Dissertation, Reimagined: Notes from the 2019 Modern Language Association Annual Convention

Will Fenton

At the 2019 Modern Language Association Annual Convention in January, I presented on the panel “Reimagining the Dissertation” with the inimitable Jennifer Rhodes (Columbia University), Emily Shreve (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), and the author of the Manifesto for the Humanities, Sidonie Ann Smith (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor). In a lively Q&A, we discussed the various ways we worked inside and outside doctoral structures to reclaim delight in research and to represent doubt in the production of scholarly work.

I spoke to my own efforts to translate my dissertation research for alternative publics via the digital and public humanities. Unsurprisingly, my research at the Library Company, work on Digital Paxton, and direction of Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America (supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage) were central to my remarks.

As I explained at the outset of my talk, I wrote a stubbornly traditional dissertation. My reimagining occurred, instead, via later acts of translation.

Although I created Digital Paxton to show my work—to make my records and methodology publically accessible—I found that the project evolved in ways I could not have predicted, unsettling the conventions of a scholarly edition and blurring the boundaries between an edition, a collection, and a teaching tool.

As I expanded Digital Paxton, I confronted the limitations of extant records. How could I tell the story of a colonial massacre, mediated through colonial documents, in a way that didn’t simply reproduce colonial biases, assumptions, and erasures? With Redrawing History, the Library Company will take up this challenge through three public-facing components: an educational graphic novel, a national educators’ seminar, and a public exhibition.

If Digital Paxton enabled me to reimagine my dissertation as I was writing it, Redrawing History will challenge me to envision its afterlife, to collaborate with new stakeholders who will reinterpret the project for new publics.

My talk was generously-received by my colleagues and at MLA, though I’m eager to continue the conversation with the learning community here at the Library Company. The full-text is available here (PDF), and I welcome your questions and your suggestions.