Higher Ed Talks and Events

CGS Position Paper – Opportunities Created by Emerging Technologies

The following is a position paper for an upcoming workshop on the dissertation convened by the Council of Graduate Schools (January 27-29, 2016). I’ll be speaking on a panel focusing on what new technologies enable us to do with this critical milestone in graduate study. My main argument is that while the affordances of specific technologies can be exciting, more important is the shift toward collaborative, creative, and public-facing scholarly work that today’s digital platforms allow. 


The full agenda and all participants’ position papers are available at

As the capstone of doctoral training, the dissertation is the pivotal moment when graduate students synthesize and articulate their research, marking the transition from apprentice to scholar. It also serves an important professionalization and normative function: graduate students learn what is accepted as scholarly work based on the submission requirements for their dissertation and the values of their committee. If digital projects are to remain an important avenue for the articulation and public sharing of scholarly work, that work must be professionally viable for people from the outset their careers. By rethinking dissertation requirements, graduate students learn that exploratory, cutting-edge work is encouraged from day one, not something that must wait until after securing tenure. This means more than simply allowing different file formats to be submitted, however. The conversation must go beyond specific technologies to focus on the values we embrace, the methods we consider crucial, and the potential for impact that we can imagine in the dissertation process (where “we” includes all those involved in shaping the structures of graduate education).

These issues are not unique to the dissertation as a work of research. The same questions of values, methods, and impact are at the heart of the changing landscape of scholarly publishing systems, and new developments in one domain will undoubtedly affect norms and expectations in the other. With that in mind, a discussion about new opportunities for the dissertation must also touch on ways that innovative scholarship is received and recognized at later stages of a scholar’s career, including expectations set out in the tenure and promotion process. I would argue that placing greater emphasis on public engagement, collaborative work, and creativity in both dissertations and other scholarly work, while also maintaining an open stance toward technological innovation, will result in meaningful research whose reach extends far beyond the academy.

Publishing is about making knowledge public. As tautological as that statement is, the central value of making research public is sometimes lost in discussions about scholarly communication. At the heart of research and publication is the goal of bringing new insight into the body of human knowledge. This happens in different ways—sometimes the best audience to reach is small and specialized while other times it is more powerful to reach a broad, interested public. Digital tools allow us new ways of doing each. Because working in digital environments and using new tools and platforms can involve a wide range of different skill sets, such projects often involve multiple people with varied and overlapping expertise. The collaborative process of working in digital environments is not merely expedient, however; it can also have a deep influence on the nature of the work itself, resulting in a project that may be more sophisticated and complex than a series of individual projects by the same people would be. Further, digital environments allow for expansive thinking and creative ways of articulating an idea thanks to the multimodal and multimedia capabilities of current web design.

The value systems that define dissertation requirements are shaped by what we consider the values and purpose of higher education to be. This is another reason why it matters greatly that robust digital projects have the potential for meaningful impact beyond the academy. Public engagement is an essential part of understanding higher education as a public good, and as such is critical to the mission of the Futures Initiative, a program I co-direct with Cathy Davidson. Based within the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), the Futures Initiative is part of the largest public urban university system in the United States. CUNY educates an incredibly diverse student body comprising 500,000 students across New York City’s five boroughs. Understanding education as a public good, especially in the context of a huge public university system in the heart of a thriving city that is also home to massive income inequality, means that engaging with a broader community is critical to its success.

As part of the Futures Initiative’s work, we connect not only with colleges across the CUNY system, but also with a global (though predominantly North American) community called HASTAC: the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. Though innovation is often thought of as something for elite and well-funded institutions, the Futures Initiative and HASTAC both see innovation happening out of necessity. Teams across the CUNY campuses have developed incredible projects (like Commons in a Box, OpenLab at City Tech, Vocat, Science Forward, and more) in part to stitch together such a diverse and geographically dispersed group of working commuter students, faculty, and staff. At the Futures Initiative, we place a strong emphasis on pedagogy, labor issues, and public engagement. Making effective use of digital tools allows us to do our best work in each of these domains and have a greater impact than we otherwise might. Understanding equity and innovation as two facets advancing a single goal allows the Futures Initiative greater clarity of purpose and approach.

Further, if we see equity and innovation as linked, rather than opposed, then it follows that recognizing a broader range of scholarly products makes it possible for scholars with varied backgrounds and skillsets to break new ground—it opens up new avenues so that scholars, departments, or institutions do not maintain the status quo, gatekeeping in ways that allow only certain kinds of people and ideas to advance. This kind of work also makes research and scholarship more accessible to different kinds of publics as people’s work is shared through different channels and platforms. Both HASTAC and the Futures Initiative sites are public, so anyone—regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with a university or any other institution—can read, contribute, and become a part of the network.

In addition to networks like these that foster communication in new ways, scholarly work itself is also changing. There is an increasing prevalence of born-digital work that pushes at the limits of traditional forms, and some of the most creative work is being done by emerging scholars on dissertations.

One of the Futures Initiative’s kick-off events in fall 2014 was a panel called What Is A Dissertation (better known on Twitter as #remixthediss), in which graduate students and recent graduates shared projects that don’t resemble the proto-monograph of most dissertations. The work by these remarkable students and recent PhDs includes the use of Tumblr and other social media to share and discuss historical photographs of black women; ethnographic work on contemporary youth created using video and the multimodal platform Scalar; the ecology of proprietary data, explored and shared using mapping visualization tools; a dissertation on comics in comic form; and more.

These students and recent graduates are doing top-notch research and sharing it in ways that make it compelling to a wide audience. Still, many of them noted that they faced resistance to their projects at some stage of the process, and found that they needed to carefully articulate the value of their projects to ensure the scholarly merit was recognized. As they found, scholars often must provide traditional materials as an additional component to their groundbreaking work, translating their projects into more familiar media. This puts an added burden on emerging scholars and acts as a disincentive from pursuing creative projects in the first place. Nevertheless, sharing work publicly and collaboratively not only benefits the public, but can also serve the individual scholars by making their work accessible.

Despite lingering fears that sharing work online will make formal publication less likely, some publishers see online engagement as an advantage and are thrilled when a work already has an audience ready and waiting. For instance, Nick Sousanis, Post-Doctoral Scholar at the University of Calgary and one of the #remixthediss panelists, had a book contract with Harvard University Press in hand before even finishing his dissertation. He was able to achieve this not only because his graphic novel Unflattening is brilliant and beautiful and innovative, but also because he had built a strong audience by sharing his work-in-progress online, thus demonstrating to the publisher that the book was marketable in a way that not all academic works are.

Other scholars have had similar experiences. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association, shared her book Planned Obsolescence—an exploration of technology, publishing, and the academy—online for public comment. In effect she created an experimental publishing environment for her inquiry into academic publishing. The work received hundreds of thoughtful comments in a medium that allowed much more dialogue than traditional double-blind peer review. The open environment gave Fitzpatrick an opportunity to polish her work in conversation with peers, leading to a stronger final work, a positive collaborative experience, and an audience that was eager to see the final product. This deep level of interaction was possible in part because Fitzpatrick had already built an online community through countless interactions with peers. This is important to note because networks online work the same way they do in person—they must be built over time.

These are merely two examples of online engagement and the publishing of works-in-progress that led to traditional book publications. But what about more innovative, born-digital publications? New platforms like Scalar, developed at the University of Southern California under the direction of Tara McPherson, allow scholars to present research in creative, dynamic, multimodal ways that allow for incredible nuance, insight, and beauty. As one example, artist and educator Evan Bissell created a multimodal project called The Knotted Line to examine the history of incarceration, education, and labor. The exceptionally interactive result is something completely different than a traditional article on the same topic would be, even if the research were the same.

Purdue Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Specialist Amanda Visconti’s digital dissertation, Infinite Ulysses, is another compelling example of the power of born-digital work. Combining deep literary insight with interface design, web development, community building, and best practices in user testing and analytics, Visconti has created a space for collaborative interpretation of a text. Since its launch, hundreds of readers have annotated James Joyce’s text. Further, Visconti has provided an invaluable service to the community by blogging every stage of her research, development, and defense, helping to make transparent the hurdles that other emerging scholars might anticipate when working on digital projects.

If programs begin to welcome new kinds of dissertations, they will also need to work backwards and reformulate the kinds of training that their graduate programs offer. Research methods and courses might be paired with professional development opportunities to learn skills that will allow graduate students to create the best kind of project to suit their research. They might encourage more interdisciplinary work as well as increased collaboration. Most creative projects are not the work of only one person, but incorporate the expertise of many—someone (or some team) who develops an extensible tool, a developer who customizes it for a new purpose, a designer who determines the best way to present information to a particular audience. If each of these collaborators has deep grounding in humanities methods and values, the entire project can cohere in a powerful way. To enable programs to move in that direction, there needs to be a conscious decision to start valuing collaborative, interdisciplinary work from students in the early stages of the program.

Celebrating the scholarly merit of differently-inflected, public-facing dissertation projects also means that students will be primed to succeed in more varied career paths. The skills they gain will help them to become excellent faculty members, too, who can work to further innovate the higher education landscape. Innovative projects may require specific skills—like video editing, web development, or database design—and they will undoubtedly require more generalized skills such as project management, navigating institutional hurdles, and public engagement. Fostering innovative scholarly work is a key aspect of helping students to be better prepared for multiple career possibilities. In other words, changing what constitutes a successful dissertation has the potential to change a great deal about graduate programs, from start to finish in a student’s tenure: what programs look for in prospective students, how they structure coursework and exam requirements, and what kinds of careers graduates pursue.

Importantly, expanding our interpretation of success and rigor to include a broader range of projects that lead to more and varied career opportunities also has the potential to expand access to and equity within higher education. Access to higher education (and to good quality K-12) remains highly unequal across the country, with test scores mapping not to true achievement or potential but to school district and family income level. If we continue to look for the same types of outcomes in terms of scholarly work and career paths, we are likely to perpetuate the existing system. If, instead, we celebrate different kinds of successes, we are likely to attract a greater diversity of students who want to pursue a graduate degree for more varied reasons.

Our vision for the dissertation is expanding, but much work remains. Collaborative dissertations remain rare, even though deeply creative projects may require many hands. If we want to tackle the most complex questions, we might productively think of each student’s dissertation as one aspect of a larger project, as Todd Presner describes in his notion of the “20-year dissertation“. Technologies will change, so while issues related to building new skills as well as technical affordances and limitations may seem most pressing, questions centering on the purpose and values of higher education, and for the dissertation as the capstone of a doctoral degree, are far more important. If we care about higher education as a public good, we must find ways to foster graduate students’ most creative, innovative, and engaging work.

Works Cited

Bissell, Evan et al. “The Knotted Line.” Updated 19 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <>

Davidson, Cathy N. et al. “What Is a Dissertation? New Models, Methods, Media.” #alt-academy: Alternative Academic Careers. 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <>

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

Presner, Todd. “Welcome to the 20-Year Dissertation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 25 Nov. 2013. <>

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Visconti, Amanda. “Infinite Ulysses.” 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. <>


Playing with visual text analysis using Voyant

As I’ve started to dip my toes into the DH current, one thing I’ve been excited to play with is visual presentations of text analysis. Until I hadn’t had a strong need for it, but with the approaching SCI survey of alt-academics and the analysis it will entail, I finally have a good reason to start exploring what’s out there.

The first tool I’ve checked out is Voyant (developed by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell as part of their project), which allows you to upload a document, point to a URL, or copy text; it can analyze a single document or a corpus. I uploaded my dissertation as a sample and, after stripping out articles and such (which the tool makes very easy), I got a nifty word cloud:

Below it, Voyant displays a list of words by frequency. Checking boxes next to one or more words gives a distribution of word appearance in the document or corpus. Here are three commonly appearing words charted through the diss:

I found it interesting to see that while I clearly used the word “trauma” a ton, the places where it appeared the most were in the intro and conclusion–suggesting that I relied on the term when I was pulling my argument together, but much less in the actual analysis. A section below the chart shows the context of the selected words in a table that can be sorted in a variety of ways. All the data in each section can be exported in a number of formats, too, for use in other sites or documents. (More than ever, I’m feeling pinched by having my blog hosted by, which doesn’t support things like iFrames; I hope to get a more flexible set-up going before too long.)

There’s a lot more that Voyant can do, and I’m looking forward to playing with it (and other tools) a lot more as I get a clearer sense of what kind of analysis I want to do. More soon!


Like footprints in the desert

Hello, world.  As I’ve been thinking about how to approach creating a little window into the way I see things, I keep coming back to the image of the desert. So that’s where I’ll begin.

The image of the desert haunts me.  While I grew up in what ought to have been a desert (if sprinkler systems hadn’t had their way with the land), it wasn’t until I encountered Le livre des questions by Edmond Jabès that the idea of the desert, with its permanence and its constant change, started seeping into my mind. The seemingly infinite and barren expanse that holds no footprints for more than a moment is fertile ground for Jabès’s reflections on pain, longing, and alienation—but also, more unexpectedly, for his thoughts on writing, captivity, and the nature of God.

In Le livre des questions, Jabès uses the image of the desert in his homeland of Egypt to explore the idea of blankness. As a writer, the most daunting blankness may be that of a blank page threatening failure; as a Jew, it may be the barrenness of the desert and the lingering fear of wandering and exile. Both images prominently in the book not only as menaces, but also as unlikely prisons. Pure blankness can be more confining than a brick-and-mortar prison, as it undermines the human need for limits and boundaries; when none exist, limitless possibility can have a paralyzing effect. As Jabès asks, how can a person conquer the nothingness of the desert? There is nothing to destroy: “vivre c’est affirmer ses limites… Que peut-on contre un mur sinon l’abattre? Que peut-on contre les barreaux sinon les scier? Mais contre un mur qui est le sable? Mais contre des barreaux qui sont notre ombre sur le sable?” (61). Furthermore, the desert’s vastness makes any progress irrelevant, as none is visibly apparent. Freedom, instead, is to be found in the confines of the familiar, as “nous ne sommes vraiment libres qu’entre nos quatre murs” (83). To combat the captivity of open space, Jabès suggests that humanity seeks refuge in creating borders, to the point that establishing limits becomes synonymous with life: “Élever des murs, n’est-ce pas vivre?” (108). The human desire to establish a defined space of home and comfort is strong, and Jabès recognizes the legitimacy of the quest to ease the anxiety of too few limits.

Still, despite their potential for imposing confinement through their very openness, the infinite possibilities of the blank page and of the uncharted desert can in many ways be considered emancipatory, allowing the writer and the wanderer to choose their own paths. The blankness is simultaneously freeing and confining, just as the body is depicted both as a form of imprisonment and as life-sustaining: “‘Nos poitrines sont nos geôles… Nos côtes sont les barreaux qui nous empêchent d’étouffer'” (95). Jabès likewise recognizes the dual nature of blankness which includes its potential freedom; he places great value on the process of searching that such an environment enables. Faced with a blank page, the writer must ask: “Où est le chemin? Le chemin est toujours à trouver. Une feuille blanche est remplie de chemins” (59). The desert forces similar searching, even to a greater degree, for one’s path is always at risk of erasure: “Il s’était retrouvé, à midi, face à l’infini, à la page blanche. Toute trace de pas, la piste avaient disparu. Ensevelies” (60). With all of his footsteps washed away in the heat of the noon sun, the risk inherent in this particular blankness is immediate and physical. Still, Jabès does not suggest a more prudent path. As Jabès may never write a definite answer to any of the questions he poses, still the gesture of circling around those questions and ideas is one of meaning and value. The risk one encounters by eliminating boundaries is an important one to take, for by moving toward blankness and infinite potential, Jabès can create a space of questioning, which he prioritizes over knowledge. The closest thing to knowledge may be asking the right questions in the best possible order, which Jabès suggests separates the student from the teacher. One reason that Jabès focuses on questioning rather than on obtaining knowledge is his sense that absolute understanding can be present in a sense of nothingness as well as in a sense of totality. He depicts the two as necessary counterparts to one another: “la véritable connaissance, c’est de savoir chaque jour que l’on n’apprendra, en fin de compte, rien; car le Rien est aussi connaissance étant l’envers du Tout, comme l’air est l’envers de l’aile” (130). Even God is portrayed as a question rather than a response to questioning: “Dieu est une question… une question qui nous conduit à Lui qui est Lumière par nous, pour nous qui ne sommes rien” (130). This acceptance of unanswered questions and of unresolved contradiction is ultimately Jabès overarching strategy for coping with trauma. By acknowledging the necessity of trauma as fundamental both to writing and to Jewish heritage, and by recognizing the intrinsic duality of such essential forces as life and divinity, Jabès enigmatically encourages acceptance of suffering as essential to truth and identity.

While blankness as a starting point provides innumerable possibilities, Jabès also suggests that true meaning requires more—namely, a wound or mark on the surface of that blankness. Using the imagery of a lake surface, either smooth or rippled, he asserts the beauty of wounds:  “—Qu’est-ce que l’eau du lac? Une page blanche. Les plis sont ses rides et chacune est une blessure. Un lac sans plis est un miroir. Un lac ridé est un visage. Marqués, nos visages reflètent celui de Dieu'” (94). Jabès does not want to remain perpetually in front of a blank page; writing or the wound must mar the pure surface in order for understanding and transformation to take place. The ink can be seen as the wound on the white page, but in a reversal of the image, the blank spaces or silences are also envisioned as wounds to the text. Here, rather than the text being seen as a mark that interrupts the smooth uniformity of the blank page, the silences are understood as interrupting the fluidity of the text. The sign appears as wound: “Avant et après la parole, il y a le signe, / et, dans le signe, le vide où nous croissons. / Ainsi, étant blessure, seul le signe est visible. / Mail l’œil ment” (96). This passage hints at the complication: the sign here does not seem to indicate the word, but the space or silence before and after the word. The sign, though, is all that is visible, which would seem to indicate that it is rather the printed word than the empty space. One way to understand the blurring of whether the sign refers to the words or the space around them is to minimize the perceived difference of the two elements: if both word and empty space are signifiers, then either may be meaningful at any given moment. In the passage above, emptiness is the focus and draws the eye of the reader. Still, though, the final note that “the eyes lie” makes it clear that the visual response cannot be trusted, and that one can perhaps take the place of the other. If both text and white space are alternately seen as inflicting trauma, then the printed book seems to layer one wound on top of another in inspiration, content, and form.

Taking into consideration the way that Jabès discusses both blankness and the marks inflicted on that empty space, the relationship between the page and the words printed there is a complicated one. The unmarked Saharan sand, figured both as a dangerous site of potential entrapment and as a space of openness essential to the act of questioning, suggests a blank page that has not yet been filled with words. The desert, as the blank page, enables the possibility of various paths, choices, and narratives to play out once someone begins to mark the pristine surface. Even this image, though, is not fixed, but shifts as Jabès writes about it. Words would seem to diminish the blankness of the white page, but even the finished book, once all pages have been filled, is at times conceived of as blank: “Le livre est l’espace blanc du sommeil” (123). This suggests the infinite potential not only of the page before it contains words, but also after, as textual interpretation can take any number of directions. Jabès’s project frequently works with the idea of a total book, as is present in both the Kabbalistic tradition as well as in the writing of Stéphane Mallarmé and Jorge Luis Borges. With this idea in mind, the printed book cannot merely be limitation of possibility, but must also be openness. Jabès’s work does indeed invite interpretation and continued questioning, which enables it to keep growing, perhaps endlessly. The vast potential of interpretation that follows writing echoes the rabbinic discussion of the sacred texts in Jewish tradition; not only are the words important, but also the continued reflection upon them, implying both the completeness of the original sacred work and also the possibility of its infinite expansion through interpretation and questioning.

A few months after I first read Jabès, I discovered the Sahara for myself. Though my time there was short, I can close my eyes and relive the moment when I first saw nothing but dunes all around me. I understood in that moment why oases are measured by the number of palm trees they can support; the potential terror of turning around and watching your footprints be swept away by the wind; and why Jabès had written of the desert both as a place of immense freedom and of stifling imprisonment.

As cynical as it may sound, I have continued to think about efforts to make a mark on the world as footprints in the desert. Words and photos last as long as the paper they’re printed on, and even if a masterpiece is encoded in DNA, it is immediately subject to the mutations of the medium. Real progress is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge, as the terrain is constantly transforming itself.

I held off from creating this type of venue for my thoughts for a long time because of a sense of irrelevance that stemmed from the issues above.  I finally realized, though, that I’m not bothered by impermanence. Rather, I find ephemerality liberating. My words won’t stick around for long, but even if they vanish behind me as soon as they’re written, I might as well put one foot in front of the other and see where it leads me.

Jabès, Edmond. Le livre des questions. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.