The Media and the Message: Doing a Dissertation in the Digital Age

by Jack Tsonis

Emily Bailey’s recent piece on the pedagogical challenges that surround new technologies got me thinking about another aspect of scholarship and technology, one that I have often reflected on over my four years as a doctoral student: how fundamentally the internet has shaped the breadth of my research ambitions, and how much it is reconfiguring old disciplinary boundaries.

Let me begin by putting it like this: Over the last four years, in which I have written draft chapter upon draft chapter, read book upon book and article upon article, I have stepped into the library only about 6 times. Compared to generations past, this is surely a remarkable fact. How on earth, they might wonder, could someone possibly complete a dissertation that not only has hundreds of items in the bibliography but also traverses multiple disciplinary domains (including anthropology, sociology, communications history, the history of comparative religion, theology, and evolutionary studies)–how could this person never set foot a library and still produce work of acceptable doctoral quality?

My answer is fourfold: Gigapedia, Google Scholar, Archive.org, and AbeBooks. Sadly Gigapedia no longer exists, although I certainly appreciate the need for publishers to remain financially viable; I hence have a strong ambivalence regarding pirated scholarship. (This post is not the place to explore that issue, but we will ideally find models that permit open-access to all forms of scholarship). Suffice it here to say that I discovered Gigapedia about 6 months before it shut down, and I was frenzied in my downloading. If I needed a book on esoterism, I wound up with 12. Et cetera. Admittedly many of the books remain unopened documents, but I am surprised by how many unexpectedly come in handy, and how easily I am able to legitimately flesh out a reference on, say, cognitive science and religion, without having to leave my chair.

Google Scholar is at least as remarkable, if not more so. Even when I started my undergraduate degree in 2004, I would have to spend time locating journals on library shelves and then photocopying the relevant article; whereas now a simple search, when connected to a network with the appropriate database subscriptions, will bring up virtually any article one needs to find–and often others that are also relevant but would never have been found in the old book-on-shelf system. This has also led to a mass of unopened documents strewn across my poorly organized digital folders; but again, many of the articles become extremely useful at unexpected moments.

Archive.org is similarly revolutionary. Holding a vast repository of out-of-copyright material, I have been able to locate virtually every major work I needed from the sixteenth through to the early twentieth century relevant to the history of comparative religion, without ever having to leave my desk. While I may have gotten lucky here (many works are missing from the database), the mere fact that it is possible at all speaks of a new era in accessing information.

But the final prong is my most exploited–the purchasing of cheap second-hand books online, mainly via the wonderful channel of AbeBooks. Basically, my approach has been that if I need a book for a point I’m making in the dissertation, I don’t borrow it, I buy it. This may sound exorbitant, but I have not been on anything more than a student wage over the last 4 years. Quite frankly, I don’t know how I’ve afforded it, but I’ve bought hundreds upon hundreds of books in recent years and am well on the way to a genuine home library.

Aside from the aesthetic pleasure gained from books, I like owning them for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t have to hand them back. Not only can I use them at my own pace when researching, but when I need to return to them in the writing stages, I don’t need to leave my office. It’s a glorious feeling when your home study contains virtually every book you need to write a chapter. Secondly, I can write in them. Many people literally shudder at the thought of writing in their books, which is understandable. But I find that it helps me not only to engage in and dwell on the material as I read it, but–more importantly–when I come back to it, I have a plethora of useful annotations, cross-references, and distillations peppered throughout. (And as I always tell my students, “take notes while you read or you’ll forgot all those useful thoughts you had!”).

It is because of these things that going to the library has been almost entirely unnecessary. Partly I was driven into this behaviour because my university library does not contain many books that I needed; partly it is because I like the materiality of books; partly it is because I am drawn to big questions that I want to pursue well beyond my dissertation, so I’m preparing for that now.

But I think that my habits are related to more than just aesthetics and convenience, and that they reflect a deeper structural transformation that is taking place within academic scholarship–particularly with regard to the rapidly increasing porosity between disciplinary boundaries that during the twentieth century had become so rigid. In other words, the internet is fuelling new intellectual synergies that are reshaping the way that scholars ask questions.

Everybody can see the transformative power of the internet, so my point is hardly original. But I tend to think about this issue through the lens of one of my biggest intellectual influences: namely the work of people such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong on the fundamental role played by communications media in shaping what one might loosely call “the flow of culture”. This is plainly evident if you look at any period in history that follows the invention of new technologies of communication–think speech, writing, typographic print, electric telecomms, and now digital telecomms.

So when I reflect on my own behaviours, I think that McLuhan’s provocatively oversimplified aphorism that “the medium is the message” is on point: work produced using the medium of computers connected to the internet will slowly but surely reshape the disciplinary boundaries that were inherent in the twentieth-century “hardcopy” mediasphere. With such a massive database of knowledge so readily at hand, there are fewer excuses for not positioning one’s work within larger networks of scholarship. Certainly I have felt this pressure, hence why my research into the nineteenth-century baggage that lingers in the pluralistic “world religions” paradigm has been drawn out across the various fields I mentioned above.

While this represents a terrifying intensification of that anxious syndrome whereby you want to read everything relevant to your research (a haunting impossibility I’m sure we all experience), it also represents an exciting period in academia when new forms of intellectual cross-fertilization are possible that were simply unthinkable even only a generation ago.

For good or ill, Gutenberg’s invention changed the world. Similarly, while I am by no means rosy-eyed about the possibilities inherent in digital networks and computer technology, my radically new experience of writing a dissertation is at least an interesting example of just how profoundly things change when we find new ways to communicate with each other.

Jack Tsonis is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney. His dissertation is called Don’t Say All Religions Are Equal Unless You Really Mean It: A Critical Analysis of the Pluralist Theory of Religions, which examines the way in which the pluralistic world religions paradigm of the twentieth century remains structured to an important degree by the assumptions of nineteenth-century colonial discourse, specifically focusing on John Hick as an instantiation of this problem. His research areas include the history of scholarship on religion in the west, communications history and media theory, and evolutionary paradigms for the long-term history of cultural change.

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