George Mason History Department Adopts Digital Dissertation Guidelines

Seth Denbo | Dec 1, 2015

In a move that seeks to bring stability and standards to the production of digital scholarship, the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University (GMU) has recently adopted digital dissertation guidelines ( This document, created by the graduate studies committee and unanimously approved by the department, sets out the core elements of PhD work that does “not take the form of a narrative dissertation.” In doing so, the guidelines provide a framework for a transformation of form while simultaneously emphasizing the vital importance of “upholding the standards of the profession for good scholarly work.”

With historians increasingly deploying digital methodologies and media, an adherence to what the guidelines call the “core elements of historical scholarship” will ensure that scholars are able to explore new forms of expression to make contributions to knowledge in their field. As with the recently released AHA guidelines on the hiring and promotion of digital historians, this document emphasizes the importance of creating work that contributes to understanding the past rather than solely adhering to traditional forms of scholarly publication.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), where many staff members are also departmental faculty, has a long history of creativity in digital methodologies and an international reputation as a center for digital history. For this reason, doctoral students interested in pursuing digital history are attracted to the department. Sharon Leon, associate professor in the history department and director of public projects at RRCHNM, helped develop the guidelines as a member of the graduate studies committee. As she explains, department members were “starting to see a need for the guidelines because there are growing numbers of students who want to include greater digital elements in their dissertations.”

One of the challenges the committee faced, Leon says, was that the department had no explicit criteria for what a more traditional dissertation should look like. The format of the dissertation has been reasonably stable for many years, and it varies little across institutions, so there’s often a perception that its constitutive elements don’t require documentation or justification. Since digital dissertations are both new and potentially more varied than those that are primarily narrative, the committee needed to articulate the vital elements of such a work.

The guidelines emphasize the vital importance of “upholding the standards of the profession[.]”

The document establishes core modules “that support the argument of the dissertation much the same way that chapters would in a traditional dissertation” as a central element. Modules could include both direct access to digitized primary sources and the application of digital methods such as text mining or geospatial analysis. The guidelines also require students to provide a framing introduction. While an introduction that sets out the argument is a feature of all dissertations, the GMU guidelines go further, asking the scholar to “justify the ways that the source materials and methodological approaches combine to support that work.” Another element that diverges from the expectations of a narrative dissertation is a “process-oriented piece” that “offers a full accounting of the technical and analogue work that went into building the digital dissertation.”

Recently minted PhDs who work in digital humanities have supported GMU’s initiative. Amanda Visconti, whose project was the core of a digital dissertation that she recently completed in the English department at the University of Maryland, thinks that “a lot of students are looking for more things like this as a way to give themselves permission to do digital work, and/or to convince advisers to support them in doing digital work.”

Cameron Blevins, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the history department at Rutgers University, sees the guidelines as an important step in support of digital history. Blevins did his doctoral research in the Spatial History Project at Stanford University on the role of the US Postal Service in integrating the American West into the nation. While a large part of his research used computational methodologies—digitally mapping the spread of post offices across the West—he made a conscious choice to produce a traditional written dissertation. This was partly related to his reluctance to navigate the complexities of getting departmental and institutional approval for working in nontraditional ways—a burden he felt would have interfered with the labor involved in producing his first major work of historical scholarship. Given the range of work and training that contribute to successfully completing a dissertation, he says, “graduate students shouldn’t have to spend their time dealing with bureaucratic issues any more than is absolutely necessary.”

These added burdens create barriers, but having the guidance of approved criteria will relieve much of the onus from students. Sparing students this extra responsibility is vital since, as Leon puts it, “doing a digital dissertation is in no way a shortcut.” Creating institutional frameworks that encourage new approaches to scholarship means acknowledging and understanding the work that goes into digital methodologies. The GMU digital dissertation guidelines provide a framework for experimentation that retains history at its heart.

Seth Denbo is the AHA’s director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives. He tweets @seth_denbo.

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