Non-traditional theses becoming new tradition for Faculty of Graduate Studies

FEATURED image Research theses
Syrus Marcus Ware
Syrus Marcus Ware

Twenty 12-foot by five-foot graphite portraits of disabled arts activists in Canada form part of the dissertation that recently earned Syrus Marcus Ware his PhD from York University.

Accompanying the portraits are an exegesis of scholarly articles about critical race theory and reflections on disabled arts in Canada. His work is titled Irresistible Revolution, something he believes disabled artists are creating through their work.

Ware’s non-traditional approach to his dissertation is becoming more common across Canada. A 2018 report by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies promoted rethinking the dissertation, and the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) at York has picked up the baton and run with it, creating its own task force to explore ways of easing the way for different approaches.

“We want to minimize any obstacles in their [students’] paths and consider how best to ensure that the research infrastructure is in place to support them,” said FGS Associate Dean, Academic, Mark Hayward. “There has been an implied preference for text on pages for historical reasons, but that may not be the appropriate means for allowing the strength of a scholar’s work to be captured.”

Illustrations from Syrus Marcus Ware PhD dissertation
Images from Syrus Marcus Ware’s PhD thesis. From left, portraits of Thandi Young, Josh Vettivelu and Queen Tite. Image courtesy of Syrus Marcus Ware

Charlotte Henay, a recent PhD graduate in humanities, now an assistant professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University, is eager to see such flexibility become ubiquitous, infusing all of York’s graduate programs.

“Research is an inquiry-based process and should be open to form and format,” Henay said. “You may not know what form the work will take until you engage with it. That needs to show up in practice, as opposed to faculty members having predetermined expectations – and support of different approaches should begin early in the PhD process.”

Charlotte Henay
Charlotte Henay

Henay’s own dissertation is titled All of My Peoples’ Bones Are Here: Talking to the Dead as Poesis for Afro-Indigenous Futurities, and it comprises poetics, the ready-made avant-garde and hypertext in an interdisciplinary process Henay calls mash-up methodology. Her research encompasses co-creation and reciprocity and also employs memorying, the “active process of talking and relating to the dead as a way of reimagining reality.”

“I knew my work was going to be a creative product, and remained committed to this throughout,” Henay said.

A tradition of support for non-traditional theses is what attracted Ware, an artist, scholar and assistant professor at McMaster University, to York’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC) as the home for his graduate studies.

“I knew EUC had attracted artists in the past and would offer me an opportunity to do arts-based work,” Ware said.

Being receptive to non-traditional theses is increasingly important, said Kean Birch, associate professor and graduate program director for the Science & Technology Studies program, because only 40 per cent of graduate students go into academia, so their dissertations need not be geared toward that end.

“There are alternate ways of doing and presenting research that help graduate students get jobs and pursue careers outside of academia,” Birch said. “There is lots of opportunity to do theses with more practical applications that will be useful in non-academic careers.”

Another reason is that, as singer Bob Dylan would say, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

Kean Birch
Kean Birch

“There is more of an opportunity to do different things, partly due to technology, partly due to society,” Birch said. “For example, graduate students may create graphic novels or fictional narratives based on their research.”

Hayward agreed, noting, “As an institution, we want to support innovation. We need to value different kinds of experience and expertise that can go into a dissertation.

“Expanding how we think about dissertations across the University fits well with the already established structures of graduate education. That a committee of faculty members, rather than just an individual, provides support to a student, is a way of ensuring that multiple voices contribute advice to a student as they develop their research. If we recognize the value of a diversity of perspectives in the development of a project, we should equally value the full diversity of outcomes that might arise as part of research.

“Programs at the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) have been doing this for a long time,” he added, “so I hope, in the coming years, the University can expand dialogue in this area, building on that experience. For instance, we need to consider how we’ll support non-traditional work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and how non-traditional work might affect PhD examinations.”

Once a dissertation is prepared in a non-traditional format, preservation and long-term storage also becomes an issue. York Libraries preserves a copy and has an agreement with Library and Archives Canada to retain a copy, too. Text-based dissertations in PDF format take up much less storage space than artwork or film, for example, said Anna St. Onge, director of digital scholarship infrastructure for York Libraries.

“We’ll be having conversations about preservation, because some of these products are so complex,” she said, “but we at York want to celebrate and foster non-traditional approaches, encourage innovation and have bold topics.

“There is already so much great work being done by AMPD; as an institution, we’re trying to keep up with scholars’ creativity.”

For graduating students who hope to parlay their dissertations into performances, exhibitions or book contracts, subject to clearance by FGS, St. Onge and her colleagues can store the work under embargo so that it is preserved but not public for a period of time.

“When dissertations are stored in York Space, students don’t realize how public it becomes,” she said. “Their work immediately shows up in Google searches. It makes the audience global.”

Hayward and FGS are determined to reduce obstacles students may encounter when submitting final projects at the master’s and PhD levels that involve multiple forms of media.

“We want to move away from a place where students are afraid to ask about producing non-traditional work because they fear the University’s answer will be ‘no’ to a place where we can have conversations about what the possibilities are.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer, Innovatus