Reimagine the Dissertation

Departments should expand the spectrum of forms the dissertation may take. We believe that an extended research project is and should remain the defining feature of doctoral education and a key contribution to the life of the scholarly community in our fields and in the world. Our recommendation for expanding forms of the dissertation responds to the opportunities for new directions in doctoral study. The dissertation is the pivot point for change in doctoral education. Today alternative modes of scholarly communication challenge the priority of the dissertation as proto–print book; multimodal platforms for e-books are being developed that incorporate still images, audio, and moving images as well as interactive features and text. The crisis in academic publishing in literary studies also calls into question the traditional book-length print dissertation as the exclusive capstone for graduate study. Examples of an expanded repertoire are a suite of essays on a common theme; Web-based projects that give evidence of extensive research; translations, with accompanying theoretical and critical reflection; public humanities projects that include collaboration with people in other cultural institutions and contain an explicit dimension of research; and the treatment of texts in terms of their pedagogical value in classrooms.

We recognize that faculty members have real and important concerns about how what is now considered a nontraditional dissertation will affect the future career of their doctoral students, especially with regard to the first job. Yet we are in a transitional period in terms of the options, modes, and media of scholarly inquiry and communication. Making options available, even encouraging students to imagine alternatives to the proto-book, may, in the words of the MLA Working Group on the Dissertation and Doctoral Study, encourage students to “become responsive to the fit between the topic and the mode of communicating that topic, as well as thoughtful about the consequences of choosing a particular mode of scholarly communication” (Smith). This experience may well advantage students in future job searches and academic careers.

In addition to explicitly expanding the possible forms the dissertation might take, departments should clarify their expectations for the capstone research project, including length as well as the amount of time to be devoted to it. They should guarantee reliable mentoring for students and build structures to integrate advanced students into intellectual and departmental life while those students undertake their research. They should encourage students to propose nontraditional projects, especially where they serve the student’s intellectual objectives or career plans, and they should recognize the legitimacy, and at times the necessity, of mentorship from professionals beyond the faculty of the department and the institution. Departments should advocate the validity of alternatives to the proto–print book dissertation as a basis for initial hire. They should similarly challenge expectations for book publication as the primary criterion for conferral of tenure.

[Next recommendation: Reduce Time to Degree]