Summer of Research, Part I

The Lean Dissertation

This summer I am beginning to work in earnest on my dissertation. The years of course work and exams are done, completed, passed and past. The experience is an odd combination of freeing and overwhelming, as many who have hit this stage before me have commented.

In an effort to get started on this dissertation thing, I am working first on a “chapter” analyzing Kellogg and the ways he and those associated with him applied the Seventh-day Adventist vision of health and salvation at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. While “chapter” is the standard way to refer to sections of dissertations, and so is useful, it is a bit misleading. For many dissertations, each chapter is a smaller argument that contributes to the argument of the whole, an essential building block in the construction of the historical narrative.

But this dissertation is a little bit different. In my dissertation prospectus, I proposed a digital project, one that uses computational methods and that investigates alternative, digital, modes of presenting historical interpretations. While all academic work is iterative, in that as one researches and writes, the ideas become clearer and the argument is refined, this sort of project requires an even more intentionally iterative approach. Rather than waiting to release a finished – and most likely large and complex – system, I am adopting the pattern of Lean development – building, measuring, and learning – and plan to move through smaller iterations of the project, testing my hypotheses against the data and against reader feedback as I go.

This means organizing my work in terms of questions and hypotheses that get to the core of my project. Rather than developing a segment of the argument or processing a set of sources, each “chapter” is instead a microcosm of the dissertation as a whole: a chance to test my hypotheses and to prove myself wrong. By setting up multiple experiments or “chapters”, I can refine the thesis while also building and testing aspects of the argument. And for all this testing to be useful, it also means that I have to be willing to pivot, to change approaches and let go of ideas that are less successful.

If this sounds like generally good academic practice, wonderful! However, too often the perceived expectations of the university make it difficult to take the risk of releasing as one goes, of investing in strains of thought that might not pan out. The impulse instead is to keep ones ideas and work close until they are “perfect,” out of fear of being “scooped” or being wrong. If, however, one begins with the assumptions that “ALL models are wrong” and that ideas are best developed when exposed to multiple inputs and lines of criticism, then it becomes valuable to test ones assumptions and approaches frequently.

And so, as part of this processes, I will be using the blog for a couple of aspects of the testing. First, I will be blogging about the technical work I am doing as a way of opening up and sharing my digital methodologies, both as a check on my work and as a resource for others. Second, I will be using the blog to share some of the interface components as I develop on them, as a way to test their usefulness before integrating them into a larger argument. And, hopefully, by the beginning of the fall semester, there will be another tab in the top nav to a first iteration of my dissertation project. I invite you to follow along and to offer comments, criticism, and suggestions as the project develops!