The Thesis That Almost Wasn't
It was about three weeks ago that George Reyes '75 seriously considered dropping his Government thesis. He had written only ten pages, and had just a month to write at least 55 more.
Reyes was sitting at his desk, scribbling away on a yellow legal pad, when he found himself writing a sentence that said, in effect, "And now we come to the important aspects of this issue." But what came next? Reyes thought for a moment. What were the important aspects of his thesis? He wasn't sure.
The next time he called his parents in Riverside, Calif., Reyes said he was dropping his thesis, that it was a final decision, "And the reaction was kind of like, 'Well, how can you throw away everything that you've done?" he remembers. His parents asked how the decision would affect his chances of getting into law school. Reyes wasn't sure.
He went to see his adviser, a graduate student in Government, and said that he wanted to drop the thesis. "I felt guilty," Reyes says, "but I also thought how great it would be not to write this thesis. I could spend time on courses, see friends, spend more time at dinner." But his adviser talked him out of dropping the thesis, and offered suggestions for reorganizing it. The suggestions made sense to Reyes, but after he ripped up his original ten pages and spent the next three weeks writing 31 more, he looked at his work and ... wasn't sure.
The problem is that George Reyes has never written a paper longer than 15 pages. He is having trouble structuring his research, and trouble turning his notes into paragraphs of clear academic prose. So the new 31 pages seem labored at times, wordy in many places. Reyes's adviser read the 31 pages and said he was pleased, but he peppered the margins with comments like "This is confusing," "What does this mean?" and a "K" for "awkward."
"Sometimes I feel as though what I write is really no good," Reyes says. "It's not a hell of a lot of fun. It doesn't come easy at all."
That, of course, is why Reyes considered dropping the thesis. He got bored--"bored as hell," he says--sitting at his desk, struggling with the amorphous mass of research whose official name, come the March 27 deadline for all Government theses, will be "Congressional Reform: The Committee Reform Amendments of 1974."
Friends urged him to pack up the thesis and enjoy his last semester at Harvard. That's what they were doing: most of his friends who were planning to write these changed their minds. These friends are in the History Department, the Economics Department, and the Government Department.
"They all came back from their tutors with figures on how these weren't being done here this year," Reyes said. "I just felt that I was alone, writing this paper."
And then on Wednesday, as the March calendar Reyes had made and hung above his desk showed only 15 more days until the thesis deadline, there appeared a Crimson news story that made Reyes ... wonder, sort of, what was going on.
The story said that seniors in the Social Studies Department--Soc Stud seniors, the elite cream of Harvard--were not especially keen on writing theses this year, Twenty-three of the 55 seniors had decided not to write them. And these were supposed to be scholars, these Soc Stud seniors--at least, they were supposed to be more scholarly than George Reyes, who regularly earns Group III grades; who did not take lecture notes when he first came to Harvard because it seemed unnecessary; and who has not once in four years gone to a professor's office hours (and resents "kiss-ass" students who do go only to win points by asking impressive questions.)
Reyes shook his head when he talked about the Soc Stud seniors on Wednesday. "It makes me feel like I'm the last"--an embarrassed pause--"of a breed." And then he laughed.
He is not the last, of course. In Reyes's department alone, the Government Department, there are about 90 seniors (out of a total of 146) writing a thesis.
But Reyes may be part of a declining breed. "With many more people going to law and medical school, they just don't want to do a big academic project," Katherine Auspitz, head tutor of the Social Studies Department, said in Wednesday's news story, trying to explain her department's dearth of these this year.
There has also been a decline, beginning in 1971, in the number of Government Department theses.
"That old business where the thesis is a status symbol--you can't hold you head up unless you've written one--I think we've gotten beyond that," says Laurence D. Brown, head tutor of the Government Department.
If academic and peer pressure to produce theses is waning in many departments, [see page 1], the trend may be reflected in the advice seniors receive. One senior tutor says he advises those who come to him with doubts about their thesis to drop it unless they find it exciting. "I've seen too many seniors drag their ass through February and March, not getting anything out of it, because they didn't have the courage to drop it in January," he says.
It is hard to know how many seniors drag their ass through February and March wishing they didn't have a thesis to write. The most telling statistic is probably the number who drop their thesis (about 14 this year in Reyes's Government Department, for example), but that doesn't take into account the seniors who want very much to drop their thesis but don't. The discontent of thesis-writing seniors is apparent to friends, of course--thesis writers are wont to stumble bleary-eyed into a dining hall and gripe about their work--but often invisible to official Harvard. Seniors probably do not often complain to counselors and advisers when they have problems with their these or problems with courses because of too much thesis work. For example, William G. Perry '35, director of the Bureau of Study Counsel for the last 27 years, can't recall if he has counseled seniors for thesis-related problems. "None come to mind, but I'm sure I must have," he says.
George Reyes has not visited the Bureau of Study Counsel with a thesis-related or academic problem, even though he is falling far behind in his classes and recently asked for his first extension on a paper since coming to Harvard. There isn't much that the Bureau--or Room 13 or his senior tutor--could tell him. He will either finish his thesis or drop it, and whichever he does, he already knows the reasons, alternatives and consequences.
He will probably finish the thesis, though, because he wants to prove something by writing it. Since coming to Harvard, Reyes has felt academically inadequate, as though "I couldn't compete adequately with the folks here." Not just the "kiss-ass" folks who regularly attend professors' office hours, but also those who do well without much work.
Reyes figures if he can last another two weeks, grinding out about four pages a day (his maximum output so far), he will have something academically competent if not brilliant to show for his work here. He has a sort of "mystical" confidence that he'll finish the thesis on time, but he is often frustrated these days that so many friends ask how it's coming. He does not like playing the role of the bleary-eyed thesis writer talking about his opus.
"What I hate is going into the dining hall and friends ask, 'How many pages do you have?' And I tell them, and they say, 'Is that all?' I sort of get on edge, whether they're kidding or not."
But Reyes is constantly polite, so he does not seem bothered by thesis talk, Wednesday, for example, he was eating lunch in South House's Whitman dining room when a friend walked up, set his tray down at the table, and asked, "So George, how's it going?"
"All right," Reyes said. He smiled, and then added softly: "I suppose."