The Trouble(s) with Dissertations

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It seems like most of the chatter among American historians has focused on two debates about the dissertation: should graduate students approach dissertation writing with the intention of having it ready for publication upon completion or is dissertation writing somehow different from book writing? AND should universities automatically embargo dissertations – that is prevent digital copies of them from being made available to scholars – or allow access to them immediately upon completion? I have largely remained on the sidelines for both debates for several reasons. I am in the early stages of my dissertation research and do not have much valuable wisdom to provide on either topic. I am not particularly interested in these kinds of debates and would rather argue about historical content instead of the politics of the history profession. But more than anything else, I have stood aside because I think the answer to both questions seems clear: allow the individual graduate student their own approach to writing their dissertation and choice whether – and for how long – they would like to have their university embargo it.

I am approaching my dissertation as a dissertation and not as a book. My dissertation is on the history of American China Studies and how it shaped and was shaped by mid-20th century American politics. While I feel it has the potential to have mainstream appeal, I am not sure that writing a book for a wide audience is the best way to present the significance of my argument or my skills as a historian to my peers. Fundamentally, I see the dissertation as a certification as to one’s qualifications as a historian. Demonstrating these qualifications – ability to use archives, work in foreign languages, articulate a novel and significant argument – does not always make for the most compelling reading even for one’s scholarly peers. Yet, I believe that it is important for my project and for my potential employers to demonstrate these skills, although doing so may mean substantial revisions (including cutting, adding, and rewriting chapters) when the dissertation is transformed into a book. The process make take more time, but I am confident in my dissertation prospectus and believe the final product will be well worth the wait.

Though I am not approaching my dissertation as a book, that does not mean every graduate student should avoid writing their dissertation as a book. At the Society of U.S. History blog, Rachel Shelden has given a litany of reasons why writing her dissertation as a book worked for her. Ultimately, each graduate student and their advisors and mentors must choose their own path. There is no “right” answer.

I feel similarly about embargoing dissertations; each student should be allowed to choose whether or not her dissertation will be embargoed by her university and for how long. Debate over embargoing dissertations was brought to the fore by an American Historical Association statement in June urging universities to embargo all student dissertations. This attracted criticisms from many historians who saw the announcement as a foolhardy commitment to the dying medium of print monographs and doing a disservice to young scholars and the profession as a whole by keeping the innovative work of young scholars out of the hands of their peers. Further arguments for the embargo have been forwarded since the AHA’s initial announcement, most eloquently by former AHA President Bill Cronin. I understand this puts a lot of stress on university administrators and library personnel who have to process these requests. I understand that it is easier to approach embargoing with an all or nothing mentality. But in the end, the dissertation is the intellectual property of the graduate student who researched and wrote it and they should be allowed to restrict or provide access to it as they see fit.

There are some obvious pitfalls to this case-by-case approach. What if a graduate student forgoes embargoing her dissertation and it is never published as a result? What if a young author’s work is preempted while her dissertation is embargoed? Shouldn’t the university have some control over the dissertation seeing as they provided at least some of the financial and material support necessary for its completion? Though these issues may seem significant – and indeed many are – the fundamental point remains that neither the AHA nor the university should be compelling graduate students to either embargo or not embargo their dissertations. The choice should remain their’s and their’s alone. Historians differ in how they want their work to reach their target audience. Some may want their dissertation to be published as a book, others may not want an academic career and therefore do not see the need to revise their dissertation and make it a book. All of these approaches are valid and the university should be compelled to respect all of them, even if they’re inconvenient.

To me, both of these controversies point to the continued employment crisis facing young historians. With their traditional means of ideological dissemination (the print book) and their workspace (the university) contracting, even as the number of graduate students continues to grow, the uncertainty facing young scholars adds urgency to debates that to outsiders may seem like small potatoes. After all, writing dissertations as books and embargoing dissertations are only relevant issues if there continues to be a publishing industry looking to publish those books and universities looking to hire their writers. Despite their seeming insignificance, both debates highlight the one thing the graduate student does control in this unstable professional climate – their own work and ideas. If control over those ideas and their form is taken out of the young scholar’s hands, be it by the university or the AHA, then there is nothing left for the young historian or the future of the profession.

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