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More Readers for the Senior Thesis

June 5, 2012

Frantic seniors are known to spend days camped out in a library composing their theses. When they finish, that capstone document often ends up buried on a musty shelf in that same building.

Unsatisfied with having months of hard work and dozens of pages of scholarship sitting unread in a library stack or an adviser’s desk drawer, several students are taking advantage of a Huffington Post project that allows them to publish a summary of their research (800-1,000 words) on the online news site.

To be sure, some ambitious undergraduates have sought publication of their research, or parlayed their senior thesis into a master’s or doctoral project. And in recent years, colleges have started publishing theses and dissertations in online databases. But it seems the typical undergraduate thesis – even if the author spent a year collecting interviews, poring over literature and weaving it all into a book-length document – is still relegated to obscurity.

Crystal Bui, a December graduate of Tufts University, didn’t want that to happen. She spent months composing a thesis on the role of Judy Blume's children’s books in a child’s development. The topic was personal – Bui said she learned a lot about “how to be a girl” from reading Blume’s books – and she believed it was important to examine whether that was healthy.

After seeing a tweet from the The Huffington Post encouraging seniors to send in summaries of their theses, Bui did. It’s now featured on the Thesis Project’s main page.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Bui said. “I like that the material is out there. I think with a topic like this it provides more of a discussion.”

Three copyright law experts said the project seemed like a reasonable way for students to receive public recognition for their work without giving up the copyright.

But there could be drawbacks. Christopher Cordingley, a recent University of Montana at Missoula graduate who posted a summary of his thesis on public transportation, was turned away by an academic journal because his work had been partially published elsewhere. Still, Cordingley said he’s enjoyed getting feedback from commenters and likes having his work easily accessible.

Cordingley and Bui’s theses aren’t likely to be the subject of future controversy, but wannabe politicos with a controversial research topic might want to think twice about making their capstone project easily Googleable. Even without the aid of the Internet, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s master thesis at Regent University became a campaign issue in 2009 when someone found a copy in the college library. The thesis contained critiques of working women, feminists and “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” McDonnell said his views had since changed.

In 2008, Republicans failed to find a copy of Michelle Obama’s senior thesis at Princeton University. Her thesis explored the black experience at Princeton.

“I suppose if you were thinking about a career in politics, you might want to think twice,” said Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus University who has studied copyright law. (Fister also blogs for Inside Higher Ed.)

But as a whole, Fister sees the Huffington Post project as a mixed bag. “I think what it does show is there’s an interesting and refreshing shift in people’s attitudes about their writing” in which students want to share work that would previously have been seen as “just for school,’’ Fister said. “The only thing about it that makes me a little bit uncomfortable is that it’s all so framed around self-marketing.”

But the four students who had published a thesis summary on Huffington Post who spoke with Inside Higher Ed said they were less interested in marketing themselves than in starting a conversation around their research. One student did turn it into a bit of a marketing opportunity. Will Levitt, a Wesleyan University senior who wrote about Italian cuisine, landed a gig writing for Huffington Post’s food page shortly after his thesis was published.

Multiple messages left over a two-day period with a Huffington Post spokesman and deputy college editor Rebecca Harrington were unanswered. The site continues to solicit senior theses, though it appears none have been posted in the last two weeks.

The Huffington Post makes clear that students maintain full rights to their work, something that Gizele Rubeiz said she made sure of before submitting her thesis on, of all things, copyright law.

For Rubeiz, who just graduated from Indiana University at Bloomington, the Huffington Post project was a way to draw attention to a long-term project that included a trip to the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.

“I want to get it out there,” she said. “I think people would be interested in this. Here’s a way to do that.”

Kevin Smith, director of scholarly communications at Duke University, said Rubeiz's reasons can make sense. But he cautioned that students who have future plans for their research should check with any scholarly publications they were considering before submitting to Huffington Post.

At Duke, Smith said, all graduate students and some undergrads post their theses to an internal database that anyone can access. Fister, the Gustavus Adolphus faculty member, said that most colleges have such databases now, though they’re likely to attract fewer page views than a Huffington Post story.

Still, she believes such options might be a “less discoverable but also perhaps more dignified or scholarly way” of sharing one’s research.

 

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