After seven semesters of grueling essay writing and late-night cramming, many seniors are still hard at work. But this time, the work is more daunting than anything they have confronted before. According to President Michael Roth, more than two-thirds of this year’s graduating class is working on some form of capstone project, including theses, senior essays, performances, and exhibitions. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that a good deal of these seniors are locked in their carrels by choice; many of Wesleyan’s majors, after all, do not require theses.
Unlike some of its peer institutions—Haverford College, Reed College, and Princeton University included—Wesleyan has no overarching policy on theses. Rather, the policy varies by department. Some require a senior thesis, some require a capstone project that might not necessarily be a written thesis, and others do not require a thesis at all. President Roth expressed his belief that, though capstone projects are, in some departments, optional, they are nonetheless an important milestone in the Wesleyan experience.
“I don’t like requirements, but I think everybody should do some kind of project in their senior year that reflects what they feel has been most important in their education,” Roth said. “For some people, that would be a scholarly thesis, and for others, it might be an exhibition or a play.”
It’s hard to say exactly what motivates students to spend their final year at school working on extensive research projects, but it’s undeniably a popular choice.
Ethan Young ’13, a film major, was not required to complete a thesis, but he was eager to gain experience in film production before seeking a career in the industry. In Young’s experience, the film major strongly emphasizes history and analysis, so embarking on a thesis project—in his case, a 12-minute horror movie—was an opportunity to gain experience filming and editing his own work.
“It’s like losing your directorial virginity,” Young said. “I felt like this was a necessary part of gaining a full liberal arts education in film.”
Students in the Film Department may complete a screenwriting or production thesis; the latter, however, often requires a substantial amount of money, and requiring students to do this might put some at a disadvantage. As important as the thesis experience is to Young, he feels the department made the right decision in keeping it optional. In his opinion, the often-painstaking work of completing a thesis project should be a labor of love.
“What keeps people motivated throughout the process is the idea that they chose to do this and this is going to be a fulfilling experience, not something they’re being asked to do,” Young said.
Still, for Amy Block ’13, who is completing a requirement for the major in the College of Letters, the experience has been gratifying despite the fact that she did not have a choice in the matter. Creatively inclined like Young, she is writing a collection of seven short stories. Block appreciated the flexibility that the College of Letters offered her in choosing what sort of thesis she wished to do.
“They don’t really put constraints on what type [of thesis] you do as long as you can find an advisor,” she said. “I think I would object to it being required if they weren’t so liberal about what you can pursue.”
Roth also encouraged students to take charge of their own education, emphasizing that education should be an involved and ongoing process. Composing a thesis—or doing a non-thesis final project—gives seniors the opportunity to apply what they have learned to a project that encourages deep engagement with the subject matter.
“I want to run away from the notion that education is about checking off a box,” Roth said. “I think your education should be like a portfolio. Every year, you take something with you.”
With all the talk of intellectual fulfillment and stimulation, it is easy to forget that students have a concrete incentive to take the often-optional thesis route. For most departments that don’t require theses, only the students who submit them are considered for departmental honors. Yet for Rebecca Vaadia ’13, a biology major whose thesis explores the neural basis of vocal learning in songbirds, this was not the determining factor in her decision to do a thesis.
“It’s a nice incentive, for sure,” Vaadia wrote in an email to The Argus. “But I would have done one anyways.”
Despite the lure of high honors and enlightenment, not to mention the departments that do require some sort of thesis, some students maintain that theses just aren’t the right path for them. For example, Matt Motta ’13, a government major, opted out.
“I don’t think my heart was in it,” Motta said. “I had ideas for research, but I don’t think a thesis was how I wanted to express them.”
Not doing a thesis, however, does not mean that Motta is any less academically engaged than his thesis-pursuing peers. He spent last semester conducting a survey about advertising for the Wesleyan Media Project and received funding a few weeks ago to replicate it this semester.
Thesis or no thesis, it’s safe to say that this year’s seniors are hardly slacking off. Be sure to congratulate them this Friday at 4 p.m., when many of them submit their final projects and stagger into the daylight.