Thesis Immersion and the Benefits of Freewriting

Photo by P.U. Office of Communications
A Senior Thesis boot camp held in Rocky Dining Hall over spring break, 2016. The author participated in a similar boot camp, organized by Mathey College, during Intercession 2020.

Working on my thesis over intercession, I found myself thinking about language. As anyone who has studied a foreign language likely knows, there are few substitutes for immersion. If we really want to learn a new tongue, be it French or German or Turkish or Spanish, we should spend as much time and mental energy as possible thinking about it. In this post, I suggest that there’s a transferrable lesson for thesis writers here.

When studying new languages, we aim for immersion because mental saturation is key. We strive not only to speak and to write in the new language, but to think (and perchance even to dream) in it as well. If executed with commitment and fortitude, taking the immersive plunge can yield impressive increases in one’s foreign language fluency. Conversely, early gains can be reversed or stalled when practice takes a backseat. To stay verbally sharp, especially in a new language, requires regular attention and serious engagement. 

The reader might now wonder why I have begun a thesis related post with an armchair discourse on the singular benefits of immersing oneself in another language. Quite simply, I’m suggesting we think about the senior thesis—or any other major project, really—in a similar way. I’m suggesting that we senior thesis writers strive for thesis immersion.

I’m writing this post from a “Senior Thesis Boot Camp,” held at Mathey College over intersession. It is here that I have seen and experienced the benefits of thesis immersion firsthand. For four days now, several friends and I have decamped to the Peter S. Firestone ’62 room below the Mathey dining hall and written. And written some more. Occasionally we break for snacks and coffee and chit chat, and yes occasionally I stray from pure thesis activities to do other things—like write this post—but by and large we are here, typing away.

The key to this whole image really is typing. There is a time for reading, but too much reading can simply get in the way of thinking. “Thinking must not be subdued by instruments. Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his The American Scholar address. Independent research rests heavily on independent thought, requiring us to set down the sources for a moment and to think. 

By engaging in freewriting especially, you’ll be forced to make some sort of progress on your project. Try not to immediately judge what you’ve just written—editing can happen later. What begins as not-so-good writing can quickly become elegant and insightful once you’ve written your way through a couple of mental roadblocks or ideational blockages. If you’re really stuck, step away from the keyboard for a moment, and perhaps seek out some additional inspiration in the form of music or a quotation that you like. In my experience, this typically clears my mind and gives me something new to think about, such that before long I’m scrambling to take note of some new idea that has flashed before the mind’s eye. Writing really is sort of weird like this, which is why my best advice remains to simply throw yourself at it. (For more on this, follow the link above to an excellent article on freewriting penned by a former PCUR!)

To sum it all up: Find a space, make the time, write, think, rinse and repeat. These are the principal elements of my simple prescription for thesis immersion. Let your mind swim in your topic, even if only for a few focused hours. I suspect you’ll be surprised at the result. 

–Shanon FitzGerald, Humanities Correspondent