Theses are Forever

The presidential campaign has turned some work by college seniors into fodder for public debate. Some have mixed feelings about the scrutiny of such early academic writings.
February 28, 2008

This week, Princeton University lifted restrictions it had placed on public access to Michelle Obama's senior thesis. The limits on access to her scholarship on “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community” had fueled a small firestorm. (“What's Princeton Concealing for Michelle” read one headline Monday in The Conservative Voice.)

Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s Wellesley College senior thesis "has been speculated about, spun, analyzed, debated, criticized and defended,” as MSNBC wrote in May. Inaccessible during Bill Clinton’s presidency, “the writings of a 21-year-old college senior, examining the tactics of radical community organizer Saul D. Alinsky, have gained mythic status among her critics -- a ‘Rosetta Stone,’ in the words of one, that would allow readers to decode the thinking of the former first lady and 2008 presidential candidate.”

And so a document showcasing a college senior’s intellectual and analytical abilities, typically banished to a dusty library corner or box beneath the bed -- in some cases public by default but in actuality unexamined -- becomes a commodity of sorts, a clue to who a person is and was. What do academics think about that?

“Most of us in higher education have a mixed or ambivalent feeling about public scrutiny of a senior thesis,” said Colin Diver, president of Reed College, one of a handful of institutions that requires senior theses of all students. “On the one hand, it’s a very serious piece of undergraduate work. It’s sort of the culminating accomplishment of your undergraduate years. Presumably, it represents sustained, serious engagement on some issue. So in that sense, it’s fair game. On the other hand it was written by a 21-year-old who was still in a formative point of her life.”

“Let’s face it,” Diver said. “Some of the theses involve an outpouring of post-adolescent ideas or language that people later might find embarrassing.”

At Reed, all senior theses are bound, catalogued and placed in the library’s so-called “thesis tower,” said Peter Steinberger, dean of the faculty. “They can be checked out on interlibrary loan. They circulate like any other book.”

And some theses, in fact, have become objects of interest for outsiders, albeit not to the extent of Clinton’s or Obama’s. Those of two poets among Reed's alumni base, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, for instance, have attracted some interest, Diver said.

“I'm torn on whether it's a useful/informative exercise” to evaluate political figures’ senior theses, Emily Kane, sociology chair at Bates College, wrote in an e-mail. Bates states that more than 85 percent of its students complete senior theses.

“Because college seniors are definitely young adults (so this isn't like calling Barack Obama on his kindergarten declarations of ambition), it seems reasonable to take seriously their writing, just as we take seriously the books various presidential candidates have published (whether recently or in the past) and the various opinions and memos Supreme Court nominees have written earlier in their careers.”

“But on the other hand, college seniors are writing for an academic purpose, usually being encouraged to explore ideas and take risks while also being expected to do it within a framework commonly accepted within their given discipline/major. It would never have occurred to me to advise a thesis advisee to be careful how their thesis might come across 25-40 years later!”

And speaking as a sociologist -- Michelle Obama was a sociology major -- Kane pointed out that Obama was reporting on her study of Princeton alumni. “So even though it does sound like she inserted her own thoughts into the analysis, which I would always encourage my sociology thesis advisees to do as well, she was probably more focused on the standard sociological task of using existing literature to frame a research question, gathering data to answer that question, and then analyzing the resulting data in relation to that literature. That might make it very easy to take things out of context and represent them as her opinions when instead they might be her analysis of the literature and/or of what her survey respondents said.” (Kane, noted, however, that she hadn’t read Obama’s thesis, only media accounts.)

Those media accounts of the thesis have largely focused on what it shows about the woman who wrote it. Consider, for instance, these choice quotes from Obama's thesis introduction included at the top of last week’s influential Politico story on the document. "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before…. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."

Personal stuff. But at the same time, “in most fields, it’s not very personal,” pointed out Adele Wolfson, associate dean of the college and a professor of chemistry at Wellesley, Clinton’s alma mater. There, theses are typically tied to honors requirements, said Wolfson. She estimated that about 20 percent of Wellesley students complete them, although the proportion is much higher in the sciences.

“It tells you what she’s interested in and the quality of it will tell you something about how good of a student or researcher she is at that point in her life. I’m not sure it can tell you much more than that," she said of the senior thesis.

“Even for those people who are going on in the field, it’s very unlikely they would go on in that particular subject. It’s more that this has sparked their interest in scholarly habits," Wolfson said.

“I would feel totally comfortable with our students' theses being known and observed for years to come. Why not?” said Stephen G. Emerson, president of Haverford College, which requires theses of all students.

"We don’t view the thesis as an educational exercise. We view it as real research," he explained. While acknowledging the substantial differences between that and the Ph.D. dissertation -- which is not only written at a less tender age but also with substantially more time and opportunities for internal and external review -- "our expectation" for the thesis, Emerson said, "is that if students do research, that it’s high quality and they stand behind what they write."

“It is who the person was and people stand by their work. But people do grow up, too. I don’t think you’d want to presume that someone’s thoughts, the way they write or the way they analyze things at 21 ... that they won’t evolve as they become older," he said.

"I think that my thesis says a lot about who I am and what my interests are," Lauren Bernstein, a senior history major at Washington University in St. Louis who's writing her thesis on "Sexualized Violence Across the Color Line: Experiences, Reactions, and Legacies of Violence against Black Women," said in an e-mail. "My work requires me to look at sources and accounts in an original way and to really express my voice. As an historian, however, I know that my work is contextual and describes my arguments at this time in my own history,"

She added: "[A]s an historian, I look at sources and artifacts in context, and I would hope that my thesis would be considered as only a part of my personal history to be judged alongside all of my other accomplishments, statements, and works. A successful honors thesis would not use only one source to make total judgments about people, and I worry that the press has been doing that to both Obama and Clinton."

"That said, I would be happy to be in a position in which someone was reading my thesis down the line, instead of it serving as some sort of a doorstop."


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