Thesis Trouble

The thesis is such an integral part of the Bryn Mawr experience that it has its own Step Sing song (“I’ve Been Working On My Thesis”), and it’s the beginning of another (“Colossal Pain”). Everyone knows about theses: we’re told horror stories about them for three years.

Perhaps needless to say, I was nervous about the thesis process (“terrified” might be a more accurate word — if some of the seniors I’d talked to were to be believed, my thesis was going to eat my soul). The start of junior year rolled around, and I still had no idea what the topic of my thesis would be. Oh, I had mumbled a little to the philosophy major advisor the spring before about queer theory (not that I had read any Foucault or ever studied queer theory at Bryn Mawr), but after not managing to get through either of the Judith Butler books I had checked out over the summer, that was looking less and less promising. To make matters worse, my thesis advisor was on some kind of emergency medical leave for the first half of the semester. Better and better, right?

Luckily, our first gathering for senior conference calmed my fears. The professor we met with told me that I could write my thesis using works that weren’t written by philosophers, which was wonderful and an absolute gift from Athena. Coming out of that meeting, I had a plan! I was going to write about gender theory, and I was going to use the books I had read that summer — GenderQueer, Trans Liberation, Transgender Rights — to do so (it was super convenient how that worked out and not at all anything I’d planned). Fall semester was fun: we stayed in touch with our thesis advisor via email, and the other four philosophy majors and I met up each week for the first quarter to “discuss our theses” (by which I mean “got sushi, ate cupcakes at one person’s apartment, ate yummy baked goods from Bakery House, and generally had a good time bonding while occasionally discussing our current thesis thoughts”). After our thesis advisor arrived, we got down to work a bit more, but things were fairly relaxed.

Spring semester: down to the actual writing process. Well, it was stressful trying to figure out what I was actually writing about; I had topics (nonbinary gender, trans issues, exploring gender as a concept) but no actual argument around which to structure my thesis. As things got down to the line, that part came together a bit more (the gender binary system is bad and hurts people). It got more and more difficult to work on my thesis — it’s really depressing and anxiety-inducing to read and write about about the ways in which trans folk are discriminated against, harassed, disenfranchised, attacked, and otherwise harmed by the binary systems of gender and sex that are so deeply entrenched in U.S. society.

Then I was about a month away from my thesis actually being due, and I just sort of hit a stopping point. The next section of the thesis was to be the ways in which we could deal with the harms done by the gender binary system and what it would be like without it. Unfortunately, I had run out of optimism and couldn’t really think of any way that it could get better. It didn’t help that I was dealing with: A) being in the group teaching about transgender oppression in Social Dynamics of Oppression, and B) the transgender section in my education class — Sex, Gender, and Education — in which we read three pages of comments from an online forum regarding a transgender elementary schooler at a local school (and by “comments” I mean some of the most awful, transphobic hate speech I’ve ever read). It wasn’t exactly an atmosphere conducive to imagining solutions and envisioning positive goals.

I was beginning to panic; I was feeling overwhelmed and, frankly, like there simply couldn’t be a way that society could get past this damaging system that is so destructive to us all. And then, with just 18 days to spare, I went to see Dean Spade speak at Swarthmore.

Dean’s lecture reinvigorated me. It filled me with purpose and a sense that yes, we can make a difference, and there is a big, bright, beautiful world ahead if only we can get there. He believes that it is possible to dismantle the structures that oppress us, and his belief fueled my own.

I know that I’ve gone on and on about Dean Spade and how wonderful he is, and how much I love everything he’s written, and I imagine it gets to be a bit much. But really, in all sincerity, Dean Spade saved my thesis. After his lecture, I was filled with new ideas for my thesis — what we could do, and what the world could be like. I truly believe that I would not have finished my thesis without him. Oh, sure, I would have handed something in, but the element of optimism about the future and ideas for getting there — the crucial third part of my thesis’ arc from background, to problem, to solution — would have been missing. It would have been incomplete.

More than that, he gave me back my hope for the future and my belief that things can, and will, get better. And that is why I take every opportunity to praise Dean Spade.

Thanks to Dean Spade, thanks to my wonderful thesis advisor, thanks to my friend to whom I turn with all of my barely-half-formed thoughts about gender, thanks to my fellow philosophy majors, thanks to my family and friends, I finished my thesis, I defended my thesis, and I managed to complete my philosophy major.

Anassa kata, kalo kale

Ia ia ia Nike

Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr

I survived my thesis (with my soul intact)!

8 responses to “Thesis Trouble

  1. yay! I’m glad it all worked out for you! (of course I already knew that it would and that it did, since I witnessed the whole thing) Perhaps this is a lesson to underclassmen, especially those in humanities and social sciences majors, to try not to pick thesis topics so closely entangled in their own personal struggles. I’m glad it all worked out for you and I’m sure it was a valuable experience, but perhaps it would have been slightly less painful if you had instead written about free will or defining morality instead (note: those would both also be terrible thesis topics, but since i’ve only ever taken one philosophy class, that’s the best I can offer).

    • Naomi: Thanks for your enthusiasm about my finishing my thesis, now and when it happened (and, of course, thanks again for taking me to get my thesis bound!). 🙂 Also, you’re right – free will and defining morality would definitely not have been my kind of thesis topic. I was considering doing something related to feminist theory or ethics, though. Clearly I didn’t get very far into that, though, since I don’t actually have any ideas of what I would’ve done.

      To all you Mawrtyrs out there who haven’t yet written theses and will need to: Absolutely, I think that one of the most important things for you to keep in mind when you choose your thesis topic (at least in the humanities and social science, although it might be applicable to other majors) is to make sure that you think you can handle (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, etc) immersing yourself into the topic, studying it, treating it academically and not just personally, being critiqued on it, and finally, writing 30 -100 (or more – it all depends) pages on it. Make sure you can handle deadlines and sharing it with people. Make sure you can handle dealing with it on an intense level for a sustained period of time (1-2 semesters).

      Although I thought I was crazy at the time, and there were times when I really regretting picking the topic I did (mostly in my low, pre-Dean Spade’s lecture point), I’m actually really glad I picked what I did. It was, overall, really rewarding. But, yeah, definitely make sure you know what you’re getting into.

  2. I wish you’d talked to me about your thesis fears and concerns. You know I would have calmed you down, especially considering that I didn’t sweat the thesis experience and am now finding just how much of an influence my thesis had on my life. I actually do live by it…maybe I’ll share the theory with my new playmate and see what he thinks…”Why Friends Can’t Just Have Sex, According to Plato” Hmm. Not sure how he’ll take it…he’s not the philosophical type. Anyway, I’m glad you survived your thesis with your soul in tact and have graduated and all of that good stuff. And really it’s not as terrifying of an experience as people make it out to be…it’s more an exercise in discipline than anything else.

    You offer excellent advice to Mawrtyrs who have yet to write their theses. Though I would disagree about having an emotional distance about the topic. An interim prof gave me the best advice possible – be passionate about your topic. If your topic doesn’t really mean something to you, it’ll be hard to stick with it at such an intense level for so long. The prof and I were talking over fbook chat one day and she said, “What do you care about? What really matters to you in your life?” “I don’t know…I’m kind of apathetic to most things.” “Oh come on now, you care about things.” “Well, I guess I’m interested in virtue ethics…” “That’s boring. Are you passionate about it?” “I don’t think I know what it really is.” And then she went on to ask me about my love life (we’re pretty close). After a few minutes, she said, “If I were in undergrad again, and about to write my thesis, I would write about love, and look at Plato’s Lysis, Symposium, and Phaedrus. You should consider it.” And that’s what I wrote my thesis on, and two years later, I’m still contemplating it. Be passionate about what you choose to write about, but like Rachel said, it should also be something you’re willing to share and be able to handle criticism on the topic. While I was passionate about my topic, I refused to insert myself into it – my professor for senior sem kept pushing me on the issue and asking me what I thought. It was difficult for me to answer at the time because it related so closely to my own life, and eventually, I did include an opinion. Two years later, I have an answer, “I think I agree with Plato.” So it’s okay to have an emotional entanglement with your thesis topic, just be aware of what having such an entanglement means.

    • Thanks – you were one of the few people who didn’t give a thesis horror story. I remember talking to you about theses and coming away from the discussion thinking that it sounded like it would actually be doable.

      I definitely agree with you that it’s important to be passionate about your thesis topic (otherwise, that’s a really long time, and a lot of effort, for something about which you’re indifferent. I think that’s one of my three biggest pieces of advice (aside from the one I mentioned in my post and making sure that it will be approved by your major department as a thesis for that major).

      All I meant was that you need to be able to distance yourself at times. If a large chunk of your research is going to feel like a personal attack on you, and/or you can’t separate it from yourself personally (I mean, not totally, but enough keep going regardless what’s going on in your personal life), then it might not be the best idea. I guess just what I was trying to say (and what you said about being “aware of what having such an entanglement means”) about knowing what you’re getting into.

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