The Wired Tower and the Digitally Collaborative Thesis

11 April, 2005

Right now, I'm in the middle of reading an inspiring text book. Philip Greenspun is a long standing <a href="http://www.mit.edu"MIT denizen, a leading advocate for the construction of web-based communities, and the author of Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing (which is what I'm reading) as well as Software Engineering for Internet Applications, the only college level computer science text book on building web applications. I had never heard of him before listening to Doug Kaye's recent rebroadcast of an IT Conversation featuring Greenspun last night on the walk to work. It included some inspiring talk, since the ever-casual Greenspun built Photo.net, an online community with a quarter of a million users, by accident in something like 1994 to answer questions arising from the photos which accompanied his online travelogue, Travels With Samantha. Also, since the stated purpose of his Software Engineering for Internet Applications course is to teach the student how to build Amazon.com by him or herself, his experience has some applications to the current process we're going through making version 2.0 of Music For Dozens.

Anyway, the point of this post, besides praising Greenspun, was to talk about an idea I had a while back of which his writing put me in mind. It's a good idea, and one I'm now not entirely unqualified to try to execute. The background: at Reed College, my alma mater, every senior completes a senior thesis as part of the requirements for graduating. In most departments theses consist of an extended essay and research project, a kind of mini-dissertation. Mine was called "It's Not Just Academic: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Marketing of Genre". It is 231 pages long with four appendices and 25 illustrations. There's a copy of it sitting at the far right end of the shelf above my desk bound in blue hardback and a number more in my dad's closet in LA and others scattered with other relatives, friends and advisors. Plus, as part of submitting the thesis for graduation, the library gets two copies, one of which they display in the Thesis Tower and one of which they store.

Throughout college, I would often, when bored of the airless art history basement, find myself on the second level of the thesis tower thumbing through the shelves for interesting or, especially, old theses. I remember looking through a political science thesis that conducted structural analyses of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy and was written in 1936. I would always come back to an amazingly fat two volume physics thesis dated over an impossible five year time span in the late seventies that had something to do with the grinding of lenses and one of whose volumes consisted entirely of tables of numbers. I was fascinated by them and many others.

My idea is this: both the entire content of the Thesis Tower, every word of every thesis written by a Reed grad, and the entire thesis process should be brought online.

First, the existing theses: The Reed library catalogues theses by title, author, and major, but they don't enter them into the larger library system on any level. I don't think they go out for Orbis or Inter-Library Loan. Also, while it is very unlikely that I will pull a particular thesis off the shelf because of a sitation of it in a book I'm reading or a recommendation from a faculty member of other student (the normal things that drive people to academic books) the group of them, when taken together, consistute something of a powerful database of knowledge.

Since most theses are narrow and relatively expert monographs on a particular subject which passed through the rigorous editing of the thesis process (about which, more in a minute) they are proximally authoritative and information rich. If combined, their full texts would constitute a kind of searchable encyclopedia students, and anyone else with an interest, could access through the web. A music major writing a paper on Wagner could do a search on Parsifal and find every reference to it in every older music thesis as well as English theses and French theses on the original myths which constituted it and German theses on Wagner's role in the intellectual history of the third reich as well as theatre-lit and art history theses on Wagner's theatre, Bayreuth, and it's role in the performance culture of 20th Century Europe, etc. In addition to all of these references, the search could return a list of a all of the relevant sources cited in the footnotes and bibliographies of the theses that mentioned Wagner in order of their popularity and their most cited passages (giving the student a very concrete place to start their reading). The search could also provide a list of current Reed faculty who have advised theses that touched on Wagner and therefore might be sources of additional information. It wouldn't be difficult for these and other kinds of results to add up to the point where they constituted a pretty thorough overview of any topic searched for in the archive. Also and secondarily, having all Reed theses in a database would be a pretty useful tool for finding out what subjects Reedies are interested in, what books they're reading and citing, and just generally what kind of academic output they're producing.

What about the process of writing a thesis? Downstairs in our basement office right this minute, under my printer and scanner, I've got a stack of scratch paper about a foot-and-a-half high. Most of it is printouts leftover from the process of printing my thesis three years ago. It is different for everyone, but in my experience, the thesis process, especially in it's second semester was a constant back and forth between me and my advisor. Passing pages of chapters to her, getting feedback, putting in the changes, printing more pages, reading her scrawled comments in the margin, scrawling my own notes for revisions during our meetings. At the end, during the proofreading and last looks period many pages just got big X's through them to indicate that they were fine (no edit marks) and yet were not part of a finished print out.

Microsoft Word already offers the option of saving a file as html. It would not be difficult to offer students a central place they could upload html files of their theses where they could then make them public, or only available to their advisors (or any other faculty or students they asked to take a look) via a password protected login. The system could log reader comments and associate them with parts of the text, allowing the student to easily look at the most recent comments made by all of his various editors and to tell whether or not he'd already incorporated the changes (this would be especially helpful around the ends of the semesters when many departments conduct 'mini-orals' in the fall and then full oral defenses in the spring and students are often overwhelmed when receiving edited copies of their completed chapters from four or five readers all at once and finding themselves facing the prospect of rectifying those changes with each other as well as their existing text). The software could act as a node to collect citations and resources as the student came across them or as the advisor thought of them and do any manner of other things students and advisors might find helpful to the collaborative thesis project. Further, at the end of the school year, the system could provide a comprehensive log of the process, showing when major progress was made in writing new pages, what types of comments were the most helpful in creating big writing breakthroughs, what sources provided the most insight. This report would aid both self-evaluation on the advisor's part since it would provide concrete feedback on how their advice helped, and the thesis grading process which is meant to take into account the process the student underwent in completing the project as much as the project's inherent qualities themselves.

Obviously both of these projects have potentially valuable applications outside of Reed if they were well-developed there. Universities are going to be putting a lot of energy into digitizing their vast holdings of information in the coming years and beyond whatever value lies in the simple process of scanning the texts themselves, most of what's to be won or lost in this will come in the design of the interface for this information: what it makes accessible and how easily. Also, since the inception of the modern university, the best teaching tools professors have had available have been unoccupied offices and chalk fragments that somehow retained a useable size. Isn't it time we gave them something better?

Greenspun's two books are almost textbooks for completing projects like this one and they do a good job emphasizing their value. His vision of the web populated by sites that let people work together to share information and solve each other's problems is a compelling one and worth working towards. And the clarity with which he approaches the engineering problems involved makes them seem nearly trivial. If a twelve year old can write Amazon.com, surely all these college students, graduates and professors can find a way to work better together through the web.

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