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Possible Initiatives For Discussion

 

III.       Providing Opportunities for Senior-year Culminating Academic Experiences

 

            We have touched on the topic of senior theses and other culminating experiences in the section above.  These experiences are powerful vehicles to engage students intellectually in hard questions and issues.  Sometimes real breakthroughs emerge as a result of these projects.  Other times students may simply come to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the world and the lack of simple, clear-cut answers.  As we have thought about these opportunities for more sustained research, we have come to appreciate the many different ways that students can carry out a senior thesis or comparable project.  For many, research will still involve hours of solitary splendor in the basement of Tisch Library; for others, it might involve writing and mounting a play, composing a musical piece, or designing and implementing a laboratory experiment.  But there are other possibilities.  Critical analysis of major endeavors in the co-curricular spheres (e.g., editing student publications, serving as an athletic team captain, running a performance group, undertaking a community service project) could serve as the basis of a senior thesis with approval of the sponsoring department.  What matters in the development of such a thesis is the rigorous intellectual framing of the project and the connection of what is experiential to what is more broadly theoretical or generalizable.

 

Having noted the possibilities, we acknowledge that there is no consensus among students and faculty on the extent to which seniors should undertake a senior thesis or other significant culminating research activity.  At the risk of overly simplifying the arguments on either side, we summarize the key issues as follows.  A significant culminating activity, such as a senior thesis, can be a transformative learning experience for those students who are prepared to work independently.  It may be the first time that a student has taken on a major task that requires the full engagement of his or her faculties over a sustained period of time.  After completing such a project, even the most reluctant student can feel a sense of pride and accomplishment at having completed a significant piece of work.  They may have forged meaningful relationships with members of the faculty, and will have gained a deeper appreciation for scholarship and teaching.  Moreover, hitherto unimagined intellectual depths may be plumbed and new possibilities emerge for young adults as they begin their careers or contemplate additional years of graduate study.  It is for reasons such as these that a number of schools require a senior thesis from all their students.

 

            On the other hand, good student research requires close interaction with faculty.  The burden of supervising a senior thesis for roughly 1,200 graduates would overwhelm many departments, particularly those with large numbers of majors.  Currently some departments or programs strongly encourage a senior thesis or comprehensive paper, but students self-select into those majors understanding the commitment that they are making beforehand.  With a universal requirement for a senior thesis, many students would be enormously resentful and make half-hearted efforts, all the while consuming valuable faculty time and energy. Beyond the logistical questions, those who are skeptical of culminating projects argue that in many cases students would be served better by participating in classes that would give them the chance to develop their ideas more effectively. They also argue that the model of a “culminating” experience responds to a paradigm more appropriate to some disciplines than to others. 

 

            The Task Force feels that, while there are some faculty and students who would support a requirement of a year-long thesis (or comparable project) of all our seniors, there is little support among the majority of faculty and students for such a requirement.  Rather than continue the debate of whether there should or should not be such a requirement, we have considered initiatives that 1) make the senior thesis experience more rewarding for those students who wish to write a thesis, and 2) encourage our strongest students to take on this culminating educational project. 

 

            Many faculty members have expressed the two concerns that 1) not enough of our best students are writing senior theses, and 2) some of the students writing a senior honors theses do so primarily to obtain transcript notation of honors when Latin honors elude them.   These students may not be well qualified in some cases or well motivated in others to write a thesis and can create a burden for faculty advisors.  We would not argue that only students with a GPA above a certain threshold should be allowed to write a year-long senior thesis; but we would argue that the incentives should be designed to steer our best students to such projects.  A secondary concern is that the co-existence of thesis honors and Latin honors can be confusing and potentially dilute the value of Latin honors.  The following initiatives are an attempt to direct our best students to write a thesis and to eliminate inappropriate incentives to take on a thesis project:

 

·        Link Honors and Theses: Require satisfactory completion of a senior thesis (or other significant research project) as a condition for graduation summa cum laude.  The faculty would need to determine appropriate criteria for a senior thesis for graduation purposes. 

 

·        Link Theses and Coursework: Alternatively (or in addition), encourage departments and programs to develop strong screening mechanisms for potential thesis writers.  For example, at least one department requires all students who wish to do a senior thesis to write a prospectus and submit it to the department. The entire department then reads and votes either to accept or to reject the proposal. The criteria for acceptance are 1) quality of the written proposal; 2) strength and feasibility of the research project; 3) strong support from those who have had the student in courses and who vouch for the student’s ability to succeed in carrying this project to completion.  Students who are not accepted for senior theses can then choose to do an independent study.

 

·        A Single Thesis Program: Remove the transcript designation of thesis honors and simply record a letter grade for the course in which the student is enrolled for the purpose of writing a thesis.  All theses would require enrolling in a senior thesis course for the fall and spring semesters of the senior year.  What is currently a one semester senior thesis would be relabeled a senior independent project.

 

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