CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


Dissertation Reviews: An Introduction | China Heritage Quarterly

Dissertation Reviews: An Introduction

Thomas S. Mullaney
Department of History
Stanford University

Thomas Mullaney joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2006 after completing a dissertation in Chinese history at Columbia University. He is the author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, University of California Press, 2011. He is also the principal editor of Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China's Majority, introduced in the September 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly. He is presently working on a global history of the Chinese typewriter. I am grateful to the author for finding the time in his busy personal and professional schedule to introduce this important new site to our readers.—The Editor

Dissertation Reviews is a new website and scholarship community that features non-critical, friendly overviews of recently defended dissertations in a small but growing number of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. At the invitation of China Heritage Quarterly, it is my pleasure to provide a brief introduction to the past, present, and future of the project, and to encourage readers of this journal to become involved. Dissertation Reviews can be found online at: To contact the editor, please write to: tsmullaney/at/

How the Site Began

I began working on Dissertation Reviews in the summer of 2010, at which time it was focused exclusively on Chinese History (the original project was entitled 'Chinese History Dissertation Reviews'). Inspiration for the site came when I considered what one might call the 'peculiar life history' of most PhD dissertations. Despite the fact that dissertations represent every scholar's first piece of sustained, primary source-based, structurally complex and narrative-rich research, they are read by and engaged with by an exceptionally limited number of people—typically one's closest associates, dissertation committee members, and perhaps friends and/or family. Graduate students themselves encounter dissertations only rarely, with coursework tending to focus almost exclusively on published monographs, edited volumes and articles. In my experience, this subtly prompts and reinforces a false comparison in which PhD students juxtapose their dissertations-in-progress against published monographs, failing to appreciate that a huge chasm separates these two genres (and they often become deeply discouraged by the contrast). Indeed, even a cursory consideration of major, award-winning books and their dissertation precursors makes it clear that the publication process is one of (often painful) metamorphosis, not simply repackaging. One source of inspiration for the site then was the desire to create a forum that would encourage a more extensive and widespread engagement among interested readers with dissertations as such—if not in their entirety, then at least through synoptic, synthetic overviews.

Fig.1 The Dissertation Reviews website

A second inspiration for the site—related to the first, but slightly different—pertains to what one might call the 'false now' of most academic disciplines. In most humanities and social sciences disciplines, the 'now' of scholarship is defined more or less in accordance with the latest academic press catalogs and book fairs. Once published, each book is launched into life, as it were, by finding its way onto course syllabi and the review section of journals. What is interesting about this definition of 'now', however, is that it almost exclusively privileges the consumption rather than production of scholarship—it is the 'now' of those who will go on to purchase, borrow, read, teach, praise, criticize and debate such work, and not the 'now' of those who produced it. For those whose book has just come out, the text itself has already been out of one's hands for upwards of a year, and much longer if we consider the ideational completion of a study (rather than the completion of layout, proofreading, galleys and so forth)— that is, the moment a manuscript is 'done' in terms of being a fully formed, albeit necessarily imperfect, idea. What is 'now' to the academic consumer is often 'then' to the author. The second major inspiration for the site came in the form of a hypothetical question: what might a review site look like that focuses on the authorial 'now'?

Another way of thinking of the site is as a forum that seeks to involve, promote interaction within, and shine a much-deserved light on a community of scholars who, ironically, do not typically consider themselves as constituting a community in the first place. This 'early career group' [one known in Australia as 'early career researchers'—Ed.], if you will, extends roughly from fourth-year PhD students to anywhere from first- to fifth-year junior faculty, and is defined by a fundamentally common identity: the status of being deeply and presently connected to one's first project, whether it be in the dissertation or manuscript phase. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some people publish first books that are radical departures from their dissertations, some publish earlier or later, some publish prior to starting as an assistant professor, and so forth. By and large, however, a discernible community exists which, in many ways, constitutes the immediate future of a given discipline.

Because of the natural dividing lines within an average career, however, such as the completion of a dissertation or the beginning of one's first post-doctoral appointment or job, these 'early career groups' in various disciplines are divvied up according to professional titles—with advanced graduate students placed in one camp, post-docs in another, and junior faculty in yet a third. The activities of scholars in this group, while it is no doubt well known by mentors, colleagues, conference co-panelists and audience members and so forth, remains only tangentially appreciated by the broader scholarly community. For those outside of the extended personal networks of a given scholar, the first signs of a project or scholar can often come in the form of the publication of his or her first article or book—that is to say, once the dissertation appears as a published monograph of one form or another. When a book reaches the scholarly community, however, it is a bit like the light of a distant star when it reaches us here on earth. The present of any given discipline is not the latest university press catalogue, but rather what everyone is working on at this very moment. The goal of Dissertation Reviews is to offer a window into this intellectual present.

Building upon this inspiration, I worked closely with Gina Russo, a PhD student in Chinese history at Stanford University, to compile a list of recently completed PhDs and potential reviewers. Starting on 17 October 2010 with two posts—David Luesink's review of Li Chen's 2009 dissertation, 'Law and Sensibility of Empire in the Making of Modern China, 1750-1900', and Chris Leighton's review of Jeremy Brown's 2008 dissertation, 'Crossing the Urban-Rural Divide in Twentieth Century China'—the site was off and running in a big way. Over the following six months, we went on to feature seventeen reviews in all, as well a handful of short pieces on the nuts and bolts of doing research in Chinese history. Collectively, these twenty posts were read a total of nearly 10,000 times, representing a wonderful and much deserved introduction of this cutting-edge work to the scholarly community.

Initial Growth of the Site

Shortly after the site was launched in the northern autumn of 2010, plans were put in place to begin a small expansion of the purview of the site into Korean Studies and Japan Studies. The Korean Studies branch, which has to date focused exclusively on the social sciences, has been edited by Nancy Abelmann and Laura Nelson. Nancy Abelmann is Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Harry E. Preble Professor of Anthropology, Asian American Studies, and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Laura Nelson is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at California State University East Bay. Thus far we have featured four reviews of cutting-edge work in Korean Studies, with authors and reviewers hailing from Middlebury, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Loyola Marymount, University of Texas Austin and Columbia University.

The new Japan Studies branch has featured eight reviews so far of dissertations across the humanities and social sciences, with authors and reviewers from Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Lasell College, University of Toronto, Cornell, Indiana, Wittenburg, Case Western Reserve, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, University of Chicago, William and Mary, and the University of Washington. The Japan branch is edited by my colleague and old friend Dennis Frost. Dennis is Wen Chao Chen Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Kalamazoo College.

The site has been sustained and supported by a vibrant online community. On Facebook our group has grown to over 1100 friends and colleagues, with many of our reviews being reposted 50-100 times. By way of social networking sites, blog reposts and related means, most reviews are read roughly 300 times in the first week alone, with readers continuing to visit older reviews well after their initial publication.

In addition to dissertation reviews, the site has recently begun featuring a popular new series called 'Fresh from the Archives'. This series, which is currently limited to China but will soon expand to other fields, features in-depth introductions to archives by early career scholars based on recent experiences. Each installment of 'Fresh from the Archives' features one archive, providing an overview of basic information (for example, current address, required documentation, the status of digital cameras, photocopying fees and times, and so on), as well as types of information that one can only learn on-the-spot (such as the pace and rhythm of the office, the ambient noise level, relevant personal anecdotes, etc). Thus far we have featured introductions to the Beijing Municipal Archives, Tianjin Municipal Archives and the Hangzhou Municipal Archives. In 2012, roughly ten more institutions will be introduced, including the Sichuan Provincial, Chongqing Municipal, Shijiazhuang Municipal archives, the Shanghai Library Modern Documents Reading Room (Jinndai wenxian yuelanshi), and the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Waijiaobu dang'anguan), among others. The goal of this series, which has already met with considerable interest, is to build upon the essential work, Chinese Archives: An Introductory Guide, edited by Ye Wa and Joseph Esherick, and the series of 'guides' (zhinan 指南) published by Archives Press (Dang'an Chubanshe).

Expanding Outside of East Asia

Owing to the success of the China, Korea and Japan sites, in the northern summer of 2011 I decided to start expanding Dissertation Reviews beyond East Asia. Because of my own continuing interests in the history of science and technology, I chose Science Studies (broadly conceived) as the first step in this direction. Under the guidance of Leon Rocha—Research Fellow in History and Philosophy of Science at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and Affiliated Researcher at Needham Research Institute, Cambridge—the Science Studies site is well underway, with the first of more than twenty reviews to be launched in early January 2012. This fourth branch of Dissertation Reviews will be dedicated to scholarship in Science Studies broadly defined, encompassing history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology of science, medicine, and technology broadly conceived, both inside and outside of Asian Studies.

Encouraged by this work with Leon, I felt inspired to take the next 'big plunge' in the project. A few months ago, I circulated a general call for proposals seeking dynamic, early- to mid-career scholars to help us bring Dissertation Reviews to new disciplines and fields in all areas of the humanities and social sciences. New Field Editors would collaborate closely with the editorial staff of the site to propose and collaborate in developing a new branch of Dissertation Reviews, learning about recently defended dissertations in their respective fields, contacting dissertation authors and reviewers, and drawing upon their disciplinary knowledge to pair dissertations with appropriate reviewers.

The response to the call far exceeded my wildest expectations, resulting in proposals for nearly twenty different fields coming from scholars in Europe, Asia, and North America. After careful deliberation and a series of interviews, the number has since settled to approximately ten, the details of which will be announced in a few months. These new sites will go live in the northern autumn of 2012.

Why is the Site Non-Critical?

One question that has come up regarding the site is: why are all of the reviews expressly non-critical? As emphasized on the website, and in all of our communications with authors, reviewers and readers, Dissertation Reviews is committed to featuring non-negative, supportive and open overviews of new scholarship—a characteristic of the site that sets it apart in many ways from traditional practices of academic review.

The answer to this is very simple: a dissertation is not a book, and it needs to be handled differently. Whereas a book is understood to be a 'finished product' that can and should be submitted to rigorous analysis and critique, a dissertation is by necessity a 'work-in-progress' that requires a particular kind of handling. As such, there is a professional and ethical responsibility for a site like Dissertation Reviews to deal with dissertations in a manner that is distinct from, for example, the way in which professional journals undertake the review of published monographs and edited volumes. Returning to the idea of an 'early career' phase in an academic's life—a five-to-eight-year span—I believe that there is a professional and ethical imperative for the website to shine just the right amount and just the right type of light on this arena of scholarship. To this end, field editors work closely with reviewers, and even with commentators on the website, to make sure that the overviews and subsequent posts remain purposefully non-critical.

The question has occasionally emerged: insofar as Dissertation Reviews features expressly non-critical overviews of dissertations, how do authors benefit from the review process? Criticism, as everyone knows, is a central and essential dimension of the scholarly enterprise. The answer is simple: in addition to providing public, non-critical reviews, reviewers are also requested to compose a second set of brief, private comments in which he or she provides critical suggestions for revision. These comments are neither published nor circulated, instead they are provided directly and privately to the author. Here, reviewers have provided authors with detailed and useful criticism, which can be used as part of the process of transforming the dissertation into a book manuscript. Not only are such communications private, but they are also highly personalized and collegial. Often taking the form of a direct letter, these communications bear greater resemblance to a one-on-one coffeehouse conversation than either 'double-blind' peer reviews or published book reviews. In other words, many of the factors that so often complicate the presentation of critical questions and suggestions—for example, the publication of criticism that is intended to aggrandize the critic rather than help the author, or the sometimes brutal and unconstructive tone that reviewers adopt when shielded by anonymity—are absent. Thus, even within this private zone of constructive criticism, the editors at Dissertation Reviews take precautions to ensure that the entire experience be as helpful as possible for the author.

Hopes for the Project

Whereas nothing ever turns out the way one hopes or plans—something we must be thankful for, serendipity being a wonderful thing—it is still worthwhile to state upfront some of my original hopes for the site, in terms of how it will be used, and what it might engender. One hope is that the virtual space of Dissertation Reviews will help foster its counterpart in the physical world—for example, in conferences and the formation of panels. Panel formation is a notoriously limited process where scholars often seek out colleagues they already know—and at best people who are once removed from themselves. The result of such processes are colloquially known as the 'secret Yale panel', or the 'secret Columbia panel', in which all the speakers are, in reality, members of the same preexisting network, but who have since moved on to new institutions and forged new affiliations. Thus, while a panel with scholars from Harvard, U Penn, Columbia, and Brown might at first seem 'diverse', often such groups were friends back in graduate school, or in some way already knew of each and each other's work. One hope is that Dissertation Reviews will prompt 'chance encounters' between complete strangers who share common research concerns and methodologies. In encouraging news, many of the author-reviewer pairs to date have resulted in precisely these kinds of encounter, with some forging professional friendships that will accompany them well into the future, if not throughout their entire careers.

There is also an international aspiration at play, which is hinted at in the FAQs section of the Dissertation Reviews website. From the outset of the project, one hope has been that, over time, the Dissertation Reviews community might expand beyond its predominantly North American, Anglophone starting point, and expand to include reviews of dissertations being produced in programs worldwide. The goal of extensive multi-lingualism is slightly beyond our reach at present, but even small steps in this direction should be pursued. Some developments along these lines are already underway, most notably by the growth of the site's field editorial staff to include scholars based in Hong Kong, Singapore, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. At the same time, we have been approached by a number of scholars interested in helping us interface with dissertation authors publishing in German, French, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. As this aspect of the site takes shape, we will be publicizing them on the site.

An Invitation

I would like to invite readers to make contact with us at Dissertation Reviews by emailing: dissertationreviews/at/ I welcome any and all sorts of questions, comments and suggestions. If you are interested in having your dissertation reviewed, or contributing a review of your own, we would like to hear from you. Similarly, if you are interested in contributing to the 'Fresh from the Archives' series, that would be a great help. We are also in the process of developing advisory boards for the various branches of Dissertation Reviews, and are eager to make contacted with interested senior scholars whose advice and guidance will be essential and greatly valued. Furthermore, if you are an early- to mid-career scholar interested in becoming a Field Editor with Dissertation Reviews, or proposing an entirely new series for the site that you think would make a contribution to the early-career community, I invite you to visit the website ( and click on the top-left link entitled 'Seeking New Editors'.