As is a mandatory right-of-passage for all seniors, I completed my senior thesis for my Politics major last December. Since deliberating in February 2018, I had gone through several iterations of my thesis question, read at least several hundred pages of articles and books, and ended up with sixty-six pages of final draft material. Through endless hours of meticulous reading and dedicating (without exaggeration) every day and night of my Thanksgiving break to revisions, I bound my physical copy on December 6. Surrounded by my closest friends, I was trembling from breathing the deepest sigh of relief of my life; I had done it.
My thesis journey was by no means exceptionally difficult, especially when compared to those students working on high honors and with original data. Nevertheless, from my first hour of initial research in Ladd to the very moment I printed the last page of my bibliography, I couldn’t help but wonder: was it all worth it?
To write a thesis is, for us undergrads, a privilege in many ways. It is a perfect writing sample to send to future employers, allowing us to synthesize the courses of our majors, and forcing us to break apart what makes for a compelling argument.
But as it is currently run, a thesis argument is catered to an academic audience. Thesis is by design meant to simulate an upper-level dissertation we might encounter in graduate school, be it for an MA or even a Ph.D. To be sure, academic writing is often insightful and very important to advancing our understanding on higher ideas, but it is anything but accessible.
In this vein, senior thesis prioritizes neither a creative approach to writing nor one that is especially multifaceted. Our thesis question and the summary of our subsequent argument needs to be incredibly specific and constantly follow a precise academic writing style.
You’re probably familiar with the common expression, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I don’t buy that. If my Politics major has taught me anything, it’s that good questions and arguments don’t have easy answers. More radically, one answer doesn’t need to be indisputable to be useful. Politics, the humanities at large, and even the hard sciences need to reconcile that the real world, the one outside of Bates, is full of the questions and puzzles that should be answered in ways that aren’t reduced to sixty pages.
At the end of the day, these opinions are my experience and my experience alone. I knew long before senior year that I was not naturally adept at academic writing and was not much of a debater. I am still proud of the thesis I wrote. But as I said, I prefer my opinions to be general and constantly evolving, not fixed into a precise, packageable statement. In many ways, my critique of senior thesis is more a critique of academia itself, and the blame for that can’t possibly be put on any lone professor or university.
However, I have come to the personal conclusion that thesis needs to be changed. That which would replace thesis, as it currently exists, is up for debate. The simplest solution would be to make it voluntary by removing it as a requirement for graduation. Perhaps capstone projects and interactive research within the local community or abroad could be given greater funding and institutional support. We could even remove the argumentative foundations of thesis and instead turn it into an exploratory exercise.
I by no means have the answers to these questions. That’s the point. We don’t need to immediately and conclusively have an answer to solve and explore a problem. We are a tiny school and a close-knit community. We have the time, resources, and interpersonal rapport to come together and find new ways to foster intellectual rigor as we bid our seniors farewell.