I’ve been dipping in and out of a recent publication on digital theses – The SAGE Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses (Andrews et al, 2012). This is the kind of text that only libraries buy, because it’s expensive, and it’s therefore likely to remain un-seen and un-read by most supervisors in most disciplines in most universities. This is a great pity, because it is one of the texts that could help institutions and their staff discuss the range of questions that surround the digital and scholarship.
The editors argue that ‘the digital thesis’ is not simply a matter of storage format and distribution, but is a much more complex affair. The digital might be the focus of the study or it might be its form, or both. The editors suggest issues ranging from questions such as, what counts as knowledge in a society in which digital media is pervasive and ubiquitous, and what is it now possible to research using the power of digitised data capture and analysis, through to the question of how institutions might manage the range of dissertations that can now potentially be produced. The handbook is therefore organized into six sections covering: historical and institutional challenges; student perspectives; ethical and intercultural issues; multimodality; archiving, storage and accessibility; and research methodologies.
To give a flavor of the utility of the book, I will focus simply on one chapter (Chapter 2) written by two of the editors, Richard Andrews and Jude England. They address the nature of new forms of dissertation and the ways in which institutions might respond. They offer a typology of theses that might now be possible. (I’ve adapted their descriptions of the six types very slightly to suit my blog-speak):
(1) Conventional dissertation – mostly in words and numbers, with tables and data. These are typically archived in libraries as hard copy or microfiche – the Big Book – and digital versions made available as pdfs in a thesis repository.
(2) Dissertations with some typographical awareness and variation – the Big Book is designed using different forms of spacing, fonts etc. Colour may be used (this is not good for microfiche). These are typically archived in libraries as hard copy – the Big Book – and digital versions made available as pdfs in a thesis repository.
(3) Illustrated dissertations – while the dissertation is still print based, there is extensive use of images produced to a high standard. A pdf is the most accurate and economical storage solution.
(4) More equitable distribution of the verbal and the visual – where the visual plays an equal, or even a more substantial, part than words in the presentation of the argument. Again, pdf is the most accurate and economical storage solution.
(5) Use of other modes beyond the visual and verbal – presentation includes three dimensional and tactile and other modes of communication (such as performance) which may be presented on DVD. These can be stored as pdf – and as DVDs which have an uncertain shelf life. However the storage of three -dimensional objects on DVD reduces them to two dimensions which may affect their meaning-making capacity.
(6) Fully fledged multimodal dissertation in different media – portfolio, web-based or other kind of non-print based installation or media presented for final examination. These are not practice-based dissertations, there is still a thesis text, but it is multi-modal. The preservation of such material on cloud and other storage platforms is a complex matter, and requires ongoing attention (preservation of hyperlinks being just one of the problems that might arise) (p. 39).
Andrews and England go on to discuss the kinds of guidance universities need to consider for the examination of this range of dissertations, offering two additions to the usual and conventional kind of descriptors of what counts as a thesis – those which are up to 50% material other than words, and those which are up to 100% artistic or technological. This is pretty useful stuff and I’ll be taking up their definitions where I can.
There is, of course, a load of other issues which are raised simply by this typology. Theses other than minor variations on the Big Book challenge taken-for-granted notions of research and knowledge production. For instance – What does it mean to explore data through multi-modal means? Do meanings change as they move from one language – words – to another, the image? What does it mean to the notion of argument to offer a text which the reader can find their own way through? Are some ideas better suited to words than to images or performance – and vice versa? All of these questions, and more, are canvassed in the book.
One key question, which many of the contributors raise, is how well supervisors and advisers are prepared to support this range of dissertations. What is it that we need to know and be able to do? Do we know enough about the potentials of the digital, particularly if we produced a Big Book ourselves and our area of research doesn’t bring us into conversation with any of these textual and methods issues? What should we ask doctoral researchers to explain about their methods and media in their dissertations and in oral examinations? What counts as rigorous research in the multi-modal? What do we need to know about the image in order to assess the level of sophistication of use of visual modes? The list of things we supervisors need to come to terms with just goes on and on.
There does now seem to be a wide range of institutional and supervisory responses to the challenges raised by the idea of the ‘digital thesis’. It is possible for students in the same country to have very different types of digital dissertation possibilities open to them.
It seems to me that in institutions where the Big Book still reigns supreme we urgently need to discuss ‘the digital thesis’. And even if our institutions seem to be well informed, there is still a need to think about where this might all be going and what we do and don’t want to see happening. I think I’m about to organise just such a discussion… But in the meantime, I reckon this book might be one avenue to pursue in getting ready to have the conversations.
Andrews R, Borg E, Davis, S D, Domingo M and England J (2012) The Sage Handbook of Digital Dissertations and Theses. London: Sage