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25 September 2011

Dude, where's my diss?

by John D. Muccigrosso

Part I, in which I search for my diss on-line

I've been reading my nice free e-copy of Hacking the Academy on my train ride to work lately. Among other things, it's gotten me to thinking about my own scholarship and the way in which it has been shared and sequestered. In this context the most prominent thing in my mind is my dissertation, a longish bit of writing that I spent several years in Ann Arbor working on. I have some vague memories of a title page with copyright language on it, but Hacking has prompted me to think harder about that...which led me to think a bit about the modern academic book.
Let me be clear up front: I don't have a book. I got tenure at an institution that—at the time—didn't require one, and my several articles and teaching and service were enough to get me the coveted title of "Associate Professor." Since my own tastes run more Callimachean than Homeric, that worked out well for me at the time.
But I do have some problems with the book. In a nutshell I think it's part of a mostly bankrupt system that has young scholars taking perfectly good pieces of academic writing, on which they spent years of hard work, and essentially saying these things were of such little value that they need to be worked over and turned into something else, something an academic press can sell (imagine!)...not that the young authors will see any direct gain from these sales.
There are too many examples of the warmed-over dissertation-cum-book for me to need to cite them. Any academic can surely name more than a few without much effort. Indeed there are entire series that are composed of such works (I'm looking at you, Oxford). Add to these the lightly revised articles bound together into a "new" book, the Festschrifts, the conference proceedings, and you've got a whole industry that revolves around books that aren't needed, at least not in that format. In my own research too, I've found precious few books that were influential on me. Instead I can easily point to well crafted articles that made their forceful points in fewer than 100 pages. I could add a bunch more reasons that depend on changes in technology, the history of books, and an improved functioning of academic publishing, but better to read that book I mentioned at the top.
So how does this fit with the topic at hand, my dissertation? Well, I've long been bothered by the way in which the many disses that are produced each year are more or less ignored, only to have the books that are based on them get all the attention, limited as even that may be in the end.
Were the disses that poor? I hope not, because that suggests that maybe we shouldn't have been given those Ph.D.s. Are the books that much better than the disses? Mostly, no, I'd say. So what's the deal? I think it's that we just like books. And by "we" I mean the whole industry of academe. (Again, Read the book!)
One roadblock to the further reading and use of dissertations, at least in the Humanities, is the difficulty in finding them. They don't get promoted by universities, unlike books by presses, and their authors are often looking to turn them into books, so they'd rather not see their own disses widely read. In fact it's an interesting profession that encourages its practitioners to ignore their first major piece of output.
But what about me? Since I didn't make mine into a book and I've just about given up on that movie deal, I'm happy to have more people read my own dissertation, so where is it? I figured I'd take a little time to try to find out. (And before I start, let me come more clean and say that I have written a few articles and given a few conference papers that are based on the work in my diss.)
I start by pulling out the diss (OK, the Word files) and find that title page. After convincing Word 2011 that it was OK to open such an old file, I see this little notice: "© John D. Muccigrosso All Rights Reserved 1998." Here's what it looks like on the page:
Very pretty, I think, and IIRC, all according the the then prevailing stylebook. To the sharing of said dissertation, that also seems good and right and fair: I own the copyright.
Next...what about that whole UMI thing? Academics will know UMI from experience: some vague entity that gets a copy of every dissertation made in the US. I'll try the obvious URL and sends me right to the ProQuest Microfilm vault, where surely my acid-free papers from back in the last century sit protected for the upcoming millennia. But what if someone wanted to read those pages now? I click to find out more info on the UMI project and get taken to the somewhat pristine ProQuest Support Center, where there's a link to Dissertation Products. Not quite the phrase I'd use, but there you are. Clicking that opens up several new options, which are not really helping me out. Let me try the FAQ.
Ah, there it is: How do I order a dissertation online? Seems they want me to log in, but I'll just try going through my library's, I'm in! Now a search for my whole name (you might think my last name is unique enough, but it turns out there's an unrelated, fairly prolific US historian with the same one, also in the wider NYC area). Yep, that'll do...and the diss is fairly high up in the list. (Unfortunately they're pumping the pdf through Flash, but most users probably have that beast installed, and there is an option to get the pdf directly.) The pdf itself is just a scan of the physical pages of my diss. No surprise, since what I sent them back in the last century was a copy printed on nice archival paper. Here's the only text that seems to be embedded in the pdf: Factional competition and monumental construction in mid-Republican Rome Muccigrosso, John D ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 1998; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses: The Humanities and Social Sciences Collection pg. n/a Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. That's the basic metadata (title, author, date, etc) along with ProQuest's info, and a copyright notice, all of which is presumably fairly nice for search engines, if they can ever get a look at the file behind the login.
So from start to finish that was a quick 10 minutes or so to come up with my dissertation. Not bad for the academic user who knows about me, UMI and has an institutional (or private) subscription to ProQuest's dissertation service, all of which leaves me with a few questions...which I'll start on in my next post.
Tags - DH