The Gem of Cross-Disciplinary Thesis Advice

For better or worse, the university is internally cloistered as an academic institution. Walls literal and metaphorical separate the departments. This is perhaps most apparent to students on an administrative level; each department has its own academic guidelines, grading policies, and research expectations. Deeper differences, though, may present in modes and content of knowledge production. Disciplines often preclude interdisciplinarity. Divergent methodologies might be applied to the same subject matter to produce different results; within a department, the range of expertise might end up applying similar methods to wildly different subjects. 

I, for one, think that these disciplinary divisions often do more to stifle than to encourage intellectual growth or humanistic inquiry (on the problems and politics of the academic disciplines, see my interview with Daniela Gandorfer here). But, as things are, attempting to explain research across disciplines can be quite difficult– like speaking to someone in a different language without a translator. Seniors writing their theses are certainly familiar with this issue when trying to explain their work to people outside their department, or in some cases, anyone other than their adviser. When it comes to feedback on thesis work, then, it makes immediate sense to gravitate towards people with background in whatever you are writing about. They indeed might be able to give very pointed advice.

That said, there is still great value to turning towards those beyond the official borders of your discipline. A lack of familiarity with the subject matter can indeed be an asset– especially in terms of providing feedback on your writing and your writing/research process.

Just this week, I saw the benefits of non-expert feedback in action. As a senior in the European Cultural Studies (ECS) certificate program, each week I am required to meet with all my fellow certificate students to discuss thesis chapter drafts sent to all of us by one or two others in the group. Though all of us are bound by some common interests in European culture, we nonetheless come from a wide variety of concentrations; those coming from the same concentrations, meanwhile, are often writing about very different subjects for their thesis. Such interdisciplinary gathering is, in fact, the guiding principle of ECS, but the logic need not be limited to the program.

In our meeting we reviewed thesis chapters about the medieval philosopher Albertus Magnus and the rise of the French Orleans family, but we did not discuss the finer points of these niche topics. Rather, this (very) non-expert audience was able to offer the writers more general– though no less helpful– feedback, precisely by virtue of their non-expertness. Together, we pointed out places where terminology could be clarified; where more exposition was necessary; where, for the sake of the given chapter’s argument, certain sections might be rearranged for a better flow. In a word, we unfamiliar readers were far more attune to problems of form than to those of content. These kinds of macro-edits are incredibly important to the overall integrity of a large project. Even the best thesis research could not become a coherent thesis if it was not well-organized. 

Medieval Philosopher Albertus Magnus, an unfamiliar though illuminating subject

Furthermore, because of our eclectic backgrounds, we could make wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary connections to the presented works, which may not have come out of a conversation between intradisciplinary colleagues. For example, the paper on Albertus Magnus– from a philosophy concentrator– discussed his theories of climate and weather. I noticed that these ancient and medieval theories resonated quite a bit with some of the environmental theories of race I am reading in my own research on the 19th century American South. Bringing up this connection, I did not at all expect the student to then incorporate it into her paper, and she almost certainly will not. Still, such conversations can give perspective to a thesis project, pushing one beyond one’s niche– for myself, there is certainly a deeper significance to the intellectual history I am pursuing to know that its archaeology extends back centuries, if not millenia. 

This kind of engagement need not be limited to an ECS meet-up. Pick the brains of those willing around you: exchange drafts with your roommates, your friends, your club members. If you are stuck, try talking through an idea with someone unfamiliar with your topic (any of these willing peers around you), such that you are pushed to pare down concepts to their most basic terms.

Seeking these conversations with more experienced academics outside your field (like graduate students, postdocs, or professors) can be similarly helpful. Through the ECS mentorship program– again, a useful structure, but hardly necessary for the kind of relationships it builds– I have been speaking with a graduate student in the German department who works on post-war German literature, a far cry away from the Old South. Yet he has given me some of the best writing advice I have received, having had to write long monographs comparable to a Princeton senior thesis. Together, we have been able to work through outlining processes, scheduling, and overcoming writer’s block without getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of our respective research projects.

To emphasize yet again, the ECS program has only demonstrated to me the power of cross-disciplinary thesis advice; I am now simply inspired to spread its gospel beyond the formal structures it has provided. Prize thesis advice lurks hidden in the university world around you. You need only look beyond the stone cloisters of discipline to find it.

–Alec Israeli, Humanities Correspondent