Dissertation Innovations: A Podcast Dissertation

Paula Krebs: You decided to create a podcast for your dissertation. Can you tell us more about the content of the podcast? What do you discuss and who’s it for?

Anna Williams: In My Gothic Dissertation, I do three main things: dramatize and analyze educational scenes from Gothic novels, share real-life grad school “horror stories,” and report on recent research from sociology, developmental psychology, and pedagogy. The podcast includes a mix of my own commentary, audio from interviews I conducted, and clips from existing recordings.

In that first strand—the close readings—I use excerpts from audiobooks to quote the primary texts, weaving those clips together with my own narrated summary and analysis. To add drama to those passages, I layer them with music and sound to create a sound-rich adaptation of the original. Within this strand I also include commentary from other Gothic scholars.

To gather material for the second strand—the real-life grad school gothic—I interviewed other graduate students and even shared some of my own experiences through personal narrative. I also include the voices of well-known commentators on the state of graduate education such as Josephine Livingstone, Leonard Cassuto, and Kevin Birmingham.

Finally, in the third strand, I report on research from the science of learning—specifically, work that addresses how the inherent power imbalance of the grad school model actually impedes rather than supports learning and innovation. I conducted interviews with scholars in the fields of sociology, pedagogy, and developmental psychology, again incorporating other well-known voices such as bell hooks and Marsha Linehan.

The question of the audience for My Gothic Dissertation is one that sparked very interesting and fruitful conversations among the members of my dissertation committee, which included faculty members from both creative writing and scholarly backgrounds. I imagine several audiences for My Gothic Dissertation—academics who teach graduate students in the humanities, graduate students themselves, and nonacademics who are interested in having a peek behind the curtain. My hope is that the project brings more awareness to the personal, emotional, experiential side of our work, sparking changes to make the culture of PhD training more inclusive and allow for more creative, innovative, and public-facing scholarship.

PK: How do you see form connected to content in your dissertation?

AW: First, the audio essay form allowed me to create multiple layers of meaning that simply couldn’t exist on the page alone. Throughout, my narration and dramatizations are haunted by a Gothic soundscape that conveys complex and varying moods—sometimes ominous, sometimes playful or ironic—that add extratextual nuance to the interpretations and arguments I make.

Second, by virtue of being most commonly associated with popular consumption, the podcast form enacts one of the central arguments of My Gothic Dissertation—that humanities scholarship has become overdetermined by the demands of professionalization. As Kevin Birmingham rightfully pointed out back in 2017, PhD students write protomonograph dissertations to maximize their marketability for tenure-track jobs. And that’s because getting tenure often requires publishing a book at an academic press. These requirements for degree and promotion have a homogenizing effect on the work. Plus, as has been widely publicized lately, even major academic presses are losing funding—in part, I would conjecture, because all the “tenure books” they publish appeal almost exclusively to scholars in the same field or subfield as their authors. I’m certainly not in favor of academic presses losing funding, nor the publication of scholarly books slowing, but it does seem we have a supply and demand problem. We’re being haunted by a scholarly format and promotional system of the past. That’s the Gothic part!

So why not, as Sidonie Smith suggests in Manifesto for the Humanities, open up the options for tenurable scholarly communication to other media where the demand is higher? Podcasts, I think, fit the bill perfectly. According to a 2017 study conducted by Edison Research, forty-two million Americans over the age of twelve listen to at least one podcast per week. The genre of many of the most popular podcasts is heavily researched, long-form nonfiction—exactly the same as monographs, but with much more room for creativity, humor, and wider appeal. Wilfrid Laurier University Press has already begun publishing academic podcasts—complete with an innovative, open peer-review process—and I hope others follow suit.

PK: Do you see alternative forms of the dissertation as more valuable than the traditional kind of dissertation? If so, in what ways?

AW: I’m sure there is more variety in the traditional kind of dissertation than I accounted for in my previous response, but one thing is true for them all: they’re written for a limited audience. Most immediately, that audience is the dissertation committee, whose members have enormous power over what the final form ends up looking like. Beyond that, there are hiring committees, and then other scholars in the dissertator’s field or subfield. There is often little to no consideration of a public audience at all.

I think this is a real shame. I think such insular communication, while it certainly has value in contributing complexity to subfields, also defeats the broader purpose of humanist study. To me, the humanities are about making meaning of the human experience. We owe it to other human beings to share our highly trained meaning-making skills more broadly! I think alternative forms of the dissertation are often better for achieving that broader purpose.

PK: Do you see it having any implications for the kinds of jobs you want to get? 

AW: Yes, definitely. In addition to being a trained scholar and teacher of nineteenth-century British literature, I am also very well prepared to teach college students the craft of making radio. I love doing that kind of work with students, and I know firsthand how the form of the audio essay allows for the expression of many complex layers of meaning all at once. I’m also in a unique position to serve as a mentor for anyone who wishes to complete a nontraditional dissertation. And, thanks to my experience working at Iowa Public Radio during grad school, I have personally witnessed how public media—PBS, NPR—offer an excellent career field for humanities majors and PhDs. Through the creation of internships and support for alternative modes of scholarship, I hope one day to build a pipeline from humanities departments to the public media industry!

PK: How is the podcast tied into your previous work, and how does that affect your identity as a professional?

AW: Reaching way back here: as an undergrad, I entered Birmingham-Southern College eager to be a psych major, interested in understanding what factors contribute to making us us as individuals. After completing over half the major requirements, I took a very rewarding class in the English department and made a huge and seemingly permanent swerve! All these years later, though, with My Gothic Dissertation, it seems my path has led me back to psych once again. Among other disciplinary actors in what David Gooblar calls the “science of learning,” developmental psychology plays a prominent role in my intertextual analysis of the Gothic and graduate education.

I would also say that the idea to complete My Gothic Dissertation in podcast form sprang from my time teaching in the University of Iowa’s rhetoric department. As part of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning curriculum, I taught students how to put their rhetorical skills to use in innovative, digital assignments including podcasts. In my literature classroom, I carried over the use of creative assignments to showcase students’ analytic skills—for instance, a fan fiction assignment at the end of each semester. When students would present their creative reimaginings of our course readings to me and their peers, I was blown away every single time by how deeply their fan fiction conveyed their understanding of original texts and how deftly they entered into conversation with authors.

So, I guess my interest in psychology, my love of encouraging students’ creativity, and My Gothic Dissertation all coalesce to make me a professional who sees literature as a way to stimulate deeper understanding of human experiences and to help us recognize and hone the imaginative, analytic, and critical skills that allow us to connect with one another in more meaningful ways.

Anna Williams received her PhD from the University of Iowa in May 2019. She has taught at the University of Iowa and at Belmont University. From 2016 to 2017, she served as a production assistant at Iowa Public Radio, where she produced and cohosted the podcast Lit City. You can learn more about her and hear clips of My Gothic Dissertation on her Web site.

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