My advisor has never told me who came up with the idea of the senior honors essay, or "thesis." Over the past month, spent in the bowels of Harvard's library system, fuming at various Vend-a-Card machines, I have developed a hypothesis. Many years ago a Harvard professor, denied a tethering spot for his horse and annoyed over his lack of adequate health coverage and benefits, decided to make everyone as miserable as himself.
Being tenured and thus no longer required to teach more than a few hours a week, he had time to conjure up a truly diabolical scheme for wrecking the lives of the happy, healthy undergraduates he saw around him. After consulting the standard texts on sado-masochism and trying out whips, chains and spikes, he came up with something even better. Why not force these carefree, beer-swilling youngsters to spend a year reading and writing about some minor point of unimportant and uninteresting esoterica, say, the role of footnotes in conveying the buried Freudian and feminist perspective of the "Lamb as Other" in German translations of Little Bo Peep?
The professor no doubt never thought of such a brilliant topic as that. Perhaps he only pictured students writing on some relatively useful subject, like the design of a good door stop or the formula for milking a cow to maximize production. Malevolent academics have refined his original scheme. Today, a criterion for thesis-writing seems to be the complete irrelevance of a topic to anything. remotely resembling real life.
"The lamb's constant repetition of the 'baa' sound, holding both the first two letters of the word 'bad' and a subtle, rhyming link to 'ma,' or mother, indicates her mingled defiance and inability to communicate with her putative guardian. Clearly the lamb has failed to find her voice as a small and fuzzy animal. Even though she is disempowered by the human-exalting hierarchy and the oppressive male sheep, she can still express her hostility toward the primal mother-figure represented by Peep."
The evil scheme of Dr. Dorksworth, as I call him, has borne fruit in the form of hundreds of unhappy and brain-addled Harvard seniors. You can spot them wandering around the campus like shell shocked World War I soldiers, glancing about furtively and occasionally throwing themselves behind some tree or bush after sighting a thesis advisor on the loose in the Yard. They are pale, out of shape, dazed, confused and, having perfected their procrastination techniques, often know a great deal about the minute details of the O.J. Simpson saga. When two get together they will in fact often try to discuss the case, since each of them is involved in research that no-one else can even pretend to find interesting.
Thesis-writing seniors are also characterized by an odd communicative impediment. Although at times they may appear to be normal, any effort on the part of other students to start a conversation will cause them to start speaking in academic tongues.
Non-thesis writer: "God, recruiting sucks. Fred just got an interview with McKinsey, and he already has an offer from Monitor. No one called me for a second-round except that garbage company in Des Moines!"
Thesis writer: "Yes, well, but if you were in Rawls' original position, you certainly would feel differently. Actually, Rawls once wrote that recruiting was the root of all injustice in the world. He called for it to be banned. As I explain in my thesis, many writers in the liberal-individualistic tradition of Kant have written against OCS."
I myself, suckered as a freshman into believing in the "freedom" offered by the Social Studies concentration, am creating one of these monstrosities. My room mates, brother, parents and friends barely speak to me anymore. My advisor, the only person besides me who is actually supposed to be interested in my thesis topic, doesn't always remember my name.
Writing a thesis has wrecked my senior year. I don't go to play or concerts or hang out with my friends; I just obsess about writing a semi-coherent theory chapter that will enable me to graduate. This is a sorry situation indeed. It must be avoided in the future; Dorksworth's legacy must be destroyed. I would suggest an immediate ban on thesis-writing, with suitable economic safeguards for those vendors of acid-free paper and laser printing who make a living off the hapless seniors.
If someone in University Hall still feels that we need a "capstone experience," it might be better for seniors to spend their time doing something more useful, like working in a shelter or doing some other form of public service. Believing that a job-hunting and uninterested student is really advancing the cause of scholarship and the liberal tradition is but a self-indulgent fantasy. Scholarship? Yeah, right. O.J., anyone?
Anna D. Wilde is the former managing editor of the Harvard Crimson