How Can a Dissertation be an Exhibit?
It’s not the norm, but my doctoral dissertation included an art exhibition. In addition to the written document, I communicated my study through a museum exhibit this past spring. Doing so made me think about the two different ways of communicating research. Visiting the gallery in person reveals aspects of my research that simply reading about it does not. Why is that?
Research is a systematic investigation in the service of furthering human understanding and development. Perhaps the premier place in human society where research happens is academia. By and large, the results of academic research are communicated through journals and books to other academics—and then, eventually, to students and the general public. This model has been critiqued, but it surely has its benefits. In any case, for better or worse, things are changing.
One thing to keep in mind is that the world of scientific publishing is only a few hundred years old—the first issues of Journal des Sçavans and Philosophical Transactions were published in 1665. Before that, academic findings circulated mostly through books and letters, and before that mostly through orality. So we shouldn’t be surprised or dismayed to hear that things are changing—after all, so much about mediated communication has changed in the last century.
Throughout my PhD program, I have been thinking about how research results are communicated—and how they can and should be communicated. I wrote some of my thoughts in the editorial for last year's special issue of Proceedings from the Document Academy, in which insights into document theory were presented as stories and poems. To give two other examples of changes, some academic journals are incorporating Kudos into their websites, which allows authors to explain and contextualize their research in plain language, expanding its reach. And over the past several years, we’ve seen academics (including some outside the academic institution) creating long-form podcasts discussing academic content through audio lectures.
When thinking about how to communicate research findings, it’s important to take a step back with each project and ask: What is of interest here? Oftentimes there is one set of things of interest to academics, and a whole different set of things of interest to others.
In my dissertation, I studied artists’ experiences of creating self-portraits. On the academic side, I was interested in issues in document theory, the philosophy of information, human information behavior, information ethics and social computing. My written dissertation goes into detail on these topics.
But my dissertation also had a distinctive human side: Out of all humans, very few of us are artists, but many of us are curious about artists. What happens when an artist is creating a representation of themselves? What sources do they draw from, and how are these used? How do the artists judge success? In short, what is it like to create a self-portrait? Or any art for that matter? And today, with so much attention on the selfie, what is the difference between the self-portrait and the selfie, if any?
In this regard, my dissertation project furnished deep, experiential narrative accounts of the creative process, along with lots of images, not to mention the finished self-portraits of my participants. And when I was putting together my dissertation—which, at my institution, must be a 12-point-font-max written document—I had to grapple with the question of how best to show these experiences. Because the dissertation is an academic artifact, I foregrounded the issues of academic interest. This meant the experiential narratives were put in the appendix—even though, to me, they were the crux of my findings.
So, following the suggestion of one of my research participants, I found another way to communicate my research: I put together an art exhibition in an on-campus gallery. That was a big undertaking in addition to my “actual” dissertation, but my work would have been incomplete without it. Each of the self-portraits is exhibited along with images and quotes from its creation, as well as a short poem—written in collaboration by me and the artists—that expresses the whole experience. There are eight works in the gallery, and each presents a different approach to self-portraiture, allowing visitors to find common threads. The exhibition will only be up until the end of July, but it will reside permanently online at http://selfportraiture.info (for making the website, I was inspired by Jenna Hartel’s iSquares project).
I am happy to say the exhibition has been well received. This, I think, is because it allows people to not only read about my research findings, but experience them. And there are things we can only know through experience.