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Folklore Department Explores Options for Creative Thesis

By Barbara B. Depena, Crimson Staff Writer

Last semester, Folklore and Mythology concentrator Noah A. Hoch ’11 paused from thesis-writing for a moment of reflection.

“I realized that I wasn’t enjoying or connecting with my thesis,” he says.

“I e-mailed the other seniors in the program to try to figure out if something was wrong or if I should just plough through.”

But when he conferred with fellow concentrators, he faced a surprising consensus.

“Every person told me that they were enjoying their work,” he says.

Hoch attributes the positive responses to the flexible thesis requirements that are extended to the five senior concentrators in Folklore and Mythology.

This year, the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology decided to further expand these requirements in order to give students the opportunity to assert more creativity in their thesis projects.

As a result, beginning next year, seniors will have the option to either complete a traditional written analysis or pursue another medium of representing their time within the concentration.

Struggling with his written thesis—a critical assessment of the internet as a medium for folklore creation—Hoch chose to take advantage of the flexible thesis requirements that are already in place.

He is now expanding upon an idea for a short story that he had devised—with folklore theory in mind—for a creative writing class.

NEW POSSIBILITIES

Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology Chair Stephen A. Mitchell says that the new flexibility in thesis requirements will focus more attention on what the students want to take away from their undergraduate experience.

“The [written] thesis is still in place, and people can still choose to do it, but they can also choose to do some sort of performance or exhibit, or an extended essay,” he says.

“We just were imagining that not everyone needs to do an extended scholarly essay to prove that they know the field [when] that could be done in other, more expressive ways,” he says.

When this issue had been raised in the past, the Committee had opted to retain the traditional view of the written thesis requirement, according to Mitchell.

But after a series of meetings this fall, he says, the Committee unanimously approved the new requirements.

The Committee was following the lead of concentrations such as Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, which also expanded thesis requirements beyond the traditional written thesis, Mitchell notes.

“We’re opening up for possibilities,” he says. “This is a recognition that not every student wants to go to graduate school and have an idea of exactly what they want to do once they leave Harvard.”

Deborah Foster, the director of undergraduate studies in folklore and mythology, acknowledges that this decision was made partly to offer students more opportunities to explore within their focus field in the concentration.

“We have begun to think seriously about the many ways in which knowledge can be represented and are expanding beyond the analytical essays to find other ways in which we can recognize the synthesis of knowledge,” she says.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS.

Folklore and Mythology concentrator Julia E. Cain ’11 does not boast of her knack for making tapestries, but she says that she could not fully understand her focus field in the culture of hand-made creations without practical experience.

“When I was working on finding a thesis, I knew that I wanted to do something with textiles,” she says. “But making them is an important part of being able to relate to it.”

Cain says that she first thought to create a tapestry for her senior thesis two years ago, and approached the Visual and Environmental Studies Department with a proposal.

“I approached VES to see if I should do a joint in the two concentrations, and they told me that they couldn’t help me because textile work wasn’t their wheelhouse,” she says.

But with her own concentration’s decision to expand the requirements, Cain’s proposal is now becoming a reality.

Cain is the first student to pursue the new thesis requirement, which will otherwise go into effect next year.

“I love that the Folk and Myth department is flexible enough to allow us to be creative in our thesis work,” she says.

Cain says that she feared abandoning her personal interests for the sake of a traditional written thesis.

“I like the scale, the grandeur, and the ability of things that I can include [within a tapestry] because I am working on that kind of a scale,” she says. “[Folk and Myth Department] knows that we are a creative group, and that sometimes a giant paper is not the best way to show everything that you’ve learned and to be representative of your time.”

The new flexibility in the requirement will also help students prepare for future career paths, Cain says.

“I’m not going to grad school—I’m trying to be a costumer for television and movies,” she says. “In that sense, a paper won’t particularly impress anyone, but something that shows what I can do is not only impressive, but also goes in my portfolio and might get me a job.”

Cain also says her thesis is an accurate reflection of her experience within the program—more accurate than a written thesis might have been.

Her project is a tapestry piece spanning over 10 feet in both length and width, that depicts a series of fairy-tale and folklore scenes which incorporate weaving. The tapestry includes a variety of different techniques: crocheting, embroidery, silk weaving, and hand-spun yarn.

“My grandmother was a little skeptical. She said, ‘So what, you’re going to put it on a bed?’ I told her to think a little bigger: maybe on three beds next to each other,” she says.

Cain acknowledges concerns that theses of this nature may be difficult to assess.

“They asked me, ‘How will we know if you did a good job?’ And I told them, ‘You’ll just know,’” Cain says.

—Staff writer Barbara B. DePena can be reached at barbara.b.depena@college.harvard.edu.

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