Delimitations of our Study

Delimitations of our Study

Laura: There has been little research conducted on the resistance to collaborative

dissertations in composition, and no research has been done that examines what happens

when two dissertating students in composition collaborate. As such, we have chosen to limit

the scope of our research to focus on doctoral dissertations in the field of composition within

the United States. Prior to collecting actual first-hand data, our scope has been shaped by

what we contend are some of the main reasons administrators are resistant to collaborative

dissertations. First, a model of solo-authored dissertations is already in place. It would not be

as efficient to modify the current model to meet a new approach to knowledge production.

Our cooperative dissertation, for example, has required us to work with our committee and

the graduate school to reshape the traditional dissertation process, from topic approval to

defense. Our process has included an in-person presentation with our graduate school dean to

argue why we needed to collaborate on our dissertation, a prolonged negotiation about how

we divide authorship credit throughout our dissertation texts, and multiple conversations

about whether or not we can share our work together or present alone at the required threechapter

meeting and dissertation defense. Along the way, we were required to create “two

paper trails” for all of the paperwork we have submitted, ranging from our dissertation

proposals to our protocols for the Institutional Review Board. We provide this information

not to serve as a complaint about our situated dissertation process. Rather, we aim to point

out how our graduate school, doctoral program, and dissertation committee worked with us

through a nontraditional dissertation process to approve and support our study. In fact, we

value the primary, experiential data that has emerged from our dissertation process—

primarily because this data shows how we encountered and responded to hierarchical

resistance. At times, we felt as if the traditional dissertation process forced us to “jump

through hoops” to get a degree as opposed to a meaningful capstone to a doctoral education.

In her chapter “Why Write a Dissertation?” Marsha Lee Holmes comments:

At my alma mater, two myths of a dissertations’ purpose send mixed messages to

graduate students in composition and rhetoric. One myth says that the best

dissertation is a done dissertation (no matter how good it is) while the other insists

that the best dissertation is a published dissertation (no matter what good it does). In

such a setting doctoral students write to ‘get it done’ or to ‘get it published’— and

since publication depends on completion, either myth indicates that getting it done is

more important than what gets done. (2002, p. 119)

Sabatino: Holmes’ anecdotal argument about how doctoral students at her alma mater are

asked to either write a “done dissertation” or a “published dissertation,” points to a

worldview of dissertations that privileges completion over quality. We contend that a “done”

or “published” dissertation still assumes a high level of quality; however, throughout our

doctoral work, countless times we were told, “Just get it done,” and one scholar went so far

as to say one should not remain an “indentured servant to the institution” any longer than

needed to (in other words just fold and do what is expected to make our lives easier). When

we have received such advice, we never thought the implication was to write a dissertation

without purpose or rigor. We give merit to the advice that people provided us. We understand

that at times, those cautioning us were attempting to protect us from the systematic politics

that frame a dissertation. Still, we have never viewed the purpose of our writing—especially

in the genre of dissertation writing—through a “get it done” lens. We agree with Holmes

(2002) that if composition students write dissertations with a “get it done” mentality, they are

not “applying the very best of what’s to be learned in their discipline—connections between

word and world, process and product, means and end—[thus] they abandon what they’ve

learned in this, the final act of student writing” (p. 120). Thus far, we have rejected this

mentality and have instead opted to challenge the status quo, even at the risk of incompletion.

Laura: As two researchers writing cooperative dissertation texts, we contend all

writing emerges from social and collaborative meaning-making activities as we build upon

prior research, voices, and ideas; this worldview subverts the competitive model of education

that privileges the individual. Amy Goodburn and Carrie Shively Leverenz (2002) echo these

thoughts when they share how as graduate students situated “within an institutional structure

forcing [them] to compete” they used collaboration to “diffuse competitive feelings” among

themselves as well as to “struggle against the forces that threaten collaborative work” (p.

130). Goodburn and Leverenz assert “a system based on the primacy of individual ambition

will succeed only as individuals buy into the system” thus, it takes a “collaborative effort to

change the system, especially when what [they] want to change are the constraints against

collaboration (p. 130). The dissertation is typically the ultimate individual accomplishment of

a student’s academic career, but collectively we believe that we can change the system to

make it more open to the potential of collaboration at the dissertation level as well. In the

context of a collaborative dissertation, Goodburn and Leverenz contend:

…there is the philosophical argument that language, knowledge-making, and text

production are inevitably social and collaborative processes so we might as well

make the process explicit rather than hidden. Patricia Sullivan (1994) points to the

dissertation in particular as a site on this inevitable collaboration: ‘The

institutional contexts that frame and circumscribe the processes of the writer

locate the dissertation in a social context that is fundamentally collaborative. The

author of the text literally writes the text with others’ (p. 25, emphasis in original). (p.


Sabatino: We hope our cooperative dissertations make explicit the social nature of our

meaning-making processes as we explore the material realities of co-constructing a

dissertation within a degree-awarding system that seems conflicted about what it means to

collaborate on a dissertation. We feel that a collaborative approach has great potential to

expand knowledge.

Implications of our Study

Laura: Based on our review of the literature, a study such as this has not been done

previously in the humanities. Actually examining the source of resistance to collaboration in

dissertations would allow those in positions of institutional power to make more informed

decisions about allowing or denying graduate students the opportunity to collaborate on

dissertations. When we asked to write a fully collaborative dissertation, we were met with

resistance that was not, in our opinions, supported with strong evidence in the face of

scholarship on the benefits of collaboration. When Day and Eodice attempted to co-author

their dissertation in 1997, they too hoped to demonstrate that there was value in collaborative

dissertations—but they were not allowed to do so either. Day stated in her solo-authored

dissertation that she had hoped to, “understand why, if well-respected names in our field have

asserted that the time has come for collaborative dissertations, such a dissertation has yet to

materialize in the humanities and is in fact still forbidden” (Day, 1999, p. 13). We argue that

without context-specific data to inform such decisions—graduate students should no longer

be denied the opportunity to write a collaborative dissertation.

Collaborative: Our dissertation study would also serve as a means of opening the

academic conversation for others to continue researching collaboration among dissertating

students. In Kami Day’s dissertation published in 1999 at our own graduate institution, she

quoted a personal correspondence with Lisa Ede, who said, “If we can just get two or three

precedent-setting dissertations, we will have a great breakthrough, I believe” (cited in Day,

1999, p. 79). Two or three precedent-setting dissertations have not yet been written in the

sixteen years since this correspondence; in fact, not one collaborative dissertation in our field

has been written in those sixteen years. Sullivan (1994) attests that it is in the very nature of a

graduate program to train its students to be able to “undertake independent investigations” (p.

13) that ultimately lead to a dissertation. She nevertheless comments: “This formulation,

however, belies the inherently social nature of the dissertation as both a discursive event and

artifact. As a genre, a process of inquiry, and a rite of passage, the dissertation might more

properly be described as a work of collaborative scholarship” (p. 13).

Sabatino: Perhaps Sullivan uses the word ‘process’ and not ‘processes’ because the

field of composition privileges one standard dissertation process. Of course, each inquiry has

limited space to challenge the standard process—there are minor permutations such as using

a different lens, perhaps, or adding an extra chapter outside of the traditional five chapters—

but in the end the process is essentially standardized. We wonder if the academic and

departmental bureaucracy (availability of dissertation chairs to read the work, IRB approval

to protect research participants and the institution, the material mechanics of assessing the

research, etc.) of dissertation research has entrenched our dissertating processes into a single

approved-upon process. In other words, how many gatekeepers hold true to the process of

solo-authored dissertations because they value independent research as a true right of

passage—and how much of their steadfastness to independent dissertating belongs to the

naturalized idea that “this is how it has always been done”—and so it shall remain this way.

Collaborative: We understand our cooperative dissertation study disrupts the

traditional process of writing a dissertation—and that we are placing even more

responsibility and work upon our dissertation committee, our English department, and our

graduate school by attempting to publish cooperative dissertation texts. We appreciate how

these people have worked with us to construct a space for our study. We trust that our fellow

composition scholars will continue to value the importance of constructing flexible

frameworks that protect non-traditional research and “original” contributions to the field. We

also trust that our study points to the progressive and open nature of an ever-evolving field of

composition and its scholars. We are excited to critique our dissertation data to see what


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