Digital Scholars Make Their Own Rules

05/10/06
Electronic theses raise questions about access and archiving in the aftermath of a digital dissertation written by a USC researcher.
By Carl Marziali
Virginia Kuhn, a postdoctoral research associate who will help teach digital authorship to USC undergraduates next year

If no tree is felled to print a Ph.D. thesis, does it still exist?

The answer, apparently, is “It depends.” Such is the tenuous foothold of digital scholarship in academia, said the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy’s Virginia Kuhn, a postdoctoral research associate who will help teach digital authorship to hundreds of USC undergraduates next year.

Kuhn has more than a pedagogical interest in this issue. She produced her own dissertation digitally and insists the thesis cannot be reduced to paper form. This has caused unique problems. The national archiver of Ph.D. theses, ProQuest/UMI, has refused to accept Kuhn’s work because she will not provide it in either hard copy or Adobe Acrobat format.

The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where Kuhn wrote her thesis, at first balked both at her method of composition and at her unconventional method for citing sources.

The result was an extraordinary split between Kuhn’s dissertation committee, which approved her work without reservation, and the university’s library system, which at first was unwilling to archive the thesis (Kuhn now says the university has “tentatively” agreed to accept a copy on CD-ROM).

“My committee is behind me, just holding firm,” she said.

The dustup obscures a potential revolution in scholarship that may replace the universal format for composition since the Middle Ages the book, i.e., a linear sequence of pages containing text and graphic elements with a whole range of formatting options, the book being only one.

For her thesis, appropriately titled “Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age,” Kuhn used TK3, a hypertext-based program developed by USC visiting scholar Bob Stein, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication.

Stein heads USC’s Institute for the Future of the Book (http://www.futureofthebook.org) a name that could be read ironically, but which instead intends to convey the importance of understanding composition in the digital age.

Stein’s program acknowledges the basic usefulness of book format, Kuhn said.

“Because TK3 retains the book metaphor [while not being a slave to it], it does not sacrifice print literacy for bells and whistles,” she wrote in a review of the program on the Academic Commons Web site.

But TK3 also allowed Kuhn to perform feats impossible in book format, such as placing clickable, transparent annotations on the same page as the text reference, saving readers the disruption of flipping back and forth. Some of the annotations included video clips and music.

At the same time, Kuhn mostly followed normal book layout to avoid putting off less innovative scholars.

“I saw myself as being on the cusp [of change], so I knew it had to appeal to standard academics,” she said.

Kuhn said she is aware of only one other thesis, by Christine Boese at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1998, that is truly digital, or as Kuhn put it, “born digital and media rich.”

Which raises the question: What exactly is a digital thesis?

Last summer, the USC Graduate School awarded its first Provost’s Doctoral Fellowships in Digital Scholarship to start exploring that very issue.

Three USC doctoral students in cinema, history and Slavic languages received a year’s funding to develop digital supplements to a traditional thesis, such as an all-digital chapter or a supporting project.

Jean Morrison, associate vice provost for graduate programs, gives three possible definitions of a digital thesis: a conventional thesis submitted digitally; a text-based electronic work that incorporates features not easily reproducible in paper form, such as hypertext and examples of digital imagery (Kuhn’s thesis falls in this category); and a digital work that creates some type of electronic experience independent of text.

Morrison said a true digital composition fits the second or third categories.

“When we use the term digital dissertation, we really mean a new thing,” she said.

This new thing does not come without risk. Any digital thesis must meet key criteria, Morrison said, starting with a level of intellectual rigor and academic merit at least as high as that of a traditional dissertation. Just as importantly, she said, the format must allow free and open sharing and archiving of the thesis for the foreseeable future.

“What if you right now do your very cool digital dissertation on what is the equivalent of a punch card?” Morrison asked. “No one can access it in five years.”

Kuhn acknowledges the pitfalls, but said her thesis “will live on the Web” along with a free reader for TK3 or its successor. She said the benefits of digital scholarship outweigh the possibility that in 100 years no one may be able to read her work.

Such issues need to be worked out soon, according to Morrison, who said, “This is where I think USC needs to step forward and take a leadership role.”

The university already enjoys an international reputation for digital expertise, particularly in the area of multimedia archives such as the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.

And recently, USC Provost C. L. Max Nikias announced a major initiative to incorporate multimedia literacy in the undergraduate core curriculum. Starting this fall, 600 students will enroll in one of 10 core courses that will integrate multimedia authorship into the class requirements.

The initiative grew out of an ongoing program at IML, under Director Anne Balsamo and Associate Director Steve Anderson, which trains 100 undergraduates each year in digital authorship.

In fact, Kuhn said, one reason she was hired was to help teach the new crop of students in the multimedia literacy initiative.

She will be speaking from experience.