The GC's First Digital Dissertation: Q&A with Jesse Merandy

Ph.D. student Jesse Merandy (English) will soon be completing the GC’s first entirely digital dissertation — a mobile game based on Walt Whitman.

Developed in consultation with his advisor, Professor Matthew K. Gold (English/Liberal Studies), the project encompasses no print or PDF components, signaling a departure from the traditional dissertation form.
Merandy, the director of Bard Graduate Center's Digital Media Lab, recently sat with 365 Fifth to discuss why he took an all-digital approach, and how the GC was instrumental in making it happen.
How does this dissertation work? Are a player’s results part of the project?
Merandy: For my particular game, users travel to locations in Brooklyn Heights connected to Walt Whitman in order to save his seminal work, Leaves of Grass, from a villainous organization determined to eradicate it from humankind’s collective memory. Throughout the game, users learn about Whitman’s life, work, and historic context and are prompted to write and record their experiences in order to complete the game.
I am working on methods to create a lasting record of these in-game compositions. However, it is not my intention to include or analyze them as a part of my dissertation; the development of this project is primarily to investigate the use of mobile devices as a tool to explore our dynamic relationship between place and our modern composing methods.
My project is built on the mobile gaming platform ARIS which was developed at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. ARIS allows you to build location-based narratives that exploit the geolocation functionality of mobile devices through a downloaded app. The game’s narrative unfolds for users through the app interface as they approach preset destinations which trigger events, conversations, and activities.
In that respect, is this dissertation considered collaborative or interactive?
I don’t think I would consider my dissertation collaborative or interactive, even though there are elements of interactivity in the project. The actual dissertation itself is actually much closer to a traditional scholarly work aside from the presentation.
Why did you decide to do an all-digital dissertation?
Undertaking a digital humanities project for my dissertation was actually the natural outcome of my website design and development experience, coupled with my scholarly work and interests. I began exploring the ways I could utilize my technical skillset in academic work during my master’s studies at Rutgers-Camden, where I redeveloped the online presence for The Mickle Street Review, a Walt Whitman and American Studies journal.
This undertaking became the subject of my master’s thesis and the foundation for my interest in Walt Whitman and the emerging ways that scholarship could be presented and reimagined in an online space. I looked to continue pursuing this direction in my doctoral studies, which led me to the Graduate Center and the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program (ITP).
Through the ITP program, I was able to build a theoretical background and methodology for implementing new technologies as teaching, learning, and research tools, while also receiving the mentorship, support, and feedback necessary to develop an early prototype of my dissertation.

How do you plan to preserve or store the dissertation, if there is no print or even PDF component?
I have been working with the head of my dissertation committee, Matt Gold, as well as Stephen Klein (left), the GC’s digital services librarian, to find a suitable solution to preserve my dissertation. There are two parts to this preservation: the actual mobile game and the textual component of the dissertation which includes the theoretical foundation of the project, reflection on the development process, and technical documentation.
For the project portion, we are going to preserve a snapshot of the code used for the gaming platform and the mobile app the project is built on. In addition, we will preserve any additional elements connected to the game including a game companion site built on Wordpress. This repository should allow for future recreation of the project if necessary. I will also produce a video documenting the game experience in real-time which will provide a more holistic sense of the project in action.
Finally, I will be modeling the textual portion of my submission on Amanda Visconti’s digital dissertation, Infinite Ulysses, which she produced at the University of Maryland. This includes the creation of a digital white paper, which is essentially a basic website used to cull the disparate elements of the project together in one central location.

The written elements will be available for download as a PDF; however, within the white paper they will be linked to each of the project’s elements, effectively creating a scholarly ecosystem. Ultimately, it is this cluster of elements that will be archived together as my dissertation.

What was Professor Gold’s role in helping you to shape the project?
One of the most difficult balancing acts in the process of undertaking a Digital Humanities project for my dissertation has been allowing the experimental nature of my project to flourish while also producing a rigorous scholarly work that meets the criteria of the program and institution.

Matt (right) has been crucial in creating a space for that dichotomy to materialize. He has also been a champion in advocating for the acceptance of digital-born and hybrid scholarly works at the Graduate Center.
Matt’s own scholarly work and activity, as well as his involvement in the Digital Humanities community, has also been instrumental in addressing the unique challenges we face within the context of the larger ongoing conversation concerning digital scholarly projects and publications in higher education. 

Submitted on: FEB 9, 2016

Category: General GC News