COLUMNS

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May 24, 2013

Structural inequalities

Undergraduates across all departments would greatly benef

B.A. season is over. After months of constantly seeing agonized Facebook posts about B.A. catastrophes and awkwardly—albeit delicately—attempting to ask about the State of the B.A. without causing panic, I am glad that the fourth-years have been released. They can breathe the sigh of relief of those who know that, for better or for worse, nothing further can be done.

It makes sense that the B.A. is stressful for many students. Often conducting original research for the first time, a student writing a B.A. must come up with an appropriate research question, figure out what methodology is appropriate, collect data, analyze that data, and produce a polished piece. Many of these elements can be difficult or mysterious without previous experience. And for those who want to go on to academic careers, the B.A. is the most likely candidate for a writing sample, and thus of great importance for the future.

Writing a B.A. is a great opportunity to learn new skills, figure out whether you enjoy doing research, and create a piece of writing that represents what you have learned over the course of college. However, many once-enthusiastic students end up beset by difficulties and stresses that weaken or negate these benefits—difficulties that are not even inherent to the project. Rather, many problems are caused by a lack of departmental organization, unclear guidelines, or detached advisors. If departments invest in more organized and structured B.A. paper processes for their students, the quality of student work will improve, and students can avoid surplus stress.

I am fortunate to be a part of the sociology department, which has a very explicit set of expectations and a pre-determined schedule for its students. We start the B.A. seminar in the spring of our third year, have the summer to collect data, and then pick the seminar back up in the fall and winter. For sociology majors, such a structure is necessary because the B.A. is a requirement. Students who do not complete one cannot graduate—and that’s a headache that the department cannot afford to have.

Departments for which a B.A. is not required may only want students capable of self-motivation and pacing to write B.A. papers. But not all departments may need to have a system as highly structured as the one in place for sociology majors. For one thing, this level of rigidity forces people to make progress, but it isn’t flexible enough to allow for an individual to meet all of her needs, and it requires a lot of effort on the part of seminar preceptors. Moreover, even the best students are bound to run into pitfalls, and they are unlikely to know what those pitfalls will be from the start.

Now that I’ve almost completed the first quarter of my senior seminar (which misleadingly occurs in the third year), I think that the following elements are the most important in ensuring student success:

1. Having the B.A. process start the school year before the B.A. is written makes sense for many reasons. It provides students with time to do research that does not coincide with school, allowing them to tackle a wider variety of projects because they could do research somewhere outside of Chicago and devote a greater amount of time to it. The extra time also provides a cushion in the event of unforeseen problems such as a change of topic, inaccessibility of data, or issues with advisors.

2. Expectations and deadlines should be set by the advisor at the beginning of the process, both for the student and for the advisor. If deadlines are set in advance, then the student who attempts to write her 50-page B.A. over the course of a weekend has no one to blame but herself.

3. Departments should make sure that their students have a background in appropriate methodology before the start of the B.A. process. For example, having a list of several recommended courses for those who want to write a B.A. would be useful. Though I have taken the methodology course required by my department, I still do not feel sufficiently prepared.

These steps would go a long way towards making the B.A. a more manageable and rewarding endeavor. A certain amount of frustration is inherent in research, but it should only be expected up to a point. Like any skill, knowing how to research is not innate. Students will feel more comfortable and produce higher quality original work if their first forays into the process are more structured. After all, when throwing someone in the water to teach her to swim, a few tips on how to stay afloat could prevent her from drowning.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.

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