Practice what you preach. Engaging in Humanities research through critical praxis

I finally managed to add hyperlinks to the paper I presented at the HASTAC V conference in Ann Arbor last December. Please find it underneath accompanied by my Prezi presentation.

This lecture will present a new experimental approach to conducting and performing a PhD dissertation within the (digital) humanities. It describes an experiment in developing a digital, open and collaborative research practice, by exploring the possibility of remix, liquidity and openness in the dissertation’s conduct and format.

On September 25, 2011, Media Studies scholar and Digital Humanist Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled ‘Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities’. In this piece Fitzpatrick reflects upon advise she had previously given to a grad student who wanted to do a digital project for her final dissertation. Instead of doing the save thing and writing a traditional dissertation, Fitzpatrick advised her to ‘do the risky thing’, to experiment and present her argument in an innovative way. However, she made sure to add that the student should have someone to cover their back, making a plea for mentors and dissertation supervisors to support digital, experimental dissertation work. The paper that I am presenting here today can in many ways be seen as an expansion of Fitzpatrick’s argument. However, although it applauds her insistence on supervisory support in doing digital research, it wants to draw more attention to the responsibility of PhD students themselves to, as Fitzpatrick states, ‘defend their experimental work’, and their ‘deviation from the road ordinarily travelled’. It will do so first of all by offering a theoretical argumentation on how the choices we make during the PhD and the way we conduct it says a lot about the scholarly communication system we want and envision. Secondly it will do so by focusing on a practical case study of a PhD dissertation that can be seen as an experiment in developing a digital, open and collaborative research practice, by exploring the possibility of remix, liquidity and openness in the dissertation’s conduct and format.

Doing a dissertation in an experimental form—for instance by using multimedia to enhance the dissertation’s argument—or even by using research blogs or social media to develop the thesis’ argument further online, can be an important aspect in gaining, as I will argue, both digital and critical literacy. For example, in her blog post entitled ‘Hacking the Dissertation Process’, historian Tanya Roth writes, reflecting on the PhD process: ‘As digital tools and processes continue to offer larger benefits for [such] projects, it is increasingly important to make sure grad students understand what’s out there and how these resources and ideas can help them with their own research.’ As Roth also states, this is not an either-or-situation where ‘traditional skills’, like how to write a research paper, also need to be part of the curriculum. Nevertheless, by actively ‘trying out’ new (digital) tools and methodologies to see how they fit the specific research project and/or argument that is being pursued, and by performing the dissertation in an alternative way, graduate students will be able to develop what I will call a ‘critical praxis’. To elaborate on this, one of the reasons why during the PhD it is important to develop both digital and critical literacy—which as I will argue can be seen as a simultaneous process—is that it not only helps one to develop and perhaps even expand one’s research skills. Most importantly, it offers a possibility to actively rethink ‘traditional skills’ and with that what is still perceived as the ‘natural’ process of doing a PhD in the Humanities: creating a single-authored, static, print-based argumentation in long-form, which should preferably have the potential to be published as a research monograph. This ‘natural process’ of doing a PhD can be seen as a reflection of dominant discourses that shape how a graduate student is supposed to write or author a dissertation. This provides a road map to becoming a scholar, where the dissertation serves as a model of how to conduct research and ultimately of how to produce a scholarly monograph. Game Studies scholar Anastasia Salter reflects on this argument very clearly in her contribution to the crowd-sourced volume ‘Hacking the Academy’ where she states that ‘The traditional dissertation as product reflects the dominance of the book: it creates a monograph that sits in a database. The processes of the Humanities are to some extent self-perpetuating: write essays as an undergraduate, conference papers as a graduate student, a dissertation as a doctoral student, and books and journal articles as a professor.’

The importance of being aware of and critiquing these dominant discourses however not only lies in exploring the tension between how these discourses on the one hand reproduce ‘traditional scholars’ and how on the other hand, the PhD and the PhD thesis are supposed to be, as political theorist Angelique Bletsas states in her article ‘The PhD Thesis as ‘Text’’: ‘(…) the foundations of ‘new scholarship’ and as such are integral to the production of new thought and new scholars.’ It is important to be aware that these discourses relating to knowledge production during the PhD process have, as Bletsas argues, certain subjectification effects. She shows how the dissertation is not only about finishing a static text but also about finishing as a person. As she states, the accepted thesis completes the student as a discoursing’ subject’. In other words the PhD student as a discoursing subject is being (re-) produced in these dominant discourses, and with that, a certain kind of scholar, and a certain kind of scholarly communication system also get reproduced.

 Thus I will argue that at this specific time—a time in which digital projects are still within the Humanities being perceived as ‘risky’— at this specific time developing a form of digital literacy can be seen as a process that goes hand in hand with developing critical literacy, as it offers students the possibility and the ability to critically rethink through critical praxis the dominant discourses and established notions concerning how to conduct a dissertation, and with that, ultimately, how to write a scholarly monograph. And as I will show at the end of this paper with the example or case study of my own dissertation—which I am currently producing—it offers the possibility to try out and explore alternative forms of scholarly communication that have the potential to contribute to a Humanities research practice that is more open, collaborative and processual. By exploring and promoting counter-hegemonic discourses we can show that there is no natural or presumed way to doing a PhD (or to finishing one), nor is there to writing a scholarly monograph.

Let me emphasise here however that I do not claim that this form of critical praxis can only be achieved or learned by experimenting with digital projects, methods and tools. I am only arguing that at this specific moment these tools and methods tend to trigger critique and rethinking of established notions concerning scholarship and scholarly communication. Even more, I would like to add that this critical praxis applies and should apply just as much to digital methods and to being critical of the way research is being done within the Digital Humanities. Especially insofar as digital projects reproduce notions and values from the dominant discourses that can be seen as merely reproducing vested interests. Not all digital projects are inherently and necessary critical and experimental or even ‘risky’, they just have the potential to be so.

To continue my argumentation, just as knowledge is inherently political, doing a PhD or writing a dissertation is, as I claim, a political act. As Angelique Bletsas states, drawing on Michel Foucault, there is ‘no standpoint in the field of knowledge production which is ‘innocent’ or outside of power relations.’ Bletsas describes the tension that you need to be accepted, be formed in a certain way and comply to a certain discourse, before you can critique this discourse. Drawing further on this, for me a resistance against being formed in a certain way thus already starts during the PhD a time when we also start to critically evaluate which values underlying scholarly communication we should cherish. The PhD can be seen as an intervention in the production of knowledge, in which one takes in a position concerning the future of scholarly communication. The traditional PhD dissertation or what is commonly perceived as the ‘natural PhD process’ follows many of the elements of what I would call a traditional and paper-based view of scholarly communication. What I am arguing for here is a critical praxis that explores (and again remains critical of) values based on a politics of sharing and collaborating. One that critiques established notions of authorship and stability and triggers us to rethink institutions which are at the moment still very much part of and reproducing an economics and politics based on vested interests inherited from a print-based situation. We now have the possibility to use digital tools to explore open access, collaboration, remix and processual scholarship, which have the potential to offer an alternative view for scholarly communication.

I will end my argumentation with a case study, my dissertation on The Future of the Scholarly Monograph and the Culture of Remix, currently in process. By positioning the book as a major site of struggle within the Humanities over some of the new, digital forms and systems of communication rapidly affecting academia—such as Open Access publishing, open peer review, and liquid books—this project argues for the importance of experimenting with alternative ways of thinking and performing the monograph. And just as important, practically engaging with that by starting with the PhD dissertation itself. My research critically analyses the discourse surrounding the future of the scholarly book in the Humanities in the digital age, which can be perceived as a power struggle for another scholarly communication system. My research will at the same time be a theoretical and practical intervention into this debate. It will be an experiment in developing a digital, open, and collaborative research practice, with which I hope to actively challenge and critique the established notions and practices within the field of the Humanities, both in form, practice and content.

Within the Humanities, increasingly scholars experiment with conducting their research in a more open, processual way, following the idea of open research or open notebook science. For instance Book and Cultural Studies scholar Ted Striphas develops new thoughts and arguments on his blog whilst posting his working paper online in a wiki. Media theorist Gary Hall is making the research for his new book Media Gifts freely available online on his website as it evolves. There are however only few doctoral students that I am aware of that are fully putting their work online as an experiment in ‘open research’. One example is communication theorist and librarian Heather Morrison, who posts her dissertation chapters as they evolve online and English student Alex Gil, who is putting his work towards his dissertation online using the CommentPress wordpress plugin.

In my dissertation the possibilities of remix, liquidity and openness will be practically explored in both the research’s conduct and format. By making use of digital platforms and tools, all the research towards the dissertation—notes, chapters, etc.—will be made available online, as it progresses, via multiple outlets. This critical praxis will thus follow the idea of open research, by which anyone can track what has been done (openness), can comment on the research (social), and can add to it (collaborative, remix, liquid), hence arguing for a new future for the book as an emergent and evolving form within scholarly communication. In order to explore the new forms made possible by digital technology and culture, the following outlets will be used: a weblog entitled Open Reflections where ideas, first drafts and short pieces related to the dissertation will be posted. The blog will be used to share research, to build a community, to explore the possibilities of forms of open peer review and community comments and the possibilities of these for the research process. More advanced draft chapters will also be presented in an accompanying blog using the CommentPress plugin, at which state I will also actively invite people to comment.

Various social and archiving media will be used which are connected to the blog, such as Zotero, Twitter and Delicious. This will give an overview of resources used and texts read, and it will also provide an archive of notes, musings and different ideas related to the research as it develops, exploring a notion of research that is less focussed on the final end-product and more on the process of constantly developing, and updating research and on resource building.

When the research has developed from an initial draft-phase—incorporating comments and advise from the blog—into a more mature form, it will be published on a multimedia platform, such as Sophie, offering the possibility to create, edit and read, in a collaborative setting, and of making mashups and remixes of, amongst others, text, video, sound, illustrations, images and spoken word, to explore what it means to communicate research in an other than textual format, and to have different medial versions of the research. At this point I will invite scholars and artists to actively remix the content related to the dissertation. This intervention not only challenges the idea of single authorship (giving more appreciation to the collaborative nature of research) it also explores the possibility of traversing fields, combining research with artistic practice, trying practically to explore how we can abolish (or diminish) the distinctions still made between both.

Finally a wiki will be used where the authorial ‘moderating function’ still at work in the blog and the multimedia platform will be left behind. This is where I want to explore what it means to let go of authorship as a form of authority, both to examine what kind of alternative forms of authority (could) emerge and to critique our established notions of authority. In the wiki environment the author can no longer (solely) be held responsible or judged for the text or research. In the wiki the text will know no final version, it can be further commented upon and it can be updated, remixed and re-used (in principle) indefinitely.


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