Guidelines for Digital Dissertations in History

On September 25, 2015, the History and Art History Department at George Mason University voted unanimously to endorse a set of guidelines for our graduate students that set out baseline expectations for digital dissertation projects.

This endorsement marked the culmination of a year of drafting and consultation between the Graduate Studies Committee, the faculty in the department who teach digital history courses and advise digital projects, and the graduate students who are in the midst of doing digital history work.

Under the auspices of the Graduate Studies Committee, I began drafting a set of guidelines in Fall 2014. I knew from working with my own doctoral advisees through the dissertation prospectus process that there was a good deal of confusion about what the department as a whole would require of a dissertation project with a non-traditional format. Doctoral candidates need a concrete sense of the expectations they need to meet to achieve success with their work.

Initially, I consulted the thin collection of existing work on digital dissertations. This included the outcomes of Kathie Gossett and Liza Potts’s NEH workshop on “Building an Open-Source Archive for Born-Digital Dissertations” and several other sources from the world of literary studies. The most promising active work here came from Amanda Visconti’s ongoing discussion on her blog of her process in creating “‘How Can You Love a Work if You Don’t Know It?’: Critical Code and Design Toward Participatory Digital Editions” at the University of Maryland.

Next, I turned to statements on evaluating digital scholarship. The Modern Language Association has been the leader here, approving guidelines first in 2000. The most recent statement was updated and approved in 2012. Also in 2012, the Journal of Digital Humanities produced an issue that focused on the subject of evaluation. Finally, at the point that I began drafting, none of the professional organizations for historians had developed guidelines, but the American Historical Association was in the process of developing a set. They have since approved and disseminated guidelines for evaluation. Most of this discussion has been targeted at the needs of junior scholars who are facing possibly hostile promotion and tenure committees, not at doctoral candidates working to complete their degrees.

Over the past year, the guidelines that resulted from this research underwent several rounds of review, commentary, and revision. And, I think that the final product marks a significant step toward loosening the grip of the proto-monograph format for dissertation work, while continuing to emphasize the need for rigorous scholarship in whatever format is most appropriate.

While this is a positive move, we still have serious issues to address in the realm of official deposit and preservation of digital dissertation work. This is usually the responsibility of the university library, but very few institutions are equipped to ingest and provide access to web archives, or to provide emulators for other kinds of digital work. Digital humanities scholars are going to need to enter into a serious conversations with our university librarians and institutional repository administrators to develop a official submission process that preserves digital dissertation work.

Comments 3

  • […] James Billington’s retirement, and the George Mason University History Department’s new digital dissertation guidelines. Other mentions […]

  • “Finally, candidates must consider the long-term sustainability of their work by making an effort to produce work that offers a migration path for the content to the George Mason University Library’s institutional repository. This migration should as much as possible include both data and interface elements.”

    This is really important, and I would love to see some presentations on exactly how you respect the freedom of the creators while also getting everything into a preservable format.

    Did you by chance attend the session at MCN on static site generators and future proofing your publications? I’m not saying that’s the answer, but I’d like to see some examples of how your IR handles these sorts of things. Does the IR librarian become necessarily have to become a part of the graduate student’s committee?

  • […] might entail. The primary author of the guidelines was my colleague Sharon Leon, who has written a post about how she put the guidelines together. These guidelines open a lot of room for graduate […]