Category Archives: dissertation

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.”