December 12, 2007: Perspective

Thesis envy

Steven Veach

Thesis envy
After many years, a commitment means more than ever

By Josh Kornbluth ’80

Josh Kornbluth ’80 is a monologuist, filmmaker, and talk-show host. His Web site is

Here’s the bad news: My senior thesis is late. Very late. Twenty-seven years late.

The good news: I’m almost done with it.

Back in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was not yet an ex-president and pop-music fans lived in blissful ignorance of the abysmal decade ahead, I failed to submit my thesis when it was due. Strictly speaking, my failure went much deeper than that — as the deadline passed, I hadn’t even begun to write my thesis, or done much research, either.

I well remember sitting in the office of Dean Richard G. Williams as I waited to learn my fate. Dean Williams and I were well acquainted. My undergraduate career had not been without its blemishes — and whenever I needed to drop a troublesome course or beg for an extension, it was Williams to whom I would take my supplications.

I recall Dean Williams asking me why — after meeting every other requirement for graduation — I had been unable to do my thesis. It was a reasonable question. The problem was, I didn’t have a reasonable answer.

The unreasonable truth was this: It was my adviser’s fault. If Sheldon S. Wolin had not been such an amazingly great teacher, I might have allowed myself to write and submit a middling thesis — one good enough, perhaps, to receive a passing grade. But Professor Wolin had rocked my world, and I wanted to show my gratitude by submitting a thesis that was, at the minimum, transcendently brilliant.

I’d entered Princeton planning to major in math or physics, but by the middle of my sophomore year I had already flunked out of both subjects. I was feeling lost, depressed, and confused. But then I began Wolin’s course on radical political theory, and for the first time I felt the exhilaration that higher education is uniquely suited to provide.

His lectures took place first thing in the morning, and yet all of us students packed into the hall were energized and alert. You had to be, because each lecture felt like a hair-

raising intellectual drama: Aristotle did philosophical battle with Plato, Rousseau struggled to soften a Hobbesian world, and Marx turned Hegel on his head. Wolin himself seemed to be working through these ideas as he spoke, locating weaknesses, searching for new syntheses. What’s more, he seemed to expect us to do the same. And we were desperate to reward his faith in our capabilities.

So even as I sank into mediocrity in other subjects (sorry, “Intermediate French”!), I dedicated myself to achieving excellence in Wolin’s courses and even took one of his graduate seminars. And as my senior year began, I felt fairly confident about my prospects for doing a great thesis. But then we actually had to get to work — and I could feel myself begin to crack.

At first, I deluded myself into thinking that things were OK. I’d sit there in the student center, sipping coffee with my fellow Wolin advisees. We’d talk about our thesis topics: Mine was to be on “Marxism and The City,” which seemed like a good fit, since I had been raised by Marxist parents in New York. We’d show one another the impressive piles of books we’d lugged from Firestone Library. So far, so good.

But in the subsequent weeks, a clear achievement gap opened up between me and the other young Wolinistas: They were making progress, and I wasn’t. My book pile retained its impressive heft, while theirs began to shrink. At the student center and at the library, index cards sprouted around the other students as they hoarded juicy quotes and began to structure their arguments. I, on the other hand, froze. Had I chosen my particular thesis topic just to please my parents? Did I have anything truly original to say about Marxism and The City? About anything? Sure, I could gather quotes and probably come up with a decent paper — something derivative, but workmanlike. But I feared that such a subpar effort would disappoint Wolin, who had inspired us all with his own extraordinary scholarship.

It didn’t help that we advisees were now gathering weekly for discussion groups at Wolin’s house. As the other seniors went on about the progress they were making on their theses, I remained mute — my face locked in what I hoped came off as a smug, all-knowing smile, suggesting to all assembled that I was working at such a high level that I couldn’t begin to describe what I was doing to my mere peers. When the deadline arrived, I held to some vague, magical hope that a deus ex machina would descend from the sky and hand me a completed thesis. No such luck. I let Wolin down and didn’t graduate.

But even after all seemed lost, Dean Williams told me that I could still submit my thesis. Anytime! For the rest of my life!

Cut to Election Day, 2004. I was walking home after voting at my polling place in Berkeley, where I live with my wife and son (and where, by the way, Wolin was at the center of the Free Speech Movement in the ’60s). America seemed so utterly divided politically, and in my despair I realized how much I missed the context that Wolin had introduced to me through his courses in political theory.

Fueled by a rush of adrenaline, I Googled Wolin — now emeritus — and got his phone number. I dialed, and he picked up. I said, “Professor Wolin, I know that my thesis is late — OK, very late — but I finally feel ready.” And to my great astonishment, he agreed to advise me again. After I explained that I perform autobiographical monologues for a living, he suggested that I do my thesis as one.

That monologue, titled Citizen Josh and focusing on my ongoing conversion to political activism, recently opened in San Francisco. Wolin was unable to attend a performance (I’d fantasized about him coming up on stage and giving me my grade), so I’m sending him the text of the show. If he and another member of the politics department give it a passing grade, I’ll receive my diploma — from none other than Dean Richard G. Williams. Yes, he’s still at Princeton!

And I’ll finally fill in that gap on my résumé. end of article

MORE ON THE WEB, click here: View an excerpt of Josh Kornbluth ’80’s “Citizen Josh” (approximately 3 minutes of monologue)

Click here for a .mov file, 3.2MB (viewable in Quicktime or RealPlayer)

Click here for MP3 of audio only, 2.9MB



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