Starting next academic year, the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology will give seniors the option to forgo the written thesis in favor of a more creative final project. Seniors will be given the option of exploring their interests and “representing their time within the concentration” through a written or non-written medium.
While offering alternatives to an analytic written thesis is not a new phenomenon, it has been largely underutilized within the College. With a handful of exceptions, namely the capstone track offered by the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and the creative theses allowed by the English and Visual and Environmental Studies departments, few concentrations provide any sort of culminating project for seniors who want an alternative to the written thesis. Even though the College should continue to keep the senior thesis optional, the Folklore & Mythology Committee’s decision should serve as motivation for other concentrations to re-evaluate their own requirements to give students more options for theses.
Not every Harvard student fits the mold of a future academic. Broader thesis options give students the freedom to explore a wider variety of interests and to build a more specific set of skills better tailored to individual goals. For some students, spending a summer researching a written thesis might take time away from an internship or extracurricular commitment far more relevant to post-college plans. And although the College should never institutionalize pre-professionalism, broadening the traditional definition of what counts as thesis work would nevertheless allow more students to have the opportunity of a substantive, valuable academic undertaking.
Although peer institutions such as Princeton and Reed might derive a benefit from requiring all students to write a thesis, Harvard should continue to allow the senior thesis to remain a self-selective project. Writing a 100-page paper obviously consumes significant resources in terms of both funding and advising, and, if the thesis were a College-wide requirement, not all students would enjoy the same access to the same resources.
Even still, the College should afford more students the opportunity to create some sort of thesis or thesis-like alternative of their own design. While there is an obvious distinction between producing a research-intensive, written analysis and creating a mere final project, a creative or experience-based thesis could, for many, serve as an even more beneficial experience. After all, in a liberal arts curriculum, the thesis represents a unique opportunity for students to explore a single intellectual focus and make an original contribution in a specific field. Additionally, thesis work can also foster a sense of community between the students, faculty members, and administrators—the kind that the people involved remember for years to come. As of now, however—because of a much-too-narrow definition of what constitutes an acceptable thesis—not as many Harvard students take advantage of this opportunity, and alternative theses deserve greater consideration from the College.
Before launching new alternatives to senior theses, however, departments and committees should take steps to identify the reasons why some seniors elect not to write theses in the first place. Any new proposal for an alternative thesis could then be more in line with the unique requirements of the students within a particular concentration. Each concentration should take great care to ensure that the academic quality of the alternative thesis remains on par with that of a written thesis.
In short, when determining what counts as an acceptable academic end to a Harvard undergraduate career, the College would do well interpret the thesis not merely as an extended research paper but rather as a culminating experience that can assume a multiplicity of forms.