At the most recent Vassar Student’s Association (VSA) meeting, Professor Rebecca Edwards came to discuss the implementation of Intensive Mentor Exploration (IME), a type of senior capstone project that would be required of all students prior to graduation. Many majors already require students to complete a senior project or thesis, while even those departments that have optional theses still have a long history of students choosing to work on intensive and interesting projects. In making the proposed IME a requirement for every student, the type of projects allowed will be subsequently expanded, affording even more creativity on the part of students taking part.
As a concept, I applaud the efforts of the school to make senior projects required; I completed a senior thesis for my English major last semester (which was not required), was excited by and now proud of the work I did, and encourage all students to consider tackling such a project. In reality, I do not think that a senior capstone requirement will ever be implemented successfully. The problems lie in the amount of extra work this requires of Vassar faculty and the realities of many students’ senior year requirements.
The openness of the requirements for an IME means that every student should be able to come up with a project that is of interest to them, and of this I have no doubt. By the second semester of junior year, I am sure that every student on this campus has at least one interest they would like to pursue more thoroughly. I have seen impressive and intensive projects by senior classmates that pushed the boundaries of what a “thesis” is, yet still fulfilled the requirements of academic culmination and innovative individual thought. But a required thesis doesn’t just place an additional burden upon students who are already pressured by academic and non-academic factors alike.
Edwards emphasized—and the name implies—that the Intensive Mentor Exploration will require students to complete a project with at least one faculty mentor. This creates several problems. The first is the burden placed upon the individual professors, who will each be required to take on more advisees than in previous years. Many peers doing senior theses in the departments that currently require theses already lament that they are not as close to their advisors as they thought they would be, due to the fact that their advisor has so many other advisees and therefore cannot give them a great amount of attention.
I received a significant amount of help from my thesis advisor in the English Department, but I do not doubt that this would have perhaps been a different case had the professor had more advisees (and English theses are only one semester long, supposedly due to the fact that in a department with so many majors, it would be nearly impossible to require professors to work with students on year-long projects).
An additional problem arises with the issue of subject availability. Seniors decide which faculty they will be working with while they are juniors, based on the subject of their projects. If you want to complete a project on Italian opera, for example, you cannot just work with any music professor; your mentor should know a good deal about your subject so that they can best advise your research and your conclusions.
If every student is required to complete a senior project, I foresee many having to alter their plans during their college career due to overcrowding in certain areas, or certain professors in popular areas perpetually working with a large number of mentees.
Perhaps I am not giving enough credit to the power of Vassar professors, and Edwards did note that faculty would get an additional “workload point” for advising IMEs. While this alleviates strain on professors, it does add a different level of work than professors have expected from this institution, and it does not solve the problem that students would each be individually given less attention overall. In fact, it creates another problem: if professors are using a workload point to advise senior projects, they are not using that point toward teaching classes.
Students have already expressed concern that this would limit the already-small number of classes on offer each semester, especially for popular classes necessary for the major or courses only on offer every other year. Hiring more faculty would solve this problem, but this does not seem a likely conclusion, given Vassar’s recent economic focus.
Students who do complete theses have been thinking about their projects since well before senior year, and have scheduled the work into their senior-year plans. But for many students, senior theses just do not fit into their prospective life goals. While the College has framed IMEs as an academically cumulative capstone—much as the College sees senior year—the reality for many students is that senior year is just preparation for life after Vassar. Taking MCATs, LSATs and GREs are time-consuming; applying to graduate school is time-consuming; working as a student teacher or volunteer or intern in your prospective field is time-consuming; but they are all necessary aspects of senior year. For students who need the time to plan ahead, a senior project would be more burdensome than rewarding, just one more requirement to dread in an already heavily-loaded year. Perhaps the College could figure out a way to make interning or volunteering or working into an IME, like an intensive Field Work.
I encourage every junior currently heading toward the thesis proposal deadline to consider the project not just in terms of an academic accumulation of their years here, but as a rewarding personal processes and final project to take pride in; and to think outside the box in terms of what constitutes a senior project, at least if your department allows for such flexibility in your thesis or final project.
For many students, the thesis will be the most academically rewarding paper or project they complete here, and I see why it appears advisable to require one of every student. But such a requirement would put additional burdens upon Vassar faculty and inconvenience those students that need to take senior year to look beyond the work completed in the classroom.
—Danielle Bukowski ’14 is an English major.