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Session Description

Although the need for graduate education reform in the humanities is widely discussed, the traditional role of the dissertation as a capstone proto-monograph is rarely questioned. This panel features six Pecha Kucha presentations (20 slides x 20 seconds) from graduate students developing radically new models of the dissertation, followed by ample discussion. This panel ‘drills down’ into one specific feature of the more general reform movement often discussed at MLA.

Detailed Session Description

Over the last two decades, and especially recent years, those working in literary studies have become acutely aware of the need for adaptation and reform of doctoral education. If for no other reason than the increasingly grim job market for tenure-track professorships, the structure of graduate education in the humanities, the purpose of the doctorate, and the nature of humanities scholarship itself has increasingly become a topic of vigorous conversation at large scholarly meetings such as the Modern Language Association and American Historical Association. Sessions during the last several MLA conventions (“Reforming Doctoral Education” in 2013 and Russell Berman’s Presidential Address in 2012, for example) have addressed this topic. The MLA has sponsored the creation of a Task Force on Doctoral Education and Study, while organizations such as the Scholarly Communication Institute bring together accomplished leaders in the humanities to think through how such reinvention might be widely discussed and implemented. Despite these active conversations, there has been little attention paid to how changing the particular components comprising humanities graduate programs might impact these wider efforts. In other words, much attention has been paid to graduate education in the humanities as a whole, while the typical components of that system–coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation–have been comparatively unaddressed.

This session continues and extends conversations that have taken place at MLA for several years. At the 2012 MLA convention, the Executive Council arranged a session titled “The New Dissertation: Beyond the (Proto)-Book” (http://www.mla.org/conv_listings_detail?prog_id=315&year=2012). Comprised of some of the most well-respected scholars working in and around scholarly communication and graduate training, this panel brought attention to the ways the dissertation might be changing before our eyes. Importantly, however, this session counted no graduate students among its primary participants. While I am sure graduate students contributed much during discussion, the panel itself lacked direct input from graduate students actively engaged in producing such problematic and trailblazing work.

Our session would allow those discussions to be recontextualized in light of concrete, first hand reports of dissertation projects that are occurring *now* in humanities departments in Canada, the United States, and Europe. These projects are, in some cases, first-generation examples of new models for the dissertation. By showing what the dissertation–as process, standard, and “document”–is becoming we can provoke further discussion of this important aspect of graduate reform.

We will begin, as I have here, by framing these prototypical dissertations in terms of an ongoing discussion of graduate education reform and changes in scholarly communication practices. After a brief introduction to the topic, I we will move towards an explanation of the presentation style of the session. As a Pecha Kucha style panel, each presenter will be strictly limited to a six minute twenty second time frame. This is enforced by the presentation itself: each individual’s presentation (made using Powerpoint or Prezi) will advance automatically as they present, settling for twenty seconds on each slide or image. Although presenters may overrun their presentation time limits, my experience has been that social pressure from both presenters and audience to not do so is intense. This format has been used successfully at MLA in the past, as illustrated by the well received “How Did I Get Here? Our ‘Altac’ Jobs” session at MLA 2013. Given this structure, our panel will allow maximum time–at least thirty minutes–for audience feedback, panel discussion, and open dialogue.

After brief introductions, each participant will present:

  • Nicholas van Orden will present on what software tools graduate students in literary studies are using to produce dissertations, ending with a consideration of whether “anyone today [is] ‘writing’ a dissertation?”
  • James O’Sullivan will report on the results of a qualitative international survey of dissertating scholars and their views on the form of the proto-monograph.
  • Nick Sousanis, currently authoring a dissertation entirely in the form of a graphic novel, will argue that sustained scholarly research in a form other than the linguistic can radically expand our notions of what humanistic inquiry is and how it is practiced.
  • Danielle Spinosa will present on her dissertation, published in open blog form, which seeks to reconcile political philosophies of postanarchism and adapt them as a literary theory of reading and actively engaging with the text.
  • Melissa Dalgleish will argue that not only must the form of the dissertation be reformed, but that the realities of the modern academy demand a dissertation explicitly oriented to non-academic careers.

The intended audiences for this session are graduate students in the humanities, established scholars who will soon be formulating standards and assessment criteria for non-traditional dissertations, and those invested in the wider graduate education reform movement.

These presentations, and the new models for the dissertation they discuss, challenge and complicate the traditional idea of the dissertation as the culmination of doctoral study that must take the form of a proto-monograph, destined to be later turned into a first academic book. The realities of changes in scholarly communication, the digital turn in the humanities, and the rapidly changing professional landscape of literary studies demand at least a consideration of alternative models for a component of graduate education that is considered *the* marker of scholarly accomplishment at the graduate level. Given that the professional humanities is very much in the midst of “Vulnerable Times,” an in depth consideration of the centerpiece of humanities training would be most appropriate for inclusion in MLA 2014.

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