Sunday, April 12, 2009

Writing An Honors Thesis: It's A Big Frakkin' Deal

I just finished editing the last senior honors thesis chapter I have, although I imagine a few conclusions may come my way in the next 48 hours. My three seniors are pretty much on their own now. I have located as many split infinitives as I can find, and written primly in a comment for each somewhere along the line: "Never use a ten dollar word when a five dollar word will do" (where did I learn that? My grandfather? The Andy Griffith Show?) When I edit the same habits come up over and over again: at a certain point I hit one repetition, one misplaced semicolon, one odd word choice too many. "Eliminate this word wherever you find it!" I hiss from a red comment bubble; or, "History is written in the past!!!!!"

Editing theses at this stage is about the trees, not the forest; it is about wanting all the hard work to be shown to its best advantage; it is about teaching writing intensively at a moment when students are open to learning it in a way they may never be again; and it is about coming to terms with what the work, in the end, will be -- not what it could have been. For my students, at this point, it is about stamina. And with most of the thesis, even though you are busy pruning the trees at this point, you can see the shape, texture and significance of the forest emerging all the same.

But after I had finished everything I had on my computer, I took the dog for a walk and thought about how proud I am of all my thesis writers, every single one I have ever worked with. At my age you get very sentimental about things like this. Here I am nearly fifty-one years old -- my guess is that I have advised forty or more of these things, which signifies forty relationships that will always be special, forty people out there with whom I will always share the special bond of having seen through this scholarly achievement.

Since I have this bully pulpit, I just want to say to all of you, past, present and future thesis writers: it is a great privilege to be able to be part of the process of watching you grow and become defined as an intellectual. It's a huge achievement to complete your first major piece of writing, regardless of whether it is borderline publishable or whether it isn't exactly what you imagined it would be, but it is finished all the same. This year's group -- a passionate and committed trio of feminist scholars -- probably don't know that there are a whole crowd of spirits (The Ghosts Of Thesis Writers Past) cheering them on, but there are. These are, of course, real people, who have gone on to have a variety of careers, but no matter how grown up they are, or how far away they go, I feel that their spirits gather at this time of year to clap and cheer you new ones across the finish line. Eight of you are academics, three with tenure and two coming up for tenure this year; one is a very famous erotic writer and sex educator; one works in education policy and another -- her husband (and they met outside my office waiting for their thesis tutorial appointments) -- is a journalist. Three others are politically committed attorneys, at least two of whom are practicing law in the field they wrote their thesis in, and one of whom has devoted his life to defeating our nation's love affair with capital punishment.

So take heart, Zenith thesis writers of 2009! You are almost done. And it's a big frakkin' deal that you tried, that you stuck with it, and that on Tuesday your commitment to yourself will be complete when you turn the damn thing in.

97 comments:

Janice said...

Congratulations on helping forty or so scholars get through such an important hurdle! I served on one honours thesis committee this year and it's always a great reminder of how amazing student work can be, even if we do have spend a lot of our time reiterating the rules for capitalization and questioning arcane verb choices.

Congratulations to your students as well -- I know that they must be excited as it comes to the final hurdle.

Susan said...

You make me feel sentimental too -- but I think there is a sentimental element to teaching: you're always looking forward with someone, and you know that while you launch them, you may stay in touch, but your part is done...

And thesis writing is indeed very cool.

Anonymous said...

"I have located as many split infinitives as I can find, and

[...]

that on Tuesday your commitment to yourself will be complete when you turn the damn thing in."

:)

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Anonymous @ 9:28: Huh? "To" in that sentence is a preposition. OTOH, split infinitives are often fine; the "rule" against them was created by prescriptive grammarians who were too focused on Latin. (In Latin you can't split an infinitive, because it's one word.)

TR: Congratulations!

Rocketman said...

As a former Radical thesis advisee I know first hand just how encouraging, caring, and helpful TR can be. Not just when all is said and done, but throughout the process. I don't know how other people's thesis process went, but it was an unbelievable blessing to have a mentor like TR. You were one of very few people who encouraged me to pursue my scholarship and passion from a perspective that was uniquely mine. My thesis endures as my most valuable Zenith experience, and TR may have been the most invaluable piece of that experience. So bravo to all those finishing their theses this year! I hope they appreciated their time with TR as much as i did. Im sure I speak for the 40 plus these advisees when I say thank you to you TR and to all those Profs. out there who put the same energy into their advisees.

Sam said...

I like your words about that editing theses at this stage is about the trees, not the forest; it is about wanting all the hard work to be shown to its best advantage; it is about teaching writing intensively at a moment when students are open to learning it in a way they may never be again; and it is about coming to terms with what the work, in the end, will be - not what it could have been.
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Anonymous said...

you may stay in touch, but your part is done...who were too focused on Latin. (In Latin you can't split an infinitive, because it's one word.)
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