CHAPTER 5: RECOMMENDATIONS & CONCLUSION
After interviewing all the authors and their supervisors for this study, it becomes clear that producing a multimodal doctoral dissertation does require extra work, perseverance, determination, and some convincing about its purposefulness. It is evident that much work still remains to be done to promote and enable future doctoral students who wish to produce a multimodal dissertation the ability to do so.
This brings me back to my inspiration for undertaking a multimodal dissertation and the work of Nick Sousanis, Unflattening. In an interview in 2015, Sousanis described how he wished to help future students producing multimodal works:
Sadly, his wish has not yet been realized, and he was not the last to have to argue for the validity of a multimodal dissertation. We still have to continue arguing for the value and the rigor of multimodality in producing quality academic work.
I present below some reflections and recommendations for future students – and others – who may be interested in the possibility of including multimodality in their dissertations. The recommendations presented here are not just for future students, but for others such as advisors who may wish to encourage and support their students’ yearning for innovation; for librarians discussing issues of preservation, and even for other academics and scholars who may wish to incorporate multimodality into their work. I propose a new way of looking at the doctoral dissertation that is more responsive to the changing times, more accessible, and more diverse and inclusive. I share Smith's (2016) conviction that we must explore new forms of the doctoral dissertation that dare to break with the traditional form of the text-only monograph.
5.1 GET THE RIGHT COMMITTEE
One of the points that all four dissertation authors and advisors seem to agree on is the importance of finding and getting the right committee on board.
All interviewed participants discussed either having issues trying to convince some of their committee members, or having to find new committee members who could support their effort (and in some cases, help convince the other committee members). You can hear prof. Brown's advice below on the importance of finding the right advisor and committee:
For my own dissertation, I must admit that my committee and my advisors were extremely supportive from the start. I was very lucky in so many ways because when I started the doctoral program, I did not yet know what I wanted to research. I did not enter the program with the intent or the idea to produce a multimodal dissertation. So, I feel very fortunate to have found myself in the right place, at the right time and to have encountered not just sympathetic ears, but actually to have advisors who have championed my work and encouraged me all along.
Unfortunately, this may not be the case for all students entering graduate school to pursue a doctoral degree. As Anna Williams described in her dissertation process, and this may also be the case for most of us: students often don’t know what is going to be their focus when they join the doctoral program, or in some cases even after they have started working on the dissertation. And this would make it difficult for some to be able to find committee members and an advisor who will be supportive of their efforts to innovate. For many students, the dissertation writing process can be full of unexpected turns, changes, and surprises, which makes finding the right committee that much more challenging and perhaps even risky, since a student may not know in advance what they will encounter. What a student sets out to do, may turn out very different from the end result, so finding the right advisor who will have an open mind to innovation is critical.
All four cases studied in this dissertation were successful in producing and defending their multimodal dissertation, but they all acknowledged and expressed the sentiment of having to do some convincing along the way.
5.2 KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GETTING INTO
If you are reading this work and you are a doctoral student considering including multimodality in your dissertation, you should know what you are getting into.
“Do your homework!” This is the advice given by Peter Vietgen, who was one of Rebecca Zak’s committee members. This idea was shared by all advisors interviewed, that if you are considering producing a multimodal doctoral dissertation, you should look for others who have done something similar in your field and see how they did it. And be prepared to justify your work. Know why you want to include video or other modes and understand that you may have to work twice as hard. In all four cases studied here, their authors shared the inordinate number of hours spent planning, recording, editing, and producing the video and audio portions of their dissertations. The number of hours required to produce a multimodal dissertation may, in fact, far exceed what a traditional dissertation would require. Students producing multimodal works may have to work twice as hard and need to put in a lot more hours. And they may have to do a lot of convincing and persuading. Roy Wallace also mentioned more than once the fact that attempting to produce a multimodal dissertation requires extra work:
“Yeah, that's the bottom line you're going to work harder than anyone else to achieve a similar goal . . . but yeah, I think it's a worthwhile venture because the world is changing, technology has changed, everything and academia might, you know, this time next year maybe a very different conversation, you know.”
“Expect Resistance!” Resistance is also a sentiment expressed by all the participants in this study. Although in all four cases the dissertations were successfully defended, both authors and advisors acknowledged some form of resistance, either from other committee members or simply from the university and the requirements for what must be deposited in the archives. All four dissertation authors expressed gratitude towards their advisors and they were very appreciative of the support they received, but they also shared how they had to make some modifications to their original plan because of different requirements. In my own case, I received tremendous support from my advisors, and yet, I too will have to make adjustments in order to deposit my finished dissertation. Even if the advisor is on board with the idea of a multimodal dissertation, the student trying to work with multimodality should probably expect some resistance from some of the committee members and be ready from the start to be able to defend and articulate what the multimodal component is adding to the dissertation, that could not be accomplished by text alone. So, depending on where each student is in their career, they must consider whether this is a fight they wish to undertake. It may not be for everybody.
“Understand the consequences.” Another point that was mentioned by more than one of the interviewees and their advisors was the consideration of whether the production of a multimodal dissertation may have additional consequences for someone’s career prospects. So, once again, you should know what you’re getting into and the reasons for pursuing one form of dissertation or another. If someone is intent on pursuing a tenured position at a major research university, then they better produce a dissertation that follows the type of work produced in their field, by those who will be making hiring decisions and those who will be sitting in those tenure committees. The doctoral candidate must understand that the type of work they produce may have consequences in terms of the job market and career path. So, it is very important to understand what your career goals are and what you need to do to get there, whether it’s tenure or research, or something else. In their interviews, both Rebecca Zak and Justin Schell expressed that getting a job as a university professor was not in their career plans, so there were no negative consequences for them. In my own case, the same is true, at least at the moment. Based on my current job and career goals, the creation of a multimodal dissertation will have no negative impact on my career advancement. This is an important consideration for anyone who is considering entering a doctoral program: know why you want a doctoral degree and what you hope to accomplish with it.
5.3 UNDERSTAND THE TECHNICAL ASPECT
Another critical aspect of attempting to create a multimodal dissertation is that you should understand the technical skills needed to produce your vision, whether you plan to work with video, audio, or other modalities and alternative formats, such as the creation of an interactive website or other technology.
In all four cases interviewed for this study, the authors had prior experience and expertise working with the medium they chose to produce for their dissertation. In fact, it was in part this prior experience that inspired them to decide to incorporate either video or audio into their work. They did not have to learn an entirely new set of skills in addition to learning how to write and conduct their research. Their advisors indicated they were not necessarily involved in helping and guiding the technical aspects of the production of the videos and podcasts that went into the dissertations.
If you are coming into your doctoral dissertation with a particular set of skills in multimedia, such as video, audio, or perhaps graphic design or drawing, then you may already have an advantage and perhaps you already know what this type of work entails. Rebecca Zak expressed how these skills gave her the confidence to keep arguing and to keep pushing to be able to move forward with her idea. She stressed how she had to do all kinds of convincing in order to succeed in getting all her committee members to accept her multimodal dissertation. “And I just wouldn't take no for an answer,” Zak states.
But, with regard to the technical skills needed to produce a multimodal dissertation, Roy Wallace took a slightly different approach. Although Wallace comes from a background in video production and he had previously created many video documentaries, he chose a different approach for his dissertation. Rather than going for the traditional media production approach, he decided to use what he calls the “media data approach” – which can be employed by anyone with no previous media production experience. Wallace calls his production an academic video essay. This video essay involves the creation of a series of slides with an audio voice-over recording. This type of recording can be accomplished by anyone with access to the Internet and who follows the same steps as a standard research project would follow. “And you don't have to have any media production skills then.”
Roy Wallace’s work can serve as an encouragement for those who may not have much previous experience in film or radio production, such as the other cases studied here. In the following video, Roy Wallace describes how his work can serve as a model and a guide for others who may not have professional video production skills:
5.3.1 Consider the logistics, programs, and software needed
Aside from knowing how to work with video and audio files, it is also critical for the aspiring doctoral student considering incorporating multimodality into their work, to make sure they can have access to the necessary tools required to produce the desired work. Anyone working with media files knows this is very time-consuming work, and in the following video, Anna Williams reminds us that in the beginning of her dissertation, she had to spend hours in the studio at the university, to edit her podcasts, until she was able to get the program she needed in her home computer, and only after that she was able to work on her own schedule:
5.4 TAKE OWNERSHIP OF YOUR DISSERTATION
Roy Wallace gives all of us a very important reminder with the following video reflection on the importance of taking ownership of the doctoral dissertation process:
Writing a dissertation is a massive undertaking that will take a long time and a lot of hard work. So, this advice probably goes to anyone writing a dissertation, multimodal or not. The more invested and the more “in charge” the student is able to become, the more meaningful and rewarding the experience will be. In the end, it should be “your” dissertation. Advisors will provide tips and guidance, but ultimately, it’s your dissertation. In all cases included in this study, and my own dissertation included, the authors had a very good relationship with their advisors and in spite of the challenges and difficulties they encountered, they had the necessary support to move forward. This takes us back to the importance of selecting committee members who will also understand and support the multimodal dissertation. At each step of the process, the doctoral candidate should be in the driver’s seat and taking an active role in the entire process from beginning to end.
5.4.1 Trust your vision!
Although the advisors interviewed for this study indicated that they were less involved in the technical aspects of the multimodal dissertation, and they were supportive of the concept of producing a multimodal dissertation, some of the authors spoke about the challenge of trying to get approval for something while it was still just a concept in their heads – and in cases difficult to explain in words. In this video, Anna Williams describes the challenge in trying to describe her work before she had anything to show:
Below, Rebecca Zak reflects on how some committee members may feel uncomfortable to agree to an innovative idea without being able to see the work in advance:
5.4.2 Push! Keep Pushing. Be confident, Be Persistent
When asked what would be their advice for someone who is starting out now and wants to include multimodality in their dissertations, the need to be confident and to be persistent came up several times during the various interviews. For Rebecca Zak, the message of being persistent and not taking no for an answer was really key.
In her assessment, a lot of doctoral candidates may feel they “have to fit in order to get through and I think that that's a mistake.” If students are able to have a vision, and then have the confidence to be persistent, the opportunities and the potential for growth is enormous. She states:
“I think if more undergraduate and Masters level students could see that the dissertation could be, for lack of better term, more exciting, then I think a lot more people would pursue it. I think that academia, people think of academia in one way which is, nose in a book writing on computer text, text, text, text, text, text, and we don't live in an era that is text-based by any means.”
All the authors in all four case studies discussed the need to do some convincing at some point in their process. In some cases, some of the committee members needed to be persuaded. In others, it was the need to work within the university guidelines and having to adapt or find ways to meet all the requirements for the dissertation deposit. But in all instances, the authors needed commitment in order to see it through. In the words of Roy Wallace:
“I think that would be the advice that I would give anyone working in this field, is that you are stepping into a challenge if you undertake a PhD. But you're stepping into a mega challenge if you undertake a multimodal PhD and you have to be driven to do that.”
In the following video, Roy Wallace describes how he was “a problem to be deal with” and how he could have used someone like himself to guide him when he first got started:
5.4.3 Understand the glacial progress of the publishing world
It is worth noting that Justin Schell now works as the Director of the Shapiro Design Lab, at the University of Michigan Library, and as such he continues to be engaged with students trying to work with multimodality and also the challenges and questions of preservation and longevity of such work. He talks about the “glacial progress” of developments in the academic publishing world. While he feels encouraged by the increasing number of people who are interested in, and working with multimodality, he also sees the need to work within the technical requirements, as well as the possibilities and affordances of each medium and new platforms coming out. So, while it is true there are still challenges and barriers to be overcome, it is also encouraging to see movement in the direction of widening the notion of academic work, and to see people making progress in studying and producing multimodal scholarship.
5.4.4 COVID and multimodality
Conducting research and writing this dissertation in the Summer and Fall of 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, has brought about a whole new set of questions and considerations. As a result of the spread of the virus, education has been forced to reinvent itself and almost everyone has had to adapt to working in the virtual environment. For a few pioneers, who were already working online, not much has changed, but for most, the transition to working exclusively online has had more dramatic consequences. Whether by choice or not, most instructors were forced to adapt to teaching online, and for many, this has also increased the use of video and flipped classroom models. What has been called the “new normal” relies much more heavily on the use of technology and the inclusion of video and other alternative means of communication. What long term impact this may have still remains to be seen. It is possible the pandemic may help expand the reach and the impact of multimodality as an accepted form of work for students, for teachers, and for scholarly research as well. In the following video, Roy Wallace reflects on the COVID crisis and its possible implications for the promotion and acceptance of multimodality in academic research:
5.5 EXPANDING THE REACH – FINDING YOUR VOICE
5.5.1 I want my friends and family to be able to read my dissertation!
One of my objectives with this study and the writing of this dissertation was the expansion of what a dissertation could include or look like, and how multimodality can help make academic work and doctoral dissertations more accessible to a wider audience. Both Anna Williams and Rebecca Zak expressed that same idea with regards to their dissertation. You can hear below how Anna Williams describes her desire to make sure her work is accessible to more than a handful of academics:
In the following video, Rebecca Zak presents a similar argument about how she wanted her work to matter beyond academia and how research should be relevant and accessible to practitioners in the classroom:
Roy Wallace also contended with the question of reach from a slightly different perspective. He was intent on how to enable others to work with multimodality regardless of the level of expertise and technical skills. His promotion of the video essay format, utilizing a set of narrated slides, plays a critical role to provide the example and model to help expand the possibilities for other prospective doctoral candidates.
Whether trying to expand the reach of the dissertation by working on the message and the mode of communication, or focusing on creating a model accessible to most, the common intent expressed by all of them was the desire to make sure their work could be read and consumed by more than just a couple of people.
The dissertation advisors, Judith Pascoe and Robin Brown also echoed this sentiment when discussing the incorporation of video and audio podcasts into the dissertation. The ability to make the dissertation more accessible and interesting to a much broader population of people is of great consequence and it matters that we continue to promote and disseminate knowledge and knowledge making. Academic work, when viewed under this light, is not just for a handful of scholars, isolated in their study, but rather we dare to envision work that can be accessible to teachers in the classroom, and students everywhere - where the knowledge can be applied and help direct future inquiry.
Judith Pascoe brought up another important point in discussing the way universities are set up and organized, which typically limits students’ ability to move between disciplines and work in cross-disciplinary spaces. In the case with Anna Williams’ dissertation, one of her advisors was in the non-fiction writing program, and another was in the regular literature program, which turned out great for her because she was able to draw on two different skill sets. Pascoe suggests maybe we need to think beyond disciplinary constraints and imagine the new possibilities created “by having co-directors that are not in the same department or in the same field.” Traditionally, it is common to have one committee member from a different department, but Pascoe suggests expanding this to make it a regular practice and really encourage students to explore their topic from really different perspectives - "this would be exciting!"
5.5.3 Validating Voice
One of the big catalysts for the inclusion of multimodality in academic and dissertation writing is the desire and possibility to expand the reach and the audience for producers and consumers of scholarly work. This brings me back to the theoretical underpinnings of this study in the work of Paulo Freire's Critical Pedagogy - validating the voice of the oppressed. “You and I are probably in the same validating the voice business which is why we're doing the kind of work we're doing" (Robin Brown). It’s all about multimodality, it's just opening up and expanding the audience and allowing people to use different voices.
If education is to meet its function in society, we should continue to insist on valuing and promoting different ways of thinking, knowing, and communicating. Multimodality can help widen and encourage more diverse participation in the production of knowledge, offer alternative modes of inquiry, and make scholarship more accessible beyond the narrow academic circles.
In the attempt to answer the research question of how some doctoral candidates were able to successfully overcome the problems/challenges typically encountered when trying to create and defend a multimodal doctoral dissertation, several common threads and challenges were identified. The need to find a supporting doctoral committee and supporting advisors came across very loudly. The need to understand the technical aspects, the special skills, and the need for persistence and determination were also present in all interviews. Even though not all those interviewed actually made this specific statement, I think it came across very clearly that all interviewees felt that the dissertation they produced was in fact richer and more powerful because of the incorporation of the video and audio elements.
Why is the incorporation of video or audio clips more powerful or more meaningful that written text? What do they add? In Robin Brown’s interview video clip, when he slaps the table and says: “You can feel it, you can smell it…” His animation and the tone of his voice speaks for itself and it carries a much more powerful message then what could be transmitted through text alone. I don't believe we can say that video, and/or audio is more powerful or less powerful than written text. Each mode brings a different aspect and adds something more to the message. In some instances, images, video, and audio can serve to frame the written text; the different modes when put together can amplify the message by providing different layers as Anna Williams describes it, or in some instances the video or audio may stand alone. The multimodal element in all four dissertations studied here, was critical to making the argument – not a mere illustration to the text. The contents of the video and audio is not repeated in the text, in places it stands instead of text. The full scope of the message cannot be understood without the multimodal component. And by the same token, the complete dissertation cannot be understood without the text.
Perhaps the question is not whether video or text is better, but that the combination of video, plus audio, plus text provide a richer meaning than any one mode alone would enable us to have (Kress, 2000, 2006, 2010).
The power of multimodality is not simply the addition of images or video juxtaposed to text and thus increasing the meaning of such text. Rather, through a “process of braiding” or “orchestration,” where the combined total transcends the sum of its parts – offering different kinds of meaning not possible through each isolated mode alone (Hull & Nelson, 2005).
The question of the value of expanding the notion of academic knowledge still remains. One way to think about it is by considering the reach of the dissertation. Traditionally, doctoral dissertations do not have a wide audience. They may be read by a handful of people, including the dissertation committee and a few friends of the doctoral candidate. Looking at the multimodal dissertations included in this study reveals a very different situation where Zak’s video dissertation has more than 16.000 views on YouTube. William’s dissertation podcasts, while not reaching the same volume, shows hundreds of plays. And Justin Schell’s documentary also shows hundreds of views. The numbers alone show these dissertations already have a much wider audience than the average traditional dissertation. That is not to suggest that all multimodal dissertations will have a wide readership, but it does show a promising potential to make this type of work more accessible to wider audience.
Both Williams and Zak expressed the concern with making sure their work could be understood and consumed by their family and friends. It seems they have achieved a lot more than that. And Schell, Williams and Zak have all been interviewed more than once by different journals and publications. Their work has generated a lot more interest than is common for a doctoral dissertation, as Dr. Pascoe also mentioned in her interview the fact that she has also been contacted by people wanting to know more about Williams’ dissertation. This is exciting!
As someone who works in education, responsible for faculty development, it is encouraging to think that multimodality may offer the possibility to expand the reach and the audience for academic work. Multimodality may not be the answer to everything and everyone, but it does seem to suggest we have a lot to gain by harnessing its affordances and embracing the incorporation of images, video, and audio into the doctoral dissertation and other academic works.