1 JoJonos

Aha Dissertations

In their June 2013 meeting, the AHA Council drafted a statement on policies regarding best practices for embargoing completed history PhD dissertations. In a follow-up Q&A, Jacqueline Jones, AHA vice president, Professional Division, summarizes some of the most common claims and questions about the statement on Twitter, blogs, and the comment section below this announcement. Former AHA President William Cronon offers further elucidation on this statement here. We welcome further discussion on this issue.

The American Historical Association strongly encourages graduate programs and university libraries to adopt a policy that allows the embargoing of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form for as many as six years.  Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them.  At the same time, however, an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources.  Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available.  As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published; it is not unusual for an early-career historian to spend five or six years revising a dissertation and preparing the manuscript for submission to a press for consideration. During that period, the scholar typically builds on the raw material presented in the dissertation, refines the argument, and improves the presentation itself. Thus, although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees.

In the past, most dissertations were circulated through inter-library loan in the form of a hard copy or on microfilm for a fee. Either way, gaining access to a particular dissertation took time and special effort or, for microfilm, money. Now, more and more university libraries are archiving dissertations in digital form, dispensing with the paper form altogether.  As a result, an increasing number of graduate programs have begun requiring the digital filing of a dissertation. Because no physical copy is available, making the digital one accessible becomes the only option. However, online dissertations that are free and immediately accessible make possible a form of distribution that publishers consider too widespread to make revised publication in book form viable.

History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular.  Many universities award tenure only to those junior faculty who have published a monograph within six years of receiving the PhD.  With the online publication of dissertations, historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.

Students who choose to embargo their dissertations should be required to deposit a hard copy of their dissertation in the university library (or two if required as a condition for inter-library loan).  Alternatively, if university libraries no longer provide any way to archive physical dissertations, students should be permitted to embargo the digital copy for up to six years, with access being provided only on that campus or with the student’s explicit permission off campus.

By endorsing a policy that allows embargos, the AHA seeks to balance two central though at times competing ideals in our profession–on the one hand, the full and timely dissemination of new historical knowledge; and, on the other, the unfettered ability of young historians to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press.  We believe that the policy recommended here honors both of these ideals by withholding the dissertation from online public access, but only for a clearly stated, limited amount of time, and by encouraging other, more traditional forms of availability that would insure a hard copy of the dissertation remains accessible to scholars and all other interested parties.

Adopted July 19, 2013

A few months ago, Celeste Sharpe, then a graduate student at George Mason University (GMU), defended what is purportedly the first born-digital dissertation in the discipline of history. Sharpe describes her project, They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945–1980, as an examination of “the history of the national poster child—an official representative for both a disease and an organization—in post–World War II America.” In her project, Sharpe argues that “poster child imagery is vital for understanding the cultural pervasiveness of the idea of disability as diagnosis and how that understanding marginalized political avenues and policies outside of disease eradication in 20th-century America.” AHA Today caught up with Sharpe recently about the process of creating a born-digital dissertation, advice for graduate students considering similar projects, and future prospects. 

As a graduate student at George Mason University, Celeste Sharpe produced what is purportedly the first born-digital dissertation in the discipline of history.

Why was digital the best format for this project?

CS: My approach to this project and my rationale for pursuing a fully digital dissertation are grounded in the fields framing this project, particularly visual culture studies and disability studies. What my work reveals are the complex and shifting negotiations made by the poster children themselves, their parents, and the people working in health charities to create and circulate this imagery in post–World War II America. Since disabled children have been historically silent and silenced in the archives, I thought it vital that this project foreground their experiences.

The visual sources are central to this study and a digital presentation allows readers to see the images I discuss in the course of my analysis and, more importantly to my mind, opens the imagery to broader investigation by the viewers themselves. In addition, the March of Dimes and Muscular Dystrophy Association have not digitized their holdings and both charities have laid off their archivists. Given the tenuous state of both organizational archives, the digital project makes a valuable contribution in gathering, analyzing, and presenting these increasingly unreachable items.

I chose to use Scalar, a digital publishing platform out of the University of Southern California. Building out this project in Scalar allowed me to interrogate and remix the elements of a history dissertation. The platform enabled me to achieve my two main goals: make a project with multiple access points into the content AND create a structure that reveals and reinforces the complex connections between people, charitable organizations, ideologies, and politics.

At what point of your research/writing process did you realize that digital would be the best way to present your work? What did you do next? Did you face any resistance?

CS: I came into the doctoral program with a strong dissatisfaction with the rigidity of the print-oriented format of a thesis/dissertation with regards to the relationship between media and text. I’d done my master’s thesis on antebellum southern photography and experienced a lot of frustration with the style requirements for images, which structurally made it difficult to treat the images as more than illustrative. So early on, I was interested in pushing the form of a dissertation even though I didn’t have a set idea what that would look like. When I settled on my research topic, I immediately spoke with my advisor Dr. Suzanne Smith and my committee members Dr. Ellen Wiley Todd and Dr. Stephen Robertson about it being an entirely digital project. They were all on board from the start; both the objects of study and the kinds of questions I wanted to pursue just made sense as a digital project, which allowed me invaluable space to experiment and conceptualize my project.

Lady Bird Johnson meets with Lola Lucas, national poster child for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America (MDAA), and her grandmother, James T. Malin, in the White House. The poster to the left reads “for too many children, time has already run out! GIVE NOW to the March for Muscular Dystrophy.” Credit: Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/ John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

How helpful were the AHA’s guidelines on dissertations and digital scholarship in helping you through this process?

CS: The Guidelines for Digital Dissertations created by the GMU history department’s Graduate Studies Committee (huge shoutout to Sharon Leon!) were particularly helpful as I pursued this project. These guidelines reference the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. Conversations around GMU’s digital dissertation guidelines began in 2014, with the final version approved in 2015, which aligned with my time on dissertation (January 2014–November 2016).

Did you come into the process with any skills in digital humanities? Did you face any obstacles along the way in terms of technology?

CS: I entered the doctoral program with no digital humanities skills to speak of! The GMU PhD program has a two-course sequence in digital humanities theory and praxis, but there’s only so much that can be covered in one semester of learning technical skills. My main obstacle was trying to find resources to do the kind of digital work I wanted to do.

Originally, I’d wanted to do computer vision analysis on the corpora of images, but had to let that go as one challenge too many for this project. And this was a decision I made because of how the conversations developed around copyright and image permissions, and what was needed to archive or deposit with the library. The two charities I studied are quite risk-averse, and so they’ve adopted a commercial and litigious approach to their archival materials: charge for almost every use, assert copyright aggressively, and back it up with referrals to the legal teams. So I shifted my dissertation project to make an argument about the form of historical scholarship and intend to pursue the computational analysis of the images now that I’ve finished.

What are your future goals in terms of publishing your research? Are you planning to adapt any part of your dissertation for publication in print?

CS: It’s a great question with no clear answer. While the dissertation-as-proto-monograph pipeline is well established, there isn’t something similar for digital projects. I’m committed to maintaining the project in its digital form, rather than try to pull a book out of it, so I’ve been in conversation with several university presses about the possibility of publishing it as a digital monograph. I’m working on a couple of journal articles, both methodological and content-centered, related to the project. And I’m pursuing conversations with experts in fair use and copyright to see how to untangle the mess and build a fair use case for the display of the images. Much hinges on that last issue.

What are your future goals in terms of career? How have potential employers reacted to your digital project?

CS: Currently I’m the academic technologist for instructional technology at Carleton College, and I really enjoy being in a role where I can collaborate with faculty and students on research and curricular projects. I see myself continuing on a path where I can blend my interests in critical digital pedagogy, humanities research, and technology. How exactly that manifests depends a lot on how colleges and universities invest, structure, and support digital work going forward. So far, potential employers have been intrigued by my digital dissertation as a thing in itself, and it really opens up conversations around a lot of key issues for history, digital humanities, and digital scholarship writ large.

What advice would you give to graduate students trying to determine whether digital would be a good format for their dissertation project?

CS: I think going back to the research questions, over and over, really helps ground the question of “is this a good fit?” I crafted a compelling argument for my committee that my dissertation needed to be digital because it was rooted in the scholarly fields with which I engaged. I think that’s why I didn’t get any negative pushback. Open communication is key: be explicit with the faculty you’re working with to calibrate expectations. Doing a digital dissertation is quite different from work that is typically discussed as digital history or digital humanities, because it is a requirement for being credentialed in the field. The collaborative ideals of the digital history and digital humanities communities are in tension with the existing model of recognizing the dissertation as the work of an individual scholar, which is important to keep in mind throughout the process.  

The project is currently password protected, but access is available by contacting Celeste Sharpe via email (csharpe@carleton.edu).

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