Why Make an Electronic Thesis in the Humanities?

Synopis 

In comparison to many other countries-most notably Canada, the United States,and the United Kingdom-the disciplines that form the humanities in Australia have made few visible inroads into advancing humanities knowledge on-line. There are no dedicated humanities computing centres in Australia, there are few individuals working in the field, and Australians are not well-represented on international committees (or conferences) that discuss how on-line technologies can effectively address humanities problems.

What can be done?

Australia's lack of innovation in advancing on-line technologies in the humanities is most likely due to a funding crisis. The humanities have largely been de-funded in Australia in favour of research agendas that placate the immediate demands of industry. For instance, ten years ago there were four hundred historians employed in Australian universities, now there are only two hundred. And, appallingly, some of our newer universities (that may employ up to five thousand staff) have set a dangerous global precedent of not having any humanities schools at all. 

For those of us that work in the humanities in Australia and have an interest in new technologies, we often have to navigate a treacherous and confusing intellectual landscape of somewhat rootless media and cultural theories haphazardly applied to proprietary consumer technologies. Many academic researchers have little or no investment in maintaining humanistic autonomy, or even have a clue what this may mean in terms of the application of new technologies. Many researchers may be simply inviting academic legitimisation of corporate aspirations that are very rarely compatible with those of the humanities. 

The humanities must be cautious with transitions into newer communication mediums because there are technologies that may critically disable our academic legacies. At a time when humanities budgets are taut, it is even more important to understand what we actually do and construct technologies that assist us, rather than undermine us.

What is an ETD?

In my own experience as a post-graduate humanities student, I discovered that a palatable segue into the technological jungle is through the structure of an Electronic Theses and Dissertation (ETD). The ETD is useful for a number of reasons, most notably because it is within the thesis in which most humanities knowledge advances. It is a robust and well-understood technology and does provide a transitory position into new technologies from a position that most humanists can identify with.(1)

However, an ETD does not have a stable definition even though it is based on a technology that does. Like all technology, it is shaped by the people that construct it, or as Colin Cheery states in his description of the telephone:

Inventions themselves are not revolutions; neither are they the cause of revolutions. Their powers for change lie in the hands of those who have the imagination and insight to see that the new invention has offered them new liberties of action, that old constraints have been removed, that their political will, or their sheer greed, are no longer frustrated, and that they can act in new ways.(2)

One University that is promoting the model of the ETD is Virginia Tech in the US through this definition:

An ETD is a document that explains the research or scholarship of a graduate student. It is expressed in a form simultaneously suitable for machine archives and world-wide retrieval. The ETD is similar to its paper predecessor. It documents the author's years of academic commitment. It describes why the work was done, how the research relates to previous work as recorded in the literature, the research methods used, the results, and the interpretation and discussion of the results, and a summary with conclusions. The ETD is different, however as it provides a technologically advanced medium for expressing your ideas.(3)

And UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) have formed a group of one hundred and forty universities worldwide whose aim is in part, to unlock the huge potential of research produced by post-graduate students through the ETD. A quote from their web site states:

Our goal…is to identify "technologically innovative" theses and dissertations. We want to provide models of new media scholarship for the next generation of scholars and researchers.(4)

Within Australia, there is an ETD project that is administered by UNSW (the University of New South Wales), but is more concerned with creating standards for distributing the traditional thesis in electronic form rather than promoting innovative electronic scholarship in the humanities.(5)  

Why make an ETD?

The ETD serves a similar function as the traditional thesis, however as a ‘container for knowledge' it can, for instance, allow students to include digital objects in their work. A musician, for instance, may find it useful to include sonnets in their thesis, or an art-historian, paintings, or an historian, oral history. The objects in an ETD can be arranged and analysed in such a way that it might bring new meanings to the work.

And an ETD retains the ‘cognitive capital' of post-graduate research; something that is perhaps more important now than in any time in our recent past. This is because as tides of information lap at our door, books and the academic monologue provide an important historical, political, and academic solution for cognition. These skills are not something that we must diminish whilst discovering how to communicate our ideas on-line. Those that incessantly tell us that all technological change is progress towards the removal of privilege are probably profiting handsomely from these shifts. We need to find productive transitions into the mine-field of the Internet in terms of what we think is important.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of building an ETD in terms of humanities practice is that the researcher learns to communicate their ideas through one of the most promising (but misunderstood) new mediums in a generation. In the mid 1990s, the Internet captured the popular imagination fuelled by a wave of market fundamentalism, utopian Libertarianism, economic rationalism, and entrenched popularist conservatism. Many of the norms that we took for granted became dis-rooted, re-branded, and circulated in contexts never thought imaginable. Suddenly conservative laissez-faire politics became ‘radical', academic merit became ‘hierarchy', democracy became ‘unrepresentative' and boundaries became not healthy and robust components of a respect for difference, but walls that contain privilege.

The turbulent period over the past few years have been incidental initial conditions of a medium that reached critical mass during the superstitious times of the fin de cercle. The technology is still with us even though many of these ideas are not. The humanities in Australia must engage with the on-line world, but with our own models and on our own terms.

Footnotes

(1) Colin Cherry, "The Telephone System: Creator of Mobility and Social Change", in Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Social Impact of the Telephone (Cambridge MA, 1977): 112-26.

(2) There are still not a whole lot of models to work with within the humanities. The first two ETDs (that were produced as PhD qualifications), were by Simon Pockley of RMIT University and by Matt Kirschenbaum of the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia. They were both produced in 1995.Simon Pockley, "The Flight of Ducks" PhD Degree, RMIT University<http://www.acmi.net.au/FOD/> (Accessed 26 May, 2003)Matthew G. Kirschenbaum "LINES FOR A VIRTUAL T[y/o]POGRAPHY: Electronic Essays on Artifice and Information" PhD Project  Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD) The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, The University of Virginia <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/~mgk3k/dissertation/title.html> (Accessed 21 September, 2002)

(3) "Definition of an ETD" Virginia Tech<http://etd.vt.edu/background/whatis.html> (Accessed 26 May, 2003)

(4) "The Guide to Electronic Thesis and Dissertations" UNESCO<http://www.etdguide.org/> (accessed 26 May, 2003)

(5) "The Australian Digital Thesis Project" The University of New South Wales<http://www.ceenet.org/workshops99/Jean_Claude_Guedon/Australian-theses.htm> (Accessed 26 May, 2003)

Bibliography

1. "Definition of an ETD" Virginia Tech<http://etd.vt.edu/background/whatis.html> (Accessed 26 May, 2003)

2. Bellamy, Craig "Milkbar.com.au: Globalisation and the Everyday City" An ETD submitted for the fulfilment of the PhD qualification, RMIT University, 2002 <http://www.milkbar.com.au/> (Accessed 26 May, 2003).

3. Cherry, Colin"The Telephone System: Creator of Mobility and Social Change", in Ithiel de Sola Pool, The Social Impact of the Telephone (Cambridge MA, 1977): 112-26

4.Kirschenbaum Matthew G.  "LINES FOR A VIRTUAL T[y/o]POGRAPHY: Electronic Essays on Artifice and Information" PhD Project  Electronic Thesis and Dissertation (ETD) The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, The University of Virginia <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/~mgk3k/dissertation/title.html> (Accessed 26 May, 2003).

5. "The Guide to Electronic Thesis and Dissertations" UNESCO<http://www.etdguide.org/> (Accessed 26 May, 2003).

6. "The Australian Digital Thesis Project" The University of New South Wales<http://www.ceenet.org/workshops99/Jean_Claude_Guedon/Australian-theses.htm> (Accessed 26 May 2003).

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