The Future of the Dissertation: Hack the Diss

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?” 

What are you hacking, right now? 


6 thoughts on “The Future of the Dissertation: Hack the Diss

  1. Hi Kirsten,
    Loved this piece. I chuckled when I read your question: is your future too serious? Although I’m not at the stage of writing my diss, I do ask myself this question a lot, as well as why I’m doing this at all. I am passionate about the focus of my research – collaborate/collegial teacher relationships and teacher autonomy. While I do want to make a contribution to this ever more important conversation, I sometimes wonder about my underlying motivation since, as you know, undertaking doctoral work is all-consuming, even when it doesn’t get done! I have to watch myself as I encounter the varying perspectives of various “authority” figures in the field. To make a difference calls for courage. Thanks for causing some dissonance around this topic.

  2. Elisa, Thanks for commenting woman! Yes, exactly what you say: diss work is all consuming, even when you aren’t doing it. The thing I think is most insidious, perhaps least difficult to keep track of, is the way one enters the thought-regimes of the institution, even if you’re resisting. It can’t be helped–if you’re doing it, you’re buying it in some way. I’m grateful for my time in the academy, and I am working all the time to free myself from it. Both/and. Good luck and supporting you all the way. There is light on the other side.

  3. love this dear.
    sounds like some crazy fun. thank you for sharing.

    just finished Max McKweon’s Adaptability.. he writes of diss:

    “Very often those who receive the Nobel Prize have seen something first and have adapted their work to fit what they have seen. On 8 April 1982, Danny Shechtman, …saw something that should have not existed according to scientific knowledge at the time.
    The head of his research group asked him to leave because he was bringing disgrace to them all. It broke so many basic rules that people would not accept that he could be right about what he observed. There was even opposition from Linus Pauling, ‘father of molecular biology’ and double Noble Prize winner.
    Online discussions, critiques and collaborations are much faster than with printed material. Speed may not be everything but if all interactions are of a similar standard then it is almost everything. The more attempts there are at solving something collectively, the more likely a solution is to be found.
    Claims are made, objections discussed, and research interests exchanged. There are still benefits to publishing in paper but they may have less to do with making original contributions to human knowledge, much more with perpetuating systems of academic measurement and status.
    Those who seek urgent answers and deep understanding will not wait for referred journals with years of anonymous reviews and revisions. The adaptive process of recognition, understand- ing and action is accelerated by internet functionality and a collaborative sensibility. Some scientific communities have adapted centuries-old ways of working to the internet.”

    • Monika, As always, what a brilliant comment. I have to get Max McKweon. Perhaps you would also write a reflection, to mirror some of this back, about your own experience as a visionary and disrupter in the K-12 sector? What conventional wisdoms did you have to set aside? What are you constantly called to set aside? And where do you now find “validity”–conventional and not–and your own journey around this?

      Your courage and reflections would surely inspire others. Think about this?

      With admiration,

  4. i’m thinking one of the biggest things we need to address is this idea of credentialing, of proof. that’s why this crazy fun resonates.
    we spend so much time on it.. and we’re missing people.

    so creating, and continuing to create spaces of permission – like Saul’s #bmif – connected adjacency – where we have nothing to prove. where we can play with no agenda, follow curiosities:

    and in that.. prepare people for uncertainty (again – stop measuring learning) via Dave’s brilliant work with rhizomatic learning.

  5. Hey Kirsten, you’ve eloquently stated many of the reasons I have no interest in pursuing doctoral work. With that said, could you make a strong case for the value of the doctoral exercise for someone with no interest in becoming a professor or working in a lab? Have you seen examples of dissertations that built capacity beyond its writers? Can the successful ascertaining of a PhD contribute to good endeavors beyond academia, even more so than simply engaging in that good work for the 5-6 years you would’ve spent getting your PhD?

    Awesome thoughts as always, miss seeing you around,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s