Thesis Meltdown Explained

Maybe it depends on the person, but the number one thing that I have realized about the thesis writing process is that it is absolutely necessary to have an advisor that a) cares and b) knows something about your subject. And no, not your general subject, but the important details of your specific project. The second most important thing is that you have the background and knowledge to execute the task. Writing a thesis shouldn’t be the start of a new journey towards some other subject––it should be a logical and passionate extension of the study you have already done.I’ve been talking to a few juniors recently about whether or not they want to write theses. The hopelessly optimistic ones that remind me so much of my younger, naive self comment that yes, they plan on writing on something in X department, but no, they have no specific ideas. The smarter ones figure out that if they want to do an independent project that is worthwhile, they should pick a topic that a professor on campus knows about, and make sure that that professor is a) down and b) around. The brick wall that a lot of Amherst thesis students plow through during their senior year is the open-curriculum fostered idea that they can study whatever they want whenever they want, without needing the proper background to do so, and without getting the help that they need.Here are some examples of this thought process:

Naive Junior: I love poetry and I have rudimentary language skills! I should pick a Russian poet from a period of Russian literature that I have not studied and make it my thesis! Even though I haven’t worked with poetry since high school! It will be great!
Smart Junior: Hmm, I’m a Russian major and I want to write a thesis. Lets see who’s who in the Russian department……(student looks online for 20 seconds and finds the faculty list for her department)……oh look, there are only two professors that will be available for the entire year––one of them has done research on Russian medieval weaponry, and the other on Russian politics in the 18th century. Neither of these subjects appeal to me––maybe I should take a special topics instead.

HuckleKat and I are taking a poetry class in the English department together this year, and so far it has been interesting but very strange. There are students from many different disciplines in the class, and though it is supposed to be a discussion class and the limit was originally 15 students, there are 24 people now registered. The one thing that has become clear is that there is one student who has real experience with poetry in the class––everyone else is bringing energy and a good work ethic to the table, but zero knowledge about how to analyze poetry or have an animated discussion. I am writing a poetry thesis, but I count myself among those that know nothing. Why has this been allowed to happen? Why does Amherst think that its students are too broad-minded and self-sufficient for intro classes? The open curriculum is nice and has allowed me to learn about a ton of different things, but in the classes I have taken outside of the Russian department that were not introductory courses, I have found myself floundering with the material and unable to tap the potential of the professor or the course.

There is something to be said for starting from the beginning and moving forward when learning a new thing. Our brains are capable of jumping in in the middle of a novel or a movie or a TV show and catching up with what is going on, but wouldn’t it make more sense to start with page one?

Yes, I love poetry, but that doesn’t mean I had the basic skills when I started my thesis project to analyze poetry in Russian. I did have experience with Russian prose, and someone could have suggested this to me, but I think that I was allowed to run wild. I was a latch-key kid in a big house and as a result I made a mess.

Looking back on my college career I can’t decide whether I think that a completely open curriculum is a good idea or not. This semester I am taking a class on Japanese Buddhism pass/fail, and this makes sense as an option for students who want to branch out into different departments. Pass/fail acknowledges our inexperience, and allows us to learn uninhibited by the threat of grades at our own pace and level. Pass/fail enabled the open curriculum experience that we all want. But expecting students to exercise academic independence with no direction and no limits is unreasonable and unwise.