Thesis Madness


IT IS, OF COURSE, no news to seniors that March is the month when the really heavy deals go down. Even non-seniors seem to sense this gloom as conversation among seniors becomes more and more impoverished, turning and returning to the nominations for this and that, applications for such and such, transcripts, interviews with large corporations, whether to lithograph one's resume or simply have it xeroxed. For once, they have to give up their celebrated "free flow of ideas" and knuckle down to the bare facts of who's getting what and how.

But the question that can cause actual spasms is: "How is it going?" where "it" refers to the thesis. History and Lit majors--myself included--are like those kids in grammar school whose names begin with "A"--they must go first, but their anxiety ends earliest. Either they have already typed, bound, and submitted their masterworks or have by now been accepted somewhere--unless they decided long ago to cut a deal with the Department and give it up untried. But, as with the rest of that grammar school class, the bell will be tolling for other seniors at intervals the rest of March and into April. And for those souls, typewriters, legal pads, note cards, and Korrect-type now provide the texture of their days and nights.

One may well wonder what would move otherwise deliberate, sensual, more-or-less well-adjusted people to bug out their eyes, desert their beds and friends, and throw down large doses of industrial strength instant Maxwell House. For some, (and such matters are impossible to quantify) a senior thesis is a pleasant opportunity, to write a truly trenchant essay concerning some topic of major interest. But for many others, those for whom the process is a pall on their lives and for whom the process is a pall on their lives and for whom the product has no meaning, the motive force lies not in any positive desire but in "The Fear."

In the old days, tutors are fond of remembering, seniors also wrote theses and in great numbers--back, that is, before the counter-culture, Kissinger and the permanent recession. But those theses, we are told, were different they were generally thought of as broad, even speculative essays on a major problem within a field. Students were supposed to look back on their field and direct their analytical or synthetic juggernauts at a problem of major importance. Seniors are remembered writing on Shakespeare or Milton rather than on bad novels by obscure madmen; they reflected on the Civil War or the New Deal instead of detailing the rise and fall of this or that isolated phenomenon.

The point is not that certain subjects were formally out of bounds for theses or that obscure materials did not sometimes contribute to understanding, but that an undergraduate thesis served a special function. Seniors were not expected to write as trained academics, generating original research available to other scholars. They were not expected to do so precisely because they were not trained academics and because their work would never reach other scholars. Nor did they typically have the time or money for travel that good, in-depth original research requires.


But several things have come along to smash that old conception--Kissinger for one. When he rose to power, after he became the long-distance thesis champ at Harvard, the word went out, at least in the social sciences: more is better. So, as an indirect result of his compulsion, seniors now often pick a length and try to fill it rather than pick an argument and write to an appropriate length. A trained scholar would, of course, recognize this approach as bogus for the purposes of good writing, although a goodly number of them seem intent on doing it themselves.

So the question for seniors became how to fill a given number of pages. Put this way, the senior thesis metamorphosed into the senior-long-research-paper and was that much less attractive. But at this point we must digress for a moment. Parallel to the development of the long specialist paper came two other changes that, taken together, tend to heighten seniors' ambivalence about this new monster. One was the growth of an ideology that holds that student life must be fun every minute. This belief has a surprisingly diverse constituency, running from jocks to aristocrats to the endangered Harvard hipsters. For these people, the idea of so much deferred gratification seems simply unbearable: a thesis is a drag--besides, the world might blow up before I finish.

But on the other hand rose the specter of a permanently tight job market for liberal arts majors. The traditional sources of jobs--the ministry, government service, or professional training--are all trouble spots these days for a lot of people. After teaching its students rationalism and skepticism for four years. Harvard can hardly expect its graduates to look favorably on the ministry. For other reasons, all kinds of undergraduates look on government service as some kind of bad joke, leaving only professionalism from among the traditional callings. Law school, to be sure, seems to be gaining ground, but graduate school isn't even holding its own. Many students, of course, are simply not inclined. But for those who are, there just aren't enough seats: they not only say cutback, they do it. And even if you don't think the recession is permanent--though there is every reason to think so--there simply won't be as many students in the generation behind us who will need teachers, making the prospect of graduate study more and more remote for more and more graduating seniors.

The result of these developments is increased anxiety among undergraduates about what the hell they can do in this society after they graduate. Which leads us directly back to the business of senior theses. Although their form and the context in which they are written have changed, theses still are written--more this year than last. Seniors claim to hate doing them, and while some seem to protest too much, most say it with real conviction. The question of why thus leads us directly back to "The Fear."

This fear is really a cluster of related fears. The perceived suffering is particularly acute these days because seniors must confront not only the usual threats of disappointing themselves, their parents, and their advisors, but because the changes in the economy and the society leave them fewer and fewer places to go. After all, these seniors who drop their theses immediately after admission to law school or grad school can't say with much conviction that they were in it for the love of scholarship. And considering what a drag it in fact is to produce one of these hundreds-of-pages-detailed-research jobs, you can hardly blame them.

So what is to be done? One could, of course, try to change the broader context and create full employment and positions in society for liberal arts majors before this year's juniors begin their own thesis madness. But the Carter and Ford victories in Florida do not bode well for either. Alternately, the departments ought to start rethinking theses, and potential thesis writers ought to look before they leap at what lies at the end of that road of Korrect-type, coffee, and note cards.

A word to both the dedicated and the neurotic: the Coop has some great, cheap covers over on the right wall near the notebooks.

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