For Creative Concentrators, A New Happily Ever After

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway Yard, there lived a young woman in search of a concentration where she could best express her passions. She had ventured to Harvard in pursuit of an English concentration, but she soon had a change of heart.

After taking a class her freshman year on fantasy literature with folklore and mythology professor Maria Tatar, Rebecca T. Harbeson ’13 fell in love with the idea of studying fairy tales. She decided that concentrating in folklore and mythology would lead to a happier ever after.

Three years later, Harbeson is now writing a young adult novel as a final senior project.

“I realized that writing a research thesis was not necessarily the one thing I wanted to get out of my undergraduate career,” she says. “Writing a novel has always been something I really wanted to do.”

Folklore and mythology recently joined English; literature; studies of women, gender, and sexuality; and visual and environmental studies in offering some concentrators the option of working on a creative project as a senior thesis.

Harbeson, one of the two current seniors pursuing folklore and mythology as a primary concentration, is among the first to take advantage of the new creative option, which is a stand-alone thesis alternative for the first time this year.

Still in its pilot stages, the creative project offers new ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of the field, says Deborah D. Foster, the director of undergraduate studies for folklore and mythology. But faculty and students are still looking for ways to improve the evaluation and mentorship components of the creative option.

A NOVEL APPROACH

The decision to allow students to pursue a creative project in place of a traditional thesis did not come easily. Evaluating an artistic form of expression in the context of an academic institution can be a challenge, Foster says.

“Our faculty do not necessarily have the level of expertise in a particular artistic form to evaluate these projects fairly,” she says. “We need to rely on the project adviser who has some expertise in the particular form the student has chosen to give him or her a grade.”

Because of this difficulty in finding qualified advisers and evaluators, creative theses can only be awarded cum laude honors, whereas traditional senior theses may be awarded cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, Foster says.

Tatar, who chairs the Standing Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology, says that the written rationale by the students that accompanies their creative projects helps graders better evaluate them. The committee relies on faculty from the anthropology, English, and VES departments to assist in the evaluations, a system that Tatar says has worked well.

Harbeson says she feels that she has not received as much support for her project as some of her peers who are working on traditional theses. For instance, she cannot go to a senior thesis support group for advice because they are set up to help students writing research theses.

“It’s just me and my adviser,” she says. “I’m begging all my roommates to read my novel so that they can give me feedback.”

In light of the challenges of pursuing a creative thesis, the approval process is designed to make sure that students have enough previous experience in their chosen form to carry out the project, Foster says.

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