President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Senior Thesis: Alive and Well at 85
March 19, 2008
One of the defining features of a Princeton education is the senior thesis. All that comes before is designed to prepare our students to explore in depth an original topic, unconstrained by the structure of a course or the confines of a syllabus. In framing their own questions and pursuing them with more intensity and greater latitude than ever before, seniors demonstrate to themselves—and their faculty advisers—that they have acquired the knowledge and habits of mind that President Woodrow Wilson described almost one hundred years ago as the goal of a Princeton education. These qualities, he wrote, consist “in the power to distinguish good reasoning from bad, in the power to digest and interpret evidence, in a habit of catholic observation and a preference for the non-partisan point of view, in an addiction to clear and logical processes of thought and yet an instinctive desire to interpret rather than to stick in the letter of the reasoning, in a taste for knowledge and a deep respect for the integrity of the human mind.” Those are the attributes that Princeton hoped to cultivate when, in 1923, President John Grier Hibben inaugurated the “Four Course Plan of Study,” which reduced the upperclass workload from five courses to four to allow for independent study.
The Class of 2008 is hard at work on their senior theses, and I thought I would give you a small taste of the topics they are exploring. Two striking aspects of this random sample are the interdisciplinary nature and international reach of their topics.
This year, I have been advising a young molecular biologist named Anita Gupta as she devises a cost-effective way to distribute the new vaccines against human papillomavirus—the cause of cervical cancer—to the developing world. Approximately 80 percent of cervical cancer cases occur in developing nations, and Anita, who is also earning a certificate in finance, is assessing whether a multi-tiered pricing structure can be successfully adopted in order to make the vaccines more widely available. While this model is theoretically attractive, she has identified a number of potential obstacles to its implementation, and I look forward to learning her conclusions this spring. Anita has chosen a topic that unites her intellectual interests in both biology and finance, and allows her to apply the theories of the classroom to the real world.
In the Department of French and Italian, Lisa Zivkovic is working with Professor André Benhaïm on a senior thesis that examines the “ethics of information” in the context of libraries. She, too, is taking an interdisciplinary approach to her subject, drawing on the insights of history, literature, and philosophy. Lisa is comparing the goals of an ideal library, as an exemplar of political and cultural mores, with the actual experience of the American Library in Paris. What its founders envisioned was not necessarily what emerged, thanks to a mix of personal, political, and cultural influences that she believes “raise as many questions as are answered.”
Raleigh Martin, who is majoring in civil and environmental engineering and pursuing a certificate in East Asian studies, is interested in gauging the effects of urbanization on precipitation, using China’s capital, Beijing, as a case study. Under the direction of Professor James Smith, his senior thesis is testing the hypothesis that air pollution inhibits rainfall. While the Chinese focus of his research has allowed him to integrate his scientific expertise and his linguistic and cultural knowledge, he admits that “this convergence of interests has made the project more difficult, and I have found a continual challenge in sharpening the definition of my research question.”
China has also captured the interest of Woodrow Wilson School major Owen Fletcher, whose senior thesis, supervised by Professor Aaron Friedberg, analyzes Sino-Japanese efforts to increase their economic power through free trade agreements and development aid, their involvement in multilateral regional organizations, and their relationships with Burma/Myanmar. Owen, who is earning a certificate in East Asian studies, spent three weeks conducting research in Tokyo, Singapore, and Beijing, and while he has not reached his final conclusions, he is confident that Sino-Japanese competition is accelerating Southeast Asian regionalization. “I’m actually enjoying writing my thesis,” he reports. “It’s an intellectually rewarding chance to show what I’ve learned at Princeton.”
The Lewis Center for the Arts is designed to bring together the study and the practice of art, and Maryam Wasif Khan is doing just that in her senior thesis. Working closely with three advisers, the poets Paul Muldoon and C. K. Williams and Professor Benjamin Conisbee Baer in the Department of Comparative Literature, Maryam has had an opportunity to unite “the critical and the creative” through her translation into English of a 19th-century Urdu text. This daunting exercise—the text is 200 pages long and defies easy classification—has taught her more about translation, criticism, and creative writing than any class. “As a student of comparative literature,” she reflects, “I found that there was no better way of drowning in a text and entering its sacred space than by translating it.”
Every year, students like Anita, Lisa, Raleigh, Owen, and Maryam “drown” themselves in their senior theses. I think I can safely predict—based on the reports of thousands of -Princetonians who have come before them—that they will view their senior theses as the crowning achievement of their Princeton education, as well as a source of both wonderment and pride.