Stepping up to a Senior Thesis: The Preliminaries, the Process, the Product

April 25, 2019
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Inspiration can lag far behind determination. It took nearly three years for mine to catch up. In the early fall of my first semester of college, I knew I wanted to do a senior thesis. It was not until July the summer before my final year that I finally figured out what I wanted to write about. Little did I know that my first semester of college would be so pivotal. That semester, I not only took a class on the subject about which I would later write (English 2290, Introduction to American Colonial Literature, in which I encountered Emily Dickinson), but the class was taught by the person who would end up advising my thesis—Professor Elizabeth Hewitt.

The summer of 2018, Professor Hewitt taught English 4592, “Special Topics in Women and Literature: American Women Poets Across Centuries.” We studied three great American poets: Anne Bradstreet, Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson. Before class began, I asked Professor Hewitt for a list of Dickinson poems to read because I was particularly excited to study her again. Within days of receiving the list and leisurely leafing the pages of my volume of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, I was certain that I wanted to study Dickinson even more in depth. During our first week of classes that summer, I asked Professor Hewitt to be my advisor. She said yes.

Among the many things to consider when picking a thesis advisor, most important is that your advisor should work in the field from which you are picking a topic. The fantastic thing about the Ohio State English department is that many of the faculty have a plethora of interests and specialties, so finding someone who is versed in a topic you want to write about is not as difficult as it seems.

When picking a thesis advisor, you must consider how this person knows you. Faculty can be hesitant to work with students they have never taught because they are not familiar with the work ethic of unfamiliar students. A thesis advisor wants to do nothing less than have to fail their advisee because they did not complete their work, and this unfortunate prospect is why faculty may say no, or at least ask for some background academic information from a student before saying yes. I was lucky to have taken three classes with Professor Hewitt by the time I knew I wanted to do a thesis. Even though I was still nervous because there are many reasons why a professor may not be able to advise during a particular semester, like most students’ experiences with asking, everything turned out just fine.

You also might consider the traits that you would find the most helpful in a potential advisor. Usually, a good advisor is someone you find engaging, warm, welcoming and accessible, but someone you know also has high standards and will push you to perform better than you ever have.

For the remainder of the summer, Professor Hewitt had me reading Dickinson’s letters and the book Emily Dickinson in Context, which provided me with background information about the poet and various threads to follow for topics to pick from. I had an idea of what I was interested in, but at the time I never could have conceived how much my project would evolve from that germination. Near the close of the summer, I began reading other books and articles about Dickinson which inspired me to pursue my topic even further. At the time my pivotal text was Dickinson, The Anxiety of Gender by Vivian R. Pollak.

However, my thesis topic shifted dramatically—or, as dramatically as it could under the concept of “Dickinson’s depictions of the patriarchy in her marriage poems.” After I had spent much time reading, Professor Hewitt asked me to begin writing notes on the poems I was interested in analyzing and send them to her. This was the majority of my work for the fall semester. I wanted to engage with as many of the poems as I could at an in-depth level, and see if the arguments I was playing with actually manifested in any of her poems. Once I found evidence that supported my arguments, I worked more in those directions. I tried always to remain open about which topics I could write about. Dickinson is a difficult poet. Many of Dickinson’s poems remain baffling to even the most advanced Dickinson scholars today. Much has already been written about Dickinson, but much more can be written. So, it was not a matter of picking something original to write about, but about picking from a seemingly infinite number of fascinating topics that I felt I could write scores of pages on. And I think anyone writing a senior thesis will feel this way. A senior thesis is an excuse to work with an exceedingly brilliant scholar on one’s own time to produce a piece of work that reflects one’s most serious interests.

Analyzing poetry is work. But it’s the sort of work that results in a plentiful harvest. I looked at each poem many, many times, trying to hone in on a core meaning that supported the idea that I had chosen to follow. I also tried to find alternative meanings that were plausible and had contextual backing, in case those meanings would support or refute my argument. I would often go in a certain direction, hit a dead-end, and have to back out and find a different path. During this process, I slowly but surely worked my way through the maze of Dickinson’s poetry—and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I felt like I was drawing a map.

Each time Professor Hewitt returned my work to me with marginal comments, I was psyched because she provided thought-provoking comments, real suggestions for improving my analysis, and always teased out the strongest parts of my work, suggesting that I focus on these. I felt legitimized by her comments, because I knew that what I was writing made sense to someone who has been studying these poems for years. After all, the work I was doing was much more intensive than regular schoolwork, and getting direct advice from an expert is really the entire reason I chose to do a thesis in the first place.

When the second semester began, I was ready to write. Professor Hewitt set me to write five in-depth papers about the five poems that were the core of my analysis. There were weekends where I did nothing but sit at my desk and slowly type word after word. I was lucky enough to have a roommate that was also doing a thesis, and so we would sit silently in my room, writing our theses in tandem. But I found my flow—and I have never produced work at that level before. Spring semester was intense, but it was so gratifying. The end result was a 34-page manuscript of original close-reading and analysis.

For my defense, I asked a former professor of mine, Professor Linda Mizejewski, to be the second reader-interrogator. We three sat down and worked our way through questions and quotations that had served as the core of my analysis since the beginning of my work. Yes, I was nervous, but the nervousness melted away as our discussion gained momentum. One discussion topic we delved into was the status of the speakers of Dickinson’s marriage poems as individuals speaking from separate points on one timeline, or the possibility that all speakers were speaking from different points on parallel timelines—there is nothing quite like having a conversation with two incredibly intelligent Dickinson scholars.

I passed my defense, got my customary handshake, and departed. I later made their suggested brief edits and uploaded my thesis to the Ohio State Knowledge Bank. The many months of time I had spent with Dickinson had come to a close. While I am sad that I will no longer be exchanging whispers and sighs late into the night with my good friend Emily anymore, I know that in the future I will spend as much time with her as I can. The comfort of a thesis is that though it is a project that has a due date, it is really only the beginning. And for me, completing this thesis was my first step toward graduate school. I wanted to train my scholarly muscles to critically engage with difficult material and concepts. This was my path—anyone can do a thesis for any number of reasons. The end result, however, is always an impressive piece of work that took enormous dedication and love. So long as one has the desire to create, and the determination to work, anyone can produce something special.

By Michaela Corning-Myers