Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Thesis Talk

September-October 2002

Last spring, when words like "thesis," "Commencement," and "post-graduate" began seeping into my heretofore unfazed, live-in-the-semester college-kid vocabu­lary, I realized that I was at the beginning of the end of my undergraduate career. T minus one year and I'd be getting ready for commencement and real life, alumni bul­letins and all. More than anything, the thought that I was poised to begin re­search on my senior thesis—with all of the finality that suggested—was a frightening reminder that my time in college was al­most up.

When I joined the history and litera­ture concentration as a freshman three years ago, the thesis requirement seemed grand and majestic. It was something of a promissory note, a near guarantee that the concentration would train me for schol­arly work. It was something of a leap of partnership that would last three years. And it was something inevitable but also incredibly and comfortably removed, like graduation itself. I imagined that by the time I had metamorphosed into a veteran senior, the thesis would naturally, well, write itself.

This wishful thinking has gone the way of other freshman miscalculations: ambi­tious plans to spend weekends exploring Boston and a similarly ambitious convic­tion that signing up for the e-mail list of every group at the activity fair was some­how a good idea. Simply put, nothing about scholarship is natural. It's work, and at times hard labor. The only thing left is to trust that the three years leading up to the thesis, like the academic equiva­lent of training for the Boston marathon, will pay off when it counts.

This past year, I've edged closer to the world of thesis writing, demystified it at its edges. Partly, that's because I've been able—or forced as the case may be—to observe it up close. Thesis-writing mur­murs move into the Houses with the se­niors in early fall, permeating the halls, forming an incessant background noise to every meal. Like day traders, thesis writ­ers discuss their status obsessively. They're up, they're down, they're back up again—and whether you care or not, they issue updates in nearly every conversation. If they happen to meet a sympathetic lis­tener—often another writer who's only eager to share his or her own travails— they chatter like parents bonding over the endearing qualities of their obnoxious toddlers.

Not that I'm criticizing. Realizing that I'd be in their shoes come fall, I started lis­tening to war stories and trying to pick up helpful hints. It's fine not to have an exact topic in mind by the time you leave Cam­bridge for the summer. (Good, hadn't been planning on it.) Better not wait until two weeks before to write the whole thing if you don't want to sleep through handing it in. (Seems obvious, sounds tempting.) If you realize halfway through that you have to change your topic and write your draft in a month and half, take heart because it's been done, sometimes well. (Hope not to have to use that one). Make your room as comfortable as possible—you’ll be spending a lot of time there—and make friends with your laptop. Corollary: Don’t even think about signing up for spring classes that can’t be skipped for a month or two—the only place you’ll be going in February will be to the dining hall for another bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and a coffee refill.

One of the most unusual pieces of advice I culled concerned facing thesis fear. Quite literally, one senior came up with the thesis equivalent of the gym teacher’s old adage, “The ball is your friend.” She had felt slightly lonely spending her free time researching in Widener or writing out her notes in her room, so she made her thesis her friend—she named it. That way, when she said her weekend plans consisted of “spending some quality time with Ted,” it sounded mysterious and fun, nearly enough to convince her that reworking a couple of chapters of Ted the Thesis was a good-enough weekend activity for her dwindling senior year. I have to admit this plan of attack didn’t sound half-bad. I’m taking suggestions for names.

I realized I was completely hooked on the thesis-talk floating around me when, battling sleep to finish a (non-thesis) paper one night last spring, I started following an e-mail exchange over the Leverett house e-mail list. The subject? Thesis formatting: inquiries about word-count issues, margins, MicrosoftWord shortcuts to footnote placement, and a particularly vehement thread lambasting requirements for the paper stock on which the final product would be proudly printed. These requirements seem quite esoteric to the uninitiated: acid free, acid neutral (ph 7.0-8.5), or “buffered” paper, preferably one of the several brands suggested by the University Archives. That night, the House email list buzzed with cautionary tales of Bob Slate salesmen pouncing on sleep-deprived seniors to sell them the last ream of a rare paper, hand-woven and blessed for thesis success by a group of mountaindwelling monks. There was bragging about scoring a relatively cheap version at Staples, bucking the department’s requirement for acidity content. One thesis writer, incensed at a sales pitch touting the exquisite texture of an exquisitely priced ream, wrote to the list, “I’m not going to grope it, I’m just handing it in.” And so on—it seemed all thesis writers were up at three in the morning bemoaning paper selection in the Square. Meanwhile, I thought about the paper I’d be printing out in a couple of hours, God willing, and realized I’d be the sucker handing over my credit card to have my thesis printed on textured, beautiful pages.

Spring brings strings of thesis deadlines. History and literature, in an act of what all eventually recognize as incredible mercy, sets its deadline earliest, usually around March 1. Seniors, exhausted and shaken from the shock of leaving their writing cocoons, pile into the Barker Center at 5 p.m. for a champagne toast, then retreat home to sleep out the next couple of days. Eventually, they return to the dining hall triumphant and showered for the first time in weeks, basking in their accomplishment and smirking at the unfortunate souls still sleeplessly toiling away at their computers. As more and more concentrations reached the deadlines last spring, and people who had gone AWOL from campus life to finish their chefs d’oeuvre reappeared, I expected thesis talk to slowly seep out of my life, at least for the time being. But the silence was brief. Slowly, thesis murmurs returned, a little more anxious, and a little more hopeful. Only this time, it was my classmates and I who were doing the talking.

 

This passage from thesis outsider to insider happened so seamlessly that I hardly noticed it—until one day I realized that nearly every school-related conversation I was having with friends touched on thesis writing. These conversations began at the beginning: to write or not to write. This faux-existential question made me grudgingly happy because I didn’t have to make the choice: history and literature is honors only, so a thesis is mandatory. It helps to have made such a diffcult decision in the ignorant bliss of freshman year, when considerations like graduate school applications and final requirements hardly entered the equation.

For those still deciding, the promise of a glorious, stress-free senior year may cajole weary juniors to give up a thesis and gain more time to enjoy electives, extracurriculars, and their last year at the College. On the other hand, there exists the very powerful temptation of meeting the ultimate academic challenge, of creating a prominent and personal capstone to one’s undergraduate career. Forgoing a thesis, you can bask in free time and smile sympathetically as you listen to thesis-writing friends’ horror stories. But you’re also missing out—on a painful, fall- and winter- dreary and sometimes masochistic process, yes—but also on the pride and spring elation that follow.

I watched my roommates—both psychology concentrators—struggle to make their respective decisions this spring and weighed the positives and the negatives with them. One made her decision twice: first to skip the thesis, then to write it. As it stands, we’ll all be writing theses come fall—and I have to admit I’m happy none of us will have to go far to vent.

Since my decision to write a thesis had been made for me—by a fearless younger version of myself—the most important element remaining was to outfit myself with the required accessories. After the end of the semester, I shipped my desktop computer home and acquired a shiny new laptop— a must-have, as I learned from spending hours copying manuscript letters by hand for my junior paper while others typed away gleefully. And in May, I slipped on my class ring—which I like to think has some kind of academic superpowers, commanding the Widener stacks into submission.

The other day, my laptop in my bag and my ring on my finger, I took the subway from my summer home in Brooklyn to the New York Public Library. Sitting in the beautiful reading room—a space grand enough to make anyone feel like a scholar—I officially began my thesis. I requested some books, took some notes. I felt like a thesis writer. And I really wanted to call someone—anyone—to give them an update.

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