Opening the Dissertation: Why We Need to Make Open the Default

I want to talk about open. And academia.

And the outmoded gatekeeping process of the dissertation, world’s most glorified and inflated five-paragraph essay.
***

Last week was Open Access week, and just before I got on a plane for Australia, Dave & I coordinated a series of Lightning Talks at UPEI about a bunch of different facets of open, and cool things people are doing on campus. There was a GONG. It was fun. I talked about doing my dissertation research in the open…and managed to limit myself to talking for *only* five minutes. There were bets.

Then I went to Australia and talked for waaaay more than five minutes. One talk was specifically on academic Twitter but the other was more me trying to frame out the whole open scholarship thing for folks new to digital pedagogy. I built out an ABC structure that I’m looking forward to digging into more deeply soon…and for the “blasphemy” piece I got to talk Donna Haraway so I was happy.

THE ABCs OF OPEN SCHOLARSHIP:

Then I flew homewards and I was unhappy for approximately 32 hours. I swear the whole “let’s do Sunday twice over with zero connectivity and connections timed so you never seem to go to sleep” gig was harrowing. My mental health and I had to just grimly dog-paddle our way through screaming newborns and back spasms and tiny tiny seats, trying to hang together and forebear. We made it, ragged and ghastly, just in time for Hallowe’en!

Which is my segue into dissertating, because hey…there are parallels.
***

OPENING THE DISSERTATION
I am not getting on any more planes this week, though a part of me wishes I were. #OpenEd16 at VCU in Virginia starts today. A Very Large Proportion of my personal/professional “everybody” is there, and while Dave and I had hoped to be too, in the flesh, we are not. Life.

But we are part of a couple of panel conversations about open, including one tomorrow that launches the followup from last year’s #dLRN15 – go check out #SoNAR, the Society for Open Narrative Research.

But this narrative is about the OTHER panel.

Opening The Dissertation: Exploring the Public Thesis Spectrum is Friday afternoon, a hands-on session with Laura Gogia and Jon Becker. I proposed the panel back before I, erm, realized I totally couldn’t go. It was supposed to be us and my committee member Alec Couros and Sava Saheli Singh and Katia Hildebrandt…but. Life. Sigh. Yay Laura and Jon for picking up the slack!

I proposed the panel because for all I shared much of the process of my dissertation research here on the blog, there was a great deal that remained an unspoken long strange trip that no trip back from Australia can hold a candle to.

I want to open up the dissertation to the light of day.

To some extent, this conversation is about open dissertations and open defences. Laura and I both opened up our defences in various ways, with the support of our supervisors and committees, so that our broader networks – who, in both cases, were the subject/s of our research – had a window into the event itself. Mine was livestreamed, right up to the end of public questions. Laura’s was livetweeted by invited guests, right through the committee questions.

Laura, being a visualization wizard, has created a chart around the different decision points involved in opening up dissertation and defence processes to public audiences, and I’m looking forward to participating in the exploration of these – and the possibilities and risks involved – via Google Docs, on Friday. If you’re at #OpenEd16 and you’re in any way part of anyone’s dissertation process, come and join this conversation and help us gather ideas and possibilities!

But. I didn’t actually propose the panel *just* so we could all have a clearer and more granular picture of where we can potentially open up dissertations and defences.

I wanted to open up the question of what – and who – the dissertation is FOR.

OPENING THE CONVERSATION
Laura’s most excellent flowchart captures many of the decision points in the dissertation process where openness is concerned, but it misses what I think of as perhaps the core one – audience.

Not in the specific sense of the audience who sit in the room or even in front of a screen to witness a colleague outline the work they’ve brought to fruition – but in the sense of the eyes and ears and understandings and policies that thesis work eventually touches and shapes.

The capacity to choose real-life audiences – and to be supported in preparing to *address* real-life audiences – matters. In my day job, I work in adult ed. Done well, adult ed and professional learning are all about meaningful choices and application and authentic audiences for student work.

But when it comes to preparing scholars for the so-called pinnacle of higher education, the doctoral degree, the emphasis FAR too often is on having Ph.D students spend years of their lives preparing a very long, highly-format-focused piece of writing primarily for the audience of their defence committee – THREE TO FIVE PEOPLE, usually – and whoever wants to check the damn tome out of the library in ensuing decades.

Yes, scholars often adapt their dissertations for academic books or papers, but these separate publications usually involve another few YEARS of rewrites and edits from Reviewer #2 before they ever see the light of day.

We need to talk about this, academia.

Here’s my opening salvo for Friday’s presentation in Richmond (complete with sticky note diagrams, sailing metaphors, and upside-down boats):

Long story short, the status quo does not help us make a case for the value of higher ed and expert knowledge. Already we lock away too much of our research in expensive, inaccessible, and increasingly unnecessary journals because we’re attached to our own prestige economies. We miss the opportunity to get that research – knowledge that takes years and, often, public funds to develop – TO THE PUBLIC via policy and media and open channels.

But with the dissertation situation, there’s something particularly ugly about our continuing attachment to familiar forms.

Outside continental Europe, most senior scholars’ concept of the dissertation defence or viva is a tradition of intimate questioning behind closed doors, a rite of initiation, almost.

But…initiation into what?

We are no longer training for the professoriate. Any pretense that that is what the Ph.D dissertation and defence processes are for in their entirety should be met with a Come-to-Jesus about both casualization AND contemporary scholarly practices. We lived in a credential-inflated world, and there are few long-term stable jobs left in higher ed for those who complete even its highest degrees. Even when their tuition and cheap grad student/post-doc labour keeps the system afloat. Full stop.

In my own dissertation work on open and networked scholarship, I found one of the biggest benefits *repeatedly* cited by participants was that cultivating open, public audiences for their work and ideas allowed them to “contribute to the conversation” in their field and in higher ed generally, EVEN WHEN THEY DID NOT HAVE STATUS POSITIONS IN THE ACADEMIC HIERARCHY.

This is where we get back to blasphemy. Haraway (1991) frames blasphemy as a form of faithfulness, an ironic and partial nod to profaned origins that nonetheless preserves the priority of those origins.

What are we being faithful to, when we engage in research, in Ph.D programs, in scholarship? A broken system, or the creation and circulation of knowledge?

How we do dissertations goes a long way to answering that question.

Graduate students embarking on a dissertation should be able to make informed, supported, meaningful choices about who the audience(s) for their dissertations should be.

One of the prime responsibilities of supervision should be helping students select, understand, and reach – to some scaffolded extent – those audiences.

And, OPEN SHOULD BE THE DEFAULT, RATHER THAN CLOSED. That doesn’t mean always, that doesn’t mean without supports. It does mean all of us IN the academy, no matter how precariously, need to learn to navigate various aspects of what it means to be part of the public conversation in our fields, so we can help students find meaningful ways to join in and contribute.

So, as I say in the video, let’s start this conversation. How do we open up the dissertation?

god bless us, every one

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
December, 1843.
(from the Preface to A Christmas Carol, original edition)

It’s all Dickens in our house, these days. I have a seven year old playing the part of Tiny Tim in the city’s production of A Christmas Carol: he’s rehearsing twenty or so hours a week and learning to sing notes no voice related to my own should ever decently attempt. Dave and I ferry him to and fro and discuss Victorian concepts of charity and debate the merits of his various fake English accents. We’ve also introduced his younger sister to the story via The Muppets so she doesn’t bolt in terror from our front-row-centre seats at the matinee when we take her to see him.

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

The movie-watching unfolded something like this:
five year old: Scrooge is bad!
me: Scrooge has made the mistake of thinking money is the only important thing in life.
five year old: Why does Scrooge want everybody to work on Christmas?
me: He can’t imagine anything else useful besides working, honey.
five year old: Scrooge leaves the little bunny in the cold!
me: Yes. At first he does, because he believes nobody else deserves anything of his.
five year old: Scrooge needs to learn to share!
me: Well, yes. And he does, right? He doesn’t want to live a life where nobody remembers or cares about him. So he opens his heart.

In the midst of this heartwarming tale of greed and redemption, a chill of doubt and fear struck me, and a cynical sub-narrative ran through my responses. Am I setting my children up for cruel disappointment by letting them believe in…Scrooge?
me (muttering): Power doesn’t seem to be as lonely these days as it was for the Victorians.
five year old: What?
me: Nothing.
five year old: Scrooge is sad because people say bad things about him when he’s not there.
me: Maybe the 1% should read what Twitter has to say about THEM.
five year old: What?
me: Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking we still have some Scrooges in the world.
five year old: Why does Scrooge leave the poor bunny in the cold and throw things at him, Mommy?
me: Scrooge likes to believe that the people who don’t have what he has don’t deserve it. This is a mistake lots of people make, sweetheart. You should read the comments in The Chronicle of Higher Education sometime.
***

By mid-Victorian standards, the unredeemed Scrooge may have been a terrible, isolated cad. By the measure of the moment, his hearty embrace of a second chance at humanity seems to make him a less likely figure than Santa Claus.

Can I really raise my kids to expect that all it takes is a couple of ghosts to rid a heart of avarice and derision? Scrooge’s early outlook on the world was written as a scathing indictment of unchecked industrial-era capitalism, but he says little worse than can be found in any clot of online comments any given week…and not in the underbelly of Reddit, but in ye olde academic blogosphere.

Are there no prisons? the usual suspects snipe to the precariat who have not achieved tenure.
Are there no workhouses? they sneer at all who dared specialize in disciplines that aren’t, effectively, economic engines of their own.

When the ghosts of Christmas past arrive to point out that many struggling scholars chose their disciplines some time ago, as part of very different economic and cultural narratives? It doesn’t seem to register. Even when a Tiny Tim is held up, the first in his or her family to ever GO to college? Deaf ears. As one of these Tiny Tims who chose the field of education out of the best of intentions 20 years ago at 21, the year before the teaching market collapsed here and all the teachers stopped retiring, let me tell you: in a lot of families, just going to SCHOOL is a big, foreign, intimidating thing. When no one in your life can explain the difference between sociology and neuroscience and everyone you know just works at whatever job they can get, the concept of choosing a field based on return on investment isn’t even on the radar. Yet kids are just supposed to KNOW. Perhaps if the commenters spent their surplus hours consulting in local high schools rather than soapboxing on the internet, they could help save future generations of bright deserving youth. But let me tell you, even neuroscience ain’t a ticket to Easy Street these days, Mr. Scrooge, sir.

And when the ghosts of Christmas future intone that the tenture track is dwindling and in fact that higher ed would currently run aground in 20 minutes if all who teach within its hallowed halls were offered job security and a living wage? More selective hearing. The deserving will make it, runs the Victorian logic of parsimonious “charity” that only extends its warmth to those it recognizes as kith and kin, fellow winners in an increasingly stacked and unsustainable game.

(This is all to say nothing of the larger excesses and abuses of global post-industrial capital, of course, before anyone jumps in with that particular rhetorical parry. Western society’s most educated are hardly a sympathetic lot compared with those who mine the raw materials for our smart phones or who labour in condemned buildings to make the clothes we wear. Or those without the privilege of education in our own cities and towns. Fully agreed, full stop. That does not mean the increasingly disparate field of our own industry and agency is undeserving of regard.)

Secure or precarious, we are all tied like Scrooge to our desks these days, trying to fit more and more work and possibility into the same old 24 hours. If you have a reasonable job in academia after studying for half a lifetime? Please expect to work increasingly long hours on the treadmill for the privilege of believing you have not been left behind. If you don’t? Better bust your hump and distinguish yourself ever further, ever higher. And if the ghost of Christmas present dares show his jolly face and suggest you leave your toil for leisure?

The academy – and the rest of post-industrial capitalism – suggests you simply make leisure of your toil. We work on ourselves and our careers and our merged personal/professional identities, here in these convenient online spaces, around the clock.

We none of us have time for redemption, these days.
***
This all hits close to home because it is what I research. And I research it in the stuffed gaps between kids’ rehearsals and laundry and writing and presentations and sleep, like a proper 21st century Scrooge scholar. And then occasionally I have it reflected back to me from a perspective that turns it all on its head and I feel as if I am standing in a Victorian street in my nightshirt and bedcap, peering in at a scene and pleading, “No, spirit! No!”

A week ago last night I sent out notifications – invitations, thank yous, regretful ‘no’s to the generous people who came forward to volunteer for my upcoming dissertation research. I had a particular bounty of women from Australia, mostly white, mostly mid-career, and so one of the people I said yes to was almost a no until I plotted out my demographics differently and realized I had a gap that she might be able to speak to. I’d heard her voice for the first time ever just the week before, live from Australia in a fabulous late-night riff after my #wweopen13 live session ended. Kate.

She said yes, she’d be in my research. And then she dropped a little bombshell, gently, as you do when you are new to standing in the space where your audience’s jaw goes slack. She said “I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Just last week. The day after we talked.”

Well then.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a post she’d published as what can really only be termed a wake-up call. She said, “You don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way. What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all?” And then, “Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.”

Well then.

And I don’t know. Nor do you, likely. But a Christmas Carol played a major part in creating the public, political will to temper the excesses of industrial capital. I’d like to imagine Kate’s words could be the scathing indictment of post-industrial academia that we all need in order to reframe the pretend volunteerism that underpins so much of what keeps institutions going these days, without any real promise of reward or belonging in the mix. Perhaps we need this kind of story in order to be able to see the grotesqueries of our own culture, the spectres of our fear and our cultivated insecurity. Perhaps if we can see and own them, there is at least a chance of mitigating them.

But do not misunderstand. As Kate makes clear in the post, her diagnosis impels her and frees her to speak, but it does not make her different from any of the rest of us: “…it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?”

That’s the thing. Kate is not Tiny Tim: we all are. And we are our own Scrooges, too, trapped in habits that will not magically change overnight, no matter the ghosts that visit. But the spectre of our own humanity and mortality needs to be one we all begin to pay attention to, and speak for. With courage, not just hope.

Learning in the Open: Networked Student Identities

This weekend, I gave a short presentation at a great little student conference hosted here at UPEI: Difficult Dialogues: Exploring Relationships Between Identities and Power.

(When I say “short” I mean I was still talking when the poor timekeeper started waving the STOP sign in front of my face: it’s been awhile since I tried to encapsulate ideas into fifteen minutes.)

I made a few quick alterations to the slides after the presentation thanks to the really good questions and conversation that emerged, and in hopes of making the ideas reasonably clear on Slideshare even without an audio track. This is the first time I’ve really taken up this particular thread on the intersections between “student” and “networked learner”, so thanks to everyone at Difficult Dialogues for engaging with and supporting these ideas as I begin to work them through.

Learning in the Open:

It’s what I didn’t say that’s more interesting, though
The fact that I ran over time is apt, given how it mirrors my own current overwhelm as a learner.

The presentation troubles some of the categories of student that academia comes with, and how differing forces and logics govern the two spheres and the way learning is practiced within them. But I didn’t go far enough. While I’m a living, breathing advocate for the benefits of networked learning, it may be the problems with it that are the most instructional.

The keynote for the conference this weekend was S Bear Bergman, who gives one hell of a talk on sex, gender and trans identities.  And while what I do may not intersect on the surface with Bear’s work as a thinker or a presenter, ze reminded me of something I know but have failed to transfer over to my analysis of learning and learners.

We are always signalling and reading 
Engaging with each other as humans is a process of reading codes and signals.

(Okay, not entirely perhaps: I won’t wade into the “we are all texts” ontological discussion here.) But if our material and discursive signals  to others aren’t readable or legible within the frameworks by which they comprehend the world, we tend to be rendered Other: either seen as transgressive or simply not seen at all.

In identity terms, visibility and speakability are necessary for legitimacy, for non-erasure. Only in the past few years have the identity signals and codes performed by queer and trans people begun to become readable and speakable on a scale that extends beyond those communities and makes those identities visible within the broader society. And slowly, slowly, mutually constituted with the very possibility of this legibility of trans people, society’s concepts of sex and gender are shifting.

Signalling networked learning
So perhaps it is with networks, though with far less advocacy, pain, marginalization and struggle, let me be very precise. But I believe learning – whether in online social networks or straight from the canon, bound in leather – involves being able to read and make sense of the codes and signals being given off by those you interact with, particularly those you expect to learn from. These are what I refer to when I talk about “legitimacy structures” within academia and networks in the final slide of the presentation above.

Screen shot 2013-02-10 at 4.15.47 PM
They are, in a sense, literacies. They’re what I’m stumbling towards when I talk about the networked or digital literacies that MOOCs – if they connect people – help develop.

I’ve been struggling to say what I research lately. Is it social media? Identities? MOOCs? Networks? My research is a process of trying to grasp and make visible a few ideas and realities from the midst of a flood. It’s about filtering and reflection and constant observation of moving targets. My sense of focus doesn’t shift so much as the ways in which it’s likely to be understood change all the time.

Part of the problem is filtering: I’ve realized recently that in my dissertation work I’ve failed, so far, to build a robust framework through which I can filter the seven hundred vaguely-related-to-the-Internet-and-learning-and-identities ideas that I encounter out here every day in my brilliant network. I meander in circles, fumbling to re-word and re-work things, trying to translate or adapt concepts I encounter and figure out whether they fit into the big picture of what we’re doing out here in this world of networked practice. Sometimes they do. Often they are rabbit holes. Seldom can I tell the difference in advance.

But what I learned at the conference on the weekend is that the filters and structure aren’t the whole challenge: how to translate and signal what I’m learning to two different audiences is also a process I’m going to have to address overtly. Because there are power structures that support and prop up societal views of knowledge that make networked knowledge and practices appear invisible or illegitimate.

For the many networked learners who are also formal students, this can be a very real problem: it can negate or frame as transgressive what is simply different. And within fields of knowledge and the academy in particular, it makes pressing contemporary conversations about online learning into polarizing and misleading soapboxes about what counts as real.

The fact that networked learners DO have signals and codes by which we connect and speak, though? Is a very important – and useful – fact. Because signals and codes – like all things that are read – can be learned.

The lack of face-to-face is not a void, only a lack of literacy
Whether networked learners are formal students within the academy as well, or no, many of us regularly come across sincere – and often deeply-thought-out objections – to the idea of online learning in general, and to its lack of the ineffable quality of authenticity in particular.

I think there are multiple axes of thought behind these objections, some of which lie in determinism or digital dualism or nostalgia or overt privileging of the physical over the virtual. But even among many participants of the MOOCs I’ve engaged in so far this winter – #MOOCMOOC, #etmooc,and #edcmooc – I see a strain of genuine hesitation to fully embrace networked learning as legitimate, or at least as AS legitimate as face-to-face learning.

And I think it’s a literacy issue. These people are, for the most part, highly traditionally literate – many are teachers and academics – and they are, to their great credit, game to give networked learning a try even if they’re not entirely sure it’s valid. But they are new to the game, and they haven’t yet put in the longterm immersion and reflection usually required to build literacies in a new environment: they can’t yet read the signals and codes by which we interact.

Because networked learning is not about technologies, or a lack of the human touch: these are simply common and understandable misconceptions given the narratives that circulate in our culture on the subject. Rather, if it’s truly about networks and not just mass broadcast, it’s about engaging with humans; about performing networked identity via the codes and signals that we digital selves share openly.

Just because that may not be visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But those of us to whom it is visible…we have a job ahead to continue to assert and translate and help make our identities readable and legitimate in the field of knowledge.