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The Creationists

Theses run the gamut from poetry collections to original dance performances

Spring brings with it sunny days, greenery, snowless streets, and thesis deadlines. For juniors submitting thesis proposals, it is only the start. Meanwhile, seniors who have spent the best part of the year pouring blood, sweat and tears (not to mention hours) into writing their theses at last turn them in.

Yet not all theses take the same form. While most students who write theses choose to demonstrate their academic scholarship through critical papers, each year a select group of students opts for a different path: the creative thesis. The work produced by undergraduates who are awarded creative theses varies widely with regard to medium as well as subject matter. Some are original literary works produced by English concentrators; some creative theses produced by students in other departments take the form of films and staged pieces. But these students are united by a belief that creative work is just as valid a way of demonstrating scholarly excellence as critical work.

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WRITE OF PASSAGE

For students in the English Department, the process of writing a creative thesis officially begins in February of junior year, when concentrators who wish to do so submit their applications. But in reality, the preparation that culminates in writing a creative thesis begins far before this deadline.

"The fact that I'm not doing a critical thesis in no way suggests that I did not enjoy the more critical English classes that I have taken," Ethan G. Loewi '15 says. "But for me the difference is between something that interests me and something that I am really profoundly passionate about."

In order to be able to even apply, a student must have taken at least one creative writing workshop (many applicants for creative theses will have taken several). Students must also submit a cover letter that details their reasons for wanting to write a creative thesis and the writers who have influenced their style; a list of creative writing workshops taken at Harvard; a resume of relevant courses taken and any creative pieces published; a description of the thesis that includes the subject matter, nature, and approximate length of the proposed work; and a writing sample in the genre of the proposed thesis.

Once students have turned in this lengthy application, they are confronted with a selection process that, depending on the year, can be quite competitive. According to Lauren Bimmler, the undergraduate program administrator in the English Department, the number of students that applies for creative theses varies significantly from year to year. “In the last few years, we’ve had anywhere from 15 applications to…22 applications. [This year] we had 20 applications, which is about a third of our junior class.” The proportion of the applicant pool that is awarded creative theses is equally variable. “A couple of years ago 40 percent of the applicants who applied got a creative thesis. Some years where there are fewer applications, 90 percent who have applied have gotten a creative thesis,” Bimmler says.

Matthew S. Krane ’15, whose application for a creative thesis in poetry was recently approved, has planned on writing a creative thesis since the beginning of his time at Harvard. “By the time I got here, I had already sort of decided that a lot of the critical work that was being done in English didn’t feel as relevant to most people’s lives,” Krane says. “I had also decided that it wasn’t as personally enjoyable to me as writing…creatively.”

Krane began taking creative writing classes his freshman year, starting with a nonfiction creative writing workshop taught by lecturer Darcy Frey. Next Krane took a poetry workshop taught by Professor Jorie Graham, who is now his thesis advisor.

Krane noted that the application process, specifically the outline of the project, is somewhat difficult to apply to poetry. “It seems like in a way you can’t know where you’re going before you start it,” Krane says. Still, he does have a loose framework in mind for his collection—Krane’s poems will take fairy tales and myths and rework them to reflect personal ideas and events from his past. One particular myth that interests Krane is a Japanese folk tale entitled “The Crane Wife.” He plans on including anywhere between 50 and 100 poems in his collection.

Junior English concentrator Ethan G. Loewi ’15, an inactive Crimson magazine editor, was awarded a creative thesis in fiction. Like Krane, Loewi came into Harvard with creative writing as one of his primary interests; taking creative writing classes while here only cemented that. “The fact that I’m not doing a critical thesis in no way suggests that I did not enjoy the more critical English classes that I have taken,” Loewi says. “But for me the difference is between something that interests me and something that I am really profoundly passionate about.”

Loewi says he would like to write about the Internet, exploring the ways in which it can connect people but also cut people off from one another and amplify loneliness. “The process I have to go through now is taking my broad, general vision and passing it through a million filters to wean it down to a number of specific divisions for individual stories and worry about how they interlock,” Loewi explains. “It’s just a very long process of refinement, but I love my subject material and the act of writing so much that I really don’t mind the grunt work.”

Not all students who end up writing creative theses come to Harvard intending to pursue creative work. Prior to his freshman year, Kevin Sun ’14, an active Crimson magazine editor, had never done serious creative writing. Though Sun started writing for Fifteen Minutes early in his college career, and enjoyed doing so, he envisioned himself writing a critical thesis, possibly focusing on Joyce.

But then Sun decided to take Frey’s creative nonfiction workshop in the fall of his junior year to keep the option of applying for a creative thesis open. The class had an impact—early in the spring, Sun applied to write a creative thesis.

A year later, Sun’s leap of faith manifested in his completion of a collection of creative nonfiction essays. The narratives address his experiences as a young musician learning how to improvise and being on the jazz scene. A jazz saxophonist enrolled in the joint program between Harvard and the New England Conservatory, Sun drew on his experiences during his summers in New York City to write his thesis.

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE

Mallory Weiss portrait
While Sun wrote about recent experiences, Mallory J. Weiss ’15 will take a look back to the past through her playwriting thesis.

Weiss started taking playwriting classes her freshman year and knew right away that she wanted to write a creative thesis in the form of a play. Weiss will draw inspiration for her thesis play from a play she wrote last semester. This previous play, entitled “Beginning,” reinterprets the story of Adam and Eve and will run in the Adams Pool Theater from April 25 to April 27.

“[The] start of things really interests me,” Weiss explains. “A professor was talking about how Newton used the Bible to try to figure out how old the Earth is, and that was just a really interesting idea to me, so as of right now my [thesis] play is going to focus on the beginning of the world and the beginning of people and where we came from and having the characters search for the past and learn about the present and hopefully about the future.” She hopes to travel this summer to Cambridge, England, where Newton went to school. Regardless of where she is, she will spend the break “figuring out what the play is not going to be—a lot of writing and tearing up of paper.”

What is Weiss most looking forward to in writing her creative thesis? “The process of really [getting] a substantial play under my belt. Just really making my style better and taking risks and at the end, having this piece that I’m hopefully really proud of. The process will be exciting, but I’m definitely looking forward to that moment when I can say, ‘Wow! Look at what I’ve done!’”

Sam W. Marks, Weiss’s thesis advisor and a new addition to Harvard’s English Department who teaches two creative writing classes—“Introduction to Playwriting” and “Advanced Playwriting”—firmly supports the production of creative theses. “I think the [creative thesis] program is a great part of the department, and the work is generally really strong. It’s a really excellent culmination for the work a lot of the students are doing in the department,” he says.

Mark’s role as creative guide has extended beyond advising writers of approved creative theses. “This year I found myself advising unofficially and working unofficially with several students who were not writing theses but who were writing plays they wanted to put out,” Marks says. “I hope that in the future I can continue to do that.”

BEYOND HARVARD

For some students who write creative theses, the journey does not end with the project’s official completion senior year. Former Fifteen Minutes writer Mark J. Chiusano ’12 wrote a collection of short stories entitled “Marine Park” for his creative thesis. This year, the collection was published by Penguin Books.

Chiusano, who applied to creative writing classes twice his freshman year without success, took fiction writing classes with English Department lecturers Bret A. Johnston and Amy Hempel during his sophomore year before applying to write a creative thesis. Chiusano wrote a couple of stories in theses workshops about elderly people in a park near his house—Marine Park. He applied for a creative thesis with this in mind and spent the next year crafting the stories (with help from manuscripts and maps found in Harvard Library) that dealt with the creation of the park.

"After I graduate, I'm going to go to New York City to be a music director, and this thesis was really pivotal in me figuring that out because it affirmed how much I love the creative process and how much theater can do," Madeline A. Smith '14 says.

Chiusano feels fortunate that he was able to publish the book and continue to write. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation—I wanted to keep writing and keep working on the collection, but I didn’t know in what form,” he says. “I was lucky in that a friend of mine helped me find an agent, and I worked on the collection for another six or so months, and then my agent sent out the manuscript to a bunch of publishing companies.”

Musician and poet Matthew A. Aucoin ’12 has experienced similar success. Aucoin, who writes both poetry and music, wrote a collection of poems for his senior thesis in English while simultaneously composing an opera. Recently, Aucoin had an opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

As both a musician and a poet, Aucoin feels the two disciplines really interact. “For me, it’s all really part of one process. I think of words as little pieces of music because if you kind of think about it in a more sensory way, they are shaped sounds such as you could make with an instrument,” Aucoin says. “To write poetry is to re-immerse words in what we hope to be their original music, to figure out some of the underlying significations to find the ones that might not be the most comfortable for us. So I think the more musically aware we are, the more accurately we can create language. And that formula works both ways.”

THERE FOR THE TAKEOFF

The English Department does not have a monopoly on creative theses. Madeline A. Smith ’14, a joint concentrator in classics and music, recently completed her creative thesis—a musical based on Euripides’s play “Alcestis.” Smith, an active member of Harvard’s theater community, donned various hats in creating this musical—choosing and translating the text, composing all of the music, choosing instrumentation, and setting the words to music. “The aspect of classics that I love is their art—their poetry, their theater—and as an aspiring artist that’s why I’ve always loved it. So the first thing I knew was that if there was any way I could push my thesis in an artistic direction, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Smith credits her advisors, Professor Gregory J. Nagy from the Classics Department and Richard A. Beaudoin, a preceptor in the Music Department, with supporting her and enabling her to complete such an unconventional thesis.

Smith said her experience during the thesis confirmed her love of music directing. “After I graduate, I’m going to go to New York City to be a music director, and this thesis was really pivotal in me figuring that out because it affirmed how much I love the creative process and how much theater can do,” she says.

Beaudoin, for his part, said he thoroughly enjoyed the process of advising a joint creative thesis. “It’s really a joy because you get to learn a lot about a subject that isn’t your specialty and you get to watch the student struggle with and make something of that discipline, [which] isn’t your discipline,” Beaudoin says. “To see Madi choose a text, to see her translate a text and in the meantime realize how strange and interesting the text was…and then when it translates itself into a libretto and that libretto translates itself into a piece of music, then it gets really quite exciting because I’ve been part of the pre-thinking. Here, you’re there for the takeoff.”

VISUAL CREATIVITY

A joint concentrator in sociology and visual and environmental studies, Sheema Golbaba ’14 decided to display both the critical and creative sides of her studies in two theses: a critical paper in sociology and a film for VES. As an Iranian-American, she focused on the identities and assimilation of Iranians in the United States for both theses.

Golbaba stayed with families in Southern California, where a dense concentration of Iranian-Americans exists. “I looked for parallels and discrepancies between and across generations, from the grandparents, who sometimes can barely speak English, to the parents who probably came here either right before, during, or immediately after the revolution, and how their culture is essentially communicated to their kids and how their kids actually respond to it,” she explained.

Golbaba looked specifically at college-age Iranian-Americans. “At the time of 9/11, they were at a very critical juncture in terms of their development.” She stayed with each family for a few days and interviewed them in formal settings as well as observing their everyday life and constructed a cinematic narrative through it.

While Golbaba submitted her film this past week, she will continue to work on the piece until its screening in early May.

PUSHING BOUNDARIES

Mariel Pettee portrait
Creative theses are possible even in disciplines that are not traditionally associated with them. Mariel N. Pettee ’14, a joint concentrator in physics and mathematics, created a dance piece called “Symmetry Breaking” that will be performed in Farkas Hall during Arts First on May 3-4. As both a physicist and one of the Office of the Arts’s “Emerging Choreographers” of 2014, Pettee was first made aware that such a project was possible while interning at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN), where she interacted with its Arts Department.

Pettee’s thesis aims to explain the Higgs boson particle to the audience in as many ways as is possible—through dance, through interactions between the dancers, through lights, and even through the audience’s own interaction with the piece as they hear noises coming from one room and must trace the noises back to the source in order to discover what is going on.

Like Smith, Pettee’s thesis was made possible by the cooperation of various groups to support her in her endeavor. “I’m so grateful—I’m receiving support from such a diverse group of people at Harvard, which suits the nature of the project,” she says. “My cast is this really eclectic and talented group, and so is my staff, and the people who have supported me are in the Office of the Arts, and in the Physics Department, and in the [Undergraduate Council], and in HRDC, so it’s kind of from all over the place, and it feels cool that I don’t know exactly where to place it, so it’s exciting how collaborations like this can happen.”

THE PAYOFF

A collection of stories, a staged piece, or an original film may lack the surface austerity of 50 to 100 double-spaced pages of analytical writing. But the thoughtfulness and dedication with which students approach these projects, as well as the quality of the work they produce, suggest that in the mind of those who complete them creative theses are just as valid a way of demonstrating scholarship as their critical counterparts.

Smith speaks to this point when she cites affirmation of creativity’s academic worth as the most rewarding part of her thesis. “This confirmed for me that creativity and artistic expression are valid forms of scholarship.”

Staff writer Layla Siraj can be reached at layla.siraj@thecrimson.com.

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