The Blog as Dissertation Literature Review?

(See Updates at the end of the post. See also this subsequent post)


Can a certain type of academic blogging be a more adequate form of literature review than the traditional chapter in a dissertation? In this post, I employ the rubric proposed by Boote & Beile (2005) to determine whether blogging can be considered a form of literature review. I also make some suggestions for how blogging may be incorporated formally into the research and writing activities of some doctoral students, although it certainly might not be useful to others. I am not suggesting that this single post is my literature review; I am merely providing a map that outlines how my blogging during the past years constitutes a form of ongoing literature review.


This blog, started in the Fall of 2003 just as I began my EdD, has served to collect —among other more mundane things— notes and responses to various readings I’ve done during my graduate studies. Those notes have served as brief explorations into themes worked at greater length in other posts (some of which have eventually become published papers). In other words, my blog has served as a place to review some of the literature relevant to my research, and a platform to develop my own arguments and theories.

When confronted recently with the task of putting together a literature review for my dissertation, I naturally turned to the work I’ve been doing in my blog. I couldn’t help but to fear some duplication of effort. I had facetiously argued that when it came time to write my dissertation, I would be able to simply hit the Print button on my blog. While this is obviously not true of the dissertation, could it be true of the literature review? I asked myself if indeed my blogging, done outside of the prescribed dissertation writing process in my graduate program, could be considered a literature review. Or am I, as I heard someone ask of themselves recently, “too high on my own dope?”

In the article Scholars Before Researchers: On the Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research Preparation, Boote & Beile (2005) argue that the importance of the literature review is often overlooked. As they rightly point out, “[t]o be useful and meaningful, education research must be cumulative; it must build on and learn from prior research and scholarship on the topic” (p. 3). However, the literature review is often perceived as the least important or creative part of the dissertation. Instead, emphasis is often placed on the Methodology section. But as Boote & Beile argue:

… by focusing on methodological issues, the educational research community is addressing the symptom rather than the cause. That is, researchers must understand prior research in their field, and its strengths and weaknesses, before they can be expected to choose appropriate methods of data collection and data analysis. Moreover, sophisticated methods of data collection and analysis are of little use if one is studying an unproductive problem. They are also of little use if one lacks the sophisticated understanding of the literature needed to understand the meaning of the data. (p. 12)

I couldn’t agree more on that point. However, the literature review process that Boote & Beile allude to still seems to me rather out of touch with the demands of the information age. To be sure, nothing says that the certification process by which someone gets a doctorate degree needs to comply with the demands of the information age. In many cases, the opposite is probably the case. But for some people in some fields (such as mine) this is an important point to consider. Before reviewing the criteria that Boote & Beile propose for evaluating lit reviews, I want to belabor this point in the context of certain blogging practices.

We live in an age, I believe, when the term ‘state-of-the-art’ literature review has little meaning, at least when it comes to the field I am familiar with: education and technology. ICTs have made available to us all the journals in the world, so to conduct an exhaustive search of the literature is impossible. Furthermore, new research, new theories, and new technologies which open up avenues for new research appear every week. I myself subscribe to about 150 channels of information (RSS feeds) that I monitor regularly, and it would be next to impossible to try to summarize and synthesize what is happening even on a single day in this field (and this is not even taking into account the fact that I am oblivious to research published in languages that I don’t speak). In other words, to stand still for long enough to write a literature review means to become out of sync with advances in research and development. If I were to complete one today, I would probably find it inadequate by next week. I am not trying to argue that a review of the established works in one’s field is not crucial (in fact, my own lit review focuses on these kinds of works). I am merely arguing against the illusion of a ‘complete’ literature review, an illusion that even dissertation advisors acknowledge, but that it is not proper to recognize openly (what would become of academic authority, then?). Instead, I am and proposing that we need something that allows the literature review process to unfold in parallel to the other aspects of the research, and to continue beyond the dissertation.

At the same time, it would be nice if the literature review had a broader audience. Certainly, a traditional literature review is prepared primarily for the benefit of the researcher, to make sure she has read all the important works that anyone claiming mastery over a particular topic must supposedly read. Only secondarily is the lit review intended to be for the benefit of those who might actually get to read it (with little chance that it will reach anyone outside the dissertation committee). But even though a literature review is something of an archeological artifact that gives us an insight into what the author thought was relevant at a particular point in time, does that mean no one else might think it is relevant also at that time? Wouldn’t it be better if researchers could share their literature reviews as they were being developed?

Which brings me back to blogging. Blogs, with their chronological sequencing, have no qualms about their historicity. If I were to publish my writings on a regular web page, I would be concerned that someone stumbling upon them a year later would mistakenly believe those are my current opinions. But putting something down on a blog post—with its time stamp, with its comments, with its links to previous and later posts—provides a fuller picture of a text in its historical context.

Blogging (a particular kind of academic blogging, anyway) can be like an ongoing literature review. True, blogging doesn’t have the linear structure nor does it offer the fixed conclusions of a traditional lit review, but I would argue that it gains precisely by offering alternatives. For instance, while the chronological sequencing of blogs makes it impossible to provide a linear structure, bloggers are still able to structure their literature reviews non-linearly by organizing their posts into categories. These categories are defined according to whatever criteria makes sense to the author, and can be used to later access all posts related to a particular category. For those not satisfied with rigid categories, there is also the increasing use of keywords to tag each post, which connects the text not just to internal categories (previously used tags) but to broader collective categories (so-called folksonomies).

Instead of the finite scope of a traditional literature review, bloggers are also able to continuously add to their literature reviews. There is no chronological or procedural break between the act of writing the literature review and the act of writing the rest of the dissertation. The two can continue in parallel, and the former can continue to inform the latter as long as the process unfolds. In essence, this means that bloggers can post literature reviews at any time, which are then synthesized and incorporated into larger pieces advancing the author’s argument. These pieces then continue to develop and mature through subsequent drafts, perhaps informed by other literature reviews. Research does not stop at the end of a book, a class, a semester or a degree, but is the process of constantly refining ideas and arguments based on new knowledge (in this sense, the blog is closer to a portfolio that tracks the development of the author’s work).

And there is also the collective aspect. In an ideal scenario in which bloggers have carved a place for themselves in a larger research community, literature review posts then invite comments from peers and advisors, or themselves become the source material for another blogger’s lit review. This means there is an audience benefitting from the lit review as it is being written.

In summary, the dissertation process is not as linear as before, but it gains from openness, iteration, and feedback. But instead of taking my word for it, let’s see if there is a way to evaluate blogs in terms of their effectiveness as literature reviews.

Literature Review Rubric

According to Boote & Beile (2005), a literature review should be evaluated according to the following criteria.

Literature Review Scoring Rubric:

  1. Coverage:

    A. Justified criteria for inclusion and exclusion from review.

  2. Synthesis:

    B. Distinguished what has been done in the field from what needs to be done.

    C. Placed the topic or problem in the broader scholarly literature.

    D. Placed the research in the historical context of the field.

    E. Acquired and enhanced the subject vocabulary.

    F. Articulated important variables and phenomena relevant to the topic.

    G. Synthesized and gained a new perspective on the literature.

  3. Methodology:

    H. Identified the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used in the field, and their advantages and disadvantages.

    I. Related ideas and theories in the field to research methodologies.

  4. Significance:

    J. Rationalized the practical significance of the research problem.

    K. Rationalized the scholarly significance of the research problem.

  5. Rhetoric

    L. Was written with a coherent, clear structure that supported the review.

How does my blog, and academic blogging in general —which I am arguing might be a more adequate form of literature review than the traditional chapter in a dissertation— score on that rubric?

Evaluating Blogging as a form of Literature Review

Below, I take each one of the rubric items defined by Boote & Beile (2005) and consider them in the context of academic blogging. My analysis focuses not so much on questions of content or format, but on the unique advantages that blogging can contribute to the literature reviewing process (again, I am not suggesting that this model of research applies equally well to all disciplines and to all students; my intention is merely to share some of my experiences).

1. Coverage

A. Justified criteria for inclusion and exclusion from review. I suppose specifying a theme for one’s blog means establishing an intention to cover certain topics and not others, and review certain examples of the literature and not others. Most bloggers enjoy being able to represents various aspects of their interests in their blogs, which means they frequently post about things not directly related to their stated theme. So while the criteria for inclusion and exclusion is not very strict in a blog, this actually allows for some flexibility to explore different kinds of research. Another way of saying this is that while in a traditional lit review the selection criteria is predefined (one decides on the criteria, and then sets out to look for items that fit that criteria), in a blog it is organic, unfolding as the interests of the researcher evolve.

2. Synthesis

B. Distinguished what has been done in the field from what needs to be done. Reacting to and synthesizing previous research while developing one’s argument is a continuous process of distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done. But in an blog, the notion of what needs to be done is not static, and it is allowed to evolve and mature in reaction to new research and new synthesis. In essence, blogging frames this process as an ongoing, iterative task, not simply a milestone in a process.

C. Placed the topic or problem in the broader scholarly literature. With its non-linear structure and hyperlinking, a blog can aid in tracing the connections between one’s research and the broader literature in the field. Blogging allows for informal brainstorming and note-taking, which can then contribute to exploring related themes in the literature. Also, by providing a direct audience, the author benefits from suggestions by peers to explore this or that related resource.

D. Placed the research in the historical context of the field. Good bloggers avoid doing a lot of echo-blogging (merely repeating or linking to what other bloggers are posting). This means publishing original research or commentary. The point is not merely to repeat what is being said in other places, but to conduct research that frames the issue in the context of what has been done and what needs to be done. A lot of my posts are actually reviews and reactions to older works, which help to put my research in a historical context (see the section on Mapping below).

E. Acquired and enhanced the subject vocabulary. Blogs are ideal places for introducing new vocabulary. If the meme spreads, it means it is useful. If it doesn’t, it means the new construction is not really enhancing the vocabulary (of course, this assumes that the blogger has access to a critical mass audience, and that sufficient time is allowed for the meme to spread).

F. Articulated important variables and phenomena relevant to the topic. Blogging provides an ongoing platform for evaluating new variables and phenomena as they appear. In a traditional literature review, on the contrary, this process stops when the writing of the literature review stops.

G. Synthesized and gained a new perspective on the literature. This, again, is an ongoing process in a blog. Blogging allows for constant revisions to one’s arguments, which develop as a result of new perspectives on the literature. My blog actually maps the evolution of my understanding of concepts and theories in my field, which should allow others to evaluate my progress.

3. Methodology

H. Identified the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used in the field, and their advantages and disadvantages. Instead of a summative, once-only review of the methodologies, blogging allows for the continuous critical assessment of methods. This ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumb-down’ type of reviewing is a familiar form of writing to bloggers, although care should be exercised in order to not allow this to become too superficial.

I. Related ideas and theories in the field to research methodologies. In my case I am not doing empirical research, and my methodology is more philosophical in nature. In this context, my blog has been instrumental in allowing me to experiment with previous ideas and theories as they relate to my arguments, and see what works and what doesn’t.

4. Significance:

J. Rationalized the practical significance of the research problem. More than rationalizing, blogs provide a real platform for validating the significance of the research. Blogs are social software, which means they connect people. Making a post means submitting something for peer review. If the blogger has been successful in positioning himself or herself within a research community, feedback can come from a global panel of reviewers, not just from a small dissertation committee. If the research fails to attract attention and feedback, it means its practical significance is probably not that great, at least in the way in which it has been framed.

K. Rationalized the scholarly significance of the research problem. See my point above. More than just rationalizing in a vacuum, blogs allow for an actual test-case of the scholarly significance of the research. The attention economics of the blogosphere might seem rather cut-throat, but a blogger’s standing in the community (measured by the number of visitors, nature of the comments, linking to the blog, and general recognition among peers) are a good index of the significance of the research the author is doing.

5. Rhetoric

L. Was written with a coherent, clear structure that supported the review. Poorly written blogs fail to hold the attention of the reader, which translates into a diminished audience. When it comes to rhetoric and style, blogs are actually less forgiving than traditional media. Audiences have little tolerance for hyperbole, diatribes, sloppy styles, and badly structured arguments. Blogging makes better writers, because the audience is no longer just imagined, but something that can protest (if only by their absence).

Mapping my blog posts to the literature

What follows is a list of the literature I’ve reviewed in my posts during the past years, followed by links to the specific posts where the references are made. Since the topic at hand is literature reviews, I am presenting this list organized by author (for a list of posts organized by theme, see here).

I am not suggesting that by merely posting this list I am meeting the requirements of a good literature review. What makes a blog a good lit review, ultimately, is not the number of references cited but how they have been integrated into one’s argument. Thus, someone trying to assess the quality of my blog as a literature review would have to actually read the posts! This is why it is also important that this process gets institutionalized at the academic program level, so that advisors and peers are part of the audience of the blog from the beginning, not just the recipients of a ‘finished’ product at the end.

Furthermore, what follows should not be considered a bibliography. Although I have read quite a few other things on technology, society and education, I have limited myself here to listing only sources I have actually referenced in my posts.

Lastly, given what I argued earlier, you should expect this list to become outdated soon after it is published, as I continue to review literature in my blog.

Agre, P. E. (2004). The practical republic: Social skills and the progress of citizenship. In A. Feenberg & M. Bakardjieva (Eds.), Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice (pp. 201-223). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Agre, P.E. (2004). Internet Research: For and Against. In Internet Research Annual Volume 1: Selected Papers from the Association of Internet Researchers Conferences 2000-2002, eds. M. Consalvo, N. Baym, J. Hunsinger, K. Bruhn Jensen, J. Logie, M. Murero & L. Regan Shade. New York: Peter Lange. Retrieved September 6, 2005 from

Barabâasi, A.-L. (2002). Linked: The new science of networks. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Pub.

Benjamin, W., & Arendt, H. (1986). Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Bhola, H. S. (1992). Literacy, knowledge, power, and development: Multiple
connections. Springfield, Virginia: DYNEDRS.

Borgmann, A. (2000). Information, nearness, and farness. In K. Goldberg, (Ed.) The robot in the garden: Telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of the Internet. (pp. 90-107). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

Borgmann, A. (2004). Is the internet the solution to the problem of community? In A. Feenberg & M. Bakardjieva (Eds.), Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice (pp. 53-67). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. 2000, The social life of information, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the internet. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dewey, J. (1991). The public and its problems. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is: The foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dreyfus, H. (2000). Telepistemology: Descartes’ last stand. In K. Goldberg (Ed.), The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of the Internet. (pp. 48-63). Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Dreyfus, H. (2004). Nihilism on the information highway: Anonymity versus commitment in the present age. In A. Feenberg & M. Bakardjieva (Eds.), Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice (pp. 69-82). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Durkheim, E., & Halls, W. D. (1984). The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press.

Elias, N. (1998). The Norbert Elias reader: a biographical selection. (J. Goudsblom, Ed.), Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers

Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning technology. London; New York: Routledge.

Feenberg, A., & Barney, D. D. (2004). Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Gibbs, J.C. (2003). Moral development and reality: beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE

Goldberg, K. (2000). The robot in the garden: Telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of the internet. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hoffman, M.L. (2002). Empathy and moral development: implications for caring and justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Hoggart, R. (1970). The uses of literacy: Aspects of working-class life, with special reference to publications and entertainments. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, M., Adorno, T. W., & Schmid Noerr, G. (2002). Dialectic of enlightenment: Philosophical fragments. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Horwitz, N. 2003, The reality of the virtual: Continental philosophy and the digital age. Unpublished Dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois.

Huyke, H. J. (2003). Technologies and the devaluation of what is near. Techné, 6(3), 57-70.

Innis, H. A. (1995). The bias of communication. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press.

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Johnson, S. (2002). Emergence: the connected lives of ants, brains, cities, and software. 1st Touchstone ed. New York: Simon & Schuster

Kress, G. R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2003). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Buckingham [England]; Philadelphia, Pa.: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Lippmann, W. (1997). Public opinion (1st Free Press pbks. ed.). New York: Free Press Paperbacks.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marcuse, H. (2002). One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. New York: Routledge.

Mills, C. W. (1999). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge.

Schutz, A. (1967). The phenomenology of the social world. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Simpson, L. C. (1995). Technology, time, and the conversations of modernity. New York: Routledge.

Tolstoy, L. (1987). A confession and other religious writings. New York, N.Y.: Penguin.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Walther, J.B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 20(1), 3-43.

Winner, L. (1977). Autonomous technology: Technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wise, M. J. (1997). Exploring technology and social space. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage Publications.


Boote, D. N. & Beile, P. (2005) Scholars Before Researchers: On the Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research Preparation. Educational Researcher v. 34 no. 6 (August/September 2005) p. 3-15



I am thankful for the comments to this post, as well as for the references made by David and Stephen. To qualify my review based on the people included or excluded, as Stephen does, is sort of missing the point of my argument, as it is treating the review as a finished and comprehensive product, which I argue it is not; and it assumes that research—unlike blogging, according to Stephen—does not submit to “the needs and interests of the author.”

But more importantly, I should address the concerns of Prof. Beile, one of the co-authors of the paper I discuss, who was kind enough to leave some comments below.

First, an apology. In the original post I cited the authors of the paper as “Boote et al.” Unfortunately, this is the way the article is cited in the online database I was accessing (WilsonWeb). Since there are only two authors, the correct reference should be “Boote & Biele.” I have gone ahead and made that correction.

As far as the rest of Penny’s critique:

  • I wouldn’t say that I am privileging “process over product” as much as trying to balance the two in the context of distributed research communities. Many times students develop lit reviews in isolation, with support only from committee. Why not open it up? Couldn’t a more open process make for a better product?
  • Prof. Beile suggests that social and collaborative software and tools should be a means to an end (in this case, mastery of a topic and expertise in scholarship), not some reified quasi-academic activity (“I blog therefore I am an academic”). I couldn’t agree more.
  • Yes, not all of the readers of my blog might qualify as appropriate reviewers of the quality of my academic work. I did not mean to suggest that we should suspend all critical thinking and treat them all the same. However, in my experience, even those readers without PhDs are quite capable of contributing to a discussion!
  • Similarly, I did not mean to suggest that web ‘traffic’ should be taken as the sole or major indicator of an argument’s value. At the same time, I do believe there should be a correlation between the quality and innovativeness of our arguments and some degree of validation from our peers, which in this case translates into page ‘hits.’
  • Having said all that, I do agree with Prof. Beile’s recommendation that publishing in peer-review journals should be the final form of vetting and validation of our work. But peer-review is a social process, not something intrinsic to a bound collection of paper we call a journal. My bet is that eventually we will become comfortable with ‘distributed’ forms of peer-review, that they will be as effective as those of today’s journals, and that journals will become obsolete.
  • Until then, I promise to fix all my APA formatting before submitting my work to the journals! 😉

I guess what it boils down to is that I am resisting the notion of the dissertation as the result of an individual’s work (under advisement of a few other individuals, and citing other individuals whom one rarely engages in direct conversation). I am, by choice, a product of the Open movement, and I believe that the more collaboration, the stronger the process and the product—even in the seemingly lonely task of writing a dissertation!

Thanks again for the feedback.

[See also this subsequent post]

Join the Conversation


  1. Hi there
    Congratulations for your work. Very clear and helpful. I’m from Portugal and I am preparing a Master Thesis on Educational Technologies. I’m using a website, a podcast an a blog with my twelve year old student of Portuguese Language. In one of my personal blogs I started to gather some references about the theme of my dissertation. So, I think it will be almost like a literature review.

  2. Thank you for writing a provocative piece! I apologize for not having the time to formulate an indepth, contemplative reply. However, some initial thoughts come to mind…

    The “blog as lit review” that the author proposes privileges process over product in that he thinks iterations and drafts are worthy of public dissemination (albeit blog publication). This model holds true for collaborative work, where the use of blogs and wikis is quite useful, but at some point a doctoral candidate must be able to demonstrate he or she has a solid understanding of the literature of the field. The dissertation is used to demonstrate a person’s potential to make scholarly contributions to the field and as a mechanism to gain entry into the academic field. To fulfill the role and purpose of a dissertation, the literature review by nature is temporally bound and must reflect the work of an author at some point in time. This is a recognized condition regardless of the medium the literature review was born in. Fortunately this does not preclude continued enhancement of the review, which can be conducted privately or publicly.

    Blogging and scholarship are not mutually exclusive, but purposes to which a blog is used are different. A friend (Becky) who pointed out this blog to me is currently working on her dissertation. She is completely fluent in ICT and stands as a model as someone who has seamlessly integrated technologies that enhance her professional life. What I find most impressive about Becky’s ability is that she uses social and collaborative software and tools as a means to an end; the tools enhance Becky’s productivity, but her scholarship is predicated on an understanding of the theory behind the tools. And, her literature review more than incorporates the criteria set forth in Boote et al.’s rubric.

    The blog as lit review model the author envisions is also somewhat at odds with scholarly publication norms. The author suggests that his peers, who review and comment on the blog, is sufficient vetting and that traffic alone dictates whether the topic is of interest (worth). Who is his audience? do they have the requisite authority to vet his work? By definition, a doctoral student’s peers are his or her fellow doctoral students, yet a doctoral candidate is writing for academicians to gain acceptance into their community. The heart of scholarly publication is review of the work by recognized authorities in the field. Ultimately, the dissertation (and its literature reivew) must be vetted by the dissertation committee. Scholarship remains a primary consideration.

    Finally, dissertation literature reviews should be constructed with some attention to publishing conventions. It would further the author’s argument if he adhered to APA citation style, where et al. is not used with a paper authored by two people.

    Dr. Penny Beile (AKA “et al.,” co-author to the Boote article)

  3. Ulises

    I have resisted responding to your post and I was happy when Penny posted a reply. Yet many of the issues you raised begged for my attention. It seems that at the heart of your post you point vaguely towards some that is essentially right, but along way you confuse so many other issues that I feared it would take me far too long to provide an adequate reply. Nevertheless, I will at least sketch a reply.

    First, let me say what I think you got right: Blogging has the potential to be another form of scholarly communication, one that might be useful for novice researchers and scholars. I frame it in this way to make it clear that your post is not really about the dissertation lit review. And your posting begs questions about what prevents that potential from being realized and what else might be necessary to foster such communication. But before I can fully articulate such questions, I need to suggest how I am framing your piece.

    When the sophists gathered in Athens at the beginning of what we generally recognize as the beginning of Western culture, they taught people the arts of rhetoric and oratory – how to package taken-for-granted beliefs to persuade the masses. It was only when Socrates started his Academy and began asking hard questions of the sophists that it became a scholarly conversation. From then until now we have seen a variety of institutionalized forms of scholarly communication, each adding something, each changing it slightly, none necessarily better or worse, each becoming deadened through institutionalization (see Illich’s “Tools for conviviality.”) A rough list might include the Academy, the Library of Alexandria, the monastic scholars of the Middle ages, the Universities, the coffee houses and salons of the Enlightenment, the meetings of scholarly societies, academic journals, research institutes, etc. Each tries to bring people together to (a) preserve the collected wisdom of the scholarly community, and (b) push each other past the taken-for-granted wisdom of the community. Each once-novel institution emerged as a response to the limitations existing institutions. Yet as each became institutionalized it became a source of social power, attracted people who were more interested in prestige than scholarship, and became ossified. And within each of these institutionalized forms there are, frequently, attempts to create new environments to overcome the ossification – new journals, new universities, new conferences. And those new forms of scholarly communication within existing institutions, in turn, try to establish new norms to force participants toward the scholarly expectations of grounding their work within the collective wisdom and reaching past it – editorial reviews, blind reviews, new article formats, interactive scholarly presentations, graduate-only universities, etc, etc. In short, Ulises, yours is a very old battle.

    The other way I frame your post is against my own (ongoing) intellectual development. As I think about my own graduate education and beyond, I see much of the same activity you claim to be novel on your blog – I drafted and circulated manuscripts for classes and colloquia, I presented papers at conferences large and small, I sent my papers to experts in my fields, and I submitted them to journals for review. Along the way I developed my ideas and, if I was lucky, got critical feedback on them. Some of those papers were eventually published, many abandoned because they deserved to be, and a few contain ideas I still adore. The feedback I got from my friends, peers, professors, and experts in my field shaped my thinking, helped me to understand which ideas were good and foolish, and shape my good ideas for my audience – the scholars in my fields. In turn, a few of those pieces found their way into my dissertation, shaped by these social processes of scholarship. In turn, these experiences shaped me as a scholar and shaped my understanding of my fields.

    So when you characterize the dissertation as the “result of an individual’s work (under advisement of a few other individuals, and citing other individuals whom one rarely engages in direct conversation)” I can only feel sadness. Sadness because, I fear, that this is far-too-often the experience of Doctoral students. They are not, either literally or figuratively, part of the broader conversation in their field. And it seems very likely to me that the less-than-exemplary dissertations that Penny and I analyzed are a result of this isolation. Such students see themselves as writing for the approval of their dissertation committees, not for the approval their broader scholarly communities. They cannot even imagine themselves writing for the ages, for another doctoral students 50 or 100 years from now grappling with the same topic.

    And this is basically how I see the dissertation lit review – a critical synthesis of the field. Your write, Ulises, that a “We live in an age, I believe, when the term ‘state-of-the-art’ literature review has little meaning.” I beg to differ. The proliferation of sources available makes it even more meaningful and important. Exhaustive coverage was never the purpose of the literature review – making the literature meaningful was and is the purpose. As my own dissertation advisor never tired of asking: “What does it mean?” and “Why is it important?” Yes, ever more work is available to us, but I have no indication that the quality has increased as a result. Instead, it seems that in a very active field of inquiry we might see a small hand-full of even competent pieces a year and one truly noteworthy piece every few years. Criteria (a) asks, first and foremost, that people be selective with their attention – it is the most precious thing we have. Or, as Adler argued in “How to read a book” our first obligation is to be demanding readers and only spend our time reading that which is worth reading. The great majority of scholarly publishing is at best Kuhnian “normal science” – small steps within a program of research. Such pieces are rarely important enough to include in a lit review, except as examples of a type. (They are, as I argued in the case of most Deweyian scholarship, valuable mainly for their authors.) And, of course, a too often pieces are published that are not even competent. I am willing to assert that the latter is too often true of electronic publishing.

    So it is, to reiterate, precisely because of the proliferation of electronically available writing that doctoral students must learn the arts and skills of the critical research synthesis. It is at least as important, if not more even more important to apply the skills of “critical media/information literacy.”

    Now, you assert that blogging is an advance on traditional lit reviewing because it is dynamic and social. You can make such ascertains because there is a widespread beliefs that dissertations are neither. My brief arguments above suggest that at least my own experience using more traditional methods was similarly dynamic and social. More generally, I argued in a paper I presented at the American Educational Research Association a few years back that all good researchers and scholars recognize, implicitly or explicitly, that their work is improvisational and social. I based these arguments primarily on the work of Alvin Platinga, especially his “Warrant and proper function” book (1993) where he critiques the fallacy of what he calls “epistemic internalism” – the misbegotten epistemological beliefs that research is and should be deontic (researchers have a duty to follow the methods prescribed by particular methodologies), universalistic (it is the responsibility of a researcher or scholar to apply the methods prescribed by a methodology without regard to contextual contingencies), and individualistic (it is the responsibility of an individual researcher to demonstrate fidelity to prescribed methods). (My paper was called “Notes towards a naturalistic study of educational research methodology” and was presented in 2000.)

    Epistemic internalism is pervasive and drives many people’s beliefs about how research and scholarship are and ought to be. Yet research about how people do research – in studies ranging from sociology, anthropology, and history of science to rhetorical studies of novice philosopher, for example – show that these assumptions are flat wrong. More generally, I asserted that it is only poorly prepared researchers and scholars who believe and act as if research and scholarship were deontic, universalistic, or individualistic. Excellent researchers and scholars recognize theirs is a social enterprise, that they must fashion their work improvisational and iteratively, and that ultimately their knowledge claims must be warranted based on a deep understanding of their field. Thus, knowing the literature in a deep, sophisticated way is crucial to every aspect of good scholarship and research. As Penny and I wrote, a good lit review is not merely decorative, it imbues our work with integrity and sophistication.

    Along the way, I suspect that good scholars and researchers learn their craft through successive forms of legitimate peripheral participation – to use Jean Lave’s notion. Those papers, conferences presentation, and manuscripts I worked on helped me to move from rank-novice to minor-participant, doing the work of my scholarly cultures. The key point here is that these activities did at least two crucial things for me in my development – they focused my attention on writing for the broader scholarly community (and not simply my dissertation ctte) and they animated for me the “voices” within that community. I heard and saw the people I had only read, I witnessed the current debates in my field and saw how the literature had developed, and I imagined myself in those debates. In short, these previously inert ideas became “voices in my mind” (to borrow Jim Wertsch’s phrasing). And so, between conferences, even when I was not directly communicating with the people in my field, I could here these voices as I wrote and edited my work. Thus, I hope you can begin to see that scholarship is social not simply in the narrow sense of people interacting, but in a much deeper sense: that critically synthesizing the literature in our fields and working on its problems, and by writing for the audience of our field, we are becoming enculturated into our field. We are learning its norms, its values, its languages, and (most importantly) its problems.

    This broader notion of the social nature of writing (supported by a broad range of studies) begins to suggest both the strengths and the weaknesses of your assertions, Ulises. The strength is at least two-fold: blogging may provide a forum for the kinds of academic conversations that many novice-scholars feel are lacking from their programs and blogging may enable greater scholarly reciprocity and a lower-threshold than many other forms of scholarly engagement entail. Too many doctoral classes at too many institutions view students as passive recipients rather than actively engaged participants. Too many academic conferences are similarly uni-directional. This is what I mean at the beginning by blogging having the potential to improve scholarly communication. But even in terms of electronic communication, of course, is not new. Email lists, listserves, newsgroups, and bulletin boards have been serving some of these roles for decades. And, of course, html was created at CERN to serve the purpose of scholarly communication among large groups of physicists.

    So I accept the possibility that blogging may help notice scholars and researchers as they seek to become socialized in their field. But I will assert that blogging, by itself, is nowhere near sufficient for this purpose. Instead, my challenge to you is to imagine a harder task: I ask you, what additional design features would a blog have to incorporate for it to become truly scholarly communication? How can you design it to encourage selectivity of sources and warranting of selections? How can you encourage blog authors to move beyond providing mere summaries of the literature they discuss? How do you design to encourage critical synthesis? How you design to encourage robust, critical discussion of scholarly and practical significance? Or are these even things that you can design? Or are they beyond your control?

    Best wishes with your project.

    Dave Boote

  4. Located your site while surfing. Excellent. Have you completed your program of study. I will take some time and read the entries in your blog. I am working on a Ph.D. at Union Institute and University. My field is interdisciolinary studies looking at environmental education thru ethical, economic, and environmetnal values. Was looking for info on literature reviews and your blog came up….love the novelty and significance of your work…


  5. Hey Dan,

    No, haven’t completed my degree yet. Soon, hopefully. The work you are doing sounds interesting, plus very necessary. If you decide to blog your dissertation, send me the link.


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