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Making a Successful Case for a Hypertextual Doctoral Dissertation: ACM Hypertext 2000 Christine Boese Short Paper

Making a Successful Case for a Hypertextual Doctoral Dissertation: ACM Hypertext 2000 Christine Boese Short Paper

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Published by Chris Boese

Short paper presented at ACM Hypertext 2000 in San Antonio, TX and published in the peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

Short paper presented at ACM Hypertext 2000 in San Antonio, TX and published in the peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

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Published by: Chris Boese on Nov 09, 2010
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Making a Successful Casefor a Hypertextual Doctoral Dissertation
Christine Boese
Department of EnglishClemson UniversityClemson, SC USA 29634Tel: 864-656-5416E-mail: cboese@clemson.edu
In August, 1998 the first hypertextual dissertation atRensselaer Polytechnic Institute was accepted(http://www.nutball.com), a case study applying methods of rhetorical analysis and cultural critique to the onlinephenomenon called the “Xenaverse,” the cyberspacesdevoted to the cult following of the syndicated televisionprogram
Xena, Warrior Princess
. The hypertextualresearch site, a vital online culture, seemed to demand a newkind of scholarship to describe and analyze it. Still, therewere many hurdles to getting such an unorthodoxpresentation form accepted by the dissertation committeeand the Graduate School.This paper summarizes a few of the justifying argumentsthat led to the successful acceptance this dissertation, ahypertext that could not be reproduced in any way on paper.In showing how one case for a hypertextual dissertation wassuccessfully argued, I hope to help other scholars makesimilar cases at other institutions, perhaps leading to furtherdebate on the ways arguments and epistemologies will bedefined in the future.
hypertext dissertation electronic scholarshiponline cultural studies library archives UniversityMicrofilms graduate school Xenaverse Xena
There are good and bad reasons for wanting to attempt ahypertextual dissertation. An attempt at hypertextualscholarship should not be motivated by a gratuitous desire tofind any excuse to hypertextualize an argument. DavidKolb, in a number of his works [1][2] has raised importantreservations about hypertextual forms of academicarguments, especially because linearity and coherence haveoften been seen as essential features of good arguments.Some argue that dissertations are by definition linear, andtherefore something that is nonlinear cannot actually be adissertation. I agree that dissertations must present anargument, but I remain unconvinced that arguments areessentially defined by their linearity. The field of rhetoric inparticular shows us how most arguments that strive forlinearity are not fully linear, and are instead dependent onenthymemes and other rhetorical figures and stances.Meanwhile, some of us are in search of truths that don’tproceed linearly, that build a persuasive case byaccumulation and reiteration, by inviting users to make theirown connections and to actively construct truths fromextensive archives and linked appendices.However, the best reason for attempting a hypertextualdissertation is that the content of the research demands it. Inthe case of the cyberspace-based virtual world called the"Xenaverse," an ethnographic study could take into accountthe hypertextual virtual culture created, describe it on itsown terms, and then circle back and analyze the findings.The dissertation could contain both detailed description andcritical rhetorical analysis, cross-linked and tied directly tothe sites of the study’s co-participants. With this in mind Ibegan the project,
The Ballad of the Internet Nutball:Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of theMargins to the Mainstream in the Xenaverse
How do I effectively report back on my research? Howmuch hypertextual knowledge and understanding would belost in the translation from webbed text to linear print text?The data consist of multiple media strung across a web of links. The shape of the dissertation content, both my owndescription and analysis and the many voices of the peoplewho live in my data, is primarily non-hierarchical,decentering, marginal, polyvocal, multi-threaded, in short,hypertextual. My goal was to move outside of the standard,linear, centered form for a dissertation argument in order todevise an alternative, perhaps more expansive, form for mypersuasion in hypertext. The hypertextual performance of this dissertation was merely one step toward testing whethernonlinear arguments can be made in hypertext, a challengeput forth by David Kolb in "Socrates in the Labyrinth" [1]and "Discourse Across Links" [2].If closure doesn't always happen down a predetermined
route, how do I judge, how does my dissertation committee judge, whether I have successfully completed and defendeda dissertation that exists in native hypertextual, multimediaform? Perhaps what I am making is more of a hypertextualcreative work of considerable substance, a performance, arepresentation of a dissertation in experimental form.However, this does not mean that my argument cannot beeffective and persuasive, and thus still meet the institutionalrequirements for dissertations.This project sought to link and merge with the webbedXenaverse culture in cyberspace. To learn about theXenaverse, the power relationships and constructions of authority within it, the user is invited to step through ascholarly portal, to become immersed, explore, both withinand beyond the blurred boundaries of the dissertation andinto the Xenaverse itself. I made a choice to match the formof my dissertation to the webbed environment of theXenaverse, in order not to lose the hypertextual knowledgeand understanding that could perhaps be gained fromassociational linking and dialogic interactions betweenframes and windows.
With a dissertation I couldn’t be as free form as I mighthave been in a fictional piece. If I had been moreexperimental, I would have run the risk that the dissertationwould have been unacceptable to the Graduate School. Mycommittee was receptive to experimentation, and eventuallyvoiced concern that I had been too conservative instructuring the interface. However, I had to find a way toensure that the major argumentative points of my study werecommunicated through multiple paths and navigationalstyles. I attempted to do that by building redundancies intothe content for a holistic effect. I also attempted to buildrecursiveness into the link structure, so that patterns of linkswould lead the reader back around and around untilunexplored sectors will almost inevitably be reached.There were also some key negotiations made between thechair of my doctoral committee, the Graduate School, andmyself. Our research indicated that University Microfilmshad been accepting CD-ROM dissertations since 1996, andit was heralded as a sign of progress in the “InformationTechnology” section
of The Chronicle of HigherEducation
[3].Upon contacting University Microfilms in 1998, however, Iwas told that the electronic submission policy only appliedto Portable Document Format (.pdf) files, in other words,facsimile document files that faithfully reproduced imagesof a paper dissertation. The person I spoke with had no ideawhat University Microfilms would do with the multimediadissertations written about in the
article. Thesewere described as traditional linear dissertations withextensive support media (e.g. video clips, photographs).There was no mention of what would be done with thenonlinear structuring of hypertextual forms. Eventually Icame upon the same difficulty with the RensselaerPolytechnic library: lack of a digital archive.I had developed an interface of dialogically interactingframes and windows forming a composite text. In the firstround of negotiations over a “no paper” dissertation with theGraduate School, I was asked if I could just print out all theMainscreens, negating the effects of nonlinear linking. Myadvisor, David Porush, and I had decided early on that if anelectronic dissertation could be reproduced on paper, thenthere was really no compelling reason for it to be inelectronic form at all.To its credit, the Rensselaer Graduate School wasremarkably open-minded. I proposed a small introductorytext that would contain instructions on how to install theCD-ROM or access the Web site. This small amount of paper could be hardcover bound, with an envelope affixed tothe inside back cover for the CD-ROM. Finally acompromise was reached. The Graduate School requiredthat each dissertation have four sections, an Abstract, anIntroduction, a Conclusion, and a Bibliography. In the end,the paper component totaled 73 pages.The greatest obstacle to the archival longevity of the projecthad to do with the Institute’s lack of stable, long-term digitalstorage and access space on the Internet. I needed apermanent Uniform Resource Location (URL) that I couldpublish in the paper archives. I had to take it upon myself toprovide a stable and permanent URL for the site, paying toregister a DNS as well as the monthly server space rental.
I hope that other scholars can add to the development of such cases like this, opening the door for a more firmlyestablished genre of hypertextual scholarship. We also mustconsider the traditional and not-so-traditional institutionalconstraints for archiving and referencing such work, andadvocate changing the storage system assumptions made byUniversity Microfilms and library archives in makinghypertextual electronic scholarship available to otherresearchers. Electronic dissertations that are exactrepresentations of paged paper texts show little justifyingreason for being created and stored in digital form, otherthan the expedience of saving library shelf space. Somescholars are using digital materials to archive multimediarich data appendices, but the form of their argument remainsprimarily conventional. There is much more work to bedone.
Kolb, D., Socrates in the Labyrinth, inHyper/Text/Theory, G.P. Landow, Editor. 1994, JohnsHopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD.2.
Kolb, D., Discourse across Links, in PhilosophicalPerspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication,C. Ess, Editor. 1996, State University of New York Press: Albany, NY. p. 15-26.3.
Mangan, K.S., CD-ROM Dissertations: Universitiesconsider whether new format is appropriate way topresent research. The Chronicle of Higher Education,1996(March 8, 1996): p. A15-A19.

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