Rethinking the Dissertation

Day 58: Diffusion of Knowledge by Quinn Dombrowski under CC BY 2.0.

By Natalie Berkman

For our second session, the Connected Academics proseminar fellows visited Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit higher education think tank in Manhattan. While discussing how to apply for jobs outside the academy with the panelists, we were advised not to speak too much about our dissertations in cover letters or interviews.

This well-intentioned advice struck a chord with many of us, and some fellows raised objections: What if the dissertation topic coincides with a goal of the company? What if the dissertation includes nontraditional components? Fieldwork? Interviews? What if the topic is particularly relevant in this day and age?

The conversation evolved to address broader questions about the dissertation, which, after all, is a central and distinguishing piece of doctoral education. What is the purpose of a dissertation? Is it a product? If it is a product, to whom is it addressed? The conversation continued into our coffee break with Roger C. Schonfeld, director of the Libraries and Scholarly Communication Program at Ithaka S+R, and eventually found its way onto Twitter. While the conversation was stimulating, it never reached a conclusion, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, especially as I near the end of my dissertation.

With the rise of the digital humanities, the question of what counts as a dissertation has become more common and pressing. Yet in most doctoral programs, little has changed. Writing a dissertation teaches us to carry out prolonged research on a scholarly subject and add knowledge to the field, and the completed dissertation serves as the basis for a book manuscript. However, to get a job in the academy, we also need to present at professional conferences, publish articles, and teach a wide range of topics. The dissertation is necessary but insufficient inside the academy; outside the academy, it can appear bafflingly esoteric.

Now that more humanities PhDs are considering careers outside the academy, we should explore new research avenues that can help us in all our personal and professional endeavors. My experience of integrating a digital component into my dissertation illustrates the challenges and benefits of this sort of approach. The nontraditional component of my dissertation took me a year to produce. I programmed two texts and a procedure in Python as one of the inaugural projects of Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities (CDH). The experimental writing group that I study, the Oulipo, produced some of the earliest electronic literature. Learning to program allowed me to understand the group’s state of mind, introduced me to the growing field of the digital humanities, and helped me gain technical skills—all of which will help me on the job market—academic or otherwise.

However, I encountered a surprising number of difficulties while working on the digital component of my dissertation. I was taken aback by the differences between the cultures of the CDH and the French department. The CDH used a business structure akin to a start-up, complete with a biweekly meeting group and paperwork. While this workflow model was new and exciting, I soon became bogged down in administrative tasks and barely had time to learn the programming techniques that I would need to complete my project. Furthermore, the vocabulary of project managers and team coordination hardly applied to many of our projects, which consisted of a graduate student partnered with a technical lead. While project management and team coordination are useful terms to have on a résumé, this structure was incompatible with my project and proved to be a bureaucratic issue as I proceeded.

I simultaneously ran into problems in my home department. The project was time-consuming, and its usefulness to my dissertation wasn’t immediately obvious to my adviser. My adviser has always been open to my projects, never objecting as long as I complete my dissertation work in a timely manner. However, the delays from the digital humanities project didn’t leave much time for writing. This led to some friction, even though learning to program helped me in my intellectual conception of the Oulipo’s algorithmic procedures.

In the end, with the help of my technical lead, I was able to learn Python and produce the necessary code. The insights I gained were indeed worth the time and effort. I presented my work at an international conference, and the resulting paper has just been accepted for publication. More useful still was the experience I gained from having to find a balance between competing interests to produce something that would be useful to my dissertation.

My experience is representative of a larger trend. Humanities dissertations are changing, regardless of whether university policies are conducive to these changes. Those of us who pursue new types of dissertation research need to advocate for ourselves. We need to be not only passionate about our research but also ready to argue that it is relevant, interesting, and worthy of taking the form we prefer. We must learn to negotiate between various stakeholders—a skill that will serve us well in whatever career we choose.

Even though writing a dissertation may evoke images of a lone scholar locked away in a room, a plurality of methods and voices can only make our work stronger. Nontraditional dissertations, while challenging to carry out, can replace the image of the sole researcher with a more collaborative model, which—let’s face it—is more in line with work both in and outside the academy.

Natalie Berkman is a doctoral candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton University, currently working on her dissertation, under the direction of Professor David Bellos, on the mathematical methods of the Oulipo. After completing her BA in mathematics, creative writing, and French literature at Johns Hopkins University, she chose to pursue her PhD in French literature to examine the Oulipo’s unique interdisciplinary marriage of mathematics and literature. Her dissertation examines the influence of various branches of mathematical thought—set theory, algebra, combinatorics, algorithms, and geometry—on the philosophy and production of the Oulipo and the reception of Oulipian texts. Given her scientific background, Natalie is also highly involved in the digital humanities: she programmed Oulipian texts as one of the inaugural projects of the Princeton Center for Digital Humanities and coordinated the transcription team for the Oulipo archival transcription project as an associated member of the ANR DifdePo.