30 October 2008

[thesis decisions] multimedia, or traditional?

I'm about 63% decided that I'm going to do my thesis as some kind of multimedia web-based essay. The biggest reason? This thing is damn hard for me to write linearly.

Normally when I sit down to write about a topic I know pretty well, the ideas just kind of . . fall into place. Quotes know where they want to be, sections know where they want to be divided, and thoughts follow a natural progression. If this isn't happening for me, I know it's time to step back and learn a little more about the topic.

Yet, I know my thesis topic -- I've presented it at least four times -- and still, the ideas aren't falling into place. I've spent two weeks writing seven pages, a glacial pace even for me. I'm starting to think my problem is the topic itself. All the thinkers or poems I'm writing on are networked in weird ways -- for instance, Harsdörffer, Caramuel and Kuhlmann are all interested in Kabbalism, but there's no direct connection, no straight path from A to B, between them. Do I spend a few pages describing Kabbalism in the first section, then simply refer back to it? Or do I slowly unfold the tenants of Kabbalism as they become relevant?

I also want to pull in large chunks of text from other work (like some of Italo Calvino's novels), and do some close reading of unrelated artwork from the period. But . . how?

The case for doing something digital: I can pull together disparate but topically related elements together without explicitly making connections between them. Brueghel's Tower of Babel beside a description of Schottel's Adamic linguistic theories; a chunk of Leibniz's thesis describing the Denckring, beside Harsdörffer's own description of it. In this way, I can also connect close readings of digital poetry to some of the text generators, without making stupid analogies or overstating my case ("look, they both generate text, they're the same!"). I could maybe even pull in some video clips of digital poets talking about their work, alongside my own close reading of a seventeenth-century proteic poem. Lots of possibilities.

In my head, I see the screen split into two halves, almost like the leaves of an open book. Different links embedded within the text change one or the other side of the screen.

I think one of the best arguments for doing my thesis like this is that it enacts the same kind of relationship to language as the work I'm analyzing. In other words, I could take the idea of ars combinatoria seriously, breaking my thesis down into a collection of different "topics" that can be permuted (placed side by side, combined with different elements) to generate new meaning.

The downside? I won't have a good traditional writing sample for the (very traditional) PhD programs I'm applying to. But why should I care about that? I've got to live with this thing for another eight months; grad school apps will be done in December.

Okay, I may have just talked myself into this. At least, I'm up to about 85%.


peacay said...

First principles: What does your supervisor recommend? Or does your musing here indicate that it's all in your court?

Although it was constrained by its times and a tiny bit clunky, I saw a Masters thesis about 7 or 8 years ago on the Ulysses episode of The Sirens done as a multimedia presentation. I was so impressed I wrote a fawning email to the author - whose name escapes me - in praise of her work and was sent a cd of it. Alas, I don't think the cd is still around and last I recall only tidbits were in the waybackmachine.

But it sounds very similar to what you intend, except that it was popups rather than a double page spread as you describe. A lot of the text was hyperlinked and, for instance, you'd click on a word from an opera and you'd get a popup with song lyrics and another with a wav file of the music and maybe other refs pertaining to the same textual allusion &c. It was very well done within the confines of the then available browser and web abilities.

If you did it in the traditional way, wouldn't it be the same to just include the refs as appendices? And isn't a thesis usually aimed at a peer audience who ought to be at least partly familiar with the material? Seems to me that, unless a deep definition of kabbalah is salient to your line of argument, then you could provide a very minor overture and refer to the appendix.

But what do I know eh? My academic history, such as it was, was wholly within the science faculty, so feel free to disregard my thoughts ;- )

(I've been enjoying your feed for a couple of months now .. thanks!)

Whitney said...

Thanks for the thoughts, peacay -- of course, I'm a huge fan of BibliOdyssey!

My supervisor (and the department in general) encourages alternative formats. I think you've hit the problem exactly -- audience. I certainly don't want to give a Wikipedia-style definition of the different elements/topics, and leave _all_ the work of making connections up to the reader. The tricky part is (and already has been) describing each element, like Kabbalah, in the context of my work, without imposing _strong_ connections.

I've been thinking about this a lot this weekend and will post some mock-ups soon. Thanks again for the input, it's incredibly helpful.

Anonymous said...

Well I agree but I contemplate the brief should acquire more info then it has.

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