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Public Girls, Separate Prep:
Single-Sex Public Education in New York City

Adviser: Rena S. Lederman

Elizabeth C. Rosen


“Take ownership of your work. It is your responsibility and your reward wrapped up in one.”


The girls sit fidgeting in front of the video camera, eyes wide, chatting away in their navy jumpers and white collared blouses. “This is a really cool school,” remarks one, with a knowing smile. Adorable little girls talking about how much they love their school, how they want to be a doctor, veterinarian, dancer, and teacher (all at once) when they grow up—I was in love. I think I actually clutched my heart and sighed audibly when I heard the singsong cheer of the Girls Preparatory Charter School of New York emanate from my computer speakers for the first time:

[Adult female voice] Who do you think you are?
[Little girls’ voices] I’m already a superstar!
I strive for the best, better than good,
For scholarship, merit, and sisterhood!
I always go beyond and above,
Showing my trust, wisdom, and love.
What will I do with all this knowledge?
I’ll take it with me when I go to college.
Some say I can’t, but I know I can.
My work lifts me up, and you hold my hand.

From this deep, emotional feeling for the subject matter sprang my senior thesis—the most worthwhile and gratifying academic pursuit of my undergraduate career. I believe strongly that, whatever you choose as the topic for your senior thesis, it must move you.

I know what you’re thinking: Hindsight is 20/20, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all of that is true. But, what also is true is that it feels wonderful to seal the end of your time in college with a product of your own making that can rightfully be called scholarship.

Allow me to stop waxing poetic and to give you some cold, hard advice.

The first step to writing a senior thesis—choosing your topic—can be one of the most daunting because it is one of the most important. I knew that I wanted to write about something to which I felt a personal connection, something that stirred my passions, something about which I would truly care. I started thinking about this early, in the middle of my junior year. Beginning to float ideas around at this stage allowed me the time and flexibility to cycle through a series of possible topics before settling on one that not only piqued my curiosity, but also proved practically feasible. I explored areas of interest in papers I was writing for my regular academic classes, e-mailed professors and alumni, and met with various faculty members in my department to discuss my nascent thoughts. Everywhere I turned in those first few months, from articles I read in the newspaper to my weekly yoga class, became a site for contemplation: What if I wrote about this? How would I do it? What might its impact be?

Sure enough, one of my leads bit. I was researching internship options for the summer between my junior and senior years when I came across a listing, through Princeton Internships in Civic Service, for a position at a recently established all-girls public charter school in New York City, Girls Prep. Intrigued after my foray into the school’s Web media, I applied for the position. I had been unaware of the recent expansion of single-sex schooling in the public sector. When I discovered the listing, I turned to the University’s library services in search of articles and books related to the trend. That semester I was taking POL 342, “The Politics of Gender and Sexuality,” for which the final project could take a variety of forms. I chose to compile an annotated bibliography of sources on single-sex education, particularly those that addressed its appearance in the public school system.

My work that summer at Girls Prep brought me into intimate contact with the outer context and inner workings of a single-sex public school, as well as the people responsible for running it. After both researching the topic of single-sex public education in a library setting and experiencing it firsthand as an intern at a single-sex public school, the idea of adopting it as an area of inquiry for my senior thesis became increasingly attractive.

In order to conduct “human subjects research” (in my case, informal conversations and observations), I needed to obtain permission from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), the final authority on all such “experimentation.” As an anthropology student, I was not conducting any sort of physical or psychological testing. I was not employing deception in any form as part of my research. Nevertheless, rules are rules, and the process of applying for IRB approval proved a major hurdle that forced me to think extensively and seriously about my project and ideas early on in the fall of senior year—a blessing in disguise, perhaps?

The IRB approval process can take weeks. While waiting for approval, I was unable to conduct any fieldwork. My adviser, Rena Lederman, instructed me simply to write.

“But I don’t have and can’t, at this point, get a hold of the core of my research: the data, the foundation upon which I want to build this entire narrative,” I protested.

“You just need to start writing,” she maintained. “It doesn’t matter whether you end up keeping any of this in the end.”

The prospect of undertaking hours of work only to dispose of it was not the most motivating plan of action. I was eager, however, to try to make some sort of progress. So, in keeping with my natural inclinations, I decided to start from the beginning.

My thesis felt personal. My writing style reflected that quality. I adopted an explicitly self-reflective, self-aware approach. The first section that I wrote was an explanation of where the idea for my thesis had come from. This was something that I knew. Why was I interested in this project? I was able to write anecdotally, passionately, and comfortably on the subject. From there, I dove into the background—recounting much of the history, politics, and social science research that I had read while exploring the topic the spring semester and summer before senior year. Not long after I had compiled and sharpened those sections, the IRB finished reviewing my application and granted me permission to proceed with the real challenge, substance, and value of my thesis: fieldwork.

I met with Professor Lederman only a handful of times over the course of my field research and writing. After reviewing my first fieldwork-based chapter, about educators at Girls Prep, she said something to the effect of, “You’ll see I’ve made some minor suggestions and clarifications in there,” referring to the minimally marked-up manuscript, “but I think this is really terrific, and I think you’re on the right track. Just keep doing what you’re doing, trust your instincts, and you’ll be fine. Don’t give me any more sections until you have a complete draft.”

“A full draft?! I still don’t even have a thesis for this thesis yet!” I fretted. “And I still don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing.”

“Don’t worry about that right now,” she insisted. “You’re not supposed to. Some sort of thesis statement would be counterproductive, would narrow your focus, and [would] possibly cut you off from discovering something new and interesting.”

Left to my own devices, I alternated between being cautiously excited and a nervous wreck. The “hands-off” stance of my adviser was unexpected, nerve-wracking, but also, ultimately, conducive to a high degree of personal and intellectual growth. Professor Lederman maintained, throughout the entire process, that this was my project—my research, my writing, and my product. While I still believe that the efforts, advice, and support of numerous people in my life must be credited with contributing to the successful completion of my thesis, Professor Lederman’s faith in me and her own belief in my work made a substantive impact on my relationship with and attitude toward my thesis.

This is the advice with which I leave you: Take ownership of your work. It is your responsibility and your reward wrapped up in one. Listen to feedback from others, but always stay true to yourself. Don’t include something that doesn’t sound like you. Don’t write something you don’t believe or know to be true. Be honest with yourself.

If you give it your all, you will come away from this experience without regret and, hopefully, with a certain remarkable satisfaction you might never have the chance to achieve again.

So much for not waxing poetic.

Public Girls, Separate Prep:
Single-Sex Public Education in New York City

Elizabeth C. Rosen

Rena S. Lederman

Professor of Anthropology

“... A focused plan will enable you to develop satisfying depth of understanding without sacrificing room for creativity and challenge.”

My best senior thesis advising experiences have involved students who find a topic that deeply engages their curiosity. What a delight to be part of a process in which a person—swept away by intellectual energy, political passion, or personal meaning—seizes the opportunity that the Princeton senior thesis offers and allows herself to be transported somewhere wonderful!

As far as I can tell, students’ ability to lose themselves in this way has very little to do with how well they have done in their courses over the previous few years. Occasionally, I have encountered seniors with spectacular grades in their ordinary coursework who nevertheless found the challenge of designing and carrying out a thesis project nearly insurmountable. I also have advised seniors with unremarkable records for whom the thesis project was magical and transformative: For the first time, they really “owned” their own education, and they relished both the responsibility and the open-ended promise of their independent work.

The “fit” between person and topic is what makes the difference. While my most successful advisees have worried as much as the next person about how everyone else is doing, their extraordinarily deep engagement with their projects made it relatively easy for them to block out those often-destructive comparisons and focus instead on the demands of the task at hand.

Liz Rosen’s thesis “fit” that scenario: “Public Girls, Separate Prep” concerns contemporary advocacy for same-sex education. While co-ed schooling has been the norm for the past generation, feminists know that this wasn’t always the case. In recent years, new arguments for same-sex classrooms and schools have emerged, although this trend is controversial. Using multiple research methods, Liz’s thesis asks in what ways this trend is a retreat from the goal of mitigating sex discrimination and in what ways it is argued to be progressive (that is, as a fresh approach, in new conditions, toward improving the life possibilities of young women)?

Having interned in the summer before her senior year with a charter school management organization, Liz acquired firsthand experience with this phenomenon at the organization’s flagship school. She secured thesis funding enabling her to do targeted field research during the fall and winter of her senior year in a school to which she already had excellent access. On this basis, she was able to develop a grounded understanding of resurgent arguments for single-sex schooling, by weaving together the lived experiences and different points of view of parents, teachers, and school administrators. The resulting ethnography makes an original (potentially publishable) contribution to existing work in the anthropology of education. She set her ethnographic understanding in a larger context by comparing local rationales with the academic and policy literatures on single-sex education (mostly not based on field data), so as to refine questions for further study. Liz developed an impressive familiarity with the historical and policy literature on single-sex schooling in the United States, before and after Title IX (anti-sex discrimination legislation), as well as relevant scholarly work in the anthropology of education and in feminist anthropology. Her topic is relatively new and, as far as we know, not yet explored from an anthropological perspective.

Liz’s well-developed interests and summer internship experience were ideal setups for her senior year work. Whether or not you have an ideal scenario by September, there are a few basic points to bear in mind.

First of all, make thesis work part of your routine. One way of doing this is to make weekly appointments with your adviser for the first half of the fall term. Departmental deadlines often seem distant and, in any case, it is difficult to decide on an adequate pace of work all by yourself. Your adviser will be able to help you pace yourself; frequent meetings at the outset also will encourage you to break your project down into manageable parts. (Relatedly, I believe that by distributing your six senior-year courses evenly between the fall and spring semesters, you encourage yourself to keep an even pace of work all along!)

Second, less is more. Students often worry about where all those pages will come from? This anxiety leads to “padding,” not a productive strategy. Use your adviser to help you define the scale of your project: A focused plan will enable you to develop satisfying depth of understanding without sacrificing room for creativity and challenge. Students working in fields such as anthropology often recognize that, unlike course papers, theses are built up from smaller “parts” (or “chapters”). Being similar in scale to course papers (e.g., 15 pages), these parts are not terribly intimidating. The trick is to work out an overall thesis plot or argument, suggesting the necessary parts and providing the logic of connections (or “transitions”) between them. Once your thesis has a plot, you can safely focus in on its course-paper-sized chapters, and the page worry dissipates.

Third, be flexible (and use your adviser to help you achieve this easier-said-than-done state of mind)! Oftentimes, a promising topic runs into trouble—for example, analytical trouble, or difficulties in locating key sources. It pays to develop a sense of the alternatives from the outset and to assess what sorts of difficulties you might encounter. In any case, when you’re stuck, that’s exactly when you need to consult your adviser, who may help “unstick” you.