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From Terror to Triumph

Senior Theses Bring Knowledge and Self-Knowledge

By Emily Harrison Weir

Linzy Brekke's senior thesis project was born three years ago, over lunch with Professor of History Joseph Ellis. He leaned across the table and intoned just three words: Martha Jefferson Randolph. "Who's she?" Brekke asked, not knowing she would spend more than a year answering that question.

Brekke was one of fifty-three May graduates who spent a year conducting independent research on an original topic. Here's the story of seven students' theses, from first inspiration through the sleepless nights, research, and writing to the adrenaline rush of completing a major piece of work.
Fall: Inspiration and Desperation

As the new academic year begins, thesis ideas hatch. Stephanie Mackler thought about writing on the Mexican Zapatistas, but switched to educational theory. Rosemary Libera combined her fascination with the electroencephalograph (EEG) machine and the effect of music on young children. Jena Katzman had studied the history and politics of childbirth for 1 1/2 years. "It just lit a fire under me, so I chose that for my thesis," she says. "If you're not passionate about something, don't do a thesis on it."

"From the time you pick a topic, the thesis takes over your life," agrees Christina DeShaw. "I'm always thinking, 'I need to get this article or write this for my thesis.' There's no end to what you could do."

That's just what makes most aspiring thesis writers panic. Jennifer Reid was typical, describing thesis work as an emotional roller coaster. "At first you think, 'This will be a nice little project; I can do it,' and you get really excited. Then something happens and you think, 'I'll never make it through.'"

Intellectual misgivings plague nearly everyone. Linzy Brekke explains, "It's hard not to feel you're bluffing. After all, I'm an undergraduate trying to discern the complicated emotional relationship between one of the most famous men in American history [Thomas Jefferson] and a daughter [Martha Jefferson Randolph] about whom we don't know that much. There's lots of room for self-doubt."

Linzy Brekke Doing a thesis isn't really about graduating with honors," says Linzy Brekke. "The process of intellectual development that happens while creating a thesis is more important than the end result. It's a capstone, the crowning glory of undergraduate achievement." Laura Levy "The thesis will consume your life," says Laura Levy. "I found myself living in the computer room where I saw last year's seniors camped out. At times it didn't feel worth it, but come May, I was happy I'd done it." Christina "Academically, a thesis is like you've been practicing the piano for years and this is your final recital," says Christina DeShaw. Stephanie "Last year I learned that I can do anything, learn anything, if I push myself. That learning allowed me to feel comfortable doing a thesis this year," says Stephanie Mackler. "I'm now feeling the true love of learning."
Making Her Own Declaration

For her thesis, history major Linzy Brekke undertook the first major study of Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph. "Most everybody knows she existed and recognizes her as a permanent fixture in Jefferson's life-but that's about all they know," Brekke says. "Martha became Jefferson's surrogate wife while still a child herself, and grew up to be his emotional mainstay while also rearing eleven children and managing Monticello and a constant stream of visitors. I did a lot of primary source research, and I hope to incorporate this work into my PhD dissertation," says Brekke. She starts graduate school at Harvard this fall.

It's Sedimentary, My Dear Watson

Geology major Laura Levy studied a topic that's well-known yet largely ignored. Concretions-calcium carbonate rocks that take a variety of shapes-form in the silt and clay layers along glacial lakes. Levy wondered if concretions could be used to date the sediment layers in which they occur. It took months of digging along the Connecticut River, and months more of computer data analysis, to find out. Levy concluded that concretions can be used to generally-but not precisely-date sediment, and presented her findings at a national geology association conference. After spending a year on a California dressage farm, she'll head for graduate school.

Battling Juror Bias

The controversy surrounding the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King trial verdicts prompted politics major Christina DeShaw to consider how the composition of juries affects their verdicts. She investigated the notion of bias and the problems it poses for our jury system, and suggested policy remedies. DeShaw advocates requiring juries to reach unanimous verdicts, making it harder to change the venue of a trial, eliminating peremptory challenges (which lawyers often use to "stack" a jury in their client's favor), and expanding the jury pool to represent a true cross-section of the public. DeShaw will see courtrooms from a different perspective in the future-she's headed for law school after a year off.

"Last year I learned that I can do anything, learn anything, if I push myself. That learning allowed me to feel comfortable doing a thesis this year," says Stephanie Mackler. "I'm now feeling the true love of learning."

Education, Democracy, and Social Change

Critical social thought major Stephanie Mackler isn't only getting an education at MHC; she's also thinking about education itself. Her thesis on twentieth-century educational theory argues that democracy and education are inextricably linked. As one book led to the next, she progressed from John Dewey to the contemporary field of critical pedagogy. "We talk about education often in terms of money or status, but seem to have lost the understanding that education is an end in itself," Mackler says. "I want to redefine education in a way that links it with democracy and social change." This fall, Mackler enters a philosophy and education graduate program at Columbia University.

Fall/Winter: Concentration

Soon, students calm their qualms and get down to serious work. Most carry a full course load plus the thesis, and some work part time too. No wonder they seem to live on caffeine.

Research happens everywhere. Brekke spent months at Monticello, reading Jefferson's family correspondence. Geologist Levy was up to her ankles in river mud, digging eight-foot-deep pits along the Connecticut River. Katzman interviewed midwives while studying in New Zealand. Mackler haunted libraries. "I learned so much that sometimes I thought my mind would explode," she says.
Winter: Redirection

Faculty advisers help thesis students make sense of the mountains of material they unearth. DeShaw says hers, Douglas Amy, "helped me comb through a huge topic and decide how to focus my work." Katzman says her adviser, Lynn Morgan, "lets me define the parameters of the study. That can be a very scary process, but she's been good at building my confidence." Al Werner, Levy's adviser, visited her dig at the river to brainstorm ideas about what she'd uncovered. Later, they met to discuss the data.

Brekke says of her work with Joseph Ellis, "As a budding historian, I'm like a colt getting on its feet. In the process of research and writing, I gallop off in various directions and he's got this lunge line. He lets me run with my enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity. Then he pulls the rope to rein me in and says, 'OK, now we're going to be critical."

Jennifer Reid

"There's a lot of personal value in doing a thesis," says Jennifer Reid. "I was scared to do it, but I learned through this to be courageous."

Scary Films Bring People Together

Psychology and Spanish major Jennifer Reid showed short film clips to volunteers, then rated their creativity and group cohesion. Scary films-she used Silence of the Lambs-produced negative feelings, but had positive effects for creative group problem-solving, Reid found. Reid liked research so much she's searching for a job that will let her develop this skill further.

Winter/Spring: Composition

As snow falls and melts, research progresses, data accumulate, and ideas churn. Fingers inevitably find their way to keyboards and writing begins. By early winter, Katzman had finished her field work and felt the tyranny of the blank computer screen. "I started writing at midnight," she recalls. "I got out of bed and wrote a paragraph because I was beating myself up for not having started writing yet. The thought of filling seventy-five blank pages was scary."

"There are so many things you want to write about that it's hard to decide what must be included, what to mention briefly, and what you can let go," says DeShaw. "I got wrapped up with wanting it to come out perfectly in the first draft. When my adviser told me everyone goes through many drafts, writing went much more smoothly."

Rosemary Libera

"Doing a thesis gave me the great opportunity to show myself what I am capable of, and it gave me a concrete idea of what I can do in the future if I want to go into research," says Rosemary Libera.

Do Musicians Process Music Differently?

Rosemary Libera's neuroscience thesis asked two related questions: "Are adults' spatial abilities influenced by early musical training?" and "How do the brain waves of musicians compare with those of nonmusicians when listening to music?" She gave spatial orientation tasks to forty-one students, while measuring their brains' neural activity. Hers is the first study to show a correlation between musical training in early life and spatial abilities later on. (Her data do not, however, prove one caused the other.) Libera, a psychology and English double major, is heading for Boston College law school.

Jena Katzman Midwifery: When Push Comes to Shove

For her thesis, "A Historical Anthro-pology and Ethnography of U.S. Midwifery," Jena Katzman interviewed midwives from New England to New Zealand about their beliefs and practices. In particular, she looked at differences between certified nurse-midwives and direct-entry midwives (who are not nurses). "To make good strides in health, we need to value midwifery on an equal footing with medicine," Katzman argues. Intent on becoming a physician, she begins a premedical program this fall.

Doing her thesis on midwifery, Jena Katzman says, "is the story of how I've grown to understand birth and how I've come of age over and over again in the process of writing the thesis. I feel in a way I'm in labor, giving birth to something."

Spring: Culmination

Trees are budding as thesis deadlines approach. "The last few weeks were a real push to get it done," said Mackler in early May. "By the day I turned it in, I was so sick of it. I'd spent the entire weekend on formatting and printing fiascoes, but finally it was printed and copied. When I took it to the department, it felt so good, but then I didn't know what to do with myself!"

Katzman described finishing her thesis on midwives as "like giving birth to it." Levy radiated relief the day hers was done: "It's neat to see it in a stack of about one hundred pages after seeing it in pieces for so long." DeShaw, who reclassified her thesis as an independent study project after illness made her choose between a thesis and her health, said finishing the project gave her "a bittersweet feeling of accomplishment." Basking in the glow of success, all agreed that doing a thesis taught them much in addition to the intellectual content. "A thesis is more than a really big paper. The process is a personal evolution," says Reid. "It's like climbing a mountain. When you're standing at the bottom, you think you'll never get to the top. Along the way, you feel okay; then you feel awful. But getting to the top and looking at the view-thinking about all you've accomplished-is the best feeling."
Design by Marjorie Otterson

Photos: 1. By Billy Howard; All others by Jim Gipe

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