April 24, 2002: From the Editor

Photo by Ricardo Barros

My senior thesis did not start a national movement. This would be unremarkable except that the thesis of one of my classmates did — Teach for America, founded by Wendy Kopp ’89 — leaving the rest of us (I speak blithely for my classmates) with, at best, ambivalence toward our own efforts.

Or so I thought. But recently I was reading the April 10 PAW Online column Comparative Life, written by longtime PAW intern Kristen Albertsen ’02 (a comparative literature major who’s researching the literary conception of the city in the 20th century). In her column, Kristen describes the departmental tradition of handing out T-shirts to students as they complete their theses. (“My thesis is history!” reads the annual history department shirt.) “Financially, the trade doesn’t seem particularly even,” Kristen writes. “Theses cost around $100 to bind properly and the T-shirts can’t cost much more than $10 apiece. However, the T-shirt is arguably more useful than the thesis in the long run, and in many cases will enjoy a greater longevity than a hard copy of the thesis itself.”

I laughed when I read that paragraph. But then, in a sure sign that I’m getting older and crankier, I actually began seriously to consider the relative value of the thesis and a T-shirt. To my surprise, the thesis came out on top.

Sure, I struggled to find a topic (my mother suggested it). I really didn’t know how to do the kind of research a 100-page paper required. And I was far more focused on getting the thing done on time than on making any kind of substantive academic contribution.

But two years after I wrote it I chanced to move to the state that had inspired the subject of my thesis, author Wallace Stegner, to write in the first place. I managed to sell a freelance article loosely based on my research, and I conducted what was probably the last interview with Stegner before his death. I still recommend his novels to friends, and still go back to read his essays from time to time.

In contrast, that old thesis warrior T-shirt turned into a dust rag long ago.

So while we can’t all be Wendy Kopp or John Bogle ’51 (who turned his thesis into the investment company Vanguard), I suspect most of us would say that in the end our work was worth the effort. But, Kristen, I know — the value is a lot easier to appreciate once your thesis really is history.


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