Demystifying the “Black Box” Part I: Holy Moly I Have to Write a Thesis

This is it. After an R3, two JPs, and the countless research papers in between, I’m expected to craft the 15,000 to 20,000-word magnum opus of my Princeton career. And I have to say, I still don’t really know how it’s all going to go down.

There’s something I like to call the “black box” of every Princeton student’s research career. You’re given a massive independent research project to undertake, then some wizardry happens in Firestone, a lab, or studio, and voilà everything is complete! This second “magical” step is the black box: no one from the outside can see what goes into the project’s actual assembly. We only see stress as a side effect of this mystical process, and then a final product. Throughout the year, I hope to demystify this black box by revealing my own thesis-writing process: the highs, lows, brainstorming, writing, and of course, the research.

The “black box” metaphor is actually computing jargon for a system only understood in terms of inputs and outputs, with its inner workings remaining mysterious. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies Se7en, “What’s in the [thesis] box?” We’ll find out together!
So what does writing my thesis look like in its initial stages? Right now I’m still brainstorming and narrowing down my thesis topic, which will be about how Public Service Announcements (PSAs) subvert the capitalist practices within traditional commercial advertising, using some French theory as a lens (shout out to the Department of French and Italian!). Fortunately and unfortunately that’s a broad topic with nearly infinite directions, so I’m working on figuring out more specific direction.

I’m beginning this process by looking at my JPs, which also dealt with my thesis topic, but used a small number of specific examples. Both papers were divided into sections where I argued different points, and while re-reading them, I’m treating each section as if it were its own paper related to my thesis. I’m asking myself questions like: Assuming I had ten more pages to write for each section, which other theories could I incorporate to corroborate the arguments I was making? How can I specifically incorporate the topic of capitalism? How would different theorists critique my arguments, and how can this inform a strong rebuttal?

I also applied for funding to spend fall break in various museum archives and libraries in Paris to study the advertisements that influenced the French theorists I’ll be drawing from. Even if my application is unsuccessful, going through the specificity of the application was a great starting point. I essentially had to reverse-engineer my main research question by explaining in detail how and why this fall break research would contribute to my project. How would studying 19th century soap ads next to 1980s French car commercials add dimension to my arguments? I don’t want to rehash my entire funding application here, but I am thinking about directions such as the development of commercial ad design, and how these ads reflect and attract the audience and capitalist society they were created for. These are also questions I’ll be asking myself in reviewing my last two JPs to advance the work I’ve already done. So that’s where my research process is at the moment.

Emotionally, I’m incredibly excited, yet nervous. I’m excited to see my ideas come to life and lead every development in my thesis myself (with help from my advisers and support from friends, of course!). I cannot wait to produce the longest piece of original research I’ve ever done, and surprise myself along the way. I’m nervous for a lot of the same reasons I’m excited—a thesis is a lot of responsibility. I want it to be an amazing project, not just to please my department or the University, but to prove to myself that I am capable of having my own ideas—even the most random ones that jolt me out of bed at 3:00 am—come to fruition. I want to be proud of my thesis, and I’m putting the pressure on myself to leave no stone unturned in reaching that standard.

With all that said, I’m happy to take you on this journey of making the black box a little more transparent. Here’s to the beginning of a long process, and to the end of its obscurity.

 –Elise Freeman, Humanities Correspondent