Hacking the Ph.D. Degree

How is/should/could digital technology change the Ph.D. program in the humanities?

Tanya Roth’s great Hacking the Academy post on “Hacking the Dissertation” pushed me to think through how one might hack graduate training.  Roth has seen the light on the other side of ADB (all but dissertation) and she does a good job rethinking the dissertation process.  I, however, have just passed through two years of course work and I am now staring down the barrel of four exam lists and comprehensive exams in October.

From this position in the middle of my own specific degree program in American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory, I want to offer a few modest suggestions for hacking the Ph.D. degree. For most of these suggestions I rely a lot on my own experiences in my own program/university so I’m hoping to hear more from people other places.

Course Work

There are three ways course work should be hacked.  First, graduate students need courses that will open up the possibilities available through various new digital technologies.  In my program, all GDR students have to take part in a first year colloquy that meets about once a month for the first year  of the program.  We talked about teaching, professionalization, tenure, publishing, writing and all sorts of things.  Only for about five minutes total did we ever mention anything about blogging, using digital sources, social networking or anything else along these lines.  One faculty member who came and spoke to us about writing emphasized the need for all of us to be writing for online blogs and magazines but that was it.  To turn out Ph.D.s that are prepared for a new academic landscape that demands at least awareness of these digital facets of the academy programs have to integrate training in the digital humanities intentionally into their graduate programs especially those tailored for “professionalization.”  Too often this is left to digital centers and instructional technology staff to fill in on the side instead of working with these campus resources.

Secondly, students need to take advantage of digital resources in their approach to their coursework.  Personally, I’ve been able to write much more focused and nuanced seminar papers because I was able to utilize digital archives to do original research from campus throughout the semester.  In the past two years I’ve used Google Books, the Making of America Collection, and the University of Pittsburgh’s 19th Century Schoolbooks Collection, to access primary documents unavailable to graduate students a generation ago.  Encouraging students to make use of these digital sources shifts the framework of the graduate seminar.  More and deeper original research is possible which can make the seminar into more of a workshop.  A series of workshops around common themes would produce seminar papers that would look more like dissertation chapters and open up the dissertation writing stage for even better work.

Lastly, at least in my program, most people fulfill their Teaching Assitantship requirements during these first two years of course work.  As TAs, students need to spend classroom time with faculty members who can help them experiment with and understand how to bring various digital technologies into the classroom.  It’s one thing to go to a conference on instructional technologies, it is a much better thing to have a faculty member take the time to show you how they use these technologies and share their own experiences, successes, and failures.

The Exams

This is my stage–the comprehensive or doctoral or qualifying or whateveryouwannacallit exams.  Whatever you call them, they could be hacked.

First, the exam list can be hacked through programs like Zotero and Evernote that allow lists to be quickly organized and notes on books and articles easily managed.  But to push it further, what if more students blogged their exam list?  What if it was easier to find books relevant to your exam because there was a network of graduate student bloggers sharing lists?  This already happens within programs.  Older students hand down exam lists to newer ones and so on.  But what if this became broader, inter-institutional, and cross-disciplinary through social networks and blogs.  I got a lot of books for my lists through Facebook friends, some of whom were my undergraduate faculty.

Studying for exams also should change.  Through things like Google Wave or social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the exam study group could go digital.  Posting book outlines to your blog then tweeting them with a hashtag to study buddies around the world would change the way we study.  Even changes as small as shifting from steno pads of outlines to annotated bibliographies through Zotero or digital notes on Evernote would hack the exam.

But the biggest change would be hacking the exams themselves.  What would a digital comprehensive exam look like?  Frankly I don’t know.  Perhaps it would look like a digital source blog or a digital review essay that could have a life beyond the exam as a source for helping other people find relevant secondary sources.  Hacking the exam process would mean giving the process of making lists, studying, and writing exams a second life beyond the scope of a single faculty member and a rite of passage to the dissertation.

The Dissertation

Tanya Roth has handled this stage very well in her own post so I will only offer a small question that I don’t have the answer to.  What would a hacked dissertation look like?  Roth unpacked hacking the dissertation process but what about the product–the dissertation itself.  Perhaps blogging through the dissertation process so that by the end there is a digital record of research trips, frustrations, stories from the field/archive, that don’t suit themselves to the actual dissertation itself would be one way of doing it.  Another way might be a digital component–say a digital source blog linking to all the available digital source material available.  Or even the born-digital dissertation that makes full use of digital technologies to network the product with digital sources.

I don’t imagine that anything I’m proposing here is new.  Students are experimenting with and using digital processes and technologies in their graduate programs everyday.  What I am proposing is an intentionality and a deeper awareness of these uses and experiments that will seek to find in them their greatest value for students and for the production of new knowledge.

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2 Comments on “Hacking the Ph.D. Degree”

  1. tanya.roth says:

    This is a fantastic post, Michael. I think you raise a lot of good ideas and points, and I particularly liked your section on hacking the exam process.

    “students need to take advantage of digital resources in their approach to their coursework.”

    -Agreed. I think many of our faculty members may take for granted that we already know how to do this – at least, when we think in terms of using our library resources – but every institution has its own unique flavor of digital reference sources and library set up. I think this is a crucial element for training grad students.

    As for working with TAs, well, I’ve been very involved in a program that does just that – teach TAs how to think about and use technology effectively in the classroom. My co-fellows and I have been drafting an entry about that for Hacking the Academy, and it will go live on my blog tonight or early tomorrow. May be useful for what you’re thinking?


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