Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #2

treasure-1357460__340I wrote the first post in this series last summer, not knowing then that there would be another. In that post I highlighted work by doctoral students who have presented their theses or dissertations in various creative ways such as graphic novels or a combination of video and text. I’m grateful to MzOpera for commenting on that post and pointing me to the work of Rebecca Zak from America, who created the first ever entirely web-based PhD dissertation, made up of YouTube videos and blog posts.

Rebecca Zak had a close predecessor in Saliha Bava, whose web-based dissertation was produced as long ago as 2001. She describes it, in her dissertation abstract, as ‘a montage of a postmodern inquiry… within the discourses of postmodern, dissertation, academia, experimental and cyberspace innovations among others.’ Sadly, a lot of the links in Bava’s online dissertation are no longer functioning, but there are still pdfs to download and read, and videos to view. I wanted to check whether Zak had referenced Bava, and thought of searching Zak’s blog, but the site where her blog lives, at http://www.davezak.com/questioneducation/, has been reported as an attack page and blocked by my anti-virus software. These demonstrate some of the downsides of web-based dissertations or theses: they are only publicly available, to those with internet access, for as long as the technology permits.

MzOpera, via Rebecca Zak, also led me to Spencer Harrison from Canada. He is an artist and gay rights activist who painted his PhD on the outside of a circus tent; it seems almost redundant to add that he was the first Canadian academic to do so. I also discovered the work of Daria Loi, who did her PhD in Melbourne, Australia, and presented her thesis as a suitcase containing written text and a variety of interactive artefacts.

Rebecca Zak makes the point that to present your thesis or dissertation in such a creative way, your university needs to have (or develop) an ‘alternative format’ policy. I’ve had a look at several of these and they are very varied. Some only allow for the inclusion of published or publishable written material, such as a book chapter or journal article. Others are much more flexible. For example, the University of Exeter, in the UK, has a particularly comprehensive policy which says:

  • Regardless of whether they are on a named programme, which has specific submission requirements, which may differ from the norm, students are permitted to make representations to submit a thesis/dissertation in an alternative format, requests to do so must normally be made at the application stage.
  • An alternative format may include either:
    a) the presentation of part or all of the thesis in an alternative format e.g. it may be a multimedia document (e.g. an element or the thesis in its entirety, which is presented in a format appropriate perhaps for presentation at a conference);
    b) A constructed text such as a piece of art, or a record of professional practice in the form of a series of case-studies, which must be accompanied by a commentary.
  • The formats listed here are not exclusive and candidates should first discuss the matter with their supervisor should they consider there to be potential to present their thesis/dissertation differently, who will be able to offer advice on the appropriateness of different formats within the context of that discipline, and with regard specifically to how they relate to the candidate’s research project.
  • Permission to do so may be given provided that by virtue of the subject:
    a) the intellectual quality of the thesis/dissertation would be enhanced;
    b) that a qualified supervisor and appropriate examiners can be appointed;
    c) the format is appropriate to the thesis/dissertation;
    d) that the format will allow the student to demonstrate their ability to meet the award criteria;
    e) or, that the alternative format is an appropriate specific arrangement to make to ensure the consistent equitable assessment of a student with disabilities.

The commentary referred to has to be 30-40,000 words long. This differs from the experience of Daria Loi, who had to write the same amount of words as for a conventional thesis to put into her suitcase with the other artefacts she prepared.

We’ll end with a supervisor’s view. This is recorded on p. 46 of Playing with Purpose: Adventures in Performative Social Science by American psychologists Kenneth and Mary Gergen. They describe ‘…one of the most audacious performance pieces we know: Zoë Fitzgerald Pool’s PhD dissertation (in 2008) from the University of Bournemouth. The dissertation arrived for Mary’s review in a wooden box inscribed with a brass nameplate. In the box were placed two books, each page illustrated in colorful graphics, describing the outcomes of interviews conducted during the research. Also included were DVDs with visual and auditory expositions of this material. As appreciative gifts to the reader, there were an assortment of treasures: music, a mermaid doll, a large doll representing a stuffy old-fashioned professor, chocolates, and hundreds of tiny scrolls, each with a quote from the interviewees written in elegant calligraphy. Included as well was a map to describe how to “read” the ensemble, which was secreted into various sections of the box. There was no single way to “read” the dissertation. It was a cornucopia of possible experiences, rich and exciting.’

So there are some positive voices in academia – but not yet enough. Getting creative with your thesis or dissertation may take even longer than the conventional method because, as Daria Loi points out, you may need time for making as well as writing. Yet these creative approaches offer new ways to articulate, communicate, and understand research. All universities need to get to grips with facilitating these kinds of creative approaches within doctoral research to allow some doctoral students to reach their full potential.

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