Digital Dissertations: A Research Story

Contributors: Megan Adams, Kristine Blair
Affiliation: University of Findlay, Bowling Green State University/Youngstown State University
Email: meadams at findlay.edu, klblair@ysu.edu
Published: 21 July 2016



For decades, scholars in computers and writing have trumpeted the importance of digital publishing. Those of us working in the field have adopted the stance of the New London Group (1996) in acknowledging that as technologies evolve, so must our conceptions of what constitutes a text, embracing what Valerie Lee and Cynthia Selfe (2008) have defined as "capaciousness." Indeed, as many other scholars noted (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Kress, 1999; Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996), we needed to expand our notions of text to include multimodalities of expression: visual, aural, and kinesthetic elements along with alphabetic text. Scholars in our field rose to the challenge of creating platforms for publication of multimodal, digital scholarship, including academic journals and presses that publish born-digital and digitally enhanced scholarship. While those in our field were doing the work of establishing rigorous digital research methodologies and methods and creating venues for digital scholarship to be published, professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Modern Language Association (MLA) were working to create guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship so that we could make arguments for the inclusion and valuing of digital scholarship in tenure and promotion cases and in other institutional settings. Such conversations are often difficult because of the rapidly changing nature of technology as well as the entrenched conventions associated with traditional genres of publication. In other words, for academic publishing to “flourish in the future” (Fitzpatrick, 2011, p. 10), scholars in computers and writing must concentrate on the technological changes at work as well as the “social, intellectual, and institutional changes that are necessary to pave the way for such flourishing” (p. 10) and be good at explaining the value and necessity of digital research methodologies and methods as well as the rigorous work associated with them to other folks across university departments.

However, one area in which those in the field of rhetoric and composition are challenging the privileging of alphabetic texts is in the dissertation genre. With the publication of born-digital dissertation projects (Boese, 1998; Yergeau, 2015), there has been a need to make visible the systematic and institutional constraints associated with this work. In this webtext, we (Megan Adams, Dissertation Author and Kris Blair, Dissertation Advisor) discuss the need to open up possibilities for born-digital scholarship in the dissertation process and the challenges that arise for doctoral candidates, their advisors and committees, and their graduate programs. Our story illustrates the necessity of digital research methods and methodologies to pursue digital dissertations, the ways those of us working in the field can support novice researchers in these endeavors, and how to adapt university policies to become more aligned with technological possibilities.1 We share these insights through a story detailing the digital research methods and processes involved in composing a digital dissertation and the arguments we made for the inclusion of digital data in representation processes to stakeholders. We also work to explain how feminist, participatory methodologies grounded the dissertation project and how articulation of these methodologies can be beneficial to those doing digital scholarship in the humanities.

The Development of a Digital Dissertation

In 2011, Megan, as a doctoral student entering into her second year of coursework discovered Hollow, an interactive, community participatory documentary in McDowell County, West Virginia. More specifically, the project aimed to open conversations about the future of small, rural towns across America through the story of McDowell told through media-rich pieces:

Hollow combines personal portraits, interactive data, maps and user-generated content on an HTML5 website designed to address the issues stemming from stereotyping and steady population loss. The community will be taking part in the filmmaking process by creating 20 of the 50 documentary portraits and offer ideas for future improvement. Hollow strives to bring attention to issues in rural America, encourage trust among the community and become a place where they can have a voice and share ideas for the future. (“Hollow: An Interactive Documentary Proposal”)

The project appealed to Megan’s scholarly curiosities about community digital storytelling work, Appalachian rhetoric, and digital literacies. Given her previous work as broadcast news reporter, she was able to contribute to the documentary as an assistant cinematographer and performed other duties as needed. Through these experiences, Megan was able to develop relationships with documentary crewmembers and community storytellers that developed as her role evolved from volunteer to researcher with the project. Because of her work as a volunteer and subsequent enthusiasm about the project, the director asked Megan to conduct research given her role as a Ph.D student at the time. Together they developed research questions based on needs expressed directly from community members. In building these relationships, Megan was compelled to preserve the voices of the community storytellers as much as possible in her dissertation as well as to include narrative reflections of her own personal story as a way to provide audiences with insight into how her dissertation was grounded and framed, a move called for in participatory media-driven projects (Rodriquez, 2001; Lievrouw, 2011; Torre & Ayala, 2009) and feminist research (Chiseri-Strater, 1996; Grabill, 2012; Almjeld & Blair, 2012; Royster & Kirsch, 2012).

Additionally, in staying true to the participatory, digitally-driven methods incorporated into the documentary project, Megan designed a research study that relied heavily on digital data collection and analysis. The utilization of digital methods and methodologies was a necessity, because the data was digital. For instance, in triangulating data Megan worked to analyze the pieces of media residents chose to share with her, and in honoring their voices she chose to input that media directly into her dissertation. She also wanted audiences of her dissertation to experience the stories of community members as they articulated them—through audio-visual media. An example of those media representations can be seen in Fred's video linked below.

Inspirations about the possibility of such work came directly from other scholarship published in the field examining digital literacies, such as Scenters-Zapico’s Generaciones Narratives: The Pursuit and Practices of Traditional and Electronic Literacies at the US-Mexico Borderlands (2010) and Berry, Hawisher, and Selfe’s Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times (2012). In other words, as a feminist researcher working with a rich participatory media project, Megan acknowledged the need to preserve the voices of her participants in the text. Her observations of how other researchers were doing similar work in the field allowed her to envision and create a document that provided the impetus to engage in such research.

Throughout her time spent with the community storytellers working with Hollow, it became clear to Megan that the depth of their multimodal literacies and the ways they were remediating digital technologies to tell stories about identity and culture necessitated a digital format. Take for instance, Alan, one of the storytellers she features in her dissertation—prior to working with Hollow, Alan was an accomplished musician and photographer, but there were distinct, intricate differences in his expressions of identity in his digital compositions before and after involvement with the documentary. Audiences for Megan's dissertation were better able to understand and experience the depth of Alan's multimodal literacies by watching examples of his work that were embedded in the PDF text, an example of which is included below. Although these differences could be coded and explained via text, they were meant to be experienced multimodally. Because Megan felt comfortable editing and preparing these media elements into the dissertation, she could not determine a reason to omit them in the final document.

Institutional Context

As we stress in our introduction, Megan’s project is aligned with longstanding call for multimodal knowledge-making by The New London Group (1996) as well as those scholars in English studies who have called for a more capacious or flexible (Lee & Selfe, 2008) understanding of scholarship that enables experimentation with genres and modalities beyond the alphabetic. This capaciousness has applied to the dissertation process as well, with organizations such as the National Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) being a strong advocate for the dissemination and preservation of knowledge and maintaining the relevance of such academic genres in the 21st century. The OhioLink Academic Library Consortium, better known as OhioLink, has been among the largest contributors to the NDLTD in terms of the numbers of total dissertations, including those from Bowling Green State University (BGSU). This participation presumedly would allow for more multimodal elements in the dissertation writing process. But even as rhetoric and composition specialists have addressed the electronic dissertations as part of our disciplinary future and there are historical examples of digital dissertations (notably Christine Boese’s 1998 dissertation “The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Xenaverse” and more recently Melanie Yergeau’s 2013 “Disabling Composition: Toward a 21st-Century, Synaesthetic Theory of Writing”), these examples are more the exception than the norm.

Perhaps part of the reason digital dissertations are more the exception are because of the technological constraints and guidelines developed at a university level to attend to issues of access and sustainability. For instance, Megan was aware she had to submit her dissertation in a PDF format based on university guidelines, even though she always imagined the dissertation as a web text. To avoid the hassle that might result in challenging those guidelines, Megan compromised in including embedded video directly into the dissertation (see the image below). Her concerns may explain the hesitation of many graduate students who are focused on completing their degrees in a timely manner. In other words, for graduate students like Megan doing digital research, there is not only a larger time investment in regards to technological literacy learning curves and working with digital data but also in having to make the argument for the digital format of the dissertation. As scholars working to support students in composing digital dissertations, it is important to be sensitive to the myriad of roles graduate students navigate to successfully complete a digital dissertation and to support and advocate on their behalf as Kris had done throughout the creation of Megan's project (as evidenced later in this story).

Figure 1: Screenshot of Megan's Multimodal Dissertation in .pdf format
Figure 1: Screenshot of Megan's Multimodal Dissertation in .pdf format

Although Megan incorporated digital methodologies and methods into data collection and analysis before she began writing her dissertation, she made sure she had a thorough understanding of publication procedures before composing her dissertation around the integration of digital media artifacts, such as videos, audio clips, and images. After combing through BGSU's graduate handbook (a document outlining the policies and standards of dissertation publication), she noticed there were no restrictions in regards to the file size of a dissertation. Nevertheless, Megan knew issues could arise when uploading large files, so she edited out the original twenty minutes of video included in her dissertation to about six minutes in the final draft. Even with the omittance of this large portion of video, Megan's dissertation file still took a significantly long time to download, something likely attributed to the PDF format she was restricted to compose within as a result of her willingness to do digital scholarship within university guidelines.

Megan's project makes it clear that digital data collection and representation processes have a significant impact on genres such as the alphabetic dissertation, yet it is equally clear that university policies and disciplinary ideologies often lag behind these technological possibilities. For us, Megan’s dissertation submission process chronicles the institutional possibilities and constraints upon faculty in supporting students as they develop dissertations that result from both digital methods and multimodal methodologies.

The doctoral program in Rhetoric and Writing at BGSU is designed to support students as they develop a digital scholarly identity through work such as an electronic portfolio completed in seminars such as Computer-Mediated Writing Theory and Practice and an understanding of the ethics of digital methods and their impact on knowledge-making in the field through coursework in Research Methods. Those emphases not only allowed Megan to develop digital publication projects for journals such as Computers and Composition Online but also enabled her to further extend her substantial skill set and experiment with digital components to otherwise alphabetic processes, including preliminary exams and the eventual dissertation project. These experiences helped to support Megan and provide her with both the skills and theoretical knowledge needed to develop the audio-visual components included in her dissertation and provide a rationale for them in the text.

BGSU, as one of the 121 members of OhioLink, has an electronic submission component that does, in theory, allow for that more “capacious”  (Lee & Selfe, 2008) understanding of what an alphabetic dissertation can be, but as Lee and Selfe articulate in their discussion of tenure and promotion documents, it is more likely that policy rather then technology will limit the development of and support for such emerging genres. As one of the original committee members to establish BGSU’s migration from print dissertation storage in the University Library to digital submission to the OhioLinkETD Center, Kris Blair was indeed aware of the limits of such policy in the requirement that dissertations be formatted according to the same alphabetic document conventions outlined in the University’s thesis and dissertation handbook. Despite this potential, the eventual electronic dissertation submission process for most doctoral candidates at BGSU is not much more than converting a Microsoft Word document to PDF without the inclusion of multimodal assets. To date, many dissertations stored on OhioLink may include media, but such assets are often accompaniments to the dissertation, viewed literally as supplemental to primary content, making the digital data collection and representation process equally subordinate. This is what the technological support center that assists doctoral candidates in submitting electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) expected and encouraged Megan to do, even as she was assured that having videos embedded in her document as significant part of her data representation would be acceptable.

And then it wasn’t acceptable.

The day the dissertation was due for submission to OhioLink, Kris, the Rhetoric and Writing Program Director, and the Director of Graduate Studies were forced to defend the submission of what BGSU’s Office of Registration and Records considered an unacceptable project for its immense size and because its media assets were not compatible with the database program OnBase, where student records, including online dissertations, are stored. We were saved by the unreasonable timing of the request. Just two hours before the 5:00 p.m. deadline, the coordinator of the Student Technology Assistance Center, the office that reviews and approves the final dissertation manuscript for uploading, suggested that Megan remove all media assets from the dissertation and re-upload to OhioLink. We rejected that option not only because of the substantial role of multimodal methods in the field of rhetoric and composition but also because such an option reinforced the misconception the media assets were supplemental rather than integral to the project. 

As Kris has argued elsewhere (2015), an emphasis on mere migration of print genres into online space reinscribes a privileging of the alphabetic even when the rhetorical affordances of digital tools can accommodate a broader range of knowledge-making and sharing modalities. In Megan’s case, that involved the ability to embed video directly into Acrobat files; such media told the story of her rural West Virginia research participants and their work to digitally document their community in their own voices. The importance of those voices in video form is immeasurable; as forms of data representation, they bridge the gap between narrative and expository modes and between the personal and the academic. As dissertation chair, Kris often found herself weeping upon a first review of this work, a testament to the power of the multimodal. Given this impact, rather than migration, what we should instead be fostering is transformation, i.e., using technology to reenvision the genre and the modality of the dissertation as a form of data collection and representation. For nearly two decades, scholars from Jude Edminster and Joseph Moxley (2002) to Kathie Gossett and Liza Potts (2013) have argued for the rhetorical affordances of the ETDS, yet today, most programs, even those with electronic submission requirements, continue to perceive the dissertation genre as alphabetic print on screen.

Although those working in the field of rhetoric and composition have made strides in providing venues to publish digital scholarship in a varity of forms and modalities, there is still work to be done in regards to supporting emerging scholars in pursuing multimodal dissertations. As this story illustrates, it is critically important that we make these conversations visible and support graduate students in this work across departments, universities, and disciplines in order to advocate for the production of robust, rich scholarship likened to that we are already publishing in other venues.

A Concluding Call to Action

We have learned the hard way that having a digital submission and repository for dissertations does not foster a multimodal dissertation. Cynthia Selfe (2009) has powerfully argued in favor of fostering diverse composing processes among students, contending that:

They need a full quiver of semiotic modes from which to select, role models who can teach them to think critically about a range of communication tools, and multiple ways of reaching their audience. They do not need teachers who insist on one  tool or one  way. Students, in sum, need opportunities to realize that different compositional modalities carry with them different possibilities for representing multiple and shifting patterns of identity, additional potential for expression and resistance. (645)

In the context of graduate education, Selfe’s call to action certainly mandates that programs foster diverse composing processes in coursework, as we have done at BGSU, and in other substantial milestones such as prelims and the academic job search. Yet, for doctoral educators in particular, this is not enough. As scholars in rhetoric and composition and computers and writing, we have to move beyond our immediate programs to engage administrative decision makers, particularly graduate deans and technological support staff, to better ensure that policy and ideology about what constitutes a dissertation, as the culminating requirement for the degree, is more flexible. Given the challenges we have outlined, graduate programs in the humanities clearly must be more vocal in advocating for a collective understanding the role of digital, mobile, and multimodal research tools in knowledge-making and sharing at all stages of dissertation development. 

Megan’s dissertation is aligned with Selfe, as well as with the most recent call by Sidonie Smith (2015) to breathe “life into the dissertation” by transforming its status in both content and format as the "proto-monograph":

What is fast becoming the “new normal” in the everyday life of academic humanists will require people to be intellectually nimble; conversant in digital media, networks, archives, and identities; energized by collaboration; flexible in their modes of address; imaginative in their pedagogical practice; and adept at telling the story about what they do. 

This story has a happy ending.

Several months after Megan deposited her dissertation, we learned that her project would receive BGSU’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Humanities, a recognition for both Megan and Kris as dissertation chair. Because of the obstacles our program faced in having Megan’s project accepted, we were surprised but grateful to the awards committee and our departmental administrators for their advocacy. Nevertheless, we know that in order to enable similar projects, doctoral programs must reach out to the Graduate College as a policy-making body via university-level forums such as the faculty senate and the graduate council to foster a more recursive relationship between technology and policy that supports digital writing and literacy researchers. Ultimately, it will take a collaborative network of students, faculty, and administrators to develop and sustain multimodal dissertations as significant forms of knowledge making and sharing across the disciplines.

1. In sharing her experiences facing institutional barriers in publishing a media-rich dissertation, Virginia Kuhn (2005) offers a powerful argument and practical strategies for scholars looking to pursue and support digital dissertations.


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