Ask a professor: What a thesis means at Vassar in 2015

Pictured above, seniors Alix Masters, Rachel Garbade, Emma Foley, Bethan Johnson, Sean Chang and Yasmeen Silva pose with the product of their semester- and year-long thesis endeavors.
Pictured above, seniors Alix Masters, Rachel Garbade, Emma Foley, Bethan Johnson, Sean Chang and Yasmeen Silva pose with the product of their semester- and year-long thesis endeavors.
Pictured above, seniors Alix Masters, Rachel Garbade, Emma Foley, Bethan Johnson, Sean Chang and Yasmeen Silva pose with the product of their semester- and year-long thesis endeavors.

“Your thesis is like your first love: difficult to forget,” writes Umberto Eco in his manual “How To Write a Thesis.” If Vassar students were to write a similar guide, it might be a little less romantic and a little more like this:

  1. Find an adviser with the same obscure interests as you.
  2. Avoid said adviser when you’ve neglected to turn in any work to them.
  3. Cry.
  4. Fashion those tears into 40 or more pages of writing.
  5. Take a selfie with the completed product. (Bonus points if it’s taken outside of the library.)

Indeed, there are some parts of the process that have endured and some that have changed dramatically since Eco wrote his book in 1977. In his New Yorker piece, “A Guide to Thesis-Writing that is a Guide to Life,” Associate Professor of English Hua Hsu weighs these differences against the relative value of undertaking a semester- or year-long endeavor meant to represent the culmination of a college career. Is the stress worth it? The long hours in the library? The writer’s block?

“Ultimately, it’s the process and struggle that make a thesis a formative experience,” writes Hsu. “When everything you learned in college is marooned in the past—when you happen upon an old notebook and wonder what you spent all your time doing, since you have no recollection whatsoever of a senior-year postmodernism seminar—it is the thesis that remains…”

Though for some seniors this may feel more like a threat than an offering of hope, in recalling their own theses and experiences as advisers, professors maintained there is something to be gained by writing a thesis.

Hsu recounted, “I loved the process because it was so independent. I spent a lot of time in college making zines and undertaking these independent projects, so it was like that, but for credit. I loved being in my own little world.” Hsu received his bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, where it took meeting the right professor to convince him to pursue a thesis.

“I wrote my thesis on fantasies of race in American film under the guidance of the brilliant and kind professor Michael Rogin, perhaps the only person in my department (Political Science) I actually liked. To this day I still feel sad that I never discovered his courses until my senior year,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

On the first day of his senior year Hsu took his first-ever class with Rogin; 15 minutes into the session, he said, he was drafting a speech to persuade the highly lauded professor to work with him on a project—any project. “The thesis was more of an excuse to spend more time with him than anything,” joked Hsu.

This professor-student bond can be as valuable for advisers as it is for advisees. Associate Professor of English and Director of Jewish Studies Peter Antelyes said he treats each of the theses he advises like a mini course, meeting with his students weekly to go over readings and materials. But while in the classroom setting Antelyes may be in charge, he finds that with theses he’s often right alongside his students, learning as they learn, discovering as they discover.

“The sense is that you’re working closely with someone and you’re thinking it through together,” he said. “Of course, the student has to do the work and we do the reading and commenting on it…But whoever I work with I end up having to read what they’re reading, because that’s part of the job.”

Though professors often act as living databases, referring students to texts helpful to their projects, at times thesis-writers may have a point of inquiry beyond the expertise of their advisers.

Post-doctoral Music fellow Justin Patch found this to be true when he was asked to co-advise a thesis on author Richard Wright. When exploring the issues of race Wright narrativizes in his novels, the student decided to examine a sect of hip hop dealing with some of the same issues. That’s where Patch comes in: “If a student comes to me and wants to talk about something dance or cognitive science-related, I can guide them to someone who is specialized in those areas…That’s really key on this campus and I think it makes the thesis process a lot richer,” he said. “If, for example, you’ve never taken a biology class you get the chance to talk to a biologist one-on-one about something you’re really passionate about.”

For thesis writers, having the undivided attention of a professor is a major perk, and feeling as though you’re on an equal playing field with them can be a rite of passage. But in the early tentative stages of their projects, or in times of crisis and uncertainty, students still need to lean on their advisers for guidance.

“Most of the time people come into it without really knowing what they’re going to do,” said Antelyes. He added that he often works with students over the summer or the semester before they’re writing their thesis to make sure they’re adequately prepared. Nonetheless, Antelyes admitted that there are some parts of the process that can’t be planned for. “What’s that old line? ‘The form is never more than an extension of the content,’” he recited. “When you decide what you’re going to explore, the form has to suit whatever that is. But sometimes it works in reverse: Form dictates content.”

Antelyes recalled working with Emma Gregoline ’15, whose thesis took the form of a graphic essay. He said this was one instance where, at times, the content had to follow the form and this was something he and Gregoline had to brainstorm together to make sense of.

“Sometimes she would literally redraw the image in order to recontextualize it and also to learn what the person was doing. Then she would draw herself into the image or talking to the image—that all happened organically when she was trying to think about how she was going to do this. And then she said, ‘What if I also want to do that with theorists?’ and so I said, ‘Do that—quote them, but have them speaking their theory and make it a conversation,’” said Antelyes. Amid this process, Antelyes said there was a moment when it occurred to him that Gregoline had found the voice of her thesis. In one panel of her comic, Gregoline as herself asks Judith Butler a question about gender performance and she replies, “I don’t know, I’m only a drawing of Judith Butler.”

“That’s when Emma became Emma,” he said.

In the process of writing her thesis, Gregoline contacted the comic artists she was writing about and meet with them. She then drew these interactions into her graphic essay and they became an important part of her project. While Gregoline literally entered a conversation with the subjects of her thesis, Patch asserted that this aspect is central to the thesis. “The thesis is about figuring out whose ideas resonate with you and why, and then to jump down the rabbit hole—though not too deep; after all they have to be done soon!—and to be able to see yourself in this larger context of a legacy of intellectual inquiry,” Patch said.

As Antelyes suggests, because we are all different thinkers, this intellectual inquiry may take different forms. And just as technological literacy becomes more important to employers, so it does to students completing theses. “I have one student who’s doing a series of podcasts on what makes music catchy,” said Patch. He continued, “Technology is becoming more and more a part of theses, if for no other reason than that it’s pragmatic given the amount of technology you have to deal with at the professional level. It’s important that students have hands-on experience because the days of handing in a writing sample, while not numbered, will start to apply to fewer fields.”

At Vassar, many of the changes impacting how students approach their theses come from larger questions of curricular and departmental policy. In the works for over a year now, the proposed Intensive Mentored Exploration (IME) would require all students to complete a capstone project. Antelyes is among those who have some concern about such an obligation, especially as a professor in a department that has an optional thesis.

“I love the fact that the people who write theses do it because they want to. It allows us to start with that energy and curiosity rather than start from the fact of, ‘Look, you’re going to have to do this.’ I don’t want to think from top-down requirements; I want to think of bottom-up interests,” said Antelyes, who had earlier laughed about the loose demands of his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence.

“I was there for two years and I think I wrote three papers. We did write long things for ourselves, because that’s what it was to be at Sarah Lawrence: You put on a leotard and found some dark place in the library and did your thing. But there was no big project and I’m sort of sorry because the people who I’ve been working with over the years really get something out of it,” he said. Antelyes estimated that over the last four to five years, the English department has seen a drop-off from 75 to 40 percent of its students writing theses. He suspected that it might be the sheer length and seeming inutility of the traditional thesis that deters them. “Who’s written a 40-page paper? It’s a monstrous thing to contemplate. But if you think, ‘I can put three papers together and do it that way, or I can do something partly creative and critical, or I can do long-form journalism…’ suddenly they begin to loosen up a bit,” said Antelyes.

Patch echoed these concerns, stating that if Vassar moves forward with a universal thesis requirement, it should give students some breathing room. “There’s all of this other type of learning that happens on campus and when we look at the capstone and the [IME] policy, there should be flexibility for students…so they come out on the other side better off for it,” he said.

For his master’s thesis, Patch investigated the intersections of music and the anti-war movement in Austin, Texas, where he spent over a year working alongside a grassroots organization. “I wrote about the changing nature of music and protest, because I was always reading about how protest music had this political significance. But what I ended up finding is that, at least the organization I was working with, it wasn’t so much about the message in the music as it was about getting musicians who were famous, who people would come to the rally and see.”

But before he immersed himself in the field, Patch was in a music conservatory devoid of a formal thesis requirement. “We did recitals, which is a very different process. But in some ways there’s something similar happening where you’re going back to pieces: You learn theory, you learn music history, you learn about aesthetics and philosophy and context and so when you go back to play Bach or Mozart you understand them differently.” Patch went on to say that this phenomenon is not unlike reading a book. The first time, he said, you might read it for a basic understanding of the plot and characters. The next time, you might look for metaphor, allusion and allegory.

“With music it’s much the same way. You don’t hear music the same way every time so even if your phrase structure is the same, the character you articulate is different….I think that, like reading a text where you’re reading the same words and you grow older and your experience broadens and your knowledge deepens, you read those words very differently. With music, you don’t look at the notes the same way after you’ve learned all this other stuff,” said Patch.

This is the thesis as self-discovery: In returning to books, articles, musical scores, the thesis-writer, inevitably ends up revealing just as much about themselves as they do their topic of exploration. On a campus like Vassar’s, where the thesis can take the form of anything from a formal research paper to a play to an art installation, the significance of the thesis becomes multifaceted. It can stand for the peak of a student’s academic career, an end point, a neat encapsulation of themselves and what they care about. It might be exploratory and experimental, a piece of scholarship completely new to the field or perhaps technologically innovative. Or it might be just another paper, just another all-nighter, just another stressor.

“I think the thesis probably symbolizes something different at a big state school, where our opportunities to talk at length with our professors are relatively limited,” said Hsu. “I cherished every moment of it because it brought me closer to my thesis adviser and I never had anyone advise (or take interest in me) in that way.”

At its core, the thesis is a snapshot of who you were and how you thought when you were a senior in college. But for Antelyes, the thesis doesn’t so much look back as it does look ahead. “Maybe one way to think of the thesis is as this transitional thing: You’re transitioning to being one kind of student to being another kind of student. It’s not just looking back and culminating or correlating what you can do, it’s looking forward to what you can be,” he said. “The thesis is never unmixed with that sense of what it means to graduate and what it means to have gotten to where you are.”


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