Dissertations dominate the lives of doctoral students. A PhD candidate spends years researching, writing, and editing his or her dissertation, inching toward the day when the whole process is finished. Finally, he or she can leave behind the nagging designation “ABD” (All But Dissertation) and breathe a sigh of relief. The dissertation is done.
And then ... nobody reads it.
Well, a few people will read it: advisors, potential employers, and maybe a couple of curious family members who wonder what the many years of graduate school have yielded. But the people who should be first in line to get a copy—other graduate students and scholars—might not even know of the dissertation’s existence. If they do, they will still most likely wait for the work to come out in book form, five to ten years down the line, before reading it. In some respects, this makes sense: books have been thoroughly edited and are generally much more pleasant to read than dissertations, which tend to be highly academic and dense. However, paying more attention to new books than new dissertations means that there’s a lag in academia, a window of time between dissertation and book (and keep in mind that not all dissertations become books, for various reasons) when the young scholar’s work is known to only a small circle of advisors and colleagues.
Stanford University professor Tom Mullaney, a historian of modern China, is trying to diminish that lag through an ambitious project, the Dissertations Reviews website. Launched in 2010 as Chinese History Dissertation Reviews, the site has expanded quickly and now includes sections on Japan, Korean, and Science Studies, with plans to add another ten fields later in 2012. Mullaney and four Field Editors work together to identify recently defended dissertations, then match those with suitable reviewers (who range from ABD graduate students to junior faculty). The reviewer prepares a non-critical evaluation of the dissertation, which is posted at the Dissertation Reviews website, as well as a private review letter with suggestions for revision sent directly to the dissertation’s author. The rationale behind only publishing friendly reviews, Mullaney explained, is the recognition that a dissertation is still a work in progress, the first draft of the book manuscript to come. “They’re not books, they’re not finished products, and therefore they shouldn’t be treated as finished products,” he said, so the manner in which they are presented to the public needs to be different from the type of book review one would expect to find in an academic journal.
A quick glance at the China section of the Dissertation Reviews website reveals the wide range of topics that doctoral students have tackled in recent years. While the anti-capitalist ideology of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party has long been taken at face value, for example, Christopher Leighton’s dissertation on “Capitalists, Cadres, and Culture in 1950s China” explores the surprising integration of capitalists into Shanghai’s post-1949 socialist government. The Ming-Qing transition period is a familiar topic to all who have gone through a graduate seminar in Chinese history, but Ying Zhang is the first to bring gender analysis into the discussion through her work on “Politics and Morality during the Ming-Qing Dynastic Transition, 1570-1670.” While many of the dissertations reviewed share a focus on Buddhism, they differ greatly in the specific topics under discussion: adaptations of the Buddha’s biographies; Buddhist scientists in early-twentieth-century China; the ties between Buddhist monks and local rulers during the tenth century; and Buddhist activism in Shanghai during the Republican era. And the history of public health in Mao’s China—something that has barely been touched by scholars to date—receives thorough treatment in Miriam Gross’s dissertation, “Chasing Snails: Anti-Schistosomiasis Campaigns in the People’s Republic of China.”
By focusing the site on recently defended dissertations, Mullaney and the other Dissertation Reviews editors hope to widen the circle of scholarship that current graduate students relate their own work to as they develop dissertation projects. Students often think of themselves primarily as consumers of books, but Mullaney points out that academic publishing suffers from a “false now,” created by the lengthy process of researching, writing, and editing a monograph. By the time a book hits the shelves, he explains, “What is ‘now’ to the academic consumer is often ‘then’ to the author.” So for graduate students learning to regard themselves as fellow producers of scholarship, not just consumers, sitting back and waiting for new publications to appear cannot be enough. Instead, they must find ways to keep abreast of the latest research in their fields.
Dissertation Reviews helps spread the word, and Mullaney has already heard of new collaborative relationships and conference panels that have developed as junior colleagues become aware of each other’s research through the site. For dissertation authors, having their work appear at Dissertation Reviews can also prove beneficial as they move toward producing a book manuscript; comments from reviewers are intended to help authors refine their dissertations and prepare them for publication.
Ultimately, Mullaney and the other Dissertation Reviews editors hope to bring the dissertation out of its hiding spot in university archives and encourage both graduate students and faculty to spend more time thinking about the place of dissertations in academia. And if their site succeeds, they’ll offer new doctoral recipients a welcome gift: an audience of readers for that dissertation that was so long in the making.