In the latest installment of our In Defense Of series, workaholic whiner Anna Bahr laments the elimination of the thesis requirement of Barnard’s Political Science department and pleas for its return.
In the second grade, my group of four was certain we would win the science fair with our solar-cooked hotdogs. We folded pouches out of tin foil, painted one side black, stuck an uncooked frankfurter inside, and waited for the California sun to work its wonders. The dogs were cooked to perfection: my dream hands-off barbecue.
We didn’t even come close to winning. The problem, the judges explained, was our poster board. The requisite three-fold cardboard that outlines the hypothesis, process, and conclusion of any experiment worth its salt. I never recovered from the loss. What a pathetically simple piece of my hard work to forget.
Well, twelve years later, it looks like I’ll have my second shot at poster board glory. Last spring, rising seniors in the Barnard Political Science department received an email informing us that the mandatory thesis for the major was not only no longer a requirement, but no longer an option. Instead, we would enroll in a third colloquium during our final year of school. Whatever paper we churned out in the midst of our other final exams would then be synthesized, printed, cut out, and literally glued to a poster board (“You have total creative license over the aesthetic of your board,” a professor generously offered). Come May, graduating seniors will stand in front of their boards as members of the department and fellow students mill around the gallery, asking questions and pointing at our attractive displays (imagine my second grade PTSD flashbacks).
My memory of applying to Barnard includes one particularly appealing detail of the college: all students, regardless of their discipline, were expected to engage in the intellectually rigorous work a thesis demands. More importantly, the common thesis requirement represented a unique credo for the school–one which, in my mind, embodied the liberal arts education. All students were equally encouraged to pursue academic passion projects, indulge in mastery over a topic of their choosing, and conduct original research. Their individual work was chosen carefully, pursued earnestly, and (one would hope) enjoyed.
Now, instead of my four years at Barnard culminating in the sort of enthusiastic academic obsession for which I had hoped, I am taking a third colloquium. I follow a prescribed curriculum and write a long-ish paper at the end using mostly secondary sources. As per departmental stipulations, come spring I will dilute my work into a few bullet points that I can paste to a board and chat about with passersby. (This is particularly painful. Not just because gesturing at whatever text and Google-d images I inevitably print out [gag] is somewhat humiliating, but because thinning out my capstone collegiate work feels antithetical to the basic principle of thesis writing. Isn’t the point that your argument, evidence, and methodology is too complex to summarize so easily?)
It has been patiently explained to me by multiple members of the Political Science department that the poster board is a staple of the hard science theses–they’re mimicking the design of Barnard’s aspiring environmental scientists. Well, if there’s anything I’ve learned in school, it’s that political science is emphatically not a hard science. I don’t care what the structuralists say.
I have been told that the third colloquium paper can be whatever I make it. That sticking to a set syllabus ensures that the supervising professor has competence in the area, which promises more effective supervision of my research. I love my class this semester; I esteem my professor. But I would not have chosen my final paper topic if given a choice. Further, the amount of reading and number of essays that do not pertain specifically to my final paper make it impossible to commit to in-depth research. Frankly, the suggestion that I can still write what I want if I just work a little harder, is insulting.
Finally, (and sadly), it has been spelled out: there are certain budgetary constraints the department must manage–certain eligibility requirements by which students must be assessed. Well, I think that stinks. I rarely advocate for the imitation of Columbia’s administrative structures, but why not cut costs by asking invested students to apply for the opportunity? I sympathize with the tiresome prospect of forcing a roomful of seniors to write theses they couldn’t care less about. But it’s hard for me to reconcile that image with Barnard’s pledge to encourage independent work, academic risks, and intellectual depth.
I’m only speaking for myself. But I’m not the only one who’s mad.
When the solar-cooked hotdog-themed nightmares start coming back, I’m sending my shrink’s bill straight to Barnard.