What happens when you invite the public to review your messy dissertation drafts?

About four months ago, I launched #SocialDiss, an experimental project in which I’ve committed to “socializing” every chapter of my dissertation draft on a variety of publishing platforms. In late February, I posted the working introduction to a public Google Doc, and over the next few weeks, announced its presence on Twitter, Facebook and a few emails to friends and colleagues.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would actually engage with it. I was halfway hoping no one would.

However, I had long ago committed to the project as part of my praxis-oriented research in networked academic publics. And after writing my dissertation nearly three thousand miles away from the academic community I developed in graduate school, I was relieved to finally give this creation of solitude a bit of air. Already juggling an exciting, but demanding full-time job, writing the dissertation had come to feel like a barrier between myself and the living.

The introduction I posted was far from perfect, perhaps even cringe-worthy at times. But that was the point. I wanted to push against the crippling fear of being judged for imperfect writing and imperfect thoughts. Why should only perfect writers have publishing communities, especially when such perfection demands quantities of free time that are often unavailable to working Ph.D. students and candidates such as myself? What if we evaluated knowledge production not only by its content, but by the communities and social practices we built in the process?

Of course, given this scarcity of free time in academic life, I didn’t expect that anyone would donate their own small scraps of it to engage with my developing piece.

Imagine my surprise then when during the weeks following my announcement I received 125 comments from eleven different individuals, ranging from close colleagues to folks I had only briefly connected with over Twitter at prior conferences. In addition, the project spawned multiple backchannel connections and encounters, where folks opted to give me feedback over coffee or email, or connected me with other scholars whose perspectives helped enlighten mine. Hundreds more clicked on links related to the project, and suddenly friends and colleagues were full of deeply-encouraging appreciation about the project. The professional generosity I encountered during these weeks was humbling, and kept my spirits afloat when other challenges made the journey feel all but impossible.

But the comments also happened to be intellectual gold. Altogether, they represented one of the most wide-ranging and in-depth conversations I’ve ever had about my dissertation topic, and were loaded with information and perspective that simply could not be found in research alone. I am still, months later, trying to digest the rich set of criticism, related anecdotes, conceptual suggestions, and text recommendations offered by the commenters. They offered everything from tips on my choice of language, personal experiences with computers in higher education in the early 1980sand Usenet, their reading notes posted on Github on the transformation of science as a pastime to a profession in the 19th and 20th century, the potential relevance of Derrida’s notion of “pro-gram,” and jokes! One of the author’s that I engage with in the piece (Scott Dexter, who co-authored one of my all-time favorite books on the politics of software, Decoding Liberation), engages right back. There is even a two-part, nearly 1,000-word thread debating the difference between “programming” and “scripting,” with a passionate discussion of the rather obscure Emacs text editor between folks that hadn’t met outside of the Google Doc comment section (part 1 and part 2).

My commenters also gently pointed out grammatical errors, logical oversights, and places where the clarity could be improved. And somehow it didn’t hurt. They were still there after all.

I am skeptical that the posting of my next chapter will have equal effect. The type of engagement my commenters demonstrated was incredibly generous and would likely be impossible to carry out very frequently. But I will continue the experiment all the same, posting my chapters and reflections on various platforms simply to see what happens. I have also tried to pay my commenters’ generosity forward by providing peer review on five different articles and chapters in the past four months.

All in all, the effect of the first installment of #SocialDiss has been exhilarating, inspiring, and challenging. The feedback I’ve received from both my commenters and my committee has helped me set about revising the structure and approach of the entire dissertation.

It will be a vastly improved project. And my professional and collegial connections have deepened in the process. But it also means that the project is not yet ready to release me back to the land of the living. And so in the meantime, I’m grateful for a little conviviality in the margins.

(Cross-posted on Medium)