open source dissertation

exitstrategy-lg.gif Despite numerous books and accolades, Douglas Rushkoff is pursuing a PhD at Utrecht University, and has recently begun work on his dissertation, which will argue that the media forms of the network age are biased toward collaborative production. As proof of concept, Rushkoff is contemplating doing what he calls an “open source dissertation.” This would entail either a wikified outline to be fleshed out by volunteers, or some kind of additive approach wherein Rushkoff’s original content would become nested within layers of material contributed by collaborators. The latter tactic was employed in Rushkoff’s 2002 novel, “Exit Strategy,” which is posed as a manuscript from the days unearthed 200 years into the future. Before publishing, Rushkoff invited readers to participate in a public annotation process, in which they could play the role of literary excavator and submit their own marginalia for inclusion in the book. One hundred of these reader-contributed “future” annotations (mostly elucidations of late-90s slang) eventually appeared in the final print edition.
Writing a novel this way is one thing, but a doctoral thesis will likely not be granted as much license. While I suspect the Dutch are more amenable to new forms, only two born-digital dissertations have ever been accepted by American universities: the first, a hypertext work on the online fan culture of “Xena: Warrior Princess,” which was submitted by Christine Boese to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1998; the second, approved just this past year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was a thesis by Virginia Kuhn on multimedia literacy and pedagogy that involved substantial amounts of video and audio and was assembled in TK3. For well over a year, the Institute advocated for Virginia in the face of enormous institutional resistance. The eventual hard-won victory occasioned a big story (subscription required) in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
kuhn chronicle.jpg
In these cases, the bone of contention was form (though legal concerns about the use of video and audio certainly contributed in Kuhn’s case): it’s still inordinately difficult to convince thesis review committees to accept anything that cannot be read, archived and pointed to on paper. A dissertation that requires a digital environment, whether to employ unconventional structures (e.g. hypertext) or to incorporate multiple media forms, in most cases will not even be considered unless you wish to turn your thesis defense into a full-blown crusade. Yet, as pitched as these battles have been, what Rushkoff is suggesting will undoubtedly be far more unsettling to even the most progressive of academic administrations. We’re no longer simply talking about the leveraging of new rhetorical forms and a gradual disentanglement of printed pulp from institutional warrants, we’re talking about a fundamental reorientation of authorship.
When Rushkoff tossed out the idea of a wikified dissertation on his blog last week, readers came back with some interesting comments. One asked, “So do all of the contributors get a PhD?”, which raises the tricky question of how to evaluate and accredit collaborative work. “Not that professors at real grad schools don’t have scores of uncredited students doing their work for them,” Rushkoff replied. “they do. But that’s accepted as the way the institution works. To practice this out in the open is an entirely different thing.”

3 thoughts on “open source dissertation

  1. Christine Boese

    Hey, a big shout-out to Virginia on the Chronicle article. Terrific, and congrats on getting the bugger finally through the gauntlet! I even had to break down and get the Chronicle subscription to read it back when it came out, but it was worth it for our cause (I hate firewalls).
    Thanks for the mention of my work in the Chronicle, and above Ben.
    Regarding Rushkoff and his open-source dissertation ideas, I would like to add the following:
    As you say above, my dissertation is “born digital” in native hypertext, meaning it can’t be reproduced on paper, and it tackles the problem of making an effective argument in a nonlinear “text” that shouldn’t read the same way twice.
    But it also is “open source” to a large degree.
    What I mean is that I studied an online cyberculture of fans of the show “Xena: Warrior Princess,” and as part of my methods of participant observation, I deliberately made the fans my co-authors, first, by weaving the hypertext into the community being studied, second, by including extensive full-text and media archives (more so than in a conventional ethnography)of the Xenites speaking and creating in their own voices.
    Then I also cycled the ideas and texts as I drafted them back into a particular invitation-only private fan group that had been essential informants for the research. A combative group, they did not hesitate to call “bullshit” if I got something wrong. I also had active Xena fan academics as first readers on the diss. Two in particular gave me close, comma-level feedback on every single section and link, BEFORE my committee ever got a hold of it.
    And finally, I built into the interface (perhaps not as successfully as I would have liked, given the time constraints I was under at the end of the dissertation process, and the heavier workload that writing, coding, and media cataloging required)a “Xenites Talk Back” section, where the fans could also append commentary and argumentative points AFTER the full body of the work was finished. They continued to do so up to about a year after the dissertation was formally defended (when my form code broke down through several ISP moves). The biggest revisionist contribution in that space came from Joxer fans, a subgroup that felt some of its views were overlooked.
    All the participants could not get a piece of my Ph.D., which is still “authored” by me, although deliberately dialogically. Perhaps this cycling of the research back into the community studied is not so unusual for cultural studies/ethnographic approaches in anthropology, but in my case in rhetoric and communication, it was an intrinsic part of the research ethics employed and explicitly laid out in my research methods.
    The section of the diss that discusses these issues can be found (broken out of the frameset) at
    and at
    Full dissertation inside the frameset is at
    Chris Boese

  2. ben vershbow

    Thanks so much for fleshing this out. It’s interesting reading your “politics of online research praxis” and comparing it with what Rushkoff is contemplating. Your research ethics were developed according to the specific customs and protocols of the Xenaverse, and no doubt led to a far richer and more accurate investigation of that culture than you would have produced as a detached observer (looking back, it must seem that there was no other way to go about it). Rushkoff, on the other hand, is thinking about a more general sort of collaboration with anyone interested in helping out. I wonder if this can actually sustain itself, even with the draw of Rushoff’s celebrity and his devoted readership. I also wonder if he might be kidding himself about the boundaries he ultimately wants to preserve between himself, the principal PhD-bound author, and his collaborators.
    Seems a better approach would be to involve himself with specific communities he’s studying — to cultivate, as you say, “a responsible, open, participant-observer role” in arenas like Wikipedia, open source software development, fan culture, and wherever else he’s planning to look. The “open source” approach to Exit Strategy was ultimately a gimmick, a fun layer added to the author’s turf, while what you did with Xena was much more profoundly engaged with new modes of research.
    Obviously, Rushkoff is only at the beginning of thinking this through. You guys should talk.

  3. Chris Boese

    [waves wildly to Ben!]
    Whoops, throwback to my old MOO days there!
    Thanks for the thoughts, Ben, and for checking out my methods. You’re right, it does seem clearly the best way to do it now, but at the time, well, I was in a crazy, dissertation blur, editing during endless Xena episodes, doing all-night fan fiction marathons, so I have this odd memory of Princess Diana’s coffin rolling in endless procession, interspersed with Xena flips and smart-ass cracks, and Miss Cleo gesturing on mute…
    What was so odd about the diss is the way I got in this fugue state and all the pieces just fell into place, and this crazy idea of actually enacting the theories I was trying to prove seemed just normal enough to try.
    But more seriously, I guess what I learned from all that (with the Cultural Studies bent brought over tech-side) is that ALL of cyberculture should be approached for study in terms of the utterances of pre-existing communities and cultures.
    It seems that some online researchers do plow into cyberspace and start gathering data as if they’d just discovered the continent of North America and assumed it was empty and ready to be colonized, except for some random tribes here and there, as if the continent weren’t already populated with pre-existing cultures and mores and norms.
    Ach, I’m just rambling. I was talking to a guy last week who insisted that there is nothing unique about RSS, how it was overrated, and HTML pages were the same thing so what difference does it make? Which is fine except that he’s working at a company that’s spending millions to develop a big social network product WITHOUT RSS, as if the pre-existing cultures of the Blogosphere, fueled by feeds, haven’t reshaped the landscape of cyberspace.
    But no, he’s all set to land on an island like Columbus and claim the territory for late 1990s top-down, myopia.
    Chris —shaking head

Comments are closed.