And What Will You Do with That? A Quick, Dirty, and Incomplete Guide to Alternative Dissertations

scraps

Several times since declaring that I no longer planned to write a traditional dissertation (a proto-book monograph) and instead outlined something similar to the dissertation project that I’ve started here (art installation, website, and two academic articles), I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people inside and outside the field. Don’t you need to get published? How will that lead to an academic job? Aren’t you trying to get a tenure-track position? What do you hope to do with that? Why?

There are several different answers to this line of questioning, but there are two main threads of answers.

The first, and perhaps most academic, but also most immediate, reason has to do with the actual content of my argument. If memory and stories are related (even in novels!) to the way that we interact with textiles, I think it’s easier and more generative to actually produce something that allows people to interact with textiles in ways that I think are important. To feel and see that warp and weft, to visualize texts and textiles feeding and bleeding into each other, to be presented with real seams to consider how textile work and production makes a coming together as well as a setting apart, to create border spaces, visible stitches, and immediate conversations. Fabric, clothing, and textile work involve an array of senses, metaphors, and processes that I feel need to be out in the world and need to be experienced out in the world.

The second reason for doing this particular type of project has couple of different prongs to it. There are rumblings throughout academia (and particularly degree programs like English that still hold the monograph dissertation as the gold standard) about how useful this format is for degree-seeking students. Opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education and GradEdge, among others, recount the feeling that the dissertation might change in the way that it’s used to approach the idea of inquiry and dissemination of information, discovery, and research. Among the complaints lodged against the requirement for a monograph dissertation are that

  1. Dissertations can go largely unread or are required to include a lot of information that has very little to do with a student’s contribution to a field.
  2. A monograph emphasizes a product, rather than the process involved in knowledge creation.
  3. As I mentioned above, there are some types of research that are more suited to other formats, or that might rely on reaching more or different audiences.
  4. If a doctoral candidate is potentially looking at careers outside of academia (that are nevertheless more open to job candidates with PhDs), the existence of a monograph dissertation at the end of a program might not be particularly helpful in terms of professional development or skill-building.
  5. Many dissertations, particularly in the humanities, do not necessarily value collaboration, and are ultimately very solitary work.
  6. (The list of issues and questions goes on).

The push for alternative dissertations stems from several different impulses, including my own primary reason at the top of this piece–the idea that there are some types of research that are not suited to the monograph and are much more generative and approachable in a different format. There’s been a recent barrage of interest in the more creative dissertations that have been emerging, from comic books to rap albums to YouTube video series.

These types of dissertations also specifically address a frustration with the dissertation that has little to do with the person who actually produced the dissertation, but with the audience. Who actually reads these things? Even a format (frequently followed in the sciences) that allows for a series of academic articles rather than a proto-book, gathers more reads, citations, and cross-references. If a major part of what a dissertation is is to both produce knowledge and share it, perhaps we can acknowledge that there are possibilities to create rigorous, though-provoking, and deeply academic projects that are also approachable, fun, interactive, and ongoing. My plan for my own art installation and this website is to continue to give this work life after my degree is over. Different iterations of exhibits and installations will reflect an continuous adaptation of my own thoughts and theories about textiles and texts in relation to audience response, conversations, new books, new technologies, and collaborations.

There’s also a distinct strain of backlash against the traditional dissertation given the fact that many PhDs are choosing to (or only seeing the option to) go into a field outside of academia after graduation. Job opportunities, particularly in the humanities, are continuing to disappear, and many doctoral students–myself included–are unwilling to commit to such a tenuous tenure track rat race. Alt/ac might be better served by an alt/diss. In my case, the specific push towards creating an alternative dissertation was prompted by the realization that I really wasn’t interested in a tenure track job. While I’m still sussing out exactly what I want to do at the end of this process and this degree, I’m willing to bet that putting out a 250 or 300 word product is not necessarily going to be a particularly salient skill. There’s certainly an argument to be made for the rigor, research, and attention, as well as the writing itself, as being marketable skills, but the leap to job description qualifications can still be pretty substantial. Looking towards communications jobs for example, the idea that I have discrete and somewhat more approachable (while still academic-y, I know) writing samples to point to, efforts toward marketing my own work, and proven experience navigating university systems and translating scholarly research for different audiences makes a lot more immediate sense.

I am 1000% sure that I will continue to write more about these issues as the project continues, but I hope some preliminary resources are helpful!

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