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Rethinking the Graduate Thesis in the Social Sciences

January 5, 2012

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about theses lately.

While that in itself is not unusual (many are consumed with theirs… until it is completed and then, within a short while, it is forgotten as other projects, jobs and demands take precedent), I am thinking on how and if the university should be re-thinking how the thesis is done, particularly within the Social Sciences.

The president of the MLA (Modern Language Association), which is one of the largest writing/language associations in the world, recently presented an argument for rethinking the thesis within the languages. She suggested alternatives such as curated digital projects, collaborative projects, and public scholarship – all of which further the possibility of adapting to today’s changing academic/work environment and speak to the need to engage larger communities with our work.

What about within the social sciences? The very premise of this work is that it is engaged with society and its issues; yet, for many, the thesis remains the antithesis of this. The 4-6 months of being ‘in the field’ are traded for years of isolation, writing, reading, and solitude in the Academy. Even the very nature of ‘the field’ makes it seem exotic, temporary and even dangerous – as if it was somehow detached from reality, a place to parachute into and hopefully make your way out of.

How can we make the social sciences thesis more engaged? More relevant? More desirable?

Miriam Posner on her blog argues that the thesis is an important training tool – important not so much for the research within it but for the process. I have to wonder, if the process is a training tool – is it really the best one? What does it actually train you for outside of a narrow research/writing track?

I’ve been a freelance editor in the social sciences/humanities for a while now and have seen my fair share of theses. One stands out in my mind. It was built around a series of letters – one to his son, one to his father, and one to his mother. It was highly autoethnographical and had an extremely powerful voice. It was a powerful look at the history of schooling in his country, his experiences with it, and possible solutions. Where it faltered was when it tried to add the ‘required’ elements – they just didn’t mesh. The voice wavered, it seemed out of sync – yet, it was needed to defend the thesis and to graduate.

Perhaps loosening the requirements is a first start. Why does there have to be a theory chapter if the theory is being explained and written into the narrative of other chapters? Does it have to be in chapters? Does it have to be written?

Beyond this – what other possibilities could there be? I love the idea of collaborative projects. They are often more difficult, create co-operative skills, expand the possibilities of knowledge creation, and are more relevant to life/work. They demonstrate how knowledge is more powerful, complex and rich when produced in community with others. The challenge is assessment but, in  reality, a good committee can figure out what they need to know in a defense or through working with a student.

There might be other options for public engagement – a series of articles or newsletters that, as they are produced, are distributed through the community and compiled at the end for a thesis. This could even include some sort of public forum component. Online blogging projects. Documentary/educational videos. A classroom module. A collection of narratives, pictures and poetry from protest events and organizing. A series of essays, from different angles, based around an event rather than a topic. A collection on recorded talks and community sessions.

Social sciences are meant to engage with people and communities – how can we better prepare and train students to do this? Field research, transcribing and writing don’t seem like the most efficient or enriching way to achieve this. The role of the academic is changing, there are less ‘pure’ academic jobs with the decline of tenure positions, and many academics work with one foot in the academy and the other in the community, business, or elsewhere. As these roles change, how can (and should) the thesis change with it?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. miriamposner permalink
    March 24, 2012 1:01 am

    Hi there! Really interesting and useful post. Just a quick note that I don’t, in fact, have any particular allegiance to the thesis as a training tool, or to the often perverse process of writing one. I say, if there’s something better suited to your scholarship, do it!

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