UI grad student breaks dissertation boundaries

UI Ph.D. candidate Anna Williams created her dissertation in a podcast format, which she will defend in May.



Alexandra Skores, News Reporter

Traditionally, a Ph.D. dissertation might be similar to writing a book. However, Ph.D. candidate Anna Williams has taken her own spin on her dissertation in the form of a podcast, titled “My Gothic Dissertation.”

Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Williams received a bachelor’s degree at Birmingham Southern College and a master’s degree at the University of Alabama. After working college classrooms as an adjunct instructor, she decided to apply to Ph.D. programs because of her love for the college atmosphere. Now, the doctoral candidate will graduate in May from the University of Iowa.

“Being a Southerner and the fact that my parents didn’t go to college made me feel like an outsider in academia to begin with …” Williams said. “To me, the humanities are about cultivating a passion and coming together to have a wider consciousness and understanding of the human condition. I felt like the tone of graduate school in the humanities did not always live up to those stated aims we were supposed to do as humanists.”

Seeing that the dissertations graduate students put out for their degrees are not always used to better the public, Williams said, she was determined to change the norm.

“It defeats the purpose of what we are doing as humanists to not make as many connections as you can with the people around you,” she said. “I wanted to do something different and more accessible. The podcast came to me because I have watched podcasts for a long time. I didn’t think there was any reason that an English dissertation couldn’t do the same thing a podcast does — tell a compelling story, research in an interesting way, and reach a broad audience.”

Her podcast focuses on the Gothic novel and dramatizing the literary readings with Gothic soundscapes through personal narratives and interviews. She writes for hours each day.

Co-director of William’s dissertation and English Professor Judith Pascoe said Williams’ dissertation serves as a model for both graduate students at the UI and graduate students across the nation.

“Her dissertation promises to be one of the two most innovative and insightful research projects I encountered during my 24 years at the University of Iowa,” Pascoe said.

Williams has only shared her podcast with members of her dissertation committee, but she can envision the podcast doing something more after she defends it.

“With a normal dissertation, people try to get an academic press to publish it once they have graduated,” Williams said. “For me, things are a little different. I’m not sure if I will be in an academic job or making radio somewhere. I want to deliver my podcast as a mini-series.”

Laura Hayes, a colleague of Williams, said Williams gave her a tour of the UI and did a great job of persuading her about the worth of the UI program. The two have since grown to be good friends, and Hayes is proud of the work Williams has done.

“She has combined the academic side of the dissertation and the craft side of the work, which is something that not a lot of graduate students do,” Hayes said. “I think that’s something we are all proud of, and I hope she is proud, too.”

Although she is unsure of what comes next, she said, she is excited to see where her nontraditional dissertation can take her.

“In the final stretch of my work, I’m definitely married to my work all day every day,” Williams said.