Around the time when the majority of the Wes population is preparing for finals and looking toward the bittersweet end of the semester, seniors are cracking down on their thesis and capstone projects. The Argus spoke to five seniors in various departments on the rewards and challenges of the thesis process thus far.
For her senior capstone project, Sivan Battat ’15 said she was primarily interested in exploring and devising theater practices and ensemble-based playmaking, and in doing so shifting the standard director-actor setup into a more collaborative process. The resulting play, “The Serpent,” is being put on Dec. 4-6 through Second Stage at the ’92 Theater.
“‘The Serpent’ is kind of a slice of theater history,” Battat said. “It’s a very 1960s, very avant-garde piece. My interest in exploring ‘The Serpent’ was exploring how to generate material, how to explore themes of a text, physically, vocally, with an ensemble. [Building] a working ensemble through that guiding process and being less of a director and more of an enabler of all these people is how I’ve seen my role.”
She became familiar with ensemble-based theater practices her junior year abroad, at an acting conservatory in Moscow.
“The semester was really rigorous and really amazing, and it was all about devising as an ensemble,” Battat said. “So I spent a lot of time not only playing the director role but figuring out how we could all serve as directors and actors. The way that we did it in Moscow, we were basically throwing up creativity every night, and 90 percent of it would be bad and then the 10 percent that was good would be in our final showcase. But we were doing that seven days a week, 10 hours a day, and I couldn’t do that with college actors.”
Battat found the solution to her issue of time constraints in Jean Claude van Itallie’s text for “The Serpent.”
“I wanted to start with a text that was really flexible, a foundational text that we could use as a skeleton and build on, as opposed to building the whole body from the ground up,” said Battat. “‘The Serpent’ is often performed differently, it’s often used as a skeleton text—that’s its motif—so this is not such a unique approach, but in that it’s ours, it’s a totally unique ‘Serpent.’”
For Battat, the hardest part of the process has been deciding when to stop generating and when to start synthesizing.
“I would bring in a really weird improv exercise, we’d do it for an hour, and I’d be like, “That was really cool!” and then none of it would end up in the final product,” Battat said. “There was a lot of valuable work and it all feeds into the process, but we have generated a mountain of material much larger than what 60 minutes you see if you come to the show.”
The most notable rewards of the process, Battat said, are apparent in her ensemble of players.
“My actors are not just in a play; it’s theirs also, and that’s what I wanted, that everyone had a shared sense of ownership over it,” Battat said. “Knowing that I’ve been able to somehow craft that invested energy in my rehearsal space is really wonderful.”
Major: American Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Kelsey Henry ’15 experienced a change of pace in her thesis argument at the beginning of the semester. Initially, she was in agreement with a canonical text in queer theory by Jack Halberstam called “In a Queer Time and Place,” but ended up opposing it.
“He makes an argument that’s been very well received in academia, about how the [AIDS] epidemic changed queer time by issuing in a new time of extended adolescence, because gay people were dying so young, they had to build communities and build different kinds of lives that weren’t about growing old. It was all about the here, the present, the now,” Henry said. “I’m making an opposite argument. I’m interested in the population that survived, so queer people who maybe did contract the virus and also queer people that didn’t but were involved in things like Act Up! and other AIDS-activism groups, who are very much alive today and still impacted by the epidemic.”
Henry ultimately looks to respond to gaps in literature and cultural gerontology, which typically do not address sexuality in the question of aging.
“This is a concept that I’m calling contingent longevity: you might be growing old, but you’re growing old in the wake of a massive generational loss,” Henry said. “You’re growing old but still mourning, possibly chemically dependent on drug cocktails. Literature today has one very limited narrative of what it means to age successfully and that means without disability or disease, which already kind of ousts people with HIV from any kind of model of what it means to age successfully. We’ve never really asked what it means to be a queer person aging, especially today with an illness.”
Henry has been interested, both intellectually and personally, in how AIDS has affected the queer culture for quite some time.
“If I had been college-age in the ’80s, like my parents, as who I am—a queer woman—my friends would have been dying left and right,” Henry said. “There was one woman, Ann Philbin, she’s a lesbian activist, and in her interview she talked about weekly phone calls that she had with her parents where she would tell them how many of her friends had died that week and their response every week would be the same: ‘This shouldn’t be happening to you; this should be happening to us.’ And that’s where I got the idea of accelerated aging from. Gay people started going to funerals, and how crazy would that be in your 20s or 30s to experience generational loss in that way.”
For Henry, two of the most supportive people involved in her process have been her thesis advisor, Megan Glick, and her girlfriend, both of whom have been encouraging and challenging her.
“I turned something into Professor Glick a couple weeks ago and she was like, ‘This could be better. You have bigger stakes, larger things at hand than you realize,’’ Henry said. “She’s been very insistent upon pushing me to develop big concepts and big ideas and things I’m not used to, and defend them.”
Henry is a firm believer in concentrating on whatever topic excites you and keeps you passionate in your writing.
“If you find yourself in a rut, and you feel like what you’re writing about isn’t exciting to you in that moment, switch gears,” Henry said. “I think that people will get afraid if you’ve already written 10 pages in one direction that you can’t just like scrap it and start over. I’ve learned that you should not be so precious with your words, your writing, or your pages. If you’re really excited about something, write about that. Write about what you’re excited about, and it will take you in the right direction.”
For Ben Spiegel ’15, a critical thesis at the end of his English major was exactly the independent study project was looking for. Spiegel is studying his two of his favorite authors, William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon.
“I’m tracing an idea that I think starts sometime in the late 1980s, where global capitalism and latent capitalism and ideas like that have created this world where consumer goods aren’t really exciting anymore,” Spiegel said. “So the idea in these books that I’m looking at is to look at items and branded objects and the act of consumption in a way that’s new and interesting—more authentic, and better than, say, going to a department store and buying some market good made in China, something like that.”
For Spiegel, the most difficult part of the process came out to be the organization of his ideas.
“There’s never really a shortage of ideas,” Spiegel said. “I just think the biggest challenge is really trying to impose a structure on it. It’s easy to just write down whatever’s interesting to you, but to really situate it in an ongoing critical discussion and make it something that somebody else wants to read, I think that’s something that’s really hard.”
Speigel also found it challenging to determine whether something he wrote would ultimately prove useful to his thesis as a whole, but he found the process itself to be worthwhile.
“I hope people understand that critical theses in English are pretty cool and definitely worth doing,” Spiegel said. “I hope that other people don’t think I’m wasting my time.”
Major: Neuroscience and Behavior
Simone Hyman ’15’s took her thesis inspiration from her trip to Gudrat, a state in the northwest of India, the summer after her freshman year.
“I’ve worked in a schizophrenia cognition lab with Professor Matthew Kurtz since freshman year, and before that summer he was basically just like, ‘Wanna work for me this summer? You could do it in Middletown or you could do it in India,’” Hyman said. “So he sent me to India and I came up with this project to study the effects of stigma on individuals with psychotic mental illness, schizophrenia in particular, because that’s what I’ve been working with.”
That research spurred her 80-page neuroscience and behavior project, which will be supplemented with data from schizophrenia patients in Middletown. The combination of results from India and Connecticut come together to answer an important question in international psychiatry: do patients with schizophrenia have a better prognosis in a developing or a developed country? According to Hyman’s research, the answer is—perhaps surprisingly—that individuals observed tend to be happier in developing countries.
For Hyman, some of the most rewarding and most difficult parts of the process were doing her work in India. Analysis of her results has proven her efforts to be fruitful.
“It’s been really exciting to find that I have actually found things that were statistically significant, so I have already some valid conclusions,” Hyman said. “It’s also been really rewarding to be working on a project for my entire time at Wesleyan as opposed to deciding, ‘Oh, maybe I should do a thesis!’ I’ve been really embedded in it since I was a freshman, which has been really great.”
Hyman’s long-term involvement with her topic at Wesleyan made her thesis-writing process smooth.
“I think the advice I would have for future thesis writers would be if you think you’re going to write one, start thinking about it way earlier than it seems logical to,” Hyman said. “The more involved you can get and the more people you can reach out to help you to build this big network of support for your topic. The longer you’re working on it, the more resources you have and it will make it a more enjoyable and interesting process.”
Major: English, Theater, Dance (Thesis in Dance)
Tess Jonas ’15 has been thinking about performativity and spectatorship in interracial adoptive families since she was about two years old (though maybe not in those exact words).
“I remember when my brother Gabe came home from South Korea and we had to pick him up from the airport,” Jonas said. “I had to go to Bed Bath & Beyond to get a big girl bed, because he’d be getting the crib. I went to the checkout and told the cashier that ‘We’re going to the airport to get my brother today,’ and the woman looked at my mother like, ‘What is wrong with your child?’ And she was like, ‘No, yeah, that’s what we’re doing.’ I guess I’ve always been aware that my family structure because it looks different is something that people seek an explanation for.”
Jonas is looking at performativity in two forms: performativity based on performance and action, and performativity in terms of being watched, or spectatorship. The dance major involves two semesters of choreography, each of which is culminated in a 10-minute iteration of choreography, in conjunction with a 100-page paper.
“First semester I had a quartet of dancers, and I danced in the piece,” Jonas said. “It was about building a family based on shared experience, actions, roles, and physically supporting one another. So it was physicalizing notions of support and love and caring, and then abstracting them so it’s not like, ‘I’m lifting you! Hugs!’ There was also a lot of Peter Pan imagery in that, which was kind of cool because I kind of think of the Lost Boys as this kind of identifiably adoptive family.”
One of the most challenging parts of Jonas’s process was dancing in her own piece while having a very clear sense of her vision and intention behind the material. She had to articulate this meaning to the three other dancers. The most rewarding part, however, came with her ability to share her thesis with peers.
“Your friends support that you’re doing a thesis but like, are my friends going to read my 100 page paper at the end of this? No,” Jonas said. “But with arts theses, it’s cool because my friends all did come to see the performance. It’s a very tangible thing that we get to share.”
Jonas said she found the most support from people going through the same process.
“Miranda Orbach ’15 and Stellar Levy ’15, two of the other dance majors who are writing theses, and I have been very close throughout writing our theses and have been choreographing projects together for the last three years,” Jonas said. “We really do understand each others’ aesthetics and have been bouncing thesis ideas off each other for a long time. Having them as support as people who are going through the same thing but also invested in me and invested in my work is super helpful.”
Jonas admitted another challenging aspect of the process has been finding the time to dedicate to the written part of the thesis.
“I think as hard as it is to say do a little bit every day, do a little bit every day, even if that’s read over what you did the day before,” Jonas said. “If you backburner [it], it really does get cold and it takes effort to make it warm again, so it’s best to keep it warm the entire time.”
While Jonas’s work is a final project to culminate her time at Wesleyan, she said it also feels transitional.
“It’s like a capstone in some ways, but also very much like a rite of passage,” Jonas said. “It kind of sets you up to leave, and maybe part of how it does that is that it makes you so sick and tired of doing it that when you’re done you’re like, ‘Hooray!’ But it feels like a culmination and also a starting point, like how to think about things when you’re not in class all the time.”