Two Processes, two experiences

Holtorf makes it clear that he intended to produce, first and foremost, a document which embodied some of the ideals of hypermedia theory. I applaud his pioneering and enterprising spirit. The electronic support he chose, initially the world wide web and later CD-ROM, merely facilitated the production and distrib ution of an electronic document. He sets out in fascinating detail the difficulties he encountered in convincing various segments of the university community that they should and could accept a dissertation presented on electronic medium. But as I will try to show through a brief discussion of my own experience, Holtorf's problems with the community, while expressed by its members in terms of mere unease about the medium, probably stem in fact from the radical nature of his application of hypermedia theory to the traditional dissertation.

The point Holtorf's story and mine have in common is that we both used CD-ROM for our dissertations by accident more than by design. He had intended a fully disembodied web-based document, while I had started writing a perfectly traditional thesis, on paper. He finally accepted CD-ROM as a compromise of his original plan.

In contrast, the first two chapters of my thesis were sent to my director (Professor Milton Nunez of Oulu University) on paper and by surface mail. But I was writing about computer simulation as a tool for archaeological research, and I had developed a simulation which I presented in detail in the text. The third chapter of my thesis consisted of the analysis of data produced over several runs of the simulation. Sometime during the writing of that chapter, I sent a short email note to my director, asking him whether it would be a good idea to include a CD-ROM appendix with the dissertation. I felt it would be important to provide readers with a working version of the simulation, for experimentation, as well as with the 150 000 pages of simulated data, for re-analysis (if anyone was interested!). A few days later, my director sent a note back saying (Nunez 1998, email communication):

"In your case I think the best would be to put both text and program in HTML form on a CD. I asked the University if it is acceptable and they love the idea."

And that was it for my saga - the University would love it! Of course, it also solved at a stroke many of the practical problems I had outstanding at the time. First, it radically reduced my printing costs. Second, it ended my agonising internal debate about which graphs, figures and simulated terrain maps I could afford to include in the text, and which I could leave out without impairing the analysis. A CD would hold all of them at no additional cost. It slashed the cost of mailing successive copies to various far-flung judges, faculty and committee members. Finally, it made it possible for me to modify, update and improve both text and presentation in response to comment until the very last moment, without spending my life in the printing shop (producing a CD copy of my thesis takes about 5 minutes).

I spent about a week "porting" my text over to HTML format using a popular word-processing package, making links between sections, and making graphs, tables and maps accessible through hyperlinks. I had never worked with HTML before, but most packages now allow the user to produce full web sites very quickly and simply. My CD is now housed at the library of Oulu University, and this was accomplished without so much as a question being asked or an eye-brow being raised.

The differences between Holtorf's saga and mine are quite striking. I believe they stem from the fact that my electronic dissertation was presented as a pragmatic response to the problem of including an application (the simulation) and an impossibly large amount of raw data. My topic was also directly computer-related and this probably smoothed the way considerably. In short, "it all made sense", and no-one asked any questions. Had I presented the electronic medium as a means of implementing a radical departure from "traditional" ways of communicating academic results, I believe I would have been in for a rough ride. While Holtorf's narrative and supporting documents leave the impression that he encountered resistance to his medium, my experience suggests that unreceptive members of the university community might in fact have been worried about his message.


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Last updated: Thurs May 13 1999