A disproportionate amount of the average fourth-year’s time is spent fretting over her B.A. Of course, not all fourth-years write theses. But for those who do, I think it’s a universally acknowledged truth that it makes all previous academic anxieties seem like unwrapping a cupcake. With a February draft deadline approaching, I find myself asking: Why am I doing this? Looking for a pithy answer that I could steal, I asked many of my peers why they were writing B.A.s.
The most banal answer is that they need to in order to graduate with honors. Yet, the agony that I’ve seen B.A.–related thoughts produce has me convinced that the B.A. is about more than fulfilling a requirement. Those who are destined for graduate school see it as a preparation for the coming years. The thesis paper is a step up from the standard undergraduate essay, where the argument is often gift-wrapped for you by a professor, and you have a single text from which to cherry-pick quotes. The B.A. requires you to dig up your own data, find texts that are relevant, read books that might be tangentially related to your topic, and then organize your “thoughts” (more like mush) into an argument that’s novel and penetrative. It can feel like trying to bake a cupcake by beginning with planting some wheat.
That the B.A. is a challenge unlike any other still doesn’t explain why it causes anxiety of the why-does-the-universe-exist variety, however. The answer may lie in the fact that the B.A. thesis exists as an extension of one’s college self: the accumulated knowledge of the past four years in concrete form. It is this concreteness that is terrifying. Most completed theses will be read by almost no one. Perhaps your parents will glance at it or maybe a friend or two will read the first page. After the committee is through with you, your B.A. becomes a line in a resumé while the actual physical copy lives out its organic life as another dusty tome.
If the thesis is an extension of oneself, what is the implication of its anonymity? Our anonymity, of course. We must face the truth that these four years, though crucial, constitute only one more stage in our development, and that we haven’t scaled any peaks yet. (Of course, if any geniuses are reading this, I apologize.)
David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate thesis, titled (take a deep breath) “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” made it to the New York Times. His other thesis (that’s right, he wrote two) went on to become his first novel. Therefore, in theory, there’s no reason why our theses can’t be groundbreaking. It’s just unlikely, that’s all. Is that what terrifies us? That our theses won’t be as good as we think we are? Will they not act as an appropriate extension of ourselves because they sell us short? Or, more fundamentally, will they reveal the truth that we aren’t as good as we think we are? That’s why our theses terrify us. They act as mirrors. We aren’t ready for what we’re going to see.
Fear of failure is the reason you see so many stressed and wrinkled fourth-year faces. The B.A. is forcing all of us to confront ourselves. Yet, that confrontation gives us an opportunity. Thankfully, nobody has collected every single beer can that we, the Class of 2013, have consumed over the past three years. That too constitutes an extension of ourselves, but that is the past. The thesis, uniquely, allows for a redefining of oneself. One student I spoke to said, “My B.A. isn’t my work. It’s the work of the student that I could’ve been if I’d applied myself from the start.” Who would’ve thought of the thesis as a redeemer? The thesis’s redemptive power lies in the reality that it is not written from the perspective of what will please the committee. Instead, it’s a rare time in our lives where we work to please ourselves. The ultimate end may be an extra word stamped on our degree, but the hours spent in the library—reading book after book, cross-referencing like our lives depend on it—are what elevate us. The thesis is proof that we are not worthless.
The B.A is a mirror unto the nature of us college students. We fail ourselves or we redeem ourselves—but it is for ourselves that we write them. If ever you’re agonizing, remember: You’re doing this for you.
Raghav Rao is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.