The American Historian

Beyond the PDF: Navigating the Digital Dissertation

Jeri E. Wieringa

Seventeen years ago, Roy Rosenzweig published his now classic essay on the promises and challenges that historians face in the digital age. Many of the issues that Rosenzweig identified remain salient today, such as the need for new methods to deal with the abundance of digital materials; the need for historians to participate in the work of creating systems for archiving and preserving digital materials; and the possibilities of the medium of the internet for increasing access to sources and scholarship. As Rosenzweig noted, digital sources, both those created through the digitization of physical artifacts and those "born" digital, call into question the "basic goals and methods of [the historian's] craft." 

One place where the shifts brought about by digital technologies are being negotiated is the dissertation. Digital scholarship is increasingly recognized and supported within the discipline of history, as evidenced by the development of guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship and the inclusion of digital scholarship reviews in academic journals such as the Journal of American History.  The history dissertation, however, remains by and large a traditional document. This is in part because many high profile digital history projects are both technically complicated and collaborative, beyond the capacity of a single graduate student to accomplish within the timeframe of a dissertation. But it is also because the processes around the history dissertation are geared toward the production of a five chapter work, one which is to serve as the basis of the first monograph. 

The digital medium, however, opens up a wide range of opportunities for the creation of historical scholarship that engages with different modes of argumentation and narrative construction. Producing digital interfaces, interactive visualizations, or other multimodal media elements is increasingly accessible for individual scholars as we become more comfortable with digital spaces and as the infrastructure to support it becomes more robust. The primary challenge of creating a digital dissertation is increasingly an issue of navigating institutional requirements, rather than just the technological hurdles involved with working in this new medium. My goal in this piece is to articulate a few strategies for structuring and guiding a digital dissertation to completion. My hope is that awareness of some of the structural challenges will help others successfully navigate them but also contribute to a broader discussion of how those challenges might be removed entirely so that digital scholarship at the dissertation level can flourish.

For my purposes here, I understand a digital dissertation to be a project that pushes beyond the constraints of the standard PDF document one is expected to submit as a dissertation in history. There are many reasons why a project might not work within the standard, five (plus) chapter document, including the integration of interactive visualizations, multimodal media, augmented reality or virtual reality (AR/VR), or the use of hyperlinking to create alternative narrative structures. Such projects require the use of a web browser or other digital interfaces for engaging with the scholarly argument—they cannot be printed.  

These suggestions come out of my own successful creation and defense of a digital dissertation project, A Gospel of Health and Salvation: Modeling the Religious Culture of Seventh-day Adventism, 1843-1920, submitted to the history faculty at George Mason University during Summer 2019. In this project, I used the periodical literature of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination to trace links between beliefs about the second coming and gender norms within the developing denomination. The scale and quality of the available periodical materials (nearly 200,000 pages of material from the periodicals I examined) shaped my methodological and presentation choices for the dissertation, which relied on topic modeling, interactive visualizations, and traditional close readings.

In reflecting back on what went well and what I would do differently, I identify four key observations that shaped my final work and made it possible to navigate it through my institution.  These suggestions work out from technical choices of the dissertation to working with the committee, the wider institution, and end with broader career considerations. First, technology choices are most effective when connected to the scholarly goals of the work. Second, a successful digital project requires additional work on the part of committee members, both in terms of negotiating the scope of the digital project and in learning how to engage historical scholarship in new formats and utilize unfamiliar methods. Third, institutional requirements shape what is possible. And fourth, thinking about how the project feeds into future career goals can help guide the development of digital projects. 

Focus on what is essential 

Both dissertations and technical projects are prone to scope creep, to increasing in size and complexity with time, and together that tendency is compounded. One way to focus your efforts where they will be most beneficial to the project is to link the digital interventions to the argument of the text only using the technology that is necessary to make the argument. For example, a database might sound necessary, but if you can get by with spreadsheets or CSV (Comma Separated Values) files, then the additional work of database design and administration is not necessary. At the same time, all digital projects that I have encountered require more work in data gathering and preparation than initially anticipated. In my own project, evaluating and cleaning the textual data from the periodical materials became a major focus of my work on the dissertation, occupying over two years of my research time, and the errors within the data shaped the types of analysis that I was able to use.  

Additionally, it is important to set reasonable expectations around the finished dissertation. Just as the written dissertation is a first draft of a monograph, not the final publication, a digital dissertation is an initial draft or proof of concept of a later, final work. While attention should be paid to issues of interface, information architecture, and design, a project completed by one person on a constrained timeline should not be expected to be equivalent to the work of a design firm or large grant-funded project. Working out what is sufficient for the dissertation, both for yourself and for your committee, is important to successfully complete and defend the digital project. One way to do this is to embrace the idea of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) from software development, where you focus on creating just enough to verify your ideas and approach.  Here, yourself and your committee are the audience, and the more feedback you can get on what is and is not working, the better.

Plan additional time for working with committees

While a dissertation in general requires communication with your committee chair and advisors, it is of vital importance for digital projects. In taking on a digital project, you are adding questions of data, interface, and computation on top of the already difficult work of historical interpretation. Because there is no standard format that digital projects take, work out early on what the requirements will be for the final project. Here existing guidelines, including those for tenure and promotion, or for digital dissertations at other universities, can provide useful frameworks to start the conversation.  It is also important to keep your committee appraised of changes to the project as you go along, as technical realities will affect the scope and scale of the final project. 

In addition to conversations around expectations for the final product, digital scholarship also requires committee members to take on additional work. Because the format may be different, committee members need to learn how to read and offer feedback in new mediums. Additionally, computational analysis can introduce new methods, requiring committee members to think differently about how the historical sources are being represented, analyzed, and presented. Plan time for guiding committee members on how to read and where to look for the intellectual contributions of the work. At the same time, be clear in your communication with potential committee members about the digital aspects of your projects and where you see their expertise in connection to the project. 

Be aware of institutional requirements

Completing a dissertation is a larger process than finishing the written document to the satisfaction of one’s committee—it also requires acceptance of that document by the wider university. This can involve format and plagiarism reviews, reviews by the graduate school, and submission to the university library and ProQuest. These requirements vary by institution, but it is important to identify and communicate early in the process with the persons and departments who will need to sign off on your work. 

Once you have identified the people and processes that have a stake in the final dissertation, you can begin to work with them to determine how to bridge the gap between what you are creating and what they are able and willing to accept. The amount of effort it will take to bridge those gaps will depend on your institutional context. Most institutional systems will assume the dissertation to be a PDF document, with “supplemental files” used to capture anything else.

One strategy is to consider your project and the file that is submitted to the university as two separate things. While thinking outside of the PDF is unusual in history, disciplines such as performing arts and computer science offer useful examples of how to manage work where the scholarly contribution is more than the dissertation document. A work of choreography cannot be directly submitted as a formatted PDF document, nor can a piece of software. Instead, at George Mason University, these sorts of projects were considered as composed of two parts: the performance or software and a written artist’s statement or process statement, with the written aspect submitted according to the library guidelines. Here again, keep your committee appraised of the strategy you choose to pursue.

Think about the long game

The standard dissertation in history performs two roles for doctoral students: it serves as a credentialing document, showcasing one’s ability to do historical research and engage the scholarly community; and it is the initial draft of one’s first monograph, a crucial scholarly product for tenure and promotion. While digital scholarship is gaining support at the dissertation level, the path forward from such projects is unclear. There are many examples of excellent digital work being done by scholars and used successfully as part of applications for tenure and promotion.  But here again experiences vary greatly by institution. 

In creating a digital dissertation, think strategically about what it generates next and how that fits into your overall research agenda. Whereas the typical dissertation leads to a monograph, a digital project can lead to such things as expanded websites, journal articles, code libraries, or games, as well as potentially a monograph. Depending on the type of work one is hoping to do next, you can gear the digital project toward developing and showcasing those skills. In this, the digital project has the potential for opening career possibilities beyond the professoriate. At the same time, having something that can easily develop into a monograph or articles may be important if you are aiming to build upon the dissertation to develop a tenure dossier.

Reimagining Historical Scholarship

Scholarship in history that relies on digital media for presentation or computational methods for analysis, that intentionally “thinks with” a computer, is both still atypical but also increasingly common and necessary as recent history is recorded in digital forms and our expectations of knowledge rely on the methods of data science. The transition to digital and multimedia modes of presentation is part of a larger shift in the norms of scholarly publishing in history, but is one that is not yet well supported within the existing institutional structures,

including those for the creation, defense, and submission of dissertations. For now, doctoral students undertaking digital work in history have the unenviable task of straddling both worlds—the forms and structures designed for traditional monographs and the as yet minimally defined world of digital design, computational analysis, and digital production. And yet, it is the very lack of definition that makes it a particularly interesting and productive time to engage in digital scholarship. Being aware of the different goals and expectations of both is key to successfully submitting digital scholarship as part of the dissertation in history.