I appreciate the ways you can shape how I understand pedagogy, nineteenth-century studies, and scholarship writ large. If you respond in the margins of this text, I commit to looking for the values you and I may share as well as opportunities for learning in your response.

Will you take part?

Works Cited

Adema, Janneke. “Practise What You Preach: Engaging in Humanities Research Through Critical Praxis.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 16, No. 5, 2013, pp. 491-505. DOI: 10.1177/1367877912474559.

Bali, Maha. “The Open Dissertation.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 February 2016. Permalink: https://perma.cc/R28N-HRGA.

Belshaw, Doug. What is ‘Digital Literacy?’ A Pragmatic Investigation. Neverending Thesis, https://neverendingthesis.com/index.php. Permalink snapshot: perma.cc/E9K6-89SE.

Burton, Gideon. “The Open Scholar.” Academic Evolution, August 2009, http://www.academicevolution.com/2009/08/the-open-scholar.html. Permalink: perma.cc/5HQU-YZF2.

Drucker, Joanna. “Reading Interface.” PMLA, vol. 128, no. 1, 2013, pp. 213-220. DOI: 10.1632/pmla.2013.128.1.213.

Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” American Library Association, February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework. Permalink: https://perma.cc/RUW3-WSLH. [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

Gogia, Laura. “Dissertating In the Open, Messy Thinking, https://googleguacamole.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/dissertating-in-the-open-visual-article-series/.

Hayot, Eric. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the HumanitiesColumbia U P, 2014. OCN: 889829748.

Kalir, Remi, and Antero Garcia. Annotation, MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, 2019, https://bookbook.pubpub.org/annotation. Permalink snapshot: perma.cc/8M55-GCTL.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text, Issue 63, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2000. pp. 33-58. DOI: 10.1215/01642472-18-2_63-33

Trettien, Whitney. Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments of History, Manifold, 2019. Permalink snapshot: perma.cc/4T6H-UMX7.

Veletsianos, George. “What Is Open Scholarship?” http://www.veletsianos.com/2012/09/05/what-isopen-scholarship/.  Permalink: perma.cc/9WP3-4JDF.

Veletsianos, George and Royce Kimmons. “Networked Participatory Scholarship: Emergent Techno-Cultural Pressures Toward Open and Digital Scholarship in Online Networks.” Computers in Education, 2 October 2011. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.10.001.

  1. Laura Gogia has distilled many of the varied practices associated with open dissertations into an excellent visual article titled "Dissertating In The Open."
  2. An extended aside for those who are interested: this is an emerging but established scholarly practice. Writing of her own open, multiformat dissertation in 2013, Janneke Adema provides a concise overview of other scholars sharing drafts in progress across many stages in an academic career: "Examples of scholars who are experimenting with (new forms) of online publishing and who can be seen as developing or practicing forms of critical praxis are, for instance, Ted Striphas, who posts his working papers online in his Differences and Repetitions wiki, and Gary Hall, who is making the research for his new book Media Gifts freely available online on his website as it evolves, Kathleen Fitzpatrick put the draft version of her book Planned Obsolescenceonline for peer review, using the CommentPress WordPress plugin that allows readers to comment on paragraphs of the text in the margins. Examples of PhD students involved in open research are librarian Heather Morrison, who posts her dissertation chapters as they evolve online, and English student Alex Gil, who is putting his work for his dissertation online on elotroalex.com, using the CommentPress plugin (501)." In subsequent years, many other scholars have followed suit. Notable among them because of their research's resonance with this dissertation's themes are Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia, whose draft of the book Annotation just went through a round of fascinating public comment, and Whitney Trettien, who is releasing chapters of the emerging book Cut/Copy/Paste on the new Manifold scholarly publishing platform. In a move that elegantly disrupts the idea of the text as a complete and stable whole, Doug Belshaw likewise published his dissertation online but did so in a way that represents his project's ongoing development since he deposited it. His project, What is 'digital literacy'? A Pragmatic Investigation appears his the Neverending Thesis website.
  3. If you recognize this dynamic affecting your own work in literary studies or a related field, I can recommend Eric Hayot's The Elements of Academic Style as a thoughtful and process-oriented approach to academic writing in the humanities.


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