Creative PhD Dissertations: Are Universities Closed Minded?

**This is a reprint of University of Denver’s graduate studies blog which was discontinued in September 2018.

So I’ve been thinking about this topic of creative dissertations for a while… I am a 3rd year PhD candidate studying Research Methods and Statistics, which is housed in DU’s Morgridge College of Education, and being more of a “trans-discipline” this topic probably comes up every year in one class or another. And it’s not just my program that this concept is being examined. The field of education relies on the fusion/intermixing of a variety of knowledge branches, which has resulted in a growing expectation of flexibility/creativity when it comes to dissertation composition. Performance, art, and text that surpasses the confines of 1″ margins are gaining attention in a variety of academic fields and are being discussed in many graduate classrooms. However, while we learn about alternative methods of knowledge dissemination that go beyond a “text-centric” view of communication, we also need to consider why we’re choosing to utilize these more novel methods and techniques.

Within this debate some have argued that a more creative approach is often hindered by the glacial speeds of academia, involving individuals who are slow to take action and allow for more creativity. Recently a research team from Harvard and Northwestern sought to test out the idea of proposing innovative work within the science fields. Interestingly, the researchers found that “highly novel research proposals were being systematically rejected, receiving worse ratings than those with only moderate novelty” (Matthews, 2016). The authors state that this is due to the amount of creativity the reviewers are able to understand cognitively. One of the authors, Dr. Riedl, defines this concept as “bounded rationality,” which is the inability to “look across and beyond the knowledge frontier” (Matthews, 2016). He concludes that these findings are particularly concerning given the fact that this bias can affect the proposals that do and do not receive funding.

I think this is an important finding to explore in the debate surrounding flexibility with dissertation composition/presentation. In order to gain a more in-depth picture of this discussion I sat down with Drs. Barbara WilcotsRyan Gildersleeve, and Bernadette Calafell. They provided insights into this debate and I learned that it isn’t a binary, black or white situation. I came into this dialogue with a more simplistic “us vs them” mindset, thinking that writing a dissertation that doesn’t look like a bound tome was something that graduate offices just needed to get on board with. I rationalized that this reticence was because chapters and textual contributions are much easier to regulate and measure than performances and art installations. What I learned is that, like most things, this topic is complex and multifaceted, requiring us to use both critical and reflexive lenses when we make our academic decisions regarding dissertations.

Substitute vs Supplement

One debate that has arisen when students propose a more creative approach to their dissertations is that of substitute versus supplement. Some graduate offices have agreed to allow students more creative license with their dissertations if they produce both a written product as well as a less tangible supplement such as a video, performance, art installation, etc., with the latter used to enhance the researcher’s message/point. One of Dr. Calafell’s students chose the “performance as supplement” option and created a powerful dissertation about the oral histories of Chicano men in Denver that included a written portion as well as a performance of those experiences after submission. However, some individuals feel that this “double work” isn’t fair and that more offices need to move past their “bounded rationality” and allow students to perform or present their dissertation without the written component. While many institutions are choosing to compromise by offering the “supplement” options, others are starting become more flexible. For example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article featured A.D. Carson, a Clemson University PhD student and activist who defended his dissertation in rap. Rather than submitting a written thesis/dissertation, “Carson created a 34-track rap album entitled ‘Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions‘” (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

Dr. Calafell also mentioned that some of her students are incorporating performative writing to fuse together the two substitute/supplement approaches. For example, one of her former advisees, wrote a script for her dissertation. Dr. Calafell also incorporated this approach by poetically crafting her own dissertation, “Towards a Latina/o Politics of Affect: Remembering Malintzin Tenépal.” This technique can be used in a variety of ways, including poetically transcribing interviews in a way that emulates spoken speech or writing a personal narrative. If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself or learning more, one resource Dr. Calafell recommends is the performance studies journal Liminalities. Liminalities is a digital journal that lets scholars publish textual performance, experimental art, and film among other mediums.

Dr. Calafell admits that unfortunately these culturally ingrained options are still stuck on the page and expressed that PhD students should have additional materials available to them such as black box theater. She opined that text-centric approaches and requirements could potentially stem from our desire to “make our mark” on society; a physical trace that’s focused on individuality rather than communality. Dr. Gildersleeve concurs, stating that text is not the only way to represent theory and institutions’ text-centric mindset is a result of dismissing long traditions and histories of research methods that are performance based. He states that text-centricity centralizes privilege, white supremacy, and patriarchy. However, he doesn’t completely write off this approach stating that it’s the deployment that matters. He also asserts that the form and medium/media should be dictated by the methodological traditions in the field and not by administration.

Complicating this viewpoint, is the argument that this approach opens doors for appropriation. Academics, in their fervor to create something fresh and innovative, could misrepresent these methods and the cultures that created them. Over our history, scholars have been criticized for their disregard for the cultures that they’re studying. It makes me think of the situation with Dr. Carolyn Ellis’ research of the fisher folk communities on the Chesapeake Bay. She wrote her dissertation and book on, what has been considered by others, as an unflattering representation of a group of Guinea watermen that turned her from a “beloved outsider and frequent guest into a traitor” (Allen). Charlotte Allen points out that this instance “illustrates the degree to which the profession is caught in an uneasy bind between fulfilling research objectives and honoring ethical obligations.” Similarly, the same problem can arise when methods are used by non-local outsiders. Dr. Wilcots aptly points out she would have difficulty accepting a rap dissertation from someone who wasn’t from the culture that created, knowing nothing about its history for its creators, but rather seeking a fun, creative way to present their subject.

Deciding on the Appropriate Medium

One critical point to address when considering non-print dissertations, is the fact when you adopt a non-textual approach, it’s difficult to demonstrate whether or not it effectively represents the acquisition of expertise in a field. I think that’s what makes this whole debate so difficult to tackle; if we don’t have standards that we can actually measure how can we differentiate between a PhD and professional degrees such as an MFA or a JD? This concept of measurement and being able to properly evaluate accuracy, thoroughness, etc., comes with a wide range of opinions. Dr. Wilcots, former associate provost of DU’s Office of Graduate Studies, states that one reason universities require a standard in the case of dissertations is so they are able to provide evidence for the PhD credential. She reminds us that the word credential originates from the word credence and when one earns a PhD they are receiving a title that certifies their knowledge and tells others that there is credence to what they have to say about a topic. It is because we function in this system of credentialing that we are required to demonstrate our expertise in a prescribed manner. That’s why individuals pursuing an MFA degree are able to create a novel and PhD students are required to produce a dissertation. Dr. Wilcots also states that one of the problems with this debate is the fact that the concept of a dissertation isn’t properly defined in the first place. Since we’re lacking a structured explanation of what a dissertation is, it’s extremely hard to argue how it should be shaped and changed.

Dr. Calafell’s answer to this discussion is that performance, which involves a lot of theory, can be just as effectively measured as written work. She contends that performance itself can be the final product, due to representations of social, political, and cultural-critical perspectives. Dr. Soyini Madison, Performance Studies professor at Northwestern, has written extensively on this topic (one great article is Performing Theory/Embodied Writing). Dr. Calafell outlined 6 types of rigor related to the proper evaluation performance based scholarship:

  1. Interrogation of one’s own positionality
  2. Experiencing emotional labor that can’t be quantified
  3. Constantly revising- performance is fluid
  4. Staging/audiencing
  5. Interlocuting- She states that the best part often comes after the performance, during the discussion
  6. Placing concern on the process

Dr. Gildersleeve states that individuals in applied fields like education should be pulling from other approaches outside of social science due to its interdisciplinary nature. He asserts that education should become transdisciplinary, seeking a more pluralistic approach that is similar to Anthropology’s multi-methodological use of discourse analysis. For example, the aforementioned A.D. Carson’s “work included a timeline of social movements on campus, a blog, music videos, transcribed lyrics, and a peek into his compositional process. At his defense, he performed four of his songs and showed one music video” (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

However, when we do decide to utilize mediums and approaches outside our field we need to ensure that we’re not just borrowing from the creative writing, performance studies, etc fields that created those methods but properly investigating and critically applying them. Dr. Wilcots states that not doing so dismisses the fields that produced those techniques and reduces them to a mode of communication rather than a field of study. Anyone can write a novel, pick up a camera and make a film, or compose a script. Nothing about those methods require what Dr. Wilcots describes as “an understanding and artistry of that genre.” She argues that what we need to be focusing on in this discussion is interdisciplinary presentations of knowledge. She states that “at the core of interdisciplinarity is understanding both fields of study, which takes time, effort, and a respect for all fields and disciplines represented in the scholarly work.” That certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be pushing for more creativity with our chosen mediums, but Dr. Wilcots states it does indicate that we need to be able to show that we’re not just a “tourist in the field,” borrowing what we need without proper knowledge or expertise to support that decision. It’s for this very reason that she recommends that any dissertation that draws upon a field of study outside of the discipline in which the degree is being offered have a defense committee that includes a faculty person from every field represented. For example Anthropology faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on the quality of a novel, and Higher Ed faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on a film.

Getting “Buy-In”

You need both faculty and administrative buy-in when it comes to pitching a creative dissertation. Dr. Wilcots states that while academics do need to shift the conversation and redefine research, PhD students need to be communicating how their more creative or alternative medium is germane to the discipline that they are trying to advance in their dissertations. She recommends that students desiring the experiment with alternative approaches demonstrate how the creative component reflects the theory when discussing their ideas with administrators. In other words, you should be answering questions like “How is this novel format or art installation advancing knowledge in my field? What makes a novel/performance/script more effective than a traditional textual dissertation? She acknowledges that there is room in higher education for more creativity but states that imagination needs to have a purpose when it comes to dissertations/theses. As was discussed in the previous section, as long as we function within the system of credentialing we need to find ways in which to properly represent the associated levels of knowledge and theory advancement that are required. Dr. Wilcots denoted the importance of being able to distinguish between professional degrees, such as an MFA, JD, etc., and research degrees, such as a PhD. With individuals holding the latter claiming to discover new knowledge in a field, things get complicated when their scholarly products become indistinguishable with those who are focused on the practice of a profession. To add to this complexity Dr. Gildersleeve points out that not all PhDs go into academia and institutions need to adapt to this shift as well. Additionally, Dr. Calafell claims that often times, departments are receptive to exploring new ways of communication, but unfortunately expectations are still very traditional at the national level (which likely comes from the unacknowledged biases of people in power).

Moving Forward

These discussions are percolating at institutions across the country. It’s important for us to continue to have these conversations and facilitate a dialogue that surpasses elitist knowledge and celebrates alternative methods of communication that go beyond prescribed textual formats. It is difficult for administrators to understand what they don’t know, and as doctoral students we should be working to expand and shape the definition of our degree and the products expected from it. We just need to also ensure that during these discussions we are also critical and reflexive about our methodological decisions. Dr. Wilcots suggests that one way to advance this conversation is to publish papers and present these issues at conferences, stating that the more we talk about these issues the more likely we’ll gain broader acceptance. “Paradigm shifts take time, and it’s important that we’re realistic in our proposals and reasonable with our requests.”

There are some universities that are starting to experiment outside of textual dissertations. For example, you have the aforementioned student at Clemson who submitted a dissertation in rap, Iowa State which is allowing visual ethnography such as participant and researcher photography and photo essays as ways to represent knowledge, and the University of London where PhD candidate Lucy Harrison was able to build a musical fort for her PhD. Nevertheless, I think that together as a PhD community we can be doing more to advance this agenda. At the very least we could pitch it to universities as a great PR move on their part. After all, PhD candidates who are thinking outside the box are getting featured in major publications. But I think the real onus is for us as PhDs to 1) explore alternative methods and techniques of knowledge representation, 2) be reflexive about those choices (Why are using performance, art, etc. over text? Is it essential to our production of new knowledge and advancement of theory?), and 3) present our choices in a cohesive, relevant, and understandable way to faculty and administrators. Dr. Gildersleeve believes that we need to innovate traditionally used methodologies and push boundaries from philosophically sound foundations. He claims that academics need to accept alternative versions of knowledge representation in order to stay relevant. With that thought I’d like to leave you with A.D. Carson’s words from his dissertation as inspiration for those who want to push boundaries in the cloistered confines of the ivory tower:

“Kweli said ‘I speak at schools a lot because people say I’m intelligent, no it’s cause I’m dope, if I was wack I’d be irrelevant.’ …This world of academia, however we want to describe it…is that world not ready for that dope in its uncut form? Can the scholars not just create or speak through hip hop as opposed to having it mixed with something else in order for it to be acceptable? We already know that people can experience and talk about rap without having someone else filtering it… I don’t think there should really be that much of a problem with me doing the scholarship that we call hip hop through rap, it shouldn’t be a problem” (A.D. Carson).

Resources/Reading List

Dunford, C. M. (2009). Deploying nature: A performance ethnography of community gardens, gardeners and urban change in a Chicago neighborhood. Northwestern University.

Carson, A.D. (2016, Sept 11). A.D. Carson: Owning My Masters Dissertation Intro. [Video File]. Retrieved from 

Madison, D. S. (1999). Performing theory/embodied writing. Text and Performance Quarterly19(2), 107-124.

Pasque, P., Carducci, R., Kuntz, A., & Gildersleeve, R. (2012). Qualitative Inquiry for Equity in Higher Education: Methodological Innovations, Implications, and InterventionsAEHEVolume 37, Number 6 (Vol. 164). John Wiley & Sons. (specifically chapters 2 & 3)