The Open Dissertation

Last week, Prof Hacker Lee Skallerup Bessette drove to Virginia Commonwealth University to livetweet the thesis defense of Laura Gogia (in some circles better known by her Twitter handle @GoogleGuacamole). The hashtag used was #GoGoDoc.

Some observers started asking if this was a new trend. I mentioned Bonnie Stewart’s (@bonstewart) thesis, part of which was livestreamed on Google Hangouts and livetweeted as #DrBon. I learned about different trends emerging regarding the “open” dissertation defense. I also thought of ways a PhD student can open up their dissertation even without having it livetweeted or livestreamed (since not all institutions will allow that).

Spectrum for Open/Public Thesis Defense

  • The most “open” thesis defense was Bonnnie Stewart’s (presentation and public questions livestreamed). On Twitter, I learned from George Veletsianos that at Royal Roads University, students choose whether to make their defense livestreamed.

  • Laura Gogia’s was livetweeted last week. She says on her blog that livestreaming was an option, but she chose livetweeting instead. She says “I wanted my words directly translated through the lenses of a multitude of people, preferably ones who care about me.”

  • There are institutions where a PhD thesis defense is open to the public, members of the institution, or no one at all but examiner/supervisor/student.

  • The most “closed” thesis defense I was ever at was my own at the University of Sheffield in the UK (where it is called a “PhD viva”). It was just my internal examiner, my external examiner, and myself. I even opted not to have my supervisor in the room (in the UK, he would not have been able to speak anyway and would have sat behind me). I would be curious to know if this trend was changing in the UK?

Spectrum for Open/Public Thesis Overall

  • Some people blog their entire thesis as they go, like Doug Belshaw did here.

  • Some people blog/tweet throughout: Both Bonnie and Laura blogged and Tweeted throughout their thesis, so people following their livestreamed/livetweeted defense already had a good idea what they would be talking about.

  • Some people publish semi-complete parts of their thesis in various venues as they go

  • Some people do not publish on the open web, but discuss their thesis at conferences and informally with colleagues

I was not an open/public scholar while working on my PhD. I did not even know that was a “thing”, even though I knew some people blogged during their PhD. I gave one awful conference presentation early on in my thesis and decided not to do it again for a while. I discussed my ideas with people around me (few of whom were familiar with what a UK PhD in Education meant), but that’s not the same as discussing it publicly. I tried to give myself a similar experience to an in-person PhD student (and succeeded slightly, even though I wasn’t on Twitter until I was almost done). I do know that publishing some of my ideas on critical citizenship on Al-Fanar Media (an Arab higher education magazine) just before I finished gave me confidence going into my PhD viva, and helped me feel that my work was worthwhile and useful in the world beyond academia. It gave me the virtual “applause” on my PhD work that Sean Michael Morris recently wrote should be given to a PhD instead of a “defense”.

Making parts of a PhD public (culminating into a public thesis defense) is a value-laden choice. It means making yourself vulnerable early on in your process, in ways that can be professionally beneficial to you, and to others. It also resists academic elitism which often gatekeeps and hides the knowledge-making process behind the walls of peer-reviewed subscription-based journals. It means an open attitude towards learning and critique, and a belief that the knowledge you are making should have value beyond the pages of a thesis and walls of a university.

Is a Closed PhD Necessarily a Bad Thing?

Of course not. My PhD viva was so pleasant that I later published a chapter in a book co-edited by my external examiner. I also felt so secure that my answer to one of the last questions he asked during the viva was, “yes, well it’s easy for you to ask that, you are a white Western male”. This is not as “out of line” as it seems, since my thesis takes an overtly postcolonial stance and has some postmodern undertones that refuses to provide universal definitions of the kind the examiner was asking (and I also knew the examiner’s work and that he would be amenable to that approach). Would I have said the same thing if my PhD was livestreamed? Public? Would my own mother think I was being rude if I made that statement? Would friends in the audience gasp aloud and distract me? All of that is possible.

I imagine that PhDs with very controversial views may risk harassment or trolling and be better off kept private. I know that if I had blogged early on in my PhD and received harsh criticism it would have shaken my confidence. Instead, I sought private feedback from trusted mentors and friends.

Doing any part of a PhD publicly, including the defense, is a risk, even while it opens up potential for a supportive community during the usually lonely process of a PhD. And I am grateful for all the courageous scholars who have modeled that risk-taking for us in the past few years. I also believe in the value of the academic as public intellectual, having a role outside of the walls of the university, and I admire everyone who started fulfilling that role even before they had the stamp of a PhD in their hands.

What do you think of “opening” aspects of the PhD? Tell us in the comments

 flickr photo by tarotastic shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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