Saturday, September 19, 2009

'Toying' with Thesis Writing

It was the first week in May (our spring semester finals were still going on) when we received the syllabus for our American Studies senior thesis seminar.  Probably five minutes after the syllabus entered my inbox, my phone starting beeping incessantly with text messages from my American Studies friends, everyone instantly stressed and apprehensive about the seminar's workload.

Despite receiving an impeccably precise and detailed syllabus months before our class began, we all were just as apprehensive months later as we walked into the seminar on that first day.  The American Studies major's characteristic flexibility in class selection and fluid interdisciplinary requirements seemed to skip over the thesis seminar component of the major:  each year the thesis seminar course has a set, concrete topic and series of required readings to accompany it. In comparison with other thesis courses at both Fordham and other universities, it seemed limiting and restrictive, not open, inviting to new ideas and personalized for each thesis topic.  While I was very aware we did not have to write on the theme of the seminar, it was astoundingly difficult to look at all the required reading and fathom how we would get this reading done in addition to independent research on our specific topic.

This week's class definitely settled this unrest, as we spent the class discussing the extreme amount of pain but also the sincere pride that comes out of conducting original research.  Our professors offered a few perspectives about thesis writing that I had never considered that I'd like to share here:

Writing a thesis is like playing with toys:  Well, I will admit the surface-level analogy is pretty weak (toys are fun and so is thesis writing!) but the root of the comparison is interesting.  At this stage of our projects, many of my classmates and I have all these ideas we want to explore (the running joke is that whenever someone makes an interesting observation, even with questions as trivial as why do freshman only walk in herds of 20, we respond with "ohh that could be a great thesis topic").  Everyone of us has either changed their thesis topic/research question 4 times already or has at least questioned their project decision.  To settled our indecisiveness, Professor Kim suggested looking at all these observations/ideas/potential thesis topics as "intellectual toys."  While he did not go into the following specifics, for me at least, the comparison made a lot of sense.  Ultimately, you have to choose a topic with which you will not get bored - it has to be one of those toys you played with over and over, not just the toy that you played with only once and ignored from then out.  In addition to this, the thesis topic has to be durable and strong - it can't be like one of those cheap toys that broke after the first time you played with it - because it has to last all semester and for many, many pages of intellectual insight.  Finally, it is impossible to explore all the topics you want at the same time, as it was impossible for us to play with all our toys at the same time, so you must pick your favorite one.  The comparison works for me holistically because of this: most of us did not stand in the toy store or in front of a tv ad and say "Mom, that is going to be my favorite toy."  Kids are naturally drawn to certain material playthings and I think that intellectual pursuits follow the same type of natural disposition. We are naturally drawn to certain topics, and these topics should ultimately be what we write our thesis on, "our intellectual toy." 

Writing a thesis is like drowning:  Drowning in information, yes, but our professors put it best, it is most like "drowning in intellectual confusion." I had always pictured research as very invigorating, a constant high, like swimming those first laps in a pool.  However, it has not really felt like that at all and our professors provided us with this solace, that it is ok to feel like you are drowning trying to find answers.  After all, if we knew the answers to our research questions before, there really would be no reason to pursue these projects.  Drowning is ok, because there are lifeguards to help us out, like our seminar professors, our other advisors and even the sources of our topic's existing scholarship.  It is ok to drown for a little while because it teaches you how to pull yourself back up to the surface, just like "intellectual confusion" teaches you how to distinguish good sources, decipher complex theories and ultimately write an excellent paper on your findings.

Clearly after Thursday's class, our original apprehension from May has somewhat settled.  After all, we're basically just playing with toys and going for a swim.


Sara said...

Amanda, I am so happy you posted this. This weekend I was agonizing over a thesis topic and certainly felt like I was "drowning"!

I am not sure who said this, it may have even been you, but a student in class said something about her feeling stuck in a rut when it came to her thesis research. Because she did not have a thesis topic, she did not know where to focus her reading. Therefore, she was reading source after source, feeling very overwhelmed. However, she knew that in order to craft an acceptable thesis, she MUST read A LOT about a particular topic. So how does one break out of this stressful cycle of intellectual confusion?

By mentioning our professor's reference to "playing with toys," you really helped put my mind at ease. :)

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