Reasoning Without Words: Envisioning the Multimodal Thesis and its Challenges

This guest post is by Katrina Foxton, a third year PhD student at the University of York, Department of Archaeology. She’s writing her thesis about a historic building in York, which is being adapted into a mixed-use community venue. Her analysis will involve a dynamic Prezi map which illustrates the ongoing work undertaken by herself and volunteers. Her work (a mixture of text, image and hyperlinking) is multimodal. Below, she gives her thoughts on the position of multimodal research after a meeting organised by the British Library.

National Library in Vienna

Figure 1. Art, text, sculpture all hold sway in the library of humankind –National Library in Vienna, image by author.

In April 2016, my MA supervisor, Dr Sara Perry, invited me to a meeting with the British Library to explore how PhD theses could manifest as knowledge that is not necessarily written. We were to discuss how multimodal (mixed media) methods can develop an argument within PhD research and the subsequent difficulties in submitting non-textual work. This Multimodal Thesis meeting was organised and hosted by the British Library’s EThOS team (who hold over 400,000 theses in their digital repository). It was also attended by a group of archaeological students, Dr Debbie Maxwell, TFTV lecturer, from the University of York and researchers from The Academic book of the Future project. Amongst us were representatives from Internet Archaeology, Judith Winters, and Director of Publications at the American Numismatic Society, Andrew Reinhard. There was an international presence from the States, Canada and New Zealand (and some of us had to be skyped in!)

As we discussed the potential of multimodal work, some exciting examples came to the fore (including a thesis which had been submitted to the British Library with a cassette tape, years after the emergence of later technologies such as CDROM and USB). The variety of multimodal work is the result of different technologies and material forms—and a good definition can be found here at the MODE website, Institute of Education. Multimodal work also often has connections to participatory work. Here are some examples:

It should be noted that in this discussion our group was not representative for the whole of academia – there was a high percentage of archaeologists in the room. But as archaeologists, we felt confident talking about different modes of knowing because within practice we are caught between ways of ‘looking’ at material remains and translating (interpreting) an understanding of them into writing or drawing. Archaeologists also make use of such technologies as 3D models, digital photographs, and virtual realities. We are also extremely reflective on how these impact knowledge gain (for further reading into this area, see below).

Beyond archaeology however, the point about the multimodal work is that researchers across the academy gain valuable insight if they experiment and know through different modes. This gain is often achieved through praxis or ‘practice-based’ research, a methodology which advocates knowledge-gain through multimodal techniques, often adopted within in arts research. An extensive report on practice-based research by Candy (2006) gives the rudiments of this approach. At the meeting, we were keen to hear about this kind of research and how submission issues were handled across different social disciplines, because there are definite challenges at university, departmental and library levels in accepting any non-textual work. In particular, the following challenges or questions came to the fore.

Handling, storing, and accessing non-text-based research outputs

Firstly, we discussed how, at the library level, there are the practicalities of handling, storing and providing access to thesis research outputs which are not text based. Traditional book formats sit nicely on shelves, are catalogued, and findable through search indexes. The digital equivalent – PDFs – are also pretty easy to describe, index, store, and access; after all, they are really just books dressed up as digital files – same structure, pagination, chapters, start and finish. When it comes to massive data files, or computer games or apps, then not only are these hard to organise along traditional library lines but options for accessing them are equally tricky. PhD researchers often seek to enable non-researchers and research participants to access research for a guaranteed amount of time (often ten years): is this at risk with multimodal PhD research? Whose role is it to ensure long-term preservation, readability, access to the underlying read software, and version updates? Another interesting question is whether university libraries – the natural home for their PhDs – are technically capable of taking on this role in any case? And, as Dr Perry has raised, in the interests of longer term future-proofing, a limitation may be placed on the objectives and the scope of the argument that an aspiring researcher wishes to lay out.

Embracing multimodal research outputs in academia

National Library, Vienna

Figure 2. “a book is not an image of the world” (Deleuze and Guttari 2003, 11). Imagine a library where some of the books were filled with puzzles, photographic essays holographric performances, music and film pieces…? Books in National Library, Vienna, image by author

Secondly, we discussed whether there may be some wariness on the part of academic committees, heads of research, and even PhD supervisors, to embrace the world of multimodal research outputs. As a result, the libraries are left grappling with the problems without the direction and support that those at a higher-level in the university could be providing. It’s widely agreed that there is still a need for at least part of the ‘thesis’ to be a written, critical analysis of the research. But does it make sense, for example, for a student to describe the way a ‘mobile app’ works by using written words rather than allow the student to submit the app itself as part of the PhD thesis, simply because the rules say the thesis must be a bound volume? Arguably, a vital moment of reckoning lies in the moment an examiner ‘opens’ a thesis, with their expectations of what they are to examine and corresponding skills to do so. Therefore, in the aspiration towards creating new knowledge, the PhD examination process must also drive the communication of excellent research (and certainly towards the innovative and the original!). At this time then, how can examiners – and others involved in the flow of new knowledge – be involved and embrace new technologies to ensure the research is communicated and built on by others?

There are a lot of questions here. This is the beginning of an ongoing investigation and, to build momentum, the value of the multi-modal thesis must be demonstrated across a wider sphere.


Digital Conversation event: British Library, 29 September 2016

To this end, I’m drawing attention to a British Library “Digital Conversation” event on 29 September. A panel of PhD students (past and present) will describe their own text and non-text thesis outputs, and discuss ways to open up access to and acceptance of multi-modal, non-text research outputs. You are all invited to join us and support what is essentially a call of action towards reconfiguring the PhD thesis at a quintessential level.

Please book here: to claim your free ticket.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Followin Katrina on Twitter: @kfoxton9

Further reading materials

Archaeology in relation to visual-knowledge

Hodder, I and Hutson, S. (2003) Reading the Past: Current approaches to interpretation in     archaeology. (3rd Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Morgan, C. L. (2009) ‘(Re)Building Catalhoyuk: Changing virtual reality in archaeology’,      Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, 5: 468-87.

Olsen, B., Shanks, M., Webmore, T., and Witmore, C. (2012) Archaeology: The Discipline of           Things. Berkely: University of California Press.

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. (1987) Re-Constructing Archaeology: theory and practice,             Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shanks, M. and Webmoor, T. (2013) ‘A political economy of visual media in archaeology’, in           Bonde, S. & Houston, S. (eds.) Re-presenting the Past: archaeology through image     and text, Providence: Brown University, 85‐108.

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