Is it Worth the Pain? A Faculty Perspective on Senior Thesis

For many graduating seniors, April is indeed the "cruelest month." That end-of-April thesis deadline looms on the horizon. Strung-out seniors are wishing both that it were already here and that they had two more months to finish up properly. What they may not realize is professors aren't that fond of April either.This month, we will counsel students through their post-spring-break letdown, trying to convince them that their thesis is not ungrammatical tripe. We will also counsel students who have cleared 100 pages and have their eyes on the high bar set by Ms. D— whose 200+ pages are a department legend. We may meet with students who have started over again with a new topic (requiring us to push through the five stages of grief rather quickly). We will encounter students who have been hiding from us all year and finally show up in early April with a stack of hastily written pages and a look of frozen panic on their faces. We will receive frantic emails on April 24 at 7:30p.m. describing various unbelievable ways students missed the 5p.m. deadline, and we will sigh with relief when we learn that the Dean of Students has come to the rescue. And during the last week of April, we will walk out of the Registrar's office carrying a stack of senior theses that represent the culmination of four years of intellectual growth (or four weeks of frantic cramming). We must then read, critically evaluate and grade several hundreds of pages in a short period of time and select some to win awards. We will diplomatically negotiate with the other readers whose goals and grading standards may not match ours, and we will of course continue to teach courses, serve on committees and write our own research articles. Unsurprisingly, the senior thesis requirement is not universally popular among the faculty, although the requirement has been in place since the end of the 1940s. The problem is not only the amount of uncompensated work required of thesis readers, but the high-level research skills required of students: some professors feel that thesis should be for honors students only. Certainly many students agree that the Scripps thesis is overwhelmingly difficult, both intellectually and emotionally. Each January, seniors spontaneously form thesis therapy groups in which to work through thesis-related trauma. Alumnae, however, regularly contact me to say that the senior thesis was the most significant accomplishment of their Scripps education—and that they wish they were back at Scripps working on it. The class of 2009 might find this hard to believe at the moment. I believe it, and I believe in my hard-working seniors who, last August, conceived of the potentially brilliant projects they are sweating to complete right now. I met these seniors four years ago when we all arrived at Scripps, and I am honored to have watched them develop the analytical tools, intellectual confidence and creative grammar conventions that have brought them to this point, the home stretch of their undergraduate careers. I'll be waiting for them on the finish line, and while I'm grading their work, I hope they'll remember that the process of writing the thesis is far more important than the final product.