Reframing the Senior Thesis for Intellectual Interest and Public Service

The author’s research notebooks alongside excerpts from Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, which partly inspired this post.

As we work our way into the fall semester, my fellow seniors might find some truth in the well-worn Dickens adage, “It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times.” While this sentiment assumes a different shape and quality for each of us, it does seem generally fair to say that our final fall of college brings with it many joys—such as the enjoyment of established friendships, institutional and departmental familiarity, and an overall excitement about the many possibilities ahead—as well as certain unique stressors, such as discerning what in the great wide world to do after graduation and, of course, writing that Senior Thesis. While no one blog post can assuage all of our collective life-directional angst, that needn’t stop us from thinking about how to make our present situation a little brighter. One key way in which I suggest we can do this is by reframing how we view our theses. Which is to say, if your thesis currently makes you feel stressed, bored, uneasy, or generally bad, I hope you will read on.

Don’t get me wrong—I get why the thesis can be a drag. Maybe you feel locked into a particular project or a previously arranged advising relationship that no longer excites you. Fear can also be a real player here, as we face the (understandably intimidating!) challenge of writing what is essentially a small book.

But such concerns shouldn’t define the whole of anyone’s senior year. Indeed, one problem with viewing the thesis in a negative light is that you might miss out on a genuinely exciting possibility: the chance to actually enjoy the process. With sufficient courage and forethought, you really can write about something of significant interest to you. Remember that this is your project—not your adviser’s, nor anyone else’s. If you feel pressured to go in a direction contrary to your passions, speak your mind and, if necessary, rethink your relationship with the relevant pressuring parties.

Consider also that a more positive mindset toward our work—thesis or otherwise—allows us to realize more of our creative potential. Pessimism grounds, while the positive mind soars. Reading The Limits of Critique recently, I was struck by literary critic Rita Felski’s arguments on the importance of affective mood in shaping humanistic inquiry; odds are, if you’re not enthused about your project, your writing will reflect that. Aim for the opposite. Your Senior Thesis should be a passion project, a labor of love—or at any rate, something you’ll be able to look back on as more than an obstacle to your diploma. Below I suggest two concrete ways of doing this.

The first is to look back on your recent intellectual life and ask yourself what you’ve enjoyed thinking, talking, and/or writing about. Perhaps a particular paper or professor comes to mind, or a class, or a book you sped through over the summer. Whatever the case, if it’s been on your mind a lot, odds are it’s something you’re durably interested in and could therefore devote the academic year to honing your views on. Personally, I found that I kept thinking about my positive experiences in Professor Seth Perry’s course on Religion in Colonial America and the New Nation, and now he’s my thesis advisor.

The second is to democratize your thesis. There can be a real tension between Princeton’s unofficial motto of “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity” and the jargon-laden discourse promulgated in many academic publications. While erudition has its place, I encourage you to ask yourself how you can share the fruits of your academic labors with a wider audience. Why have you chosen to study what you have at Princeton, and what should the rest of the world—particularly those who didn’t have that opportunity—know about it?

More than cause for fear or worry, the Senior Thesis presents us with an opportunity to marry our personal intellectual interests and the needs of a world wanting for good ideas. (See Wendy Kopp ’89.) Irrespective of what we study, I hope each of us considers how we can step up to this challenge.

–Shanon FitzGerald, Humanities Correspondent