From Building a Dissertation to Helping Build Others’ Projects

Editor’s Note: Ethnomusicology Review Editor In Chief Alex W. Rodriguez is participating in the roundtable presentation “Ethnomusicological Perspectives on Open Access Publication” at the upcoming Society for Ethnomusicology meeting in Pittsburgh, alongside Darren MuellerGuthrie RamseyJustin SchellWendy Hsu, and James Cowdery. Over the next few weeks, Sounding Board will post a short position paper by each participant. Please join us at 10:45 am on Thursday, Nov. 13, to further discuss these pieces.

Two facets of contemporary scholarship, multi modality and open access, play a role in two different areas of my scholarly life: one, my own work about diasporic hip-hop and, two, my work as a Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Fellow at the University of Minnesota Libraries. Here I help lead the Digital Arts Sciences + Humanities (DASH) program, which seeks to foster research and pedagogical projects utilizing emerging digital methodologies such as mapping, data visualization, data and text mining, 3D design and printing, crowdsourcing, and more. 

My background wasn’t conventionally in ethnomusicology, having received my PhD in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program at the University of Minnesota, although I took a number of ethnomusicology courses as part of my degree. (I also have an undergrad degree in Musicology where I worked with Gillian Rodger at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.) In fact, I’ve only come to open access with my own scholarship relatively recently, starting with my dissertation. However, I did work as a journalist throughout my PhD, writing music criticism for both online newspapers as well as the Walker Art Center, a well-known contemporary art museum in Minneapolis. After finishing my exams, I had intentions of writing a conventional dissertation, albeit one that was informed by the more “popular” voice that I had developed through my journalistic work. 

The push to make my dissertation both multimedia and open access only came about after starting to work with video more, and realizing that I wanted to make a documentary film as well as write a dissertation. While knowing that a documentary can do certain things a dissertation cannot (and vice versa) I knew that some sort of hybrid written text incorporating various pieces of media was necessary. However, not wanting to relegate this media into an accompanying CD or DVD necessitated a web presence. I chose Google Sites for my dissertation, because of its relative ease-of-use and practical features, such as its automatic conversion of Microsoft Word footnotes to endnotes. Furthermore, it wasn’t that much different in form from a conventional dissertation (discrete and linear chapters that followed one another in a logical form). 

After finishing my dissertation, I began a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Academic Libraries through the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). As part of my work with (DASH) a the University of Minnesota, part of my job is to help students and faculty explore new models and modes of publishing, both as part of their research and their teaching. In collaboration with other Libraries staff, including metadata specialists, copyright specialists, and others, this work can take the form of a open access online journals and monographs, accompanying websites for academic projects with various forms of media, digital exhibitions using Omeka, multimodal platforms like Scalar, and much more. 

I often use my own dissertation as an example for graduate students interested in pursuing alternative or multimodal forms for their dissertation or, more generally, for faculty who want to explore different publication platforms. It allows me to give someone a tangible example of questions like data management, long-term digital preservation, and what consequences (good or bad) have come about from publishing my dissertation online and on its own, rather than with a conventional (or even unconventional) publisher. 

Most of these consultations (and eventual projects) involve some combination of consulting about the aspects of someone’s project, what platform might be best, and developing a workflow for a project. Sometimes this involves active building on my part, while others its showing the basic overview of a platform and then providing support as needed as the student builds their project. 

Whatever my role, I most often strive for this multimodal content to be open and, since much of this involves media of various kinds, thinking about things like fair use, Creative Commons, and digital preservation. The goal, in the end, is to help that person create a project, be it part of a single class or something as large as a dissertation, that will not only reach audiences in a different way (and, most likely, reach different audiences) than a conventional printed text, but that it will not become a victim of dead links, bit rot, and other forms of digital degradation.


Justin Schell is a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and head of the Digital Arts Sciences + Humanities program at the University of Minnesota Libraries as a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow. He received his PhD from Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. His first documentary, Travel in Spirals, tells the powerful story of Hmong hip-hop artist Tou SaiKo Lee's journey back to Thailand, 30 years after he was born in a refugee camp there. He's in the final stages of post-production on his first-full length documentary, We Rock the Long Distance, which weaves the story of Lee along with two other artists as they travel from Minnesota to their original homes of Ghana, Thailand, and Puerto Rico, while complicating the very idea of home in the process. His video work has been shown in the Walker Art Center, TPT, and online at the Huffington Post and the Progressive and screened in the Twin Cities Film Fest, Twin Cities Underground Film Festival, and the Qhia Dab Neeg Hmong Film Festival. 


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