Presentation Topics


“Writing” and the Use of Software in Dissertation Composition

Nick van Orden, University of Alberta Department of English

This presentation will explore the results of several surveys that I will conduct to measure the use of software in scholarly composition; it will focus on graduate student work, especially dissertation composition.

The surveys and presentation are motivated by two central questions: what software are doctoral students using to write their dissertations, and how might this software influence their final products? More general questions about the nature of “writing,” the organization of time and materials, and the impact of computational technologies on scholarship in general are also foundational to this project.

In order to conform to the constraints of the Pechakucha format, I will organize the presentation into two parts. In the longer first part I will present some of the results from the surveys. This part will highlight the software programs and digitally-enabled strategies that doctoral students are using in the different stages of their dissertations—from time-management and note-taking to layout and editing. The visual focus of Pechakucha provides an ideal form for presenting the results of empirical research. Appropriately, Pechakucha also represents one of the new digitally-enabled composition and presentation formats that current graduate students increasingly utilize. This self-reflexive realization serves as the transition to the second part of my presentation.

In the shorter second part I will propose a set of questions for consideration. Building on the evidence of wide-spread software use outlined in the first section, I will suggest that scholars must carefully consider the often subtle rhetorical and discursive effects that software has on scholarly production. Given the use of various programs for collecting, sorting, arranging, annotating, composing, and editing material, is anyone today “writing” a dissertation? Is “writing” a metonym that we are comfortable using uncritically?

“Problematising Theses: Research Perspectives on Modes of Submission”

James O’Sullivan, University College Cork

The thesis has long been at the centre of postgraduate and doctoral research, the awarding of academic qualifications very much dictated by such documents. Various cultures have adopted approaches beyond that which is seen as the traditional form of dissertation; replacing the monograph with a series of peer-reviewed publications within a specified field being one such approach.

Established scholars remain engaged with the construction of theses, but the writing of such resides very much within the domain of postgraduates and doctoral candidates, whose sole purpose, at its most essential level, is to produce a monograph upon which their expertise might be judged. With the emergence of digital scholarship, and its juxtaposition with long-standing disciplines, traditional modes of submission warrant problematisation.

However, while there is considerable debate and discussion around this topic, much of which is indeed highly relevant and cogent, little data exists upon which such a debate might be advanced in a more progressive fashion. Thus, this paper will present the research findings of an international survey within which scholars and researchers directly engaged in the writing of a dissertation give their views on the proto-monograph. In addition to researcher viewpoints, which will be analysed using both quantitative and qualitative methods, data will be presented on cultural variations in relation to such modes of submission.

A dissertation in comics form reinvents inquiry

Nick Sousanis, Teachers College – Columbia University

To a great extent, the language we think in defines what we can know. Thus for all the strengths of words, there are aspects of understanding that remain outside their reach. Through a dissertation written and drawn entirely in the comic book medium, I put forth a challenge to the long-held tradition of verbal-linguistic dominance as the legitimate form of scholarship and seek to expand the forms that academic inquiry can take. By taking this “amphibious” approach, that is integrating visual alongside verbal, I confront the limitations inherent to any single mode and in the process explore new possibilities for understanding. The dissertation’s very form embodies its central premise that we make meaning in a range of ways beyond solely the verbal. Specifically, I attend to the importance of visual thinking in teaching and learning, and the work itself becomes a demonstration for how comics can be a powerful tool for thought and serious inquiry.

Comics hold the potential to present complex and difficult information with great clarity without simplifying or omitting concepts – if anything, the form’s inherent multiplicity allows for the inclusion of more layers of information than text alone. Through this work, I want not only to push on the boundaries of what is considered scholarly but also to extend the boundaries of who is included in the conversation and create something that is ultimately accessible to a wider public.

For the presentation, I will share extensive visual excerpts from the work, discuss the creative and critical process, and address some of the questions its existence raises within academia including such things as new criteria for evaluation and considerations of aesthetics alongside academics.

Samples from the dissertation are posted online here: A particularly relevant sequence to frame this proposal can be found here:

Beyond Academe: Reimagining the Humanities Dissertation for Non-Academic Careers

Melissa Dalgleish, York University Department of English

In its current form, the humanities dissertation is intended as the means by which to train graduate students as apprentices to the professoriate. But in a system where at least half of doctoral graduates will go on to careers outside of academe—either by necessity, given the current job market, or by choice—this model seems inefficient, outdated, even broken. As Michael Bérubé notes in a recent address, “Questions about the function of the dissertation inevitably become questions about the future of scholarly communication; they also entail questions about attrition, time to degree, and the flood of A.B.D.’s, who make up so much of the non-tenure-track and adjunct labor force.” However, Berube fails to identify that questions about the dissertation must also take into account its function for those students who will transfer their skills outside of academia.

The increasing push toward training in transferrable skills is evidenced by the slew of studies and recommendations on the subject by SSHRC, CAGS, and the Tri-Council in Canada and by various bodies elsewhere, by the proliferation of university offices (GradProSkills, SkillsSets, Graduate Professional Skills) formed to provide students with training in these skills, and by the appointment of staff, like myself, to facilitate their formation. Little has been said, however, about ways in which the dissertation itself, which is currently the major training mechanism in the humanities PhD, could be reimagined in order to provide students with professional skills that can transfer broadly outside of academe. Referring to recent recommendations about the essential transferrable skills doctoral students should have acquired by graduation, I explore various alternatives to the dissertation as proto-monograph—some already in place elsewhere in the world or rarely undertaken in North America, others purely imaginary—and in the ways in which they can prepare doctoral students for fulfilling and varied careers outside of the academy.

No Authors: Writing the Online Dissertation with a [generic pronoun]

Dani Spinosa, York University Department of English

At its core, my project attempts to make the writing of the dissertation as open and communal as possible. In order to do this, my final project has two forms. The first is an online, hyper textual, blog-like form ( which posts weekly, and which incorporates the comments, suggestions, and other feedback throughout. This project also includes various appendices and treatise on various problematics suggested throughout the comments (which are provided by my committee and my peers, but also various nonacademic readers, including my friends and family, as well as my activist peers). And, occasionally, my project also contains creative poetic work inspired by my academic work. The second is an edited and more cohesive print-based dissertation which will be acceptable and defendable in my department. My goal with these two simultaneous projects is to expose the radical potentials of authorship available but often ignored in the form of the dissertation, which is by and large understood as an authoritative and solitary project.

This work is inspired both by the political philosophy of postanarchism, which I adapt in my introductory sections (which I refer to as plateaus throughout my work, taking a cue from Deleuze and Guattari) to be used as a literary theory that positions the reading and writing of any text (but, in my particular case, the contemporary experimental poetic text) as a form of activism. My work then functions as a Temporary Autonomous Zone (or TAZ), which Hakim Bey proposed as a moment of insurgency to account for new and more diffuse conceptions of power. Looking specifically at numerous experimental poets who seek to destabilize authorship already (John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Juliana Spahr, Harryette Mullen, Erin Mouré, Susan Howe, Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bök, and Darren Wershler), my project takes up various problematics in these texts, including representations of the self and struggles with the authorial presence, to propose a postanarchist literary theory that might offer us a way out of the highly individualized notions of authorship proposed by criticism in general, and the academy at large.

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