Snapshot Dissertation

A doctoral student can spend years upon years exploring (and tens if not hundreds of pages writing about) a single, narrow topic for an audience of dissertation committee experts in the field. Consequently, it can be hard to sum up that work in a few sentences for a general audience.

But falling back up the rabbit hole – in the form of a 30- to 60-second video to be submitted along with their dissertations – is exactly what one Duke University genetics professor has proposed asking graduate students there to do. And the idea is gaining traction for the benefits it offers students and the world outside their institution alike.

“I’ve always been convinced of the need for scholars to be able to speak ‘in plain English’ to people outside of the academy,” Huntington Willard, director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, said in an e-mail interview. “I teach [students] to imagine explaining what they’re learning to their parents or grandparents.”

The newly proposed video requirement is a natural outgrowth of that philosophy, Willard said, and likely will be instituted next year as part of a new Duke initiative to forge connections between academics and other community members, called Scholars and Publics (Willard serves on the program’s core leadership team). Although Willard said the need for clear communication between academe and the general public is particularly critical in the sciences, he hopes the idea will adopted over time across the disciplines.

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