Writing a Digital Dissertation Companion

MorningsCodeThere has been a lot of talk lately about the viability and best practices of writing a digital dissertation. One notable example is Amanda Visconti, who, among others, has an interesting, dynamic project as well as the skills to build it into something sustainable. However, most of us are still pretty far off from having digital projects widely accepted in lieu of written dissertations. My own committee/ department would never accept it; there’s just no infrastructure for evaluation.

But the truth is, I wouldn’t want to build a digital dissertation anyway, for a number of reasons, chief of which is that I wouldn’t want my own forays into digital humanities to be put through the ringer of DEFENSE. I really  enjoy learning and innovating, and coding, and, right now at least, there’s no one telling me “This isn’t good enough, go back and rebuild it.”

We often bemoan the fact that there’s still little in the way of peer-review for digital projects, and even less for traditional models of hiring, tenure, and promotion. The flip side of that is that we’re fairly liberated. We have a collaborative and enthusiastic community that says “wow” when we do something that, let’s face is, is pretty cool. Even if our projects are only just kinda-sorta cool, fellow DHers’ eyes light up at the possibilities of an otherwise unimpressive model.

So, while I didn’t want to write a digital dissertation myself, I kept seeing potential projects lurking on every other page of my dissertation. Some of these ideas are pretty massive and would require grants, institutional support, full-time programmers, worker bees, etc.; in other words, too much for me to even attempt at this stage, when finishing the traditional dissertation remains my top priority.

Still, there were lots of skills I wanted to get under my belt–HTML, CSS, PHP, SQL, Javascript, all of them, basically–and a lot of methodologies that I wanted to explore–mapping, data mining, dataviz, network models, TEI, yes, all of them, basically. It’s a constant race to become more employable (in the academic market or otherwise) than the next guy. But really, it’s also verymuchfun.

The Scope

Instead of writing a digital dissertation, I’m taking the research I’ve done for my old-timey, analog dissertation (Let’s face it; your kids call it that.) and building a digital companion of micro-projects to support each chapter.

Additionally, my abstract and chapter synopsis will be available for each chapter, as well as my works cited/bibliography, which I hope will be of some use to others scholars working in my field or related subject areas.

Some of the projects will be small–just a way of dipping my toes into a particular tool or methodology; others will include sources from my dissertation or just right outside of the scope of my dissertation–i.e. books I didn’t have the time or space to write about. The first of these is a dynamic map project featuring luggage labels and ephemera of tourism. The second is an interactive, digital edition of John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence. You can see an early prototype of the project here. Both of these are still in the rudimentary stage, and I welcome feedback or advice.

Along the way, I’ll be blogging about the process because I truly believe that information should be open source, and that learning should be public. I’ve spoken to many scholars who warn against blogging your work–it’s too easy to steal ideas, they say. At the same time, presenting ideas and papers at workshops and conferences is an integral part of our academic life and intellectual community. Everything I have learned so far about building, programming, and digital humanities, I’ve learned for free. However I can, I am obligated to pass it on.


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