Reforming the History Dissertation

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A microphone and laptop

Podcasts are one exciting alternative form that dissertations can take. Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash.

By John C. Walsh

The report of the CHA Task Force on the Future of the History PhD in Canada is now available (in English and in French). This is the sixth in a series of posts by Task Force members, offering their perspectives on selected themes from the report. encourages readers to join in the conversation, either in the comments or on social media, or by submitting a response piece to be considered for publication upon the series’ completion.

The Report argues there are ethical, epistemological, and professional reasons for History programs to discuss reform to the dissertation that goes beyond limiting page counts. This process starts with identifying and explaining a program’s learning objectives for the dissertation. Currently, departmental websites present outcomes such as demonstrating an “original contribution to historical knowledge” or “une contribution originale à la discipline historique.” Left unsaid on websites are what orginal(e) means, reflecting, it seems, an assumption that the audience for these websites – prospective and current doctoral students – have already acquired enough disciplinary experience and professionalization to understand the meaning of historical originality, and to understand as well that “original” in historiographical parlance is itself historical, having changed over time. Even if is not the intention of department websites, current descriptions assume a lot and may alienate more than illuminate. The website language is also emblematic of how opaque dissertations, like doctoral programs more broadly, can appear to students who must navigate program requirements to earn their degree and then explain what they experienced and learned to a prospective employer and to their family and friends. No less significantly, as Sam Hossack explained well in an earlier post, unclear and unarticulated expectations are one of the core issues that contribute to student struggle and disengagement from work they care deeply about.

While making more explicit the expectations departments have for a dissertation is a critical first step, more can be done. One thing made clear to the Task Force is that students come to doctoral programs for a variety of reasons and with a number of different goals for themselves, even those who are hoping to become professors. PhD students also bring with them specific research interests, commitments, and ways of learning that take them in a wide array of archival, methodological, and theoretical directions. So how might departments create more pathways to work towards a dissertation’s defined learning objectives and outcomes?  While my question is too broad for a single blog post, I want to suggest that how history students are able to communicate their research could and should become more experimental, either within or without the monograph form. In saying so, I am adding my voice to others who have devoted more time and space to this issue and I encourage you to read and listen to them.

As I write these sentences, I am doing something that no serious writer, or even a writer like me, should ever do: I am listening to a podcast, and not just that, a really great narrative podcast. My Gothic Dissertation has an engaging central narrator, recurring characters, mood, and, above all, a compelling story. It is not a true crime podcast, although there is plenty of gore and disturbing sounds. The episodes explore the literary and social histories of the nineteenth-century Gothic as well as our sociological, cultural, and pedagogical relationships today to these histories. Oh, and the podcast itself is a doctoral dissertation, one that consistently and openly confronts the rules and structures attached to academic doctoral work in the humanities demonstrating how enduring “the gothic” remains. Spooky stuff, indeed.

My Gothic Dissertation is one of many experimental dissertation forms that have emerged in the humanities since the turn of the 21st century. A useful guide provided by the University of Pittsburgh highlights a wide range of work that demonstrates extensive archival research, theoretical and methodological rigour, and critical historical thinking. Enough exemplary work has been done in the public humanities, furthermore, for there to be “how-to” guides explaining how to supervise and assess projects such as these and there is also a scholarly literature about the pedagogy and practices involved with non-monograph dissertation forms. The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies produced a massive report in 2018 devoted to “rethinking the PhD” and, among other things, focussed on why and how dissertations might evolve beyond the standard monograph form. As part of their work, the Association prepared a showcase of some then-recent graduates who had produced dissertations that were non-traditional in one way or another. It rewards listening to how these scholars map their journeys, including how the work was assessed.

One of the strongest recurring themes that one hears in these and other stories of innovation and experimentation with the dissertation form is how well-integrated the process worked with other elements of the student’s training. Consider, for example, how Dr. Miranda Meents (UBC, 2019) mobilized their experimental research about plant cell biology into a dissertation chapter that explored how to better teach undergraduate biology students to solve problems and write effectively. Currently, History doctoral students who wish to gain training and experience as educators do so outside the credited parameters of their degree – as teaching assistants, in university courses provided by campus teaching and learning centres, and then as sessional contract instructors. We comfort ourselves as programs by pointing to the wages they receive as TAs or as sessionals as compensation for teaching labour, even if we lament how unfair the rate of pay might be. But imagine if these experiences were integrated into the dissertation process whereby the training received from a teaching and learning centre was valued with course credit and students had the opportunity to teach their research, for both remuneration and degree credit, and write about that experience in their dissertations? If one of the learning outcomes of the dissertation is that students become prepared to communicate their research to both specialist and non-specialist audiences, teaching (even a single 90-minute or 3-hr class) would be a pathway for a student, especially one working towards a career in education. It also has the benefit of better integrating the specialized research of the dissertation with the historiographical and methodological breadth of course work that precedes the research stage of a PhD program.

The same learning outcome regarding research dissemination, however, could be achieved in a variety of different ways depending on the student’s research project, career goals, and local resources. For community-engaged or community-based projects, students could give a public talk, share their research data via a digital repository, work with a museum or living history site on exhibition development, or invest research time, energy, and know-how to assist others as they define their needs. For those researching about or working with institutions, governmental or otherwise, perhaps a different form of “integrated knowledge translation” such as a policy brief would be more appropriate. And for creatives, storytelling could embrace any possible number of forms, in image, in sound, multimedia, and in performance (or any combination thereof). What is essential, though, is that regardless of how one communicates their research, the acts and means of expression is also a valued component of the dissertation as both an object and a process. It cannot be layered on top of existing dissertation practices as something students do on their own time above and beyond. This means, therefore, that either course credit be attached to these activities in place of current historiographical courses or, depending on the project, fully incorporated into a dissertation and part of the final assessment of it. In this regard, perhaps a form other than the traditional monograph, such as a portfolio dissertation, would be more appropriate.

Creating multiple pathways to meet a dissertation’s core learning objectives and outcomes is not easy work for departments, but it is necessary work. Who is currently defined as a “stakeholder” in a history doctoral student’s degree experience is broader than programs currently recognize and identify as valuable. The stakeholders include a wide range of on-campus experts and resources, such as those in libraries and teaching and learning services. They also includes countless others off campus who make it possible for doctoral students to do the work they care about so passionately and for whom so many students wish to make knowledge that is “original” and useful, just as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council does. It is time to reinvigorate the dissertation as both an object and as a process to better reflect this reality and to put our students and our professional selves in a better place to succeed in what we all care about so very much. And in doing so, maybe, just maybe, we will make doctoral programs less gothic and the work even more original.

John C. Walsh teaches History at Carleton University and is co-director of the Carleton Centre for Public History.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

One thought on “Reforming the History Dissertation

  1. Scott Coleman

    Thank you for a great piece, John. I agree wholeheartedly with you. I listened to “My Gothic Podcast” a while back, and it is fantastic. I’ve also suggested the potential of doing a podcast for my dissertation to Shawn since I am a Podcast junky. Thank you again. History, and the Ph.D. dissertation, need to be more creative.

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