A couple of days ago a fine Harvard Graduate School of Education colleague, Zac Chase, and co-conspirators Tom Neville and Paul Tritter, put on a Hack the Diss (HtD) event in Cambridge, MA. “Tonight is intended to provoke discussion of scholarly work’s future forms and purposes.”
The evening juxtaposed John Dewey and Woody Guthrie in a knowledge-creation event around the first chapter of Kelly Spurgeon’s dissertation. Guitars, interpretive diss dancing, beer drinking, and the nature of the educative experience were highlights. (What is a meaningful life?” is at the heart of it, one participant concluded.) The evening proposed: a dissertation should be useful, a dissertation should reach beyond the academy–and asked the question: what is the performative nature of knowledge?
The night concluded with a panel on the future of the diss. (Among the panelists were John Bohannon, Ph.D., David Damrosch, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Schnapp, Ph.D., who are invited to post their remarks here. I was a panelist.)
My reflections on writing a diss, and the diss’ future, from the panel:
“The dissertation represents two extreme forms of human behavior: a hazing/belongness ritual for becoming an academic–a position I believe is increasingly thankless and ossified; and an Iron Man in the world of knowing: KNOWING as a way of being and seeking meaning in the world which–while powerful and occasionally pleasurable–has extreme limitations.
In my own personal practice at age 52, I am here to testify that knowing, in a classical Western sense, will get you only so far.
And yet I enjoyed writing my diss, which became the basis for much of my work as an activist and a lot of the broader, more popular writing I’m engaged with, and formed the underpinnings of many of my larger projects. My work with my diss took me out in the world in ways I never expected, and as something you’ve got to do for a fair number of years, I was passionately interested in the questions I was investigating. I thought they were, and are, critically important.
I had fun, and I was playing, while I was doing the work, which is a high goal for me.
After completing diss, and kinda sorta beginning a somewhat conventional academic career–I found myself chafing and sweating as an academic, like a horse that pulls badly in harness. I was a pony that could not be broken to saddle. It became clear to me that did not want to give my life force to the support of the institution, an institution I regard as fundamentally colonizing, and at best morally neutral. I left.
The future of the diss depends on the future of the institution of higher education. Institutions of higher education are increasingly imperiled as knowledge certifiers and credentializers, as knowledge becomes more freely available and notions of validity are increasingly democratized and situationally-determined, as an evening like this one vividly demonstrates.
So my first question is: Do you really want to be an academic?
Over at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, moving in exactly the wrong direction, instead of embracing its marginality and low status in the academic pecking order, which would allow it to be inventive, playful, and counter-poised, its doctoral research products have become ever more conservative, stylized in a conventional social science direction, and unfortunately, less challenged by doctoral students desperate for jobs.
The role of doctoral student is infantilizing and diminishing. One leaves the pantheon of larger life–whatever that was–to enter the feudal guild of the department, where learning the conventions of the pecking order and adhering to thought-regimes of the professors upon whom one depends becomes essential, urgent, necessary. But it is a hair cut of almost supernatural force.
Consequently, few students challenge the “real science” form of doctoral research at all. The kinds of doctoral research projects approved now, even in the time since I have graduated from the school, have suffered from a terrible methodological narrowing: What kind of inference can you draw from this particular research design, formulaic to the degree that it hardly matters whether you are doing qualitative or quantitative research.
Low-status disciplines like education suffer from this narrowing and professional status insecurity most acutely. This is all ironic, of course, because where the real action is in the opening out of the form, the breaking up of the convention, the jumping over the walls of the institution and speaking out into a larger world of discontinuity, challenge, and paradigm shift.
The future of the diss, what kind of diss matters, and whether the diss itself matters, depends on your answers to some deeply personal questions.
Does your dissertation concern questions that deeply matter to you? That drive you, and involve the future of the work?
Or are you doing the diss to enter the academic guild, to get a job, to become a junior faculty member, to eventually get tenure so that then…in some imagined time…you will begin to express yourself? If so, can you afford to wait?
If you love the production of ideas, and you are not tied to a lab, why do you need to be tied to the university? What kinds of social networks and platforms do you need to stimulate your ideas? With whom can you form alliances so that you might be able to do the kind of research teaching, and writing you wish to do?
Most important, with whom do you want to communicate? And how?
Play is what most strikes me about the projects in John Bohannon’s DANCE YOUR DISSERTATION, or what I’ve seen here tonight. Play is how we are going to shift the form. And the enormous power of play is in its triviality.
Is your future too serious?”