A Guide To Writing A Senior Thesis In History And Literature

A Guide To Writing A Senior Thesis In History And Literature-58
We in the English-speaking world have survived thirty-seven years without “How to Write a Thesis.” Why bother with it now?After all, Eco wrote his thesis-writing manual before the advent of widespread word processing and the Internet.But there are also old-fashioned approaches that seem more useful than ever: he recommends, for instance, a system of sortable index cards to explore a project’s potential trajectories.

We in the English-speaking world have survived thirty-seven years without “How to Write a Thesis.” Why bother with it now?After all, Eco wrote his thesis-writing manual before the advent of widespread word processing and the Internet.But there are also old-fashioned approaches that seem more useful than ever: he recommends, for instance, a system of sortable index cards to explore a project’s potential trajectories.

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There are long passages devoted to quaint technologies such as note cards and address books, careful strategies for how to overcome the limitations of your local library.

But the book’s enduring appeal—the reason it might interest someone whose life no longer demands the writing of anything longer than an e-mail—has little to do with the rigors of undergraduate honors requirements.

You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small.

The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation.”Eco captures a basic set of experiences and anxieties familiar to anyone who has written a thesis, from finding a mentor (“How to Avoid Being Exploited By Your Advisor”) to fighting through episodes of self-doubt.

Ultimately, it’s the process and struggle that make a thesis a formative experience.

When everything else you learned in college is marooned in the past—when you happen upon an old notebook and wonder what you spent all your time doing, since you have no recollection whatsoever of a senior-year postmodernism seminar—it is the thesis that remains, providing the once-mastered scholarly foundation that continues to authorize, decades-later, barroom observations about the late-career works of William Faulker or the Hotelling effect.Consider Eco’s caution against “the alibi of photocopies”: “A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work.Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them.Up until 1999, a thesis of original research was required of every student pursuing the Italian equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.Collecting his thoughts on the thesis process would save him the trouble of reciting the same advice to students each year.This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many.” Many of us suffer from an accelerated version of this nowadays, as we effortlessly bookmark links or save articles to Instapaper, satisfied with our aspiration to hoard all this new information, unsure if we will ever get around to actually dealing with it.(Eco’s not-entirely-helpful solution: read everything as soon as possible.)But the most alluring aspect of Eco’s book is the way he imagines the community that results from any honest intellectual endeavor—the conversations you enter into across time and space, across age or hierarchy, in the spirit of free-flowing, democratic conversation.“Work on a contemporary author as if he were ancient, and an ancient one as if he were contemporary,” Eco wisely advises.“You will have more fun and write a better thesis.” Other suggestions may strike the modern student as anachronistic, such as the novel idea of using an address book to keep a log of one’s sources.“How to Write a Thesis” is sparked by the wish to give any student with the desire and a respect for the process the tools for producing a rigorous and meaningful piece of writing.“A more just society,” Eco writes at the book’s outset, would be one where anyone with “true aspirations” would be supported by the state, regardless of their background or resources. It is the students of privilege, the beneficiaries of the best training available, who tend to initiate and then breeze through the thesis process.

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