The staff is right about the thesis requirement for honors concentrations, but it is right for the wrong reasons. Theses should be optional for all concentrations, but only because there is no indication that theses are the end-all and be-all of an undergraduate education--not because nixing the requirement would save teaching time. If other "rigorous distribution requirements" were initiated to replace the thesis, as the staff calls for, making the thesis optional would not ease the teaching shortage.
The staff does not address why these are not the only good measure of academic talent--which is what concentration administrators imply when they award honors only to authors of theses. Why is a thesis writer who has taken undergraduate-level classes only, many of them guts or courses whose material overlaps with other classes they have taken, any more deserving of the "honors" appellation than a non-thesis student who has taken graduate seminars and arduous conference courses? We all know that large disparities of difficulty exist among Faculty of Arts and Sciences classes. If I took Moral Reasoning with Professor Stanley H. "No Class Is Good Without 1000 Pages Per Week" Hoffmann but decide not to write a thesis, should I be less "honored" than the thesis writer who took "Jesus and the Easy Life" instead?
Deciding who receives the Honors distinction should not be based on one requirement; it should be awarded to those who complete "a set of rigorous distribution requirements" which would ostensibly provide the same academic breadth and depth offered by a thesis. But that's just the problem.
A set of requirements stringent enough to match the admittedly strenuous job of writing a thesis must involve courses other than the normal midterm-paper-final departmental courses. What would those courses be? More seminars? More tutorials? More undergraduates in graduate-level courses? These plans do little to ease the teaching crunch faced by departments, which the staff hopes to alleviate.
Thesis advising is not a huge job. The advisers are chosen for their expertise in a certain field, so there's no class preparation involved. Once a week (if the adviser is lucky) the student and adviser informally meet for a short time. As the deadline approaches, some editing and reading is done by the adviser. Not bad. Seminars, conference courses and the like, on the other hand, involve class preparation time, grading stacks of papers, meeting at least two hours per week, and so on. Even if making the thesis optional would free up some thesis advisers, they would be snatched up by the new, more time-consuming classes.
The staff offers better solutions elsewhere--encouraging senior faculty members to teach more undergraduates, for example.
Still, this does little for students already at the College who expected at the time of matriculation to be able to enter honors programs with easier requirements. The staff should have also recommended that the English and Government Departments exempt students already at the College from the new rules.
Finally, the staff ignores other concentrations besides English and Government. If the stricter requirements in these concentrations should be revoked, what about Social Studies or History and Literature, which not only require a thesis but also require a special application at the end of the first year? These concentrations offer unique programs available only to those willing to write a thesis. Should these concentrations open their doors to all who will meet "a set of rigorous distribution requirements"?
Undergraduate education is neglected at Harvard. But The Crimson should be more careful about the recommendations it makes to solve this problem.
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