The Thesis Debate

Should honors concentrators be able to skip writing theses?

Trisha L. Manoni '99, an English concentrator, wasn't terribly excited at the prospect of spending her senior year writing a thesis. More interested in creative writing than literary criticism, Manoni wanted to take more courses in fiction writing--rather than focusing on a single aspect of literary analysis for one year.

"It took me all of junior year to decide that my last year would be better spent taking seminars and creative writing classes than working on a thesis that I wasn't highly motivated to write," she says.

In the past, Manoni's decision would have meant that she could not graduate with honors, but thanks to recent changes in the English department, she did not sacrifice her chance to earn honors this spring.

One of the oldest and largest departments at the College, English and American Literature and Language last year made writing a thesis optional for honors-track seniors.

Students who want to try for high honors--a magna or summa cum laude degree--must still write a thesis. But students who want to graduate cum laude take two half courses in addition to the 16 half courses required for the honors track.


They are not required to take the two-term senior tutorial, English 99r, which culminates in a thesis.

The class of '98 was the first to have this option. And undergraduates seem to like the change.

Declining Numbers

Around 50 students wrote theses that year, a decrease from the previous year, when 77 students wrote theses. This year, there are 50 thesis-writers. The overall number of undergraduate concentrators in the department has remained about 300 each year.

Last year, 149 students graduated from the English department. Two earned summa cum laude degrees and 27 earned magna cum laude degrees.

English professors say the change provides seniors with more options. In the past, they say, many students wrote mediocre theses simply to graduate with honors.

But some students worry that the new requirements are unfair to thesis writers. Furthermore, they say, the non-thesis honors track will make many regard the concentration as easy.

"English has a reputation among Harvard students for being a relatively fluffy major," says Jenny K. Little '99, who is writing a thesis on Victorian children's literature.

"I personally don't feel that this is the case, but I don't think it does much for this image for the department to allow students to graduate honors without writing a thesis," she says.

Little is among the 50 undergraduates who decided to write a thesis this year. Seventeen students are pursuing the non-thesis honors option.

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