Tips for Forming Your Dissertation Defense Committee

Image Credit: Randall Munroe

For many graduate students the dissertation defense committee is somewhat of a mystery. How many members must you have? Who should you ask to serve on your committee? How far ahead should you be preparing for this? To answer these questions I asked chairs from departments all across campus as well as DU’s Graduate Student Services team. They had some wonderful insights, advice, and explanations that I think will be extremely helpful for you all as you embark on this important task.

Consult Your Advisor

Ok, so you have different options and important components to consider when putting together your dissertation committee. Generally a Defense Committee Chair (non-voting) –> Dissertation Director (voting) –> and a minimum of two additional committee members (voting) comprise the dissertation committee. Dr. Valavanis, profess or in Electrical & Computer Engineering, states normally students typically select all three members from their college (two from the department and one from another unit within their college/school/other units, depending on the topic), and one external member (industry, other university) who is an expert in the area of the dissertation. Deciding on if that’s the path that you’ll go down, it’s important to first seek the advice of your advisor.

Department chair and associate professor in the Higher Education program, Dr. Gildersleeve, recommends that students should “always take their advisor/supervisor’s advice. S/he has done this before, and has a clearer idea of how the process can unfold.” For doctoral students in the Graduate School of Social Work program, Dr. Bender recommends that students in addition to one’s advisor, should also consult the Associate Dean. Dr. Hazel, department chair and associate professor in the Child, Family, and School Psychology program, echos this advice stating “your major advisor will be your primary resource and support. However, no one person will be able to advise you in all things, so considering the complementary skills that other faculty can bring to your committee is important.” When thinking about questions to ask your advisor, Communication Studies chair and associate professor, Dr. Foust, recommends that students ask about the “possible strengths that other committee members might bring to the project–for instance, if your advisor has a strong background in research methods, you might select a committee member who has research or experience relative to the theories or contexts with which you’re working.” It’s also important to consult your advisor before you start cold calling other faculty. Anthropology professor, Dr. Conyers, reminds us that advisees are a direct reflection of their advisor and it’s important that we go over all our dissertation details before moving onto the next step. Dr. Conyers prefers to be the one to recommend committee members and call in favors to find an outside chair, using it also as an opportunity to involve “someone who has not been involved in our department before, in the hope we can show others what we do here, and open up channels for future collaborations.”

Plan Ahead

While you definitely want to make sure you’re prepared before you start soliciting faculty members, you should start making connections with potential individuals in advance. Who knows, your future outside chair could be someone you met at DURAPS! One great way to do this is to take a class from a professor who has work in which you’re interested. Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor, Dr. Yi, states that taking a class from a professor allows them to gain specific knowledge and expertise in a student’s area and specialization, enabling them to reliably judge their performance. Dr. Foust points out that some faculty request that grad students have taken at least 1 class with them before they agree to serve on committees. She states that “this can also be helpful for locating mentorship beyond content-expertise (so students not only find a mentor who is an expert in your research area, but they might also find a second faculty mentor who nurtures them as a teacher, and a third faculty member with whom they talk about methodological concerns, etc.).”

Dr. Foust also points out that “getting to know many faculty members serves graduate students well during sabbaticals–remember that faculty members take time off for their research, so your ideal committee members might not be available at the exact right time.” Emily Kintigh and Dr. Clark, in Media Film in Journalism Studies, also found this to be an important consideration and suggest that students “lay out a realistic work plan with deadlines that take into account thesis committee members’ schedules during breaks, summer, sabbaticals, etc. Dr. Yi states that he is often “reluctant to select a professor from outside the department, who knows very little about engineering, but sometimes has to, especially in the summer time when it is difficult to find a faculty available on campus.

Strike the Perfect Balance

Ok, so you know that you need at least three voting committee members, but how do you choose? Dr. Gildersleeve, provided the following advice “balance your committee with expertise that will serve your project; a content area expert, a methodologist, and a theory expert. This group of experts is dedicated to making your project the best it can be. You want to make the most of the opportunity to have nationally recognized experts (like the DU Faculty) supporting your project.” Kimberly Bender states that for students in her department “the choice of members for the committee should be guided by the candidate’s need for consultation on substantive matters, research methods, and statistical analytic approaches. It is common for a student to form a committee by choosing one person with whom they have an established working relationship, one person who has special substantive knowledge related to the research topic, and one person who has special research methods or statistical knowledge congruent with the proposed dissertation research.” Dr. Davis, professor and chair of the English department, also finds that it’s important to choose an individual with whom a student has a working relationship, especially when selecting a committee director. Dr. Wilcots, former Associate Provost of the Office of Graduate Studies, recommends that any dissertation that draws upon a field of study outside of the discipline in which the degree is being offered have a defense committee that includes a faculty person from every field represented. For example Anthropology faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on the quality of a novel, and Higher Ed faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on a film.

Dr. Hazel points out that “in some institutions, how the faculty get along is a serious consideration for students in the selection of their committee members. In the Morgridge College of Education, we are fortunate that the faculty hold each other in high regard and I have never seen power struggles in dissertation committees. Therefore, students can and should consider solely the expertise that the faculty can bring to the committee in their selection. I hope this is true across all units, but would advise students to confirm this with their major advisor.”

The Dissertation Director

DU’s Student Services experts state that the dissertation director needs to be a tenured or tenure-track member of the candidate’s graduate program. It is the dissertation director’s responsibility to ensure that the student’s research meets appropriate academic standards for the discipline in which the degree is being conferred. Dr. Cutforth, chair and professor in the Research Methods and Statistics department, outlines the following considerations when selecting one’s director:

  • Consider their expertise, accessibility, quality of feedback, and personality: The dissertation director’s role includes assisting you in developing your topic of interest and ultimately approving it as a researchable topic, approving your committee members in consultation with you and determining their role in the dissertation process; reading every line, section, and chapter of your dissertation, and judging the quality of your dissertation and deciding when you’re ready to successfully defend it in your oral defense.
    • Their expertise: Your director should have expertise and interest in your topic area so that they can direct you to relevant literature sources, foresee challenges that you may encounter as you proceed with your study, guide your choice of data collection and analysis procedures, and be thoroughly invested in your work.
    • Their accessibility: Your director should be able to give you the time you need to complete your project. Factors to consider include whether their own research or speaking engagements take them off campus for large periods of time, whether they are likely to be on sabbatical or family leave during your dissertation process, whether they are on numerous other dissertation projects, and whether they are available during the summer. All these factors influence the amount of time they will be able to provide to you.
    • Their quality of feedback: Your director provides quality control for your dissertation and decides when you can send chapters to your committee and when you’re ready for the final oral defense. Find out from other students whether s/he is respected for reading, critiquing, and returning drafts promptly (i.e., within 2 weeks except during busy periods like grading, vacation, and other deadlines). A director who provides specific and detailed feedback rather than vague comments will ensure that you are well prepared for your proposal and final oral defense.
    • Their personality: You will be working closely with your dissertation director so you should choose someone with whom you get on well. Do you want a director who closely monitors each phase of your work and tells you exactly what has to be done at each step, or would you rather have a director who lets you progress on your own and to finish a complete draft of the project before turning it in? Most directors fall somewhere between these two extremes. They also differ in the manner in which they provide feedback. Ideally you want someone who is direct and kind in critiquing your work but who ultimately will ensure that your study meets your department’s, college’s, and university’s standards.

Outside Chair(s)

The outside chair is a tenured member of the DU faculty from outside of the student’s department or discipline whose role is to provide a non-specialist’s perspective on the quality of the dissertation.

Dr. Gildersleeve encourages grad students not to be afraid to reach out to faculty members, even if you don’t know them very well or at all yet. “Make an appointment and share your ideas/project with us. If it fits within our scholarly agendas, we will be just as excited about supporting your project as you are.” Dr. Hazel discusses her experience stating that she’s “worked with outside chairs that have content expertise in the dissertation study and those that are from disciplines that had no relationship to the dissertation. In all cases, I have found the outside chairs to be engaged and thoughtful in their leadership of the dissertation defense. In other words, if you don’t know a faculty member outside your unit with expertise in your study, worry not! You will still have a faculty member who is dedicated to the process, who has read your dissertation and will ask thoughtful questions, and who will make sure that your defense proceeds in compliance with University policies.” Dr. Davis advises that outside chairs ideally should come from a discipline that is related to the project, but that students can also ask their committee members to suggest people they think might be interested in the topic. Often times, one’s dissertation director assists with choosing an outside chair. Dr. Cutforth states that  dissertation directors “will likely know faculty whose research is connected to your dissertation and/or those who enjoy being outside chair of dissertations in your college.”

So there you have it. The DU Defense Committee in a nutshell. As you begin on this process I recommend that you also read this article from Inside Higher Ed “Dealing With the Committee” for more logistical advice. If you have any comments/thoughts feel free to add them in the comments. Good luck with creating your dissertation defense committee in the coming months!

Books and Bottles: Parenthood in Academe- Adrienne Martinez’ Experience

Guest post by Adrienne Martinez, MSW; Director of GSSW’s Student & Career Services; Higher Education PhD student in DU’s Morgridge College of Education

As I reflect on my experience as a doctoral student, I am confronted with memories of remarkable achievement, deep struggle, and, of course, the infamous self-doubt. The most indelible memory, for obvious reasons, was the day I went into labor.

Nine months prior, I walked into a faculty member’s office to share the news that I was dropping her class. I simply could not fathom mustering up the energy to complete the course. I did not doubt my ability under usual circumstances, but this was anything but usual. Before pregnancy, I could thrive comfortably with six hours of sleep. I was undoubtedly busy while working full-time and enrolled in two courses but suddenly, I found myself slipping into a deep slumber almost immediately after I returned home from work. Unlike before, I allowed myself to sleep when my body told me I was tired. I was now responsible for another’s well-being and development, both of which required that I take better care of myself.

My faculty member’s response was not one I expected. I entered the room with shame and disappointment to share the news that I had to drop the course. She spoke to me with compassion, support, and in confidence. I always admired her ability to engage her classes in critical discussion and with an inclusive pedagogy, but her ability to support and encourage me in that moment is what I have carried with me since. Whether knowingly or not, she provided the space for me to be vulnerable and learn from her both as a faculty member and as a mother.

The remainder of the academic year was mostly a blur. Taking the stairs in Katherine Ruffato Hall became increasingly difficult as the days passed.  My backpack made me almost perfectly spherical for most of winter and all of spring quarter. I learned how to conduct a comparison analysis using SPSS, a chi square test by hand, and was pressured most by learning the difference between an infant and a convertible car seat. To be honest, the latter caused the most trepidation. As I conducted an analysis of variance tests on imaginary data, I also prepared for what I knew would be life-changing. What I didn’t know is that all of my preconceived plans of how I would find a new life balance was not <.05.

When I started my doctorate, I knew I was interested in access to postsecondary opportunity for historically excluded and underrepresented students. A more specific research interest was emerging and was strengthened each quarter. In my dissertation, I intend to explore the ways in which teen parents experience secondary education and the factors that illuminate a pathway to and through college for such students.

My new identity as a mother nuanced my understanding of my dissertation topic. I was not a teen parent and cannot truly understand the complexity, pressure, and achievement of the experience. My understanding of parenthood may look quite different than those whose stories will inform my research. My struggles are saturated with both privilege and responsibility.  I am educated and have the opportunity to pursue a terminal degree. I am in a very stable financial situation. I have an incredible partner who assumes many of the household and parenting tasks; sometimes equally, other times he bares more weight. And with that, I have the strength and support to pursue this degree and, thus, elevate the experiences that are often disregarded in academia – both in the research and in practice.

Often times I question why I’m still doing this and why I choose to struggle almost every day of every quarter. And on those days of questioning, I remember who I have to support me, who has been there to guide me, and who has yet to follow me. It will be me who has the degree and those three little letters after my name. But it will not be me who achieved it solely. I am indebted to my partner and my son for their daily encouragement and support. To my parents who help with childcare on a weekly basis. My aunt who cares for my son daily and other aunts who help with care when I’m in class. My brothers and cousins who unknowingly provide a space for my self-care through laughter and jokes. This has not been done alone and I will achieve because of them.

I am most certainly not the only person to both raise a child and family while pursuing a terminal degree. Though this experience has been the most challenging balance of my life and has been incredibly isolating, it has also reminded me that I’m part of a larger community that is just as resolved to see me finish this degree as I am to earn it.

Creative PhD Dissertations: Are Universities Closed Minded?

So I’ve been thinking about this topic of creative dissertations for a while… I am a 3rd year PhD candidate studying Research Methods and Statistics, which is housed in DU’s Morgridge College of Education, and being more of a “trans-discipline” this topic probably comes up every year in one class or another. And it’s not just my program that this concept is being examined. The field of education relies on the fusion/intermixing of a variety of knowledge branches, which has resulted in a growing expectation of flexibility/creativity when it comes to dissertation composition. Performance, art, and text that surpasses the confines of 1″ margins are gaining attention in a variety of academic fields and are being discussed in many graduate classrooms. However, while we learn about alternative methods of knowledge dissemination that go beyond a “text-centric” view of communication, we also need to consider why we’re choosing to utilize these more novel methods and techniques.

Within this debate some have argued that a more creative approach is often hindered by the glacial speeds of academia, involving individuals who are slow to take action and allow for more creativity. Recently a research team from Harvard and Northwestern sought to test out the idea of proposing innovative work within the science fields. Interestingly, the researchers found that “highly novel research proposals were being systematically rejected, receiving worse ratings than those with only moderate novelty” (Matthews, 2016). The authors state that this is due to the amount of creativity the reviewers are able to understand cognitively. One of the authors, Dr. Riedl, defines this concept as “bounded rationality,” which is the inability to “look across and beyond the knowledge frontier” (Matthews, 2016). He concludes that these findings are particularly concerning given the fact that this bias can affect the proposals that do and do not receive funding.

I think this is an important finding to explore in the debate surrounding flexibility with dissertation composition/presentation. In order to gain a more in-depth picture of this discussion I sat down with Drs. Barbara Wilcots, Ryan Gildersleeve, and Bernadette Calafell. They provided insights into this debate and I learned that it isn’t a binary, black or white situation. I came into this dialogue with a more simplistic “us vs them” mindset, thinking that writing a dissertation that doesn’t look like a bound tome was something that graduate offices just needed to get on board with. I rationalized that this reticence was because chapters and textual contributions are much easier to regulate and measure than performances and art installations. What I learned is that, like most things, this topic is complex and multifaceted, requiring us to use both critical and reflexive lenses when we make our academic decisions regarding dissertations.

Substitute vs Supplement

One debate that has arisen when students propose a more creative approach to their dissertations is that of substitute versus supplement. Some graduate offices have agreed to allow students more creative license with their dissertations if they produce both a written product as well as a less tangible supplement such as a video, performance, art installation, etc., with the latter used to enhance the researcher’s message/point. One of Dr. Calafell’s students chose the “performance as supplement” option and created a powerful dissertation about the oral histories of Chicano men in Denver that included a written portion as well as a performance of those experiences after submission. However, some individuals feel that this “double work” isn’t fair and that more offices need to move past their “bounded rationality” and allow students to perform or present their dissertation without the written component. While many institutions are choosing to compromise by offering the “supplement” options, others are starting become more flexible. For example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article featured A.D. Carson, a Clemson University PhD student and activist who defended his dissertation in rap. Rather than submitting a written thesis/dissertation, “Carson created a 34-track rap album entitled ‘Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions‘” (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

Dr. Calafell also mentioned that some of her students are incorporating performative writing to fuse together the two substitute/supplement approaches. For example, one of her former advisees, Wanda Lakota, wrote a script for her dissertation. Her endeavor started as a documentary but evolved into a film script that focused on her brother’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia (watch a digital story by Wanda called Betsy Bug). Dr. Calafell also incorporated this approach by poetically crafting her own dissertation, “Towards a Latina/o Politics of Affect: Remembering Malintzin Tenépal.” This technique can be used in a variety of ways, including poetically transcribing interviews in a way that emulates spoken speech or writing a personal narrative. If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself or learning more, one resource Dr. Calafell recommends is the performance studies journal Liminalities. Liminalities is a digital journal that lets scholars publish textual performance, experimental art, and film among other mediums.

Dr. Calafell admits that unfortunately these culturally ingrained options are still stuck on the page and expressed that PhD students should have additional materials available to them such as black box theater. She opined that text-centric approaches and requirements could potentially stem from our desire to “make our mark” on society; a physical trace that’s focused on individuality rather than communality. Dr. Gildersleeve concurs, stating that text is not the only way to represent theory and institutions’ text-centric mindset is a result of dismissing long traditions and histories of research methods that are performance based. He states that text-centricity centralizes privilege, white supremacy, and patriarchy. However, he doesn’t completely write off this approach stating that it’s the deployment that matters. He also asserts that the form and medium/media should be dictated by the methodological traditions in the field and not by administration.

Complicating this viewpoint, is the argument that this approach opens doors for appropriation. Academics, in their fervor to create something fresh and innovative, could misrepresent these methods and the cultures that created them. Over our history, scholars have been criticized for their disregard for the cultures that they’re studying. It makes me think of the situation with Dr. Carolyn Ellis’ research of the fisher folk communities on the Chesapeake Bay. She wrote her dissertation and book on, what has been considered by others, as an unflattering representation of a group of Guinea watermen that turned her from a “beloved outsider and frequent guest into a traitor” (Allen). Charlotte Allen points out that this instance “illustrates the degree to which the profession is caught in an uneasy bind between fulfilling research objectives and honoring ethical obligations.” Similarly, the same problem can arise when methods are used by non-local outsiders. Dr. Wilcots aptly points out she would have difficulty accepting a rap dissertation from someone who wasn’t from the culture that created, knowing nothing about its history for its creators, but rather seeking a fun, creative way to present their subject.

Deciding on the Appropriate Medium

One critical point to address when considering non-print dissertations, is the fact when you adopt a non-textual approach, it’s difficult to demonstrate whether or not it effectively represents the acquisition of expertise in a field. I think that’s what makes this whole debate so difficult to tackle; if we don’t have standards that we can actually measure how can we differentiate between a PhD and professional degrees such as an MFA or a JD? This concept of measurement and being able to properly evaluate accuracy, thoroughness, etc., comes with a wide range of opinions. Dr. Wilcots, former associate provost of DU’s Office of Graduate Studies, states that one reason universities require a standard in the case of dissertations is so they are able to provide evidence for the PhD credential. She reminds us that the word credential originates from the word credence and when one earns a PhD they are receiving a title that certifies their knowledge and tells others that there is credence to what they have to say about a topic. It is because we function in this system of credentialing that we are required to demonstrate our expertise in a prescribed manner. That’s why individuals pursuing an MFA degree are able to create a novel and PhD students are required to produce a dissertation. Dr. Wilcots also states that one of the problems with this debate is the fact that the concept of a dissertation isn’t properly defined in the first place. Since we’re lacking a structured explanation of what a dissertation is, it’s extremely hard to argue how it should be shaped and changed.

Dr. Calafell’s answer to this discussion is that performance, which involves a lot of theory, can be just as effectively measured as written work. She contends that performance itself can be the final product, due to representations of social, political, and cultural-critical perspectives. Dr. Soyini Madison, Performance Studies professor at Northwestern, has written extensively on this topic (one great article is Performing Theory/Embodied Writing). Dr. Calafell outlined 6 types of rigor related to the proper evaluation performance based scholarship:

  1. Interrogation of one’s own positionality
  2. Experiencing emotional labor that can’t be quantified
  3. Constantly revising- performance is fluid
  4. Staging/audiencing
  5. Interlocuting- She states that the best part often comes after the performance, during the discussion
  6. Placing concern on the process

Dr. Gildersleeve states that individuals in applied fields like education should be pulling from other approaches outside of social science due to its interdisciplinary nature. He asserts that education should become transdisciplinary, seeking a more pluralistic approach that is similar to Anthropology’s multi-methodological use of discourse analysis. For example, the aforementioned A.D. Carson’s “work included a timeline of social movements on campus, a blog, music videos, transcribed lyrics, and a peek into his compositional process. At his defense, he performed four of his songs and showed one music video” (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

However, when we do decide to utilize mediums and approaches outside our field we need to ensure that we’re not just borrowing from the creative writing, performance studies, etc fields that created those methods but properly investigating and critically applying them. Dr. Wilcots states that not doing so dismisses the fields that produced those techniques and reduces them to a mode of communication rather than a field of study. Anyone can write a novel, pick up a camera and make a film, or compose a script. Nothing about those methods require what Dr. Wilcots describes as “an understanding and artistry of that genre.” She argues that what we need to be focusing on in this discussion is interdisciplinary presentations of knowledge. She states that “at the core of interdisciplinarity is understanding both fields of study, which takes time, effort, and a respect for all fields and disciplines represented in the scholarly work.” That certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be pushing for more creativity with our chosen mediums, but Dr. Wilcots states it does indicate that we need to be able to show that we’re not just a “tourist in the field,” borrowing what we need without proper knowledge or expertise to support that decision. It’s for this very reason that she recommends that any dissertation that draws upon a field of study outside of the discipline in which the degree is being offered have a defense committee that includes a faculty person from every field represented. For example Anthropology faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on the quality of a novel, and Higher Ed faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on a film.

Getting “Buy-In”

You need both faculty and administrative buy-in when it comes to pitching a creative dissertation. Dr. Wilcots states that while academics do need to shift the conversation and redefine research, PhD students need to be communicating how their more creative or alternative medium is germane to the discipline that they are trying to advance in their dissertations. She recommends that students desiring the experiment with alternative approaches demonstrate how the creative component reflects the theory when discussing their ideas with administrators. In other words, you should be answering questions like “How is this novel format or art installation advancing knowledge in my field? What makes a novel/performance/script more effective than a traditional textual dissertation? She acknowledges that there is room in higher education for more creativity but states that imagination needs to have a purpose when it comes to dissertations/theses. As was discussed in the previous section, as long as we function within the system of credentialing we need to find ways in which to properly represent the associated levels of knowledge and theory advancement that are required. Dr. Wilcots denoted the importance of being able to distinguish between professional degrees, such as an MFA, JD, etc., and research degrees, such as a PhD. With individuals holding the latter claiming to discover new knowledge in a field, things get complicated when their scholarly products become indistinguishable with those who are focused on the practice of a profession. To add to this complexity Dr. Gildersleeve points out that not all PhDs go into academia and institutions need to adapt to this shift as well. Additionally, Dr. Calafell claims that often times, departments are receptive to exploring new ways of communication, but unfortunately expectations are still very traditional at the national level (which likely comes from the unacknowledged biases of people in power).

Moving Forward

These discussions are percolating at institutions across the country. It’s important for us to continue to have these conversations and facilitate a dialogue that surpasses elitist knowledge and celebrates alternative methods of communication that go beyond prescribed textual formats. It is difficult for administrators to understand what they don’t know, and as doctoral students we should be working to expand and shape the definition of our degree and the products expected from it. We just need to also ensure that during these discussions we are also critical and reflexive about our methodological decisions. Dr. Wilcots suggests that one way to advance this conversation is to publish papers and present these issues at conferences, stating that the more we talk about these issues the more likely we’ll gain broader acceptance. “Paradigm shifts take time, and it’s important that we’re realistic in our proposals and reasonable with our requests.”

There are some universities that are starting to experiment outside of textual dissertations. For example, you have the aforementioned student at Clemson who submitted a dissertation in rap, Iowa State which is allowing visual ethnography such as participant and researcher photography and photo essays as ways to represent knowledge, and the University of London where PhD candidate Lucy Harrison was able to build a musical fort for her PhD. Nevertheless, I think that together as a PhD community we can be doing more to advance this agenda. At the very least we could pitch it to universities as a great PR move on their part. After all, PhD candidates who are thinking outside the box are getting featured in major publications. But I think the real onus is for us as PhDs to 1) explore alternative methods and techniques of knowledge representation, 2) be reflexive about those choices (Why are using performance, art, etc. over text? Is it essential to our production of new knowledge and advancement of theory?), and 3) present our choices in a cohesive, relevant, and understandable way to faculty and administrators. Dr. Gildersleeve believes that we need to innovate traditionally used methodologies and push boundaries from philosophically sound foundations. He claims that academics need to accept alternative versions of knowledge representation in order to stay relevant. With that thought I’d like to leave you with A.D. Carson’s words from his dissertation as inspiration for those who want to push boundaries in the cloistered confines of the ivory tower:

“Kweli said ‘I speak at schools a lot because people say I’m intelligent, no it’s cause I’m dope, if I was wack I’d be irrelevant.’ …This world of academia, however we want to describe it…is that world not ready for that dope in its uncut form? Can the scholars not just create or speak through hip hop as opposed to having it mixed with something else in order for it to be acceptable? We already know that people can experience and talk about rap without having someone else filtering it… I don’t think there should really be that much of a problem with me doing the scholarship that we call hip hop through rap, it shouldn’t be a problem” (A.D. Carson).

Resources/Reading List

Dunford, C. M. (2009). Deploying nature: A performance ethnography of community gardens, gardeners and urban change in a Chicago neighborhood. Northwestern University.

Lakota, W. (2013, May 22). Betsy Bug. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Carson, A.D. (2016, Sept 11). A.D. Carson: Owning My Masters Dissertation Intro. [Video File]. Retrieved from 

Madison, D. S. (1999). Performing theory/embodied writing. Text and Performance Quarterly, 19(2), 107-124.

Pasque, P., Carducci, R., Kuntz, A., & Gildersleeve, R. (2012). Qualitative Inquiry for Equity in Higher Education: Methodological Innovations, Implications, and Interventions: AEHE, Volume 37, Number 6 (Vol. 164). John Wiley & Sons. (specifically chapters 2 & 3)

Introducing the Grad Lounge: DU’s Newest Open Work Space for Grad Students

Welcome to DU’s new open work space for graduate students, The Grad Lounge. The Grad Lounge is open from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm every Monday through Friday and is located inside the Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence suite in Driscoll North. The space was just created this quarter for DU graduate students and provides an area to work on the many projects that seem to take so much longer than anticipated. Today I sat down for a chat with Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence’s Assistant Director of Graduate Student Programs, Sujie Kim, to learn more about this new resource. Happy reading!

Open Work Space Just for Grad Students

Graduate students are often criticized for their tendencies to sequester themselves during their time in school. While alone-time is definitely vital for any scholar, it’s also important to get out one’s lab/cubicle/desk periodically. The Grad Lounge is a perfect opportunity for that, providing not only an open work space to get that dissertation chapter started, but also a space for our graduate community to write together. Additionally, it can be used as a convenient spot to relax, unwind, or just kill time before a class/meeting. The lounge is equipped with items to support every graduate student’s cognitive needs including tables, couches, writing supplies, a fridge, a microwave and even Play Dough, fidget spinners, and peppermints (which have been shown to help with mental recall)!

Drop In Writing Assistance

Prefer more low-key, graduate focused writing support? Need to talk to a writing center consultant but have your kids with you? The Writing Center can help! The Writing Center will be offering drop-in consultations every quarter right in the lounge. Sujie explained that what’s great about these sessions is the fact that they are flexible and can be made to fit graduate students’ diverse writing needs. Unlike the traditional 45-minute sessions that are offered in the Anderson Academic Commons, these drop-in hours can be more customized. Advanced graduate consultants are available to talk with you about ideas for a paper, help you refine arguments, and working on later-stage revising and editing. The Writing Center also now offers online scheduling that can be made for sessions in the AAC or Grad Lounge (current hours in the grad lounge have ended for the fall quarter but will resume in the winter). Once you’ve created an account, the system will also send you reminders the day of your scheduled appointments, allow you to register for workshops, and add you to an automated wait list if you cannot get an appointment at your preferred time. In the future the Grad Lounge will also be offering accountability and writing groups for graduate students.

Mental Health Support

Graduate life can take a toll on you, both mentally and physically. To help combat the mental stresses that students pursuing post-baccalaureate goals encounter, Sujie coordinates Grad Chat and Wellness Wednesdays. Grad Chat offers the opportunity for graduate students of color to talk and engage around mental health topics over a meal. This fall the monthly sessions included stress management and care and medication management. Sujie explained that each meeting is facilitated by a mental health expert such as the Health and Counseling Center’s postdoctoral fellow (who helped with the stress management session) and a psychiatrist (who facilitated the medication management session). Wellness Wednesdays is a another opportunity for students to make time for self-care during the quarter. Wellness Wednesdays is a weekly program that currently provides coffee, snacks and de-stress activities. Future programming will include yoga, wellness workshops, mindfulness and meditation, and massage.

So next time you’re traversing Driscoll Bridge to get out of the cold and snow be sure to drop in at the Grad Lounge! If you have any questions or would like to utilize the space for an upcoming meeting feel free to email Sujie (currently, the Black Graduate Student AssociationGraduate Women’s Council, and Latino/a Graduate Association, hold regular meetings in the lounge). Happy writing!

Tips for Landing a Postdoc Position: Insights from Hiring Faculty Members

The postdoc application process can be confusing to navigate for many PhD students. Deciding on what institution is the best fit, how you can set yourself apart from other candidates, and even identifying what postdoc positions are available can be tricky. To help you navigate this process, I decided to get some perspectives from the other side of the hiring process by asking some Sié Center faculty members about their thoughts and recommendations regarding the whole the process.

Finding the Right Fit

Before you start emailing faculty and  submitting applications, Sié Center director Dr. Avant recommends that along with salary and research support that each position will offer, applicants should consider the term, location, and job responsibilities for the position in which they’re interested. Where would you be willing to move for a short period of time? (Postdocs, at least in the social sciences, are generally for 1-2 years.) Are the responsibilities compatible with what you want to do? What does the position require? (Most postdocs require some writing and research; some also require participation in activities or research.) Specifically, at the Sié Center Dr. Avant states that the faculty are looking for high quality research, but also for research that reflects a broad view of global security issues and is directed toward contemporary problems: “We are specifically looking for students who want to engage with global politics as well as study it.”

According to Dr. Kaplan, who was a postdoc for two years at Stanford and Princeton, the nature of postdocs varies widely across different schools—some positions are with individual faculty, while some are with broader departments, and others are attached to research centers or projects. A benefit of being attached to a particular project or center is being more closely tied to a research community, which can be helpful since postdocs can fall through the cracks between grad students and faculty, and may have trouble connecting with an academic community. However, he states that a trade-off (if one can term it that) to that attachment is that the center- or project-based postdocs may spend more time on group projects relative to their own research; but this can also be mutually beneficial, since group projects offer postdocs the opportunity to learn new skills and methods, and develop substantive areas of expertise.

Conducting Your Job Search

You should be ready to apply for a desired position approximately six months to a year beforehand. Dr. Avant recommends that students also start looking at postdoc positions they might be interested in before that period so they are ready to apply when the time comes. “From a practical perspective, it might be a good idea to apply for postdocs and jobs at the same time in order to manage your time more efficiently.” Sié Center postdoc, Dr. Kelsey Norman, applied widely for postdocs and jobs. She recommends letting other academics (in your department or elsewhere) know that you’re on the job market. “This can help you discover jobs that aren’t circulated widely enough, as well as aid in your ability to learn about opportunities as new position announcement get released.”

C.V.s and Publications

When updating your resume/CV make sure that it’s clear and jargon free. Dr. Avant states that “applicants who communicate clearly and take the time to think about what their audience will want to know are highly advantaged.” Now, in regard to publications, Dr. Sisk’s advice is to “publish, publish, publish.” He advises potential postdocs to thoughtfully weigh the short-term monetary benefits of adjunct teaching (which universities will always have a need for) with the gains (such as getting hired and promoted) against longer term trajectories that come from a focus on publishing. He states that while he “would never have a blanket advice of ‘don’t make money,’ postdocs will likely have less time to take material to publication once the teaching, committee service, and other obligations of assistant professorship crowd in. ” Dr. Avant supports Dr. Sisk’s recommendation, asserting that more and more students are publishing in graduate school, making it increasingly important for interested applicants to have publications. However, she also says that “a very interesting project and strong recommendations from esteemed faculty about the worth of the project can sometimes outweigh the publication component.”

Hopefully this is helpful as you start your postdoc search. If you have any suggestions please feel free to add them in the comments section!

Award Winning Database is Revolutionizing the World of Data Access on Social Conflict One Incident at a Time

Data on social conflict now comes in a clean, flat, .csv file with any number of IV/DV combinations ripe for the picking (or analyzing) thanks to Dr. Cullen Hendrix’s  collaborative endeavor with researchers at the University of Denver and from the University of North Texas. Nearly a decade since its inception, the Social Conflict Analysis Database (SCAD) project was given the 2017 J. David Singer Data Innovation Award by American Political Science Association for being this year’s “best data contribution to the study of any and all forms of political conflict” (APSA). Today, researchers have the opportunity to combine, juxtapose, and differentiate information on nearly 20,000 social conflict events in Africa and Latin America with approximately 50 attributes per episode (think of the statistical power!).

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the co-parents of this brainchild, Dr. Cullen Hendrix, to learn more about this nationally recognized achievement.  Dr. Hendrix is a professor at the Josef Korbel School for International Studies and researcher at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. His current work “focuses on the political and economic consequences of environmental degradation and climate change for peace, security, and stability in the developing world, with a particular emphasis on Africa.” (About). During my conversation with Dr. Hendrix I was specifically excited to learn about the involvement of DU graduate students on this project!

Database Background

The SCAD project was conceptualized in 2008 and officially released in 2011. It serves as a resource for exploring various forms of social and political unrest in Africa and Latin America that are not covered in traditional datasets (think smaller-scale events such as protests, strikes, and riots). Information is aggregated via media reports from LexisNexis and manually coded into the database by a team of researchers. The project provides a robust repository for researchers seeking to explore a variety of different avenues of inquiry surrounding global social conflict. This year new variables were added which include information on women’s participation, gender, and sexual identity. Funding was provided for the first six years by the U.S. Department of Defense and is now being supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

An Open Environment for the Public Good

In academia, it’s an unfortunate reality that data is often hoarded by researchers in order to avoid getting scooped by competing scholars. In creating SCAD, Dr. Hendrix, Dr. Salehyan, et al. took a risk; they chose to make data available as soon as it was cleaned and ready for analysis. While there was definitely the possibility for researchers to get the jump on Dr. Hendrix with this approach, he stated that it actually turned out to be an effective way to drive interest to the data project and resulted in some really fascinating research. Many of these contributions have moved far beyond the contribution of the SCAD database and demonstrated what can happen when you tear down the firewalls surrounding data and open it for use toward enhancing the public good. SCAD data underpins analysis on topics ranging from the effects of cell phones on violence to the role winning national team football matches has on ethnic self-identification.

DU Student Involvement

One exciting aspect of this project being housed at DU is the fact that Korbel students have the opportunity not just to gain a great education about world affairs, but also attain applied data oriented skills that give them competitive edge when they hit the job market (and including your involvement on a grant funded internationally recognized project on your CV isn’t too shabby either). Skills in data management and content knowledge have provided a springboard for DU students to market themselves after graduation. For example, Richa Bhatia, who is now an analyst with the US Department of Defense, reports that as a DOD Minerva Project funded endeavor, SCAD helped get her foot in the door for interviews with potential federal government employers.

Additionally, one can really gain some intimate knowledge of a region when their combing through media coverage of social conflict events in that area. So as students are analyzing, coding, and managing data, they’re also gaining deep substantive knowledge on a social conflict in a specific geographic location. To enhance the somewhat tedious task of culling and entering information, those involved in the project have the opportunity to bid on countries that they find interesting and/or relevant to their area of research. One of the first coders on the SCAD project, Jennifer Williams, who’s now the Deputy Foreign Editor at Vox, had the chance to code data for Egypt. This comprehensive content culling for SCAD provided fertile ground on which to grow her knowledge for her honors thesis: “External Financing and Extremist Group Viability: A Human Capital Perspective on Egypt’s Al-Gama’a and Islamic Jihad.”

PhD candidate and former Sié Center research fellow, Jonathan Pinckney, worked on SCAD both as a coder – reading newswire articles and transforming the information in them into lines of data – and as a supervisor – managing the work of the student research assistants and troubleshooting day-to-day problems in the coding process. For him the best parts about working on the project was “getting to learn so much about the political dynamics of particular countries and working alongside a world class scholar like Dr. Hendrix, which was both a tremendous privilege and an incredibly rewarding experience.” Jonathan is planning on using his strong data skills in his new role as a postdoctoral research fellow at Norwegian University of Science and Technology. At NTNU he’ll be working on the “Anatomy of Resistance Campaigns” project; an effort to build the scholarly understanding of the organizations and social groups that participate in resistance movements.

Database Challenges

However, involvement on the SCAD project isn’t all publication-induced academic glamour; it takes a lot of time and dedication to code data. The daily grind inherent in data coding and management takes a specific personality type that involves discipline, nuance, and a certain contextual understanding. One of those discerning individuals, Jonathan Pinckney, cited “quantitizing” qualitative information as a challenge that he faced while involved with the project. He states “any data collection effort involves translating the complexities of reality into simple, consistent numerical coding. Dealing with events that are unexpected, or weren’t anticipated in the original coding scheme is thus always one of the most challenging things about working on this kind of project.”

Another challenge involves the complicated nature of creating a database that relies on material that is inherently based on varying perspectives and subjective vantage points. Exemplified by Dr. Hendrix as the Rashomon effect, this challenge involves the many (and often differing) ways in which people experience a certain event. Having to depend on information generated in this murky space that involves the imperfect process of human observation inserts a certain degree of bias to the information that comes across a SCAD coder’s computer screen. That’s why proper discernment and judgment are so important for the grad students who are examining these accounts. This, however, is tempered by a detailed codebook intended to ensure interrater reliability among coders and facilitate consistency with those using and interpreting the data.

Developments on the Horizon

In the coming years SCAD will continue to be maintained and updated. The research team is also working with a librarian who will help get the data hosted on a SQL server. This will serve to enhance the scalability of the project as well as provide an opportunity to generate data visualizations in the future. This year Dr. Hendrix is leveraging SCAD’s bevy of data points to explore more nuanced insights about repression and uncover connections between climactic conditions in Africa and social conflict. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming research publications as well as articles using data from SCAD!


Image Credit: Takver, Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Yolande Bouka is investigating female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle

Meet the Sié Center’s newest postdoc fellow, Dr. Yolande Bouka. Dr. Bouka is a highly accomplished scholar who not only conducted the first systematic investigation of the legal journey and reintegration of former prisoners of the genocide in Rwanda, but had two children during the process! Here at DU she is working on completing her book manuscript on transitional justice in Rwanda and continuing her study on female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle. In this study she employs a feminist analytical lens to narratives of military participation to explore women’s agency. Enjoy reading more about her groundbreaking research and the advice she has for DU grad students.

Researcher: I received my PhD in International Relations from the School of International Service at American University. My MA was also in International Relations from Seton Hall University. At the Sié Center I am continuing my work on micro dynamics of violence by looking at women’s agency in non-state armed groups based on field research conducted with former female combatants who fought during Namibia’s war of independence.

Dissertation Research: My dissertation, “In the Shadow of Prison: Power, Identity, and Transitional Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” investigates power relations in Rwanda’s transitional justice program. More specifically, I analyze how the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) manipulates the transitional justice program to legitimize its post-genocide rule. The project explores the legal journey of former prisoners accused of genocide crimes. This exposes the bearings of long years of socialization in post-genocide prisons on ordinary citizens and how one-sided criminal accountability challenges social repair. It also explores how released prisoners remember the multiple episodes of violence in Rwanda that took place during the 1990s. My research finds that incongruences between their memories and the official narrative on violence frame which violent acts the RPF regime chooses to criminalize or normalize for political purposes. My research finds that the legal framework forces Rwandans who journey through the judicial system to take on unitary identities that highlight their assumed criminality but eschew their victimhood at the hand of the state. I argue that the transitional justice program in Rwanda is one of the new battlegrounds of identity politics in a continuation of power struggle between political elites since the colonial era.

In my dissertation, I used a mixed-method approach that involved four months of ethnographic work in Northern Rwanda, where I conducted in depth semi-structured interviews with released prisoners. The project also entailed a critical discourse analysis of the official narrative on the legacy of violence in Rwanda to contextualize my ethnographic and interview data. My research is the first systematic investigation of the legal journey and reintegration of former prisoners of the genocide and offers a new investigative window into the role transitional justice can play in identity politics following mass violence.

Research at the Sié Center: I am working with Marie Berry on a project on women in politics in Kenya and Timothy Sisk on a project on innovations in peace building. During my time as a postdoc fellow I will complete my book manuscript on transitional justice in Rwanda. Aside from that, I will focus the bulk of my time on a new research project  “Gender and Security in African Wars: Learning from Female Combatants in Namibia’s Liberation.” This ongoing study investigates female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle. As part of my recent Fulbright Scholar grant in Namibia, I used life history interviews and archival data to investigate the agency of female combatants in the country’s war of liberation. While contemporary analyses often look at women in non-state armed groups as a new and emerging phenomenon, they have in fact always been part of such groups in various capacities. Because scholarly studies of insurgencies in Africa are based primarily on analysis of masculine perspectives, I gender the narrative of the Namibian liberation by looking at women’s agency and how they navigated the rules and norms of the non-state armed group despite the limits to their participation. This ongoing project breaks new ground within the gender and security literature by applying feminist analytical lenses to narratives of military participation in episodes of political violence, which has not been applied to the case of Namibia to date. This research hopes be part of larger project on women’s agency in warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Postdoc Job Search Steps: Because I have spent the past few years working in security policy, away from academia, it was important for me to focus my search on postdocs that would enable me to focus on academic publications. At the end of last summer, I started looking for postdoc through various sites, but my most fruitful finds were through word of mouth. Once I identified the fellowships I wanted to apply for, I familiarized myself with the faculty, the vision and mission of each program to tailor each application.

Biggest Challenge as a Doctoral Student: My biggest challenge was staying focused during the writing process while parenting young children. I had two children during the course of my doctoral studies. Luckily, I had a very supporting chair who encouraged me to stay focused and even came to my house once to discuss one of my chapters.

Advice for DU Doctoral Students: Publish before you finish your doctoral program and apply for research grant, even if you don’t necessarily feel the need for it. It will one of the key things committees will look for on your applications. Also, look for balance in your life. Mental health is a problem in academia.