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.


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.

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.

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?

from scratch: a dissertation research problem, take two

I haven’t had much to say here lately about my, erm, thesis. I started this blog back in 2011 to try to work through the process in the open, but complexity and uncertainty and the MOOC book – which is still chugging along through various stages of labour – seem to have gotten the better of me over the past couple of semesters.

That, or I finally started listening to mother’s advice, in the “if you can’t say anything nice…” vein. The whole, “here, this is a dog’s breakfast! Please enjoy!” line seldom hooks a readership, unless they’re compulsive editors or have an excessive empathy drive. Or are procrastinating on their own writing (welcome!)

I did write an 80 page thesis proposal, as part of my comps portfolio last December. I passed (woot!), and became an official Ph.D candidate. But in the process it became clear that I’d bitten off about half the Internet as subject matter and wasn’t clear on how to focus the scale of the project to, um, do-able.

Do-able is, of course, the key to that magic future perfect (in the grammatic sense) state of “done.” So after much thinking and reading and talking with my advisors, I’ve skinned the scope and scale of the thesis down and am starting the proposal again. From scratch.

And I’m asking for input. Your eyes. Your suggestions. Your thoughts about potential participants. Your sympathies gin.

My introduction and “research problem” for the new proposal are below. What they begin to lay out will be an ethnography: a form of qualitative research that explores cultural phenomena and meanings and patterns from participants’ viewpoints, making visible what might otherwise be invisible to those outside the culture.

Or that’s the plan.

The culture under investigation here is one to which this blog is a (tiny) contributor: the public participatory sphere of scholarly networks. This subculture of the broader phenomenon of participatory culture spans Twitter and blogs and G+ and even major media spaces, but also runs parallel, in a sense, to institutional academia: the participants I study will all have a foot in both worlds, and the goal of the research is to make the operations and practices of the online sphere visible and intelligible to scholars (and the public) outside it. So I’m looking at digitally-networked practices and identities, as ever, but rather than beginning from a theoretical framework of the cyborg to which my data (ie participants) would need to conform, I’m starting instead from practice and experience.

Basically, I’m looking for and at academics and grad students and others all along the continuum of scholarship. I’m looking at the ways we build identities and reputations for our ideas outside of – but often in tandem with – accepted academic practices like publishing in refereed journals or climbing the tenure track ladder, particularly since that ladder has come to look a bit like Brigadoon for many within the ranks of adjuncts and graduate programs lately.

I’m drawing heavily here on the work of George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons, who’ve been writing about Networked Participatory Scholarship (2011) for a couple of years now. I’m narrowing the focus of that concept by looking not just at the online participatory work of scholars, but specifically at the work of scholars for whom a significant portion of work and thinking and reputation-building occurs online. Using Dave White & Alison LeCornu’s (2011) visitors and residents model, I’m looking at resident online scholars, engaged in the kind of merged production/consumption Bruns (2008) calls produsage and Ritzer and Jurgenson (2010, with particular focus on unpaid labour in the context of abundance) term prosumption. In the intersection between residents, prosumption, and networked participatory scholarship, you have what I’m calling networked scholarly participation, or the subset of participatory culture that intersects with academia. I’m also drawing on the work Cristina Costa did in her recent dissertation on the participatory web’s relationship to academic research, though my study will focus less on research and more on reputation and identities development. the work of danah boyd and others on networked publics and the New London group’s literacies and new media literacies will frame my approach to what it means to work in public.

But there’s always more out there.

Being an open, networked teacher/learner/scholar means asking, “Hey, does this make sense? Is it silly? Is someone already doing it? How can I improve?” EVERY SINGLE TIME you put your work out there. It’s intimidating. I always forget, until that moment right before I hit “publish.”

But it also means getting answers to those questions while the work is still in progress, taking shape, and that is immensely helpful. So here goes. Take two on my thesis research problem, a draft, needing your eyes.

Does this make sense? Is it silly? Would you participate?

I’m all ears.

Over the last decade, the ways in which people can to connect with one another and share ideas online have multiplied dramatically. Social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become commonplace means of communication and interaction. The proliferation of free blogging platforms such as WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr has enabled unprecedented self-publishing, and the rise of camera-enabled phones combined with platforms such as Youtube and Instagram has meant that images and videos can be freely shared as well. Participation in public conversations via the Internet has become a feature of contemporary life.

Many forms of online participation are becoming visible within contemporary academia, as well. Since the first computer-based courses in the 1980s (Mason 2005), learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle have been widely adopted by institutions in many countries, enabling both fully online and hybrid or blended courses, which combine face-to-face facilitation with supplemental online engagement. Pressure on institutions to deliver courses online has risen recently as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become a buzzword across higher education: the New York Times went so far as to dub 2012 the ‘Year of the MOOC’ (Pappano, 2012).

The proliferation of online learning in higher education, however, goes far beyond the rise of online and hybrid classes and formal learning opportunities. The phenomenon of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006) has begun to permeate higher education. Scholars themselves are going beyond teaching and searching online to building public bodies of work via participatory media; self-publishing, sharing ideas via multiple platforms, and engaging with emergent issues in higher education and society at large. Within this public, participatory intellectual sphere, networks of scholars and emerging scholars develop across multiple technological platforms, engaging with each other and each other’s work regularly. These networks of participation and collaboration may extend beyond online communications to face-to-face contacts if geographic limitations allow.

There are myriad platforms available for open scholarly networking, many with their own particular purpose. Social networking sites (SNS) such as have emerged specifically for scholars, while reference management tools such as Zotero and Mendeley have gradually integrated networking capacities for scholars to recommend, share, and tag resources. Twitter is a general but immensely adaptable platform: hashtags such as #highered, #cdnpse (Canadian post-secondary education), and #phdchat aggregate input from interested parties all over the world. Google hangouts are utilized to host informal open discussions and learning experiences, and Facebook groups focused around specific disciplinary and research interests enable real-time public discussion of issues and ideas. Nor are SNS the only means by which scholars connect and share their ideas: major media outlets and higher education news forums host blogs that amplify scholars’ opinions and voices; many academics share their own emerging ideas and observations via active independent blogs.

These networked practices not only connect scholars to each other across disciplinary lines; they open access to discussions that have traditionally occurred within more closed and formalized channels. Participatory scholarly networks therefore create new opportunities for public engagement with ideas (Weller, 2012) and can offer junior scholars and graduate students opportunities alternate channels for participation, leadership, and development of scholarly reputations. They can serve as communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1990) and informal learning communities for scholars, and foster what Lankshear and Knobel (2007) call “new literacies,” or an ethos of “mass participation, distributed expertise, valid and rewardable roles for all who pitch in” (p. 18).

This ethos and practice of mass participation, however, does not align entirely with the institutionalized traditions and operations of academia. As Daniels (2013) notes, in her discussion of “legacy” (pre 21st century) model journalism and its implications for higher education, “We have our own “legacy” model of academic scholarship with distinct characteristics…analog, closed, removed from the public sphere, and monastic” (Legacy academic scholarship section, para. 3). While Daniels acknowledges that this legacy model is not necessarily as dominant or closed as it once was, she notes its retreat is partial and piecemeal (Legacy academic scholarship section, para. 2). There can be hesitation among academics about the risks involved in developing an online presence (King & Hargittai 2013) and sharing intellectual property. Some of the practices and identity roles cultivated via participation can appear transgressive or inconsequential when viewed through the lens of the academy.

The goal of this proposed dissertation research is to make visible how those same practices and identities appear when viewed through the lens of new literacies and mass participation. The work of Veletsianos (2011) and Veletsianos and Kimmons (2012, 2013) frames such practices as ‘networked participatory scholarship’ (Veletsianos, 2011). Defined as “scholars’ participation in online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and otherwise develop their scholarship,” (Veletsianos and Kimmons, 2012), networked participatory scholarship is a framework that invites inquiry into the relationship between technology and scholarly practice, and into the techno-cultural pressures surrounding the use of digital technologies in academia. Networked participatory scholarship centres on individual scholars’ participatory engagement with digital technologies, and also on the effects of participation on scholarly practice. Its definition of scholar refers to any “individuals who participate in teaching and/or research endeavours (e.g., doctoral students, faculty members, instructors, and researchers)” (Veletsianos and Kimmons, 2012, para. 2).

This proposed dissertation project will build on the concept of networked participatory scholarship in designing an ethnographic study of networked scholars, but will focus specifically on scholars whose networked participation is a central, sustained aspect of their scholarly work, identity, and reputation development. The study will therefore expand the literature on networked participatory scholarship while also narrowing the focus of the concept to a particular practice and group of practitioners as a subset of participatory culture. The project will re-frame this specific focus of study as networked scholarly participation.

In order to facilitate this re-framing, I intend to bring networked participatory scholarship into conversation with two other key frameworks related to online networked practices. The first of this is White and LeCornu’s (2011) visitors and residents typology for online engagement, which offers a means of framing participation and participatory buy-in beyond Prensky’s (2001) much-critiqued “digital natives” model; this study will focus, effectively, on what White and LeCornu call residents, or regular, active users. Second, the study will focus on scholars for whom networked participation involves ongoing production and sharing of ideas and resources related to their own scholarly inquiries. This demarcation is drawn from Bruns’ (2008) concept of a produsage economy, in which production and consumption are collapsed and combined via the interconnectedness of online networks and their capacity to create reciprocal audiences. Ritzer and Jurgenson’s (2010) notion of prosumption further contextualizes the combination of production and consumption into a prosumption model that takes into account societal trends towards abundance and unpaid labour.

Ultimately, then, the practices under investigation in this study will be those of scholars actively developing and sustaining a networked participatory identity and reputation while simultaneously engaged in institutional scholarly work.

Research Problem:
Both academia and social media can be said to be ‘reputational economies’ (Willinksy, 2010; Hearn, 2010), but the terms of entry and access for each are different, as are some of the values and practices upon which reputations are built.

For scholars active within participatory networks, this can mean navigating two sets of expectations, legitimacy standards, and concepts of success at the same time, as well as negotiating institutional relationships with peers, superiors, and students for whom the participatory set of terms may be invisible or devalued.

This dissertation project will focus on making the terms of credibility and reputational value within participatory scholarly networks visible. The study will investigate the ways in which online networks open up identity and reputation spaces that may not otherwise be available. It will trace both distinctions and commonalities in the ways institutions and networks foster identities and reputations, from the perspectives of scholars who actively straddle both worlds.

Online networked participation demands the construction, performance and curation of sustained, intelligible public identities. There is no formalized route or guide for this process, nor a clear distinguishing point between non-engagement and engagement in the process. Whether one is an outsider, an insider, or somewhere between cannot always be clearly identified, particularly from an external viewpoint. Networks tend to be distributed and fluid entities, wherein “membership is mostly unrestricted and participants may know some but not all members of the network” (Dron and Anderson, 2009, section 4.2, Amongst scholars, para. 6). Participants, therefore, self-select into the cumulative and ongoing realm of networked belonging and reputation-building.

Academic belonging, on the other hand, is more overtly restricted and codified: identity roles such as ‘graduate student,’ ‘associate professor,’ and ‘adjunct’ have widely-understood meanings and criteria for belonging. An academic reputation requires clear membership within the hierarchic institution of the academy, through the completion of an advanced degree and, usually, the securing of a tenure track position. Within the tenure model, success is incremental and reputation tied at least in part to clear externalized achievements:

Those who work within the academy become very skilled at judging
the stuff of reputations. Where has the person’s work been published,
what claims of priority in discovery have they established, how often
have they been cited, how and where reviewed, what prizes won,
what institutional ties earned, what organizations led?
(Willinsky, 2010, p. 297)

In both online and formal academic spheres, reputations are also dependent on relational ineffables such as social capital (Bourdieu, 1984), and the goodwill and esteem of peers. These and other commonalities will be included in the study. But the premise of this research is that the terms on which reputations are built, enhanced and taken up within the ethos of mass participation exemplified by scholarly online networks demand specific attention and articulation.

This dissertation proposal, then, proposes an ethnographic exploration of participatory scholarly networks. Its intent is to conduct a sustained ethnographic investigation into the ways scholarly practices and identities are shaped, enabled and constrained by online participatory networks. The study will investigate the ways in which scholars enact and experience scholarly engagement, research and research dissemination, and reputation-building within participatory online networks. It will attempt to make visible both overlaps and differences between these practices and those experienced within institutional contexts. Distinctions will be framed both in terms of the differing affordances of online and offline interactions and between what the literature frames as the differing mindsets (Barlow, 1995, in an interview with Tunbridge) or paradigms shaping physical space and cyberspace.

What do these participatory networks offer scholars? What – if anything – is their value and advantage over more conventional forms of scholarly networking, such as that which occurs at academic conferences and symposia? What do they offer over established forms of idea sharing and reputation development? What are their disadvantages? In what ways are they complementary? These questions will form the guiding core of this research investigation.