the dissertation is done; long live the dissertation?

There is a little nook in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport with four black leather armchairs along the back wall of a 10×10 room. I finished my Ph.D in one of those chairs, last weekend.

I mean finished finished, as in the summative completion of the document that somehow is meant to stand in for nearly five years of my life’s work. I actually defended the dissertation the week before, with a livecast public presentation, two+ hours of good, challenging questions…and a lovely Bowie reference from my Supervisor…then twelve long minutes waiting in a hallway and a handshake and hug from my Defence Chair and the words, “Congratulations, Dr. Stewart!”

I exhaled. Celebrations all round.

But there were still a couple of tiny revisions, due upon my return to PEI if I wanted to make my mother happy and walk across the stage for May convocation. And in the interim, a plenary and sessions to deliver at #et4online in Dallas and a talk at UT Arlington’s LINK Lab and a NINTH (how did THAT happen?) birthday for a boy who is one of the joys of my life and so I found myself in that DFW armchair, tidying up formatting and re-thinking methodologies and preparing to freeze it all in the amber of .pdf to live forever in library stacks.

I pressed “save.” I looked around. No choirs of angels materialized to sing “hallelujah.” And I thought…yep. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Or something like that.

The truth is, though, the quiet was fitting. This final form of my dissertation has felt more like a tactical necessity than a living thing.

It’s because I don’t actually expect anyone to read it.

This is no false humility, kids. I believe in making my learning open and accessible, so I’ll put a pre-print of the full .pdf up online later this week for any brave souls who want to show me up as wrong. And hey, this research process has been rich and meaningful and funded in part by the taxpayers of Canada, so if reading 150-page documents is your bag, be my guest.

But the thing is, I wrote my dissertation as a three four paper thesis. And much of the work is already out there, living and doing its thing in the world, whatever that is. The first paper is out and getting traction thanks to #tjc15 and an Inside Higher Ed knowledge translation piece, the second is in press, and I condensed the conclusion fairly drastically for Hybrid Pedagogy. I’ve been talking about pieces of this research and its findings in presentations for a year now. A part of me likes it better in presentation form than I do in writing, even if some of the nuances are lost.

That part of me – the part that wants you to see the slide deck more than I want you to read the final bound tome, or its online equivalent – recognizes its own blasphemy. I own the blasphemy. As Haraway says, “blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously.”

I take research seriously. Last week, I had a fascinating and somewhat heated conversation about research with my #dLRN15 (October! Stanford! Can you come?) co-planners and colleagues George Siemens and Kristen Eshleman as we sheltered from a Dallas tornado warning in the corner of a coffee shop. My contribution to the discussion consisted mostly of running around in full Chicken Little mode shouting WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!…but the upshot, from less panicked minds, was that there’s tension between:
a) the need for research as leverage at the decision-making table of higher ed, where capital, technosolutionism, and hyper-rationalization currently reign supreme, and
b) the need for any changing conversation – the (*cough*) humble goal of #dLRN15 – to engage and include more voices than only those who can speak in research terms.

I think of research as important both as knowledge AND as leverage…my work is all about the idea that “what counts” in higher ed is complex and ever-shifting; a contested crossroads of narratives and practices and allegiances. I am old-school in one sense: it is the vestigial logic and spirit of public education and learning as a good in itself that drives my work. Yet I am not sure that the language of research in its traditional forms is always fit to grapple with the logics of business and media that hold increasing sway in the academy.

I am not trying to get rid of traditional forms. But their capacity to (sometimes) leverage a seat at the table shouldn’t excuse us from looking at their communications capacities and limitations, as well, and from pushing to legitimate other forms of expression that could contribute to the conversation – and the crossroads of what counts. I loved this piece on Beyond the Dissertation as Proto-Monograph, not because there’s anything inherently wrong with monographs but because they hold such a place of dominance in the training of Ph.Ds as researchers, and I’m not sure we serve our own survival as researchers by sticking primarily to long-form texts deeply bound to their print origins.

I’m proud of my dissertation, such as it is. I’m willing to have the full document sit out in the open, a testament to what I thought and found and was able to spit out at a particular time, in a particular form.

But in the end I’m more excited about continuing to work through those ideas here, in blog form, and in slides and talks, and as contributing premises to new research. Onward. Out loud.

I’m curious: how do YOU prefer to take in research and/or new ideas? 

11 Comments the dissertation is done; long live the dissertation?

  1. Rebecca

    Because I work with technology, that is ever changing – but also because I prefer to be seen as an innovator rather than a scholar – I like research that does something concrete. I prefer to learn about this through blogs and by seeing what people are actually doing. Yes, there is a place for the pure theory – but it just isn’t the place I want to be in. I want to be in the place that lets me build things and do things … and have a lot of fun while doing it.

    1. bon

      It’s interesting, Rebecca…because one of the things I found throughout my Ph.D process was I moved more and more to wanting to explore what people DO, rather than the theoretical implications of networks. I think the two are of course connected, and theory very much informed my dissertation, but not quite as much as I might have expected when I set out because…it just wasn’t as interesting to me as what I was actually seeing.

  2. Maha Bali

    I felt that emptiness, that whimper after the thesis. Almost similar to u, the day i defended my thesis was the anniversary of the death of a loved one and i couldn’t be in Egypt w my family to remember him. Instead i was in England worrying about whether my daughter was doing ok with my mom and husband. Just before i defended i walked around U of Sheffield looking for a place to pray (they have many Muslims there but i had never needed to pray on campus before)

    Anyway i digress

    I like reading things meant for public consumption or at least ve comprehensible to academics from diff disciplines (i have to admit some ideas would take a ton of effort to rewrite for a non academic audience ; i know coz i try)

    So how do u like to take things in? Exactly as u have been doing: give me the scholarly version but also the blog-talk version and present it at a conference in an interactive manner. This gives me choices of which to engage with according to my interest and time available. The interactivity dimension is really important for me which is why i also prefer blogs and ppl who r alive and can talk back to me haha

    1. bon

      I like your point about liking things meant for public consumption, Maha…I do too. It’s one of the threads that I’d like to explore more deeply in another project…what does it mean for academia when specialist Ph.Ds prefer NOT to read/engage with research findings written FOR specialist Ph.D audiences but for broader publics? Part of me thinks this is big…

  3. Simon Ensor

    I always did amateur research, I only fairly recently ventured into the world of ‘professional research’.

    I have not been terribly enamoured with it as a mileu.

    It is not my natural habitat.

    I was immensely curious but fairly quickly I was able to see how far a researcher badge would go to give me space to go on helping people to learn stuff which is important to them and helping them to see that change is possible.

    I hate to feel fenced in.

    I suppose I could (people keep telling me) do a doctoral thesis but I most probably will not.

    I suppose I was always most at ease in the margins, making a nuisance of myself or enjoying the intellectual stimulation.

    I enjoy the company of amusing actors, poets, rogues and knowing charlatans.

    I prefer to be fool than ruler…

    I am content with that.

    1. bon

      What you’ve articulated here, Simon, is much of how I identify, even now…and something I don’t want to lose. There is something about finishing the Ph.D that opens up the temptation of legitimacy…I can feel it there, lurking on the edges, saying “come, believe in THIS version of what counts! You earned it!”

      I too think I prefer to be fool than ruler, though…and so I say no. And I hope someone will slap me upside the head if I start saying yes. ;)

  4. Barbara

    Congratulations! Please make sure Dave refers to you as Your Excellency and brings you coffee on your couch for at least a year.

  5. Dave Whitty

    To jump to right to the question of preferred form to consume research: in a condensed, here is how you use this form, almost like guidelines after a meta-analysis, which then lead you to an evidence informed decision, where the research/guideline, the practitioner’s experience and the consumer/patient/student’s choice all intermingle.

    1. bon

      Thanks, Dave. That makes sense – I like the “this is how you use this work” approach too…it’s been interesting to try to adapt it for my own, highly-qualitative, non-generalizable work, in a “these are the patterns I’m seeing” sense. Still have work to do on clarity in that format, I think – a challenge when findings don’t map against the simple domain.

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