Alternative dissertation formats

Alternative dissertation formats

It’s 2013. Writing as we know it has changed, having evolved with technology (Dobson, 2005) yet the expectations for the dissertation have remained constant. Innovative writing formats can now offer scholarship new perspectives, new audiences, and new directions moving forward. Here I discuss how art-based researchers have approached the dissertation recently, with imagination and success. These examples offer a solid precedent to lean on and build on.

.    It has been acknowledged and theorized for some time now that literacy as a concept calls on more skills and competencies than simply reading and writing. There have been several fields that have emerged in response to a broadening of what literacy is. One field is New Literacy Studies which has anthropological roots arguing that literacy should be recognized as a social practice (Barton & Hamilton, 1998; Gee, 1994; Heath, 1983; Street, 1984). New Literacy Studies scholars worked across international contexts to illustrate how literacy practices are informed by culture, by identity, by text genres, and by context. From New Literacy Studies came several fields that pushed the definitions of literacy such as multimodality. My thinking has been strongly influenced by multimodal thinkers like Gunther Kress (1997; 2010) who contend that literacy calls on a repertoire of modes that can be visual in one instance or oral in another instance or moving-image based and that literacy, ideally, needs to incorporate all modes (not just words) to teach what it means to communicate today. Alongside New Literacy Studies and multimodality, there is the work of the New London Group (1996) and the multiliteracies pedagogy (Cope & Kalantzis). Built on the notion of design and redesign, multiliteracies scholars ask researchers to premise their notions of literacy on design and situate teaching and learning literacy on design and ways of critically framing students’ tacit, naturalized understandings of design within classrooms. Clearly, my research adopts a multiliteracies framework – arguing that creativity calls on design and multimodality across contexts. Alongside multiliteracies, there is a larger field of digital literacy where scholars pursue different lines of research centrally concerning individuals’ understandings and thinking through virtual worlds. Videogames, YouTube, Immersive words, digital literacy scholars focus on the kinds of skills and competences derived from technologies. Mining data from YouTube and the internet, as I am doing, makes direct links to digital literacies.
.    In a now well-known debate on whether the dissertation could be conceived of in a less objective format, namely a novel, Eisner (1996) argued that it could: “My conception of research is that the ultimate function of research is to enlarge human understanding.” (cited in Saks, p. 409). He goes on, “The issue here has to do with the form in which one has learned to write, the virtues of that form for addressing the particular problem that one wants to address, and the kind of understanding that one wants to foster.” (cited in Saks, p. 407). Twenty years later however, the debate rages on, especially in view of the various technological platforms (e.g. YouTube) that have emerged since, which have shifted the nature of communication and publication. Needless to say, I am a strong proponent of creativity and of investigating and experimenting with innovative approaches to scholarship. Clark & Invanic (1997) argue that thesis writing must reflect the context in which the writing takes place, recognizing that it is shaped ‘”not only by the local circumstances in which students are writing, but by the social, cultural and political climate within which the thesis is produced” (p. 11), and yet Kamler & Thomson (2009) report more recently that “academic writing is [still] treated as a discrete set of technical skills that are effectively context free.” (p. 507). Like Eisner, Kilbourn (2006) agrees that ultimately “a doctoral dissertation must make a substantive contribution to scholarship. It must address a clear problem . . . [that] must not have been addressed before . . . It must make an argument and . . . the conclusions must be adequately supported. Finally, a doctoral dissertation should demonstrate the author’s sensitivity to the connection between method and meaning.” (p. 530) For many scholars, myself included, in order to establish this necessary connection between the method and the meaning and still execute all other prerequisites, an alternative format is required.
.    There are many examples of alternatively formatted theses and dissertations in existence already that can serve as precedent for my work. For example, Loi’s (2008) research is assembled within a suitcase. Filling it with various items, photos, and written pieces that are meant to be picked up and interacted with, this approach allows for individual navigation and personal meaning making of the juxtapositions between the suitcase contents. Loi (2008) asks, “why should I share my contribution to research by using an approach which is at odds with the nature of what I am discussing?” (p. 87). Initially Loi was permitted to pursue her suitcase presentation on the condition that the text still rendered 90,000 words, however it was ultimately decided that that “was an inappropriate requirement due to the demonstrated amount of work associated with [Loi’s] arts-informed inquiry” (Loi, 2008, 94).

Below is an image of Loi’s suitcase opened up:

Screen Shot 2013-03-28 at 10.42.37 AM

Here is a video of Loi discussing her dissertation work:

In similar fashion, Wells’ (2008) work is informed by queer theory, and utilizes a photo narrative method of representing the queer environment. Like Loi’s work, the nature of such a presentation offers multiple entry points for viewers to construct their own understanding by prompting reflection on how educational settings and other spaces are heteronormalized/homophobic. Cutcher (2008), another arts-based researcher, investigates life histories related to migration. Featuring her own family members, most of them elderly, she weaves together painted portraits, drawings, and text into what she calls an “illuminated manuscript.” This sort of presentation makes for a fragmented, nonlinear, yet still effective method of story-telling and meaning making. Likewise, McDermott (2008) pulls apart printed emails, newspaper headings, diary entries, and other tangible texts, and reassembles them in a collage to gain a new perspective and to discover new meaning. An essential element of her collage work is what is not included; McDermott intentionally leaves holes in the presentation of her work to emphasize the value the viewers’ interpretation brings to the process of meaning making. Roy (2008) reports on her frustration with having to fit her work within the confines of standard paper dimensions. After being encouraged by her supervisor to “stay true to [her]self and to the material” (p. 54) and reassured that she was “writing something important and [she could] take all the space [she needed],” Roy did just that, creating an 11 x 14 inch landscape page format for her work, which incorporated interview transcripts and analysis, photos and songs. As Loi (2010) puts it, “I previously tried to fit my work into given parameters – a bound paper report – and in doing so I castrated what I intended to say” (p. 86). Roy’s experience supports this notion; as she points out, a researcher’s choice of format is an indication of the values they hold. For myself, I have always valued thinking outside the box and doing what hasn’t been done, so it is appropriate that I will be producing my dissertation as a series of YouTube videos plus a blog. Lee (2008) wrote a series of 8 short stories as her dissertation, including 1 autobiographical account of her lived experience. Read together, the stories embark on contradiction, but this is done intentionally as a device for furthering thought and interpretation, in order to “confront, challenge, and steer readers into critical places and unexpected spaces” (Lee, 2008 p.25). Perhaps the most well-known art-based dissertation, however, is one by Spencer J. Harrison. Harrison (2010) was awarded his doctorate degree in education in 2010 after working as an artist-in-residence at Georges Vanier Secondary School in Scarborough to complete a large painted circus tent as his dissertation (Harrison, n.p.). Grounded in queer theory and critical pedagogy, Harrison utilized painting as the medium for his arts-based methodology to display circus-inspired imagery and text of his experience, growing up gay. The piece is entitled, “Freak Show,” indicative of his nickname in high school. Bright colours and ploys inviting voyeurism and othering/marginalizing mentalities decorate the outer shell of the tent; this is meant to portray how the outer world ideologically understood and subsequently came to treat Harrison, as a then closeted gay young man. On the inside of the tent, Harrison lines the walls with painted renders of family photographs, along with textual thoughts as if from a diary; this intimately-natured side to the piece pulls the viewer closer to what the lived experience of marginalization, homophobia, public vilification is like. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the piece is the juxtaposition of the inner and the outer parts of the tent; through the elements and principles of design, Harrison visually and tacitly builds a dichotomous story of spectacle and closeting, of the extrovert and his loneliness, of group think and individual resistance, and ultimately of acceptance of who he is, but not of the way he was treated by others.

Below is an image of Harrison inside his circus tent:

Screen Shot 2013-03-28 at 11.05.01 AM

Here is a video of Harrison discussing his dissertation work:

.    What all of these works have in common is novelty and relevance, which are key components of creativity (Robinson cited in TEDtalksDirector, 2007). They speak to their topics in appropriate formats designed especially to fit, and in so doing they make a greater, more effective and more memorable impact. This is exactly the outcome I hope my own research will have, and having a creative format within which to present my work on creativity will make all the difference.

,

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Posted by Rebecca Zak

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