Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dissertations vs the IPad

Page from the Kelmscott Press edition of Laude...Image via Wikipedia
Recently my program has taken up a discussion of the dissertation--what can we agree upon about the form, contents, style, etc.  In other words, what are our standards for this culminating piece of work in the doctoral program.  We are looking at a rubric that another institution developed, and I have to say that it makes the dissertation look pretty darn BORING. 

[Ironically even this ancient manuscript to the right from about 1200 has more color and design interest  than today's dissertation.]

I have nothing against the notion of a strong literature review, compelling question, thoughtful theoretical intersections, excellent methodological description and well described findings and discussions of implications.  Although, I am not sure that we can agree on what this means cross paradigm.  I think what will be even more difficult is how to figure out what this means in light of new digital forms.  I have already run into a variety of difficulties with issues related to discussions of qualitative data analysis software (QDAS), and this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing new forms. 

I think one of the most important challenges to the standard black and white dissertation, though, are the new visual formats.  For the last few weeks, my Google Reader has been bringing me video advertisements of the new Apple IPad and the kinds of content news media are developing for it.  The New York Times and Sports Illustrated are two I've seen, which are dazzling in their color and flexibility.  It's like a newspaper or magazine and a website combined.  But what is even more interesting is that it feels like it has jumped out of the old computer monitor and into a new kinesthetic mode with the ability to touch the screen and make things happen. 

This is not anything like the way the old dissertation looks even in digital form. Take a look at it.

Apple IPad

You'll probably notice as I did that there is not a single woman in the ad...all male speakers. That aside, (and I am sure they studied their demographic carefully before the release) this is how print of the future will look.  The dissertation looks dingy and sad beside it. Visual images are at a minimum.  Indeed, the height of visual orientation in the standard dissertation is the robust use of APA headings! 

Interestingly, though,  the Apple IPad  is loaded with skeumorphs--references to earlier times and technologies.  You turn pages, select a photo from a pile of photos, select books from bookshelves.  You feel like you are in the world of print and furniture of the late 20th century.  Things work in the same way, but they are all virtual--opening, closing, sliding forwards and backwards with the touch of a finger. 

In such a world it appears on the surface that the standard dissertation can find a place, but my question is why?  By this, I don't mean that we should give up and go on as we have for so many years, creating these five chapter documents that get shelved for eternity.  Rather, why, go on with the old form?  What's stopping us from jumping ship? Trying new forms? 

At the University of British Columbia (UBC) College of Education they have been doing experimentation with arts-based dissertations.  This may be the direction to consider.  

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