“If you are going to put all that work into a project, it ought to be a topic you are passionate about.” This oft-repeated piece of advice poses key practical questions about the uses and limits of belief in writing a thesis. What role does belief have in forming hypotheses and persevering through the long phase of research? And at what point do one’s own opinions and passions become a liability? A good thesis writer should be dispassionate and self-critical, but no thesis writer can be apathetic. Faith in one’s self and in the process is vital to the early stages of thesis writing, and affinity for one’s topic could be useful, but by the end, personal convictions become less and less relevant, and belief alone inadequate.
To begin with, it takes some abandon to pick a topic and stick with it. There is no way to predict what you will find, but it is a reliable rule that if you put in enough time, you will find something. Paul wrote to the Hebrews that belief was “the evidence of things not seen,” and as a researcher in the bowels of Widener, I have quested after as-of-yet-unseen evidence. Call it persistence, hard-headedness, or belief—but some such quality is vital to the early stages of finding material for the thesis.
A few thesis writers find topics that they believe in from the start. Stuart J. Robinson ’06 wrote an award-winning philosophy thesis last year on “interpersonal forgiveness” because, as he told me, he felt that questions about reconciliation were applicable to every person’s life. But overall I am not convinced that topics exist in an hierarchy of relevance or that thesis writers have to begin with a pet topic. Take just about any topic and research it with enough verve, and you will find that eventually you could vouch for its importance. You could just as well be fervent about pursuing a question that threatens your values as one that confirms them.
Disbelief can be useful even in finding a hypothesis. Put on your skeptic’s glasses, look at dominant schools of thought for their holes and shaky assumptions, and then find an alternative explanation or argument. I found that after a few months of studying money imagery in fugitive slave autobiographies that I could question the dominant critical narrative about these texts. They were not just stories of freedom through literacy; they were stories of freedom through numeracy, or mathematical ability and market savvy. Polemic is one of my favorite kinds of essays, but I have found that I have to be as cautious in my suspicion of prevailing arguments as I am self-critical about my own. Aggressive disbelief is as perilous a strategy as sincere belief.
A thesis has to put forward a compelling argument, but it has to be complex enough to be debatable too, which means that a thesis writer could believe that the thesis is relevant, but not that the thesis is definitive, final, and show-stopping. The thesis writer who believed that would probably be wrong. He or she would do well to test the project publicly, on professors, fellow students, and even relatives. It usually takes about 20 seconds of explanation to figure out that you could refine your thesis a bit.
Wishful thinking gets the process going, but by the end it has no place. No 21st century reader needs reminding that zealous belief in unseen or partial evidence can have disastrous results. A thesis may begin with Paul’s version of belief, but it is developed only with a commitment to a process akin to the scientific method. You try out a hypothesis, have the guts to follow it through, and then evenly assess what you have. Crises of belief—“what if I am wrong?”—do threaten one’s resolve to forge ahead, but they also offer a check against becoming enamored with one’s argument. Cognitive dissonance can be vital to the refinement of a thesis. It is worth pointing out that a thesis writer who begins in January may have little time for such crises and may run on pure belief up until the deadline, leaving the projected untested and unchallenged until grading time.
Upon finishing, I found that I could contradict my thesis about as well as I could defend it, and I still had a list of questions and leads that I wanted to follow. I felt not just relief but wonder that I had finished what began with a bit of unseen evidence, and sadness that the process was over. What began with belief ended with knowledge, experience, and disbelief.
Tom M. Wickman ’07 is a history and literature concentrator affiliated with Currier House. He received a Hoopes Prize for his thesis.