Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A more responsive final exercise for the PhD?

My own doctoral journey may have just started, but it's been a meandering path to even get to the start.  It's not the destination after all that matters but the journey. Eventually all doctoral journeys culminate in a dissertation.  For the longest period of time this type of writing was a bit intimidating.  After all, who's got the energy to sit down and write a document that's 100 pages long and that few people will read. I challenge you to go ahead and look at academic articles that cross your path.  How often do you see people citing someone's dissertation in their citations?  Not that often, eh?

So, this gets me to this blog post.  I was reading Maha's blog post this morning on the way to work about her experience with her dissertation and her defense, and I was prompted by the #digiped questions she reposted.  This really got me thinking about my own path and what it's leading me to.
about a more responsive, and perhaps more accurate, final exercise for a doctoral degree. The recent #remixthediss was also an interesting catalyst for this thought process to kick in.

So, let's start with what is the purpose of the dissertation.  Just for kicks go on, ask Google "what is the purpose of dissertation?" and see what you get.  One of my search results was from Yale (trustworthy source, no?) and they cite Lovitts & Wert (2009) in stating the following:

The purpose of the dissertation is to prepare the student to be a professional in the discipline. Through this preparation the student learns and demonstrates the ability to conduct independent, original, and significant research. The dissertation thus shows that the student is able to:
  • identify/define problems,
  • generate questions and hypotheses,
  • review and summarize the literature,
  • apply appropriate methods,
  • collect data properly,
  • analyze and judge evidence,
  • discuss findings,
  • produce publishable results,
  • engage in a sustained piece of research or argument,
  • think and write critically and coherently. 

OK, this is a good solid way to start thinking about the dissertation as a final exercise for a doctoral program.   So, let's look at the first question of #digiped: "How is the dissertation pedagogical? What are the intrinsic and instrumental values of the form?"

If you are going through a doctoral program, on the surface level, the dissertation as an academic monograph does have a pedagogical purpose.  As stated above by Lovitts & Wert (in the Yale document) the point of the dissertation is to make demonstrate that you know how to do all of the individual and collective parts of research and critical analysis that is expected of people who hold the title "doctor". These include the collection of data, review of previous literature, analysis of data, the curiosity and critical thinking (as embodied by generating questions and hypotheses), and engaging in something in a sustained manner to bring out new knowledge.

The form, however, the one that we have come to know and resembles an academic monograph, is not the only form that brings us to those results and can show to our peers that we have attained that level of knowledge, self-reflection, and have obtained the necessary argumentation to take the training wheels off and be set off into the world on our own.  One thing that I would submit as evidence to this is the following piece of advice that I have received with regard to any dissertation I write: I should write my dissertation so that I can pull out chapters and with minor changes I can send them for publication to journals. It seems to me that if few people are citing your dissertation in their own work, and if your ultimate goal is to get some journal articles out of your dissertation, then why not begin with the goal of having your final exercise be  x-many publishable quality articles?

This brings me to the second question: "What shapes can (or should) a dissertation take? What institutional structures must change in order to make way for a proliferation of unique forms? How can we collectively manage anxieties about the dissertation that often get in the way of the kind of experimentation that pedagogy demands?"

Here I can only speak about the disciplines that I have been most directly involved with (management, IT, education and applied linguistics), but I think that there are a lot of different shapes that final exercises can take.  One example I brought up are  multiple qualifying papers. Does 3 sound OK to everyone? I just picked a number out of my head. It seems to me that publishable quality academic papers as a replacement for the dissertation have many benefits.  One of the benefits is that you, as a student researcher, can demonstrate familiarity with more than one research method by undertaking this as a final exercise. You can also demonstrate that you are not a one-tune fiddle by choosing more than one topic that you are interested in.  One topic per article!  By working on three articles you have an opportunity to be mentored by many different faculty, you can get peer review for your work, just like you'd be getting when you submit to a journal, and once your work passes internal review you can also submit this work to publication (where you can get additional peer review!).  This to me seems like a win-win situation for everyone.  The learner can demonstrate that they know what they know, they get published work out of it (and maybe a conference poster or presentation too?) and they get feedback in many areas.  The institution benefits by having having grads who are more versatile and perhaps more cross-disciplinary, and the profession benefits by having work (a dissertation) that is out there, and open, and not gathering dust in some proquest database...

Now the drawback that I see here is that my proposal is still based on text. Perhaps something similar might be accomplished by having to present research-based talks and presentations at conferences, have those recorded, and then have a Q&A session with a final committee (sort of like a dissertation defense) where you are judged on the quality of your work and how you know what you know. This would rely less on text and more on presentation skills.  I think that we cannot escape text in our line of work, but knowing how to write in a variety of different scenarios is important. This could be something that demonstrates a competency in that aspect of academic life.

For what it's work, my preference would be for many academic articles (and/or book chapters) that are of publishable quality.  I have no interest in writing a book.  I might change my mind, who knows, but at the moment my academic life revolves around academic articles.  I would prefer to have the ability to demonstrate my competency through multiple articles, using many different research methods, in a couple of different topics rather than hyper-focus on one topic to get this dissertation done.

The last thing to tackle in this post is on collaborative dissertations.  "How can we make way for more collaborative dissertations, especially in fields where dissertation-writing is traditionally a very isolated endeavor? What are the benefits of making this work increasingly collaborative?"


I think if we keep the dissertation as the one and only exercise for a doctoral degree it's hard to make it collaborative. The dissertation is the way to show that you have attained those skills (see above) and if you only have one document to showcase those skills, you can't really work collaboratively.  In a well designed article, if you work with others, there is no distinction in voice. It's one, unified, piece that everyone has contributed to, not many smaller pieces stitched together.  This makes it impossible to really evaluate one individual.

However, I would argue, that working well with others, and working collaboratively is an asset in academia. My value the work I've done with my colleagues in the MobiMOOC Research Team.  Even though we've disbanded and are pursuing our own interests, we still keep in contact and I learned a lot from that experience.  I think that this is a competence that people need to have.  If you have a final exercise which consists of many articles instead of one monograph, then one of the articles can be a collaborative article that is researched and written by a team of 3-5 people on any given subject. This not only brings people out of isolation, it provides for a potentially encouraging and nurturing environment for the people working together, and it helps people move along their doctoral path. We've all heard of stories of people who get through their coursework in a PhD only to never complete their dissertation. Multiple articles, one of which should be a collaborative article, could help eliminate that issue.


Alright, enough talk (on my end).  Your thoughts?

side note: 200th MOOC blog post!
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